Sermon preached at Trinity Church. Newport RI; Sunday October 16th 2016
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Angela Duckworth begins her book by sharing a personal life story. In her childhood, she was constantly told by her father that she was not a genius. He not only underestimated her intellectual potential but also worried that she might not achieve a lot in her career. Fast forward to 2013, when psychologist Duckworth was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant.” It was after winning this award that she realized a person’s accomplishments have more to do with his/her passion and perseverance than his/her talent. In her childhood, she was not considered smart enough to qualify for talented or gifted programs, yet she managed to accumulate degrees from some tough schools and most of all won the MacArthur Fellowship. There was something that mattered more than talent – grit. Being gritty helped her survive despite the fact that she wasn’t the brightest in her classroom. This personal experience lays the foundation for Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
Yesterday I had the sad but joyful privilege of scattering ashes at sea; it was a long journey but I had time to talk with many friends and family of the deceased. I talked with one young lady about today’s sermon and mentioned Angela Duckworth’s book; she told me she had bought it. “Have you read it?” I asked. She giggled as she replied, “No, not yet!” So much for grit, for perseverance… sort of a Catch 22 situation, yes?
Today the Jacob the cad, Jacob the cheater, Jacob the con-man wrestles with God; he struggles, he perseveres, he shows “true grit” (maybe John Wayne is the patron saint, alongside Jacob, of people with grit?).
This story in Genesis 32 is one of the primal, archetypal, mythic stories that resonate with anyone that has half a brain, half a heart, half a soul.
Jacob is desolate (he has sent his family ahead and he is alone); Jacob is in darkness (all this happens at night; I think it was Mr. Hemingway who commented for the “alcoholic it is always 3:30 in the morning). Desolate, dark and disadvantaged – his adversary is anonymous and his body is damaged.
Now we know, don’t we, the agony of this wrestling with God, with life, with ourselves. We keep it to ourselves but wrestle on we do…
Jacob had wrestled before, several times.
As he leaves the womb so he grasps the heel of Esau, his twin; wrestles, pulls him back and emerges the first born. He wrestles but fails.
As he plans to marry his love Rachel, he wrestles with Laban her father; wrestles but fails.
But now Jacob is at a watershed, a seminal moment, a crisis in his life. Everything hangs on his perseverance but now also on his preservation. Let me explain… often we commit to a path of perseverance, to being gritty but in the process we become resentful, bitter, angry, crabby people. What we need, what Jacob obtained, was a preserving power that kept him functional, healthy and so his name Jacob is discarded and he is awarded the name Israel. He moves from “cheater” to “the one who wrestled with God and prevails.” – he wrestles and prevails.
The elder brother in Luke 15 perfectly expresses the one who perseveres but grows in bitterness deep within his soul. Despite all he did to support his father, work for two people… when the younger brother returns he erupts into bitterness and bile, of nastiness and negativity. He persevered yes, but showed no care how best to be preserved.
A young pastor was sitting in a restaurant eating lunch. He opened a letter from his mother and a $20 bill fell out. He thought, “Thanks, Mom, I sure needed that right now.”
Leaving the restaurant he saw a poor man huddled on the sidewalk; he crossed out his name on the envelope and wrote instead, Persevere. He dropped it as he walked past the man who picked it up, read the message and smiled.
The next day, as the pastor enjoyed his meal, the same man tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a big wad of bills. Surprised, the young pastor asked him what that was for. The man replied, “This is your half of the winnings. Persevere came in first in the fourth race at the track yesterday and paid thirty to one.”
Unimaginable blessings come to us who persevere.
Jacob, now Israel, is blessed, gifted beyond all expectations because… he persevered.
Listen to our prayer for today… “Almighty and everlasting God… in Christ preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church… may persevere with steadfast faith…”
Listen to St. Paul writing to the ingénue minister Timothy… “continue in what you have learned… be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…”
And listen to today’s Gospel… “Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit… A widow in that city kept after him… this went on and on… (and then Jesus comments, almost pathetically) how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”
Rarely do I delve into the dusty tomes of Bible Concordances and Dictionaries but for the word “wrestling” I delved and this is what I found. The Hebrew word for wrestle is “aw-bawk”, and its root word has to do with dust, dirt; and so the one who wrestles must expect, accept, that he/she will get dirty in the process. An artificial veneer of ‘holiness’ at one time had been sufficient for Jacob; now it was totally unacceptable.
Friends, some of you (I) have persevered for so long over particular, personal matters; at sad times we despair of change, at happier times we repair to perseverance.
To keep us healthy, preserved, in this task I suggest four steps…
- Recognize the presence of God in your struggle
- Be bold and ask for blessing
- Accept self-limitations
- Know that dawn will come
“The dawn will come, the sun will arise..” Amen.