Sermon: Twenty first Sunday after Trinity, 16 October 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5 and Luke 18. 1-8

Preacher  The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP


There is a common thread through our readings today of persistence, of keeping going despite difficulties, and of God meeting our needs even in the face of adversity. Our first reading from Genesis is a dramatic and colourful one. Jacob has been on an adventurous journey in the East to find a wife, Rachel, and now he is returning to his home country. In order to reach his home territory he has to cross the ford of the Jabbok. He sends his family and possessions ahead while he remains on the river bank. What holds him back? He fears encountering his brother Esau again, whom he had wronged by cheating him of his birth-right, and Jacob is anxious Esau will be hostile. In his fears and misgivings Jacob really wrestles with God. The spiritual encounter with God is described as literally wrestling with a man, a wrestling that lasts through the night. The man is clearly a divine figure. Jacob persists in his struggle all night. He is terrified of meeting Esau again, but he does not run away. That long night he may well have been tempted to turn back, but he didn’t. He stands his ground. The mysterious divine figure commends Jacob:

“You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”.

After today’s passage Jacob meets Esau, and they are reconciled in an emotional scene, although in the end they go their separate ways.

We all have times when we have a real spiritual struggle. And often, as with today’s story from Genesis, it can be concerning difficult relationships. It can be tempting to give up, and throw in the towel. But today’s story shows the value of carrying on. Jacob and Esau, despite their deep and long-standing difficulties, were reconciled. What was important was that Jacob was open with God about his inner struggle. He didn’t try to hide it. He had to face it. And in so doing, God blessed him.

Our gospel today from Luke is Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge. Like Esau, the widow had been wronged. She had been done a significant injustice. We are not told what it is. But she is determined to be granted justice for the way in which she has been wronged. At first her position does not look very strong. The judge who will decide on her fate happens to be an unjust one. He does not fear God, he has little respect for people. Initially he refused to give the widow justice. But she persists. She won’t give up. In society’s terms, she is weak and powerless, but she won’t give up. And so in the end the unjust judge does grant her justice against her opponent – not because he is concerned about justice, but because he is being worn down by her persistence. Jesus makes the point that if an unjust judge is prepared to grant justice, how much more will God do so.

It’s a great story, but of course there are countless examples both in today’s world and throughout history when cruelty and injustice persist for a very long time, whether concerning individuals, or on a much grander scale with conflicts between nations. Nevertheless, Jesus’ story encourages us to be persistent in seeking justice despite the odds being arrayed against us. Look at the example of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people died, crushed in a football stadium in 1989. It took the families of the tragedy 27 years to be given at the end of the recent enquiry a verdict of “unlawful killing”. It took 27 years of tenacious refusal to give up, despite the obstacles and set-backs – the families persisted in their determination to be granted justice. In the end, after more than a quarter of a century, they received a just verdict. This was a remarkable example of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of great adversity.

Sometimes as Christians we become focussed almost exclusively on the injustices done to others, and seeing that injustice done to others is put right. And that is all fine. But it is also fine to persist in seeking justice for ourselves, as today’s parable in the gospel makes clear. Jesus said,

“Love your neighbour as yourself”.

We need first to love ourselves, and sometimes we are not so good at doing that. We have to keep on going and doing what we believe is right, whether it is for ourselves or others – ideally both. As it says in our second reading from the second letter to Timothy,

“be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”.

In the history of Christianity there are perhaps no better examples of persistence than the martyrs of our faith. They were literally prepared to die in witnessing to their faith in Christ. Today is the feast day of Bishop Hugh Latimer and Bishop Nicholas Ridley. They were both Reformation martyrs who died for what they believed in. Hugh Latimer was educated at Cambridge. He became an adviser to Henry VIII and appointed Bishop of Worcester. When Mary became queen after the death of the young Edward VI Latimer was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He refused to recant of his reformist views and was burnt at the stake on this day in 1555. Nicholas Ridley also studied at Cambridge. During the reign of Edward VI he declared himself a Protestant. He assisted Archbishop Cranmer in preparing the first Book of Common Prayer and was made Bishop of London in 1550. When King Edward died Ridley supported the claims to the throne of Lady Jane Grey. So when Mary acceded to the throne Ridley was deprived of his bishopric, excommunicated and burnt at the stake together with Latimer on this day in 1555. Cranmer was burnt at the stake on 21st March in the following year. Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were all known as the Oxford martyrs.

The Christian martyrs down the ages were renowned for their persistence and perseverance in witnessing to the truth of Christ despite fierce opposition. We may not be called to the greatness of a Cranmer or a Latimer or a Ridley. But we can be encouraged by their example, and helped to follow in their steps in whatever ways Christ is calling us now to promote truth and justice and love.   On this day may we remember and give thanks for the Oxford martyrs, and pray that we too may be given courage to speak up for the values of the Kingdom of God and show forth such values in our daily lives.

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