Most of you are probably not aware of it, but during the interminable Season After Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary, from which our Sunday readings are prescribed, actually gives us some options. There are two distinct tracks for the lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures during the long, green season. Track One offers a semi-continuous reading that follows major stories in the Old Testament week to week. In Year A, it begins in Genesis, in Year B we would hear the stories of the Kings, and in Year C, our current Year, the lessons come from the Prophets. Track Two follows the old Roman Catholic tradition of tying the Old Testament to the Gospel lesson thematically. The RCL’s intention is that a congregation will pick a Track and stick with it throughout the season. Here at Christ Church, we’ve used Track Two for as long as I’ve been here because, quite honestly, sometimes the Track One stories are so challenging and so disconnected that I fear having them read out loud and then not preached about could do more harm than good.
Now, when Track Two says that the Old Testament lessons are related to the Gospel thematically, that tends to be more or less true. However, I’m not sure it has even been quite so obvious or heavy handed as all four lessons are for today: from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalm, Epistle, and straight through to the Gospel. Even the Collect of the Day gets in on the action, making sure that we are well aware that faithful perseverance in the face of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin is our theme for today.
In the lesson from Genesis, we find ourselves dropped down into the story of Jacob who had been on the run for quite some time. After stealing his older brother’s birthright, Jacob was forced to flee from his homeland and his brother, Esau, who planned to kill him. Having settled with his uncle Laban for several years, it was Jacob who got tricked into taking both Leah and Rachel as his wives. When it became clear that God’s favor was upon the outsider, Jacob, Laban and his sons turned on him, and he once again had to run away, this time with his wives, children, and an abundance of livestock in tow. After years of deceitfulness and running away from trouble, one night, Jacob found himself alone by the River Jabbok where he spent all night wrestling with God and with himself. Jacob fought with human nature, with his own sinfulness, and with his greed until, when morning came, God blessed him and changed his name from Jacob, which meant “trickster” to Israel, which means “struggles with God.” Immediately, the newly renamed Israel was reunited with is older brother Esau, and the restoration of their relationship began to take place. By God’s grace, Jacob persevered in faith, and healing followed.
Psalm 121 is a traveler’s psalm. Known as “The Song of the Ascents,” it is the prayer of someone on a long and dangerous journey and in need of God’s care. Anyone who has ever travelled toward the Gulf Coast on I-65 over Fall Break knows what it means to need God’s help to persevere on a long journey. In this ancient song, the Psalmist is sure that help and protection will come from God whose faithfulness is perfect. “The Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps.” “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil.” “The Lord shall watch over you… from this time forth for evermore.”
Next, our lesson from the Second Letter to Timothy includes some of the final words of encouragement sent from an older, wiser, mentor to Timothy, a young, still somewhat green, up and coming disciple. These words are meant to help the next generation of Christian leaders navigate the challenging complexities of this world. Persecution by the Romans and the Jews was still quite common. Even among those who were following the Way of Jesus, there was still very little consensus about what that looked like, or about who was in, and who was out. Timothy was inheriting a faith that was very much in turmoil and his mentor knew that God’s grace and a healthy dose of faithful perseverance would be needed for the faith to endure.
Finally, we have a really strange parable in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel that the author tells us is meant to encourage us to pray and not lose heart. This makes sense, of course, given that the audience to whom Luke’s Gospel was written would have expected Jesus to have returned already. Nearly a generation removed from the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, followers of the Way were getting pretty antsy, wondering if they had hitched their wagon to the wrong savior. They had seen people for whom they had been praying that they would live to see the return of Jesus die for their faith. They had been faithful in prayer, in worship, in addressing the needs of the poor in their community, and were no doubt beginning to wonder why they were still waiting. Luke uses this parable from Jesus to encourage them to keep the faith, to persevere, and to trust that God who is just and compassionate and full of mercy, wasn’t just being a capricious, unjust judge, but that God’s faithfulness would endure and so should theirs.
I find this somewhat heavy-handed presentation of God’s faithful perseverance in spite of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin to be helpful this week. As we baptize young Henry into the life of faith this morning, many out the world would likely wonder “why?” Why, when the church is so full of hypocrites, would anyone want to join, let alone baptize their child into that? The lessons this week remind us that God has been at work in the lives of hypocrites and sinners all along. That is true whether your name is Jacob, or Timothy, or Steve. No one is perfect, but with God’s steadfast faithfulness and through the encouragement of community of folks who are trying their best to live into the Way of Love, a church full of hypocrites can still make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God.
And so, we pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the strength to do what is right. We pray that God’s works of mercy might endure so that even when we fail, the goodness of God might always persevere. Sometimes we wrestle, sometimes we look to the hills and wonder from whence God’s help might come, sometimes we are called upon to encourage one another to keep the faith, and sometimes we are the ones being encouraged. Always, we can be certain that the God we follow is just, compassionate, and full of mercy. Always, we can be sure that God’s steadfast faithfulness will endure, even when we might fall short. That’s good news for everyone. No matter how often or how spectacularly we might fall into sin, God’s mercy endures forever, and with God’s help, we too can keep the faith. Amen.