Struggle and Faith
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 20, 2019
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 121; Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8
This is a sermon about struggle and faith, not climate change, but nine years ago when these scriptures came up in the lectionary I did preach on climate change. It was Climate Action Sunday, October 10th, 2010. In my sermon that day I said:
“Everything that will happen today is a help, but climate change is still a struggle. It is a struggle to hear the news and not feel despair. It is a struggle to sacrifice ourselves to do our part for climate change when the leaders of the world are squabbling….
“It is also a struggle to hear scientists talk about the devastation our children will face if we do not stop climate change. If we take it to heart, we risk being paralyzed by fear or grief. And yet it is equally dangerous to look away from the truth and live in denial or false hope, and do nothing. Even worse than the struggle is to give up the struggle.”
That was 2010. This week
I talked to a colleague whose son, Mark, is the age Greta Thunberg was when she started her one girl climate strike in Sweden. The boy has consistently changed the subject when anyone in the family brought up the climate crisis, but the other day his father made a comment at supper about carbon emissions increasing at a record rate this year and Mark lost it. He screamed “Stop!” and then collapsed sobbing with his head on the table.
His parents rushed to comfort him. After an hour of uncontrollable, inarticulate grief Mark was finally able to explain that he has been struggling underneath his attempt at avoidance and denial. He said he knows the science, he knows how bad things could get, he knows human civilization could collapse and the human species become extinct, and what gets him is that life is just going on as usual.
Many times a day in class or on the playing field he thinks, how can these people be acting as if everything is fine? Why are people not dropping everything and trying to save the world? It is terrifying to him that nobody is acting terrified. The house is on fire and everyone is sitting calmly watching TV. Mark still had tears in his eyes when he went to bed that night, and his parents did, too.
This is not a sermon about climate change, it is a sermon about struggle and faith. Mark is in a life and death struggle with despair because he looks around and does not see adults struggling enough. Our failure to mobilize all our resources and time and energy in the struggle to save Mark’s world reflects a failure of faith, and our lack of faith is leading him to despair.
We can get lost in our struggles. It could be an addiction or a family situation that is making our lives unmanageable. It could be a social justice issue or political corruption or the growing threat to democracy. We could be struggling with health or finances, loneliness or grief, anxiety or depression. We can get lost in despair as Mark did.
The way out of that despair is faith. Greta Thunberg was in the same place as Mark for five years. She got so depressed that she stopped eating and talking, but somehow in that struggle she found the faith that one person could make a difference. It enabled her to rise out of her mute despair, out of her inner struggle, and courageously persist in an outer struggle for the future against the most powerful people and corporations on earth.
Jesus tells a parable about an unjust judge who finally gives in because a widow persists. Widows in that culture had no standing or power in society, all she had was enough faith to overcome her inner despair and engage in her outer struggle against all odds.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta struggled terribly with a spiritual crisis in which she rarely felt any hint of God’s existence. It lasted over forty-five years, and yet she had the faith to endure. She recited the prayer of St. Francis every day, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The dark night of soul did not stop, but she won the Nobel Peace Prize and was eventually canonized for the order that she founded that vows to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
Faith does not end our struggles. Faith will not stop poverty or climate change or solve our personal problems unless we persist in our struggle. And holding onto our faith can itself be a struggle.
And yet the faith to endure and act with courage is the key to our hope.
The oldest scripture passage that we read today seems the most contemporary in its approach to the complexities of struggle and faith. The story takes place on the eve of Jacob’s first encounter with his brother Esau since Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob has told Esau that he is coming, and now Esau and four hundred men are waiting just across the River Jabbok, looking from Jacob’s standpoint too much like an army to be conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Jabbok is a play on the word Jacob. Tomorrow Jacob will cross the Jabbok. He will reach beyond himself to try to restore a right relationship with his brother and heal the past and make a new life.
Jacob is alone in the night, alone with his guilt and his fear, alone with his old self, when suddenly out of nowhere a new man enters the scene and starts to wrestle him. The Hebrew word for wrestle is another word play on Jacob. The man is Jacobing Jacob, trying to make Jacob more truly himself. It is a fight pitting a new truer part of him against the old.
The most important thing about the fight is that Jacob does not give up. He holds on so fiercely that finally this mysterious man hits Jacob below the belt and puts his hip out of joint. Still, even in excruciating pain, Jacob holds on, and the man says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
This is a sign that it is not just a man, it is a divine being who must not be seen. Daybreak also means that the decisive moment of crisis has arrived. The new day is about to dawn, for good or ill.
Jacob says, “I will not let go unless you bless me.” The whole problem Jacob faces in his life arose because he stole the blessing that his brother should have received. Now Jacob asks for a blessing that he has earned by wrestling with this man, this other part of Jacob, this God who has been Jacobing Jacob, trying to make him his true self. The man-God agrees to bless Jacob and asks him his name. He says his name is Jacob, but God says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,” which means one who struggles with God, “for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Israel becomes the name of all the children of God, and so it is our name, too. “One who struggles” is our middle name!
The final image is Jacob limping off at dawn to meet Esau. And here is the most beautiful thing about this story. His wound was not a sign of his failure, but of his faith. It was the mark of his persistence in the struggle.
So next time you have bags under your eyes from wrestling all night with your worries or with God, try looking at them as signs of blessing on you for not losing faith and giving up!
We can be blessed like Jacob when we have the courage to struggle with the problems we face. God may come to us then, but instead of the kind of help we wish God would give us, God first forces us to wrestle with our self—our guilt, our fear, our loneliness, our habits of hiding in comfort and security. God is not interested in transforming our problems so much as God is interested in transforming us. That is the blessing.
The story shows that if we stay faithful, if we wrestle the whole night through, when the dawn comes we will be changed. We will have wounds, but we will also be released into a new freedom, we will have a new identity, we will have the blessing that comes from having struggled with our old self and with God and prevailed.
We will still have problems ahead of us, but we can go into them with God’s power flowing through us, as instruments of God’s peace. We can have the chance, like Mother Teresa, of rising out of our struggles to help those who struggle with extreme poverty or oppression. We can have the chance, like Jacob with Esau, of resolving broken community in an embrace of reconciliation. My friend’s son, Mark, has the chance to transform his despair as Greta did. If Mark can find the faith to struggle outwardly for a better world, he may find hope enough to endure his inner struggles.
I ended the sermon in 2010 saying: “The faith we need as we face climate change or our other overwhelming problems is the faithfulness to stay in the inner struggle and trust that our grappling with our self and with God will lead us where we need to go and teach us what to do when we get there and give us the power to do it.
“If we…[stay] true to that inner struggle, then God will give us the ability to endure, to persevere and to overcome even the most daunting of problems. The power of God that transforms us will flow through us to transform the world. If we have trouble believing that, if our faith is weak, we have the testimony of the scriptures to remind us that this path has led to miracles before. We have the freedom songs of the South African struggle against apartheid and the American Civil Rights movement that say to us, even when circumstances look impossible, keep the faith, because we can overcome.” Let us pray in silence…
Greta Thunberg addressed the recent UN Climate Summit and Pope Francis spoke immediately after her, two beautiful examples of struggle and faith. You can hear and see them both on the NPR link below, and many other speakers as well. You can also read the transcript of Greta’s speech which is one of the most moving and important I have ever heard. Here is an example of the faith she brings into her struggle (and her sadness and anger were both powerfully visible as she spoke):
“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Here is the link: