Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the ways in which my childhood was very different from my wife’s is that I watched a lot of television and she did not. That being the case, she is often shocked (and perhaps irritated, though she is too kind to make that known) when something jogs the memory and I’m able to sing an entire cartoon theme song or advertising jingle that has lain dormant in my subconscious for thirty-plus years. Whether it be the theme song to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Duck Tails or the jingle for Bagel Bites or Mentos (the Freshmaker), I reckon I could have used that mental space for something a bit more salutary, but alas.

Occasionally, though, just a snatch of a song will arise in the mind, and I have to engage in a deep dive on Google to try to remember fully what I’m only partially remembering. This happened earlier this week, when for some reason I remembered part of a little ditty:

Have patience, have patience, don’t be in such a hurry.

When you get impatient, you only start to worry.

And then I couldn’t remember the rest. After some searching, I discovered that the song was sung by an uncanny looking, cartoon creature called Herbert the Snail. I can’t remember ever watching this cartoon, or where I would have heard this (on television or in the schoolyard or whatever). Listening to the rest of the song, though, I noticed it took a turn:

Have patience, have patience, don’t be in such a hurry.

When you get impatient, you only start to worry.

Remember, remember that God is patient too,

And think of all the times when others have to wait for.

I must admit that patience is not my most well-practiced skill, so it would have been better for me to have let this silly little song take up the mental real estate that is currently occupied by, I don’t, the Alka-Seltzer jingle. I am not as patient with others as I ought to be, and I’m certainly not as patient with God as I ought to be. When I want some kind of help from on high, some affirmation of myself or some experience of consolation, I want it fairly quickly. Sometimes, deep down, I convince myself that I could do God’s job more efficiently than He does. Of course, that’s the kind of pride which preceded the fall, and which precedes my own embarrassing falls from time-to-time. I can be pretty patient in my relationships with each of you, I can even force myself to be patient in my relationship with people on the other end of the telephone line at the internet company or pension group helpline. Believe it or not, I’m getting more patient with people in the left turn lane who never want to go “go for it”. All that said, though I’m getting more patient on those fronts, I have trouble being patient in my relationship with God.

I wonder if Jacob had that problem, too, and that’s why God decided to wrestle with him at Penu’el. You’ll remember that up to this point, Jacob had done pretty well at getting what he wanted, even if it meant being a little less than honest. Perhaps, Jacob needed to learn an important lesson which had heretofore been beyond him, namely, that the blessing of God, which once seemed so easily forthcoming due to Jacob’s cleverness would eventually require more persistence. Jacob’s struggle with the Lord at Penu’el would be realized by the nation of which he was the father, which had to fight to remain faithful, whose relationship with God would indeed become an extended struggle, as they strayed and wrestled with the sin that led them astray and, indeed, with the prophets whom God appointed to bring them back. God’s persistence in remaining faithful to Israel demanded that Israel itself show such persistence in maintaining its end of the relationship.

Likewise, the widow in the parable from Luke is meant to stand as an example for believers who must remain persistent in prayer. Just like the children of Israel had to persevere in keeping the law, to wrestle with the powers that would prevent them, so too must the Christian wrestle with the pride and indolence which tears her away from maintaining her relationship with God—a relationship which requires the Christian to pray diligently, to read the scriptures faithfully, and to receive God’s Grace in the Eucharist regularly.

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul encourages his young protégé to “be unfailing in patience” to “always be steady [and] endure suffering” for the sake of his ministry. Timothy could have had all of the skills we associate with effective ministry: a clear understanding of and passion for the Gospel, an engaging preaching style, a “thick skin” (a critical trait for a priest to have), but none of that would get the job done if he had not the patience to persevere. Perseverance, Paul knew, was the most important factor for a successful fisher of men.

But persistence is not required only because sloth can creep up on our souls. Persistence is necessary because our expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment: when our prayer seems hollow and God seems not to answer, when our study of Holy Scripture seems to leave us with little inspiration, when the strength and consolation we once drew from the Sacrament seems to have ceased. That is to say, when we’re “just not feeling it”, as if God’s job is to make us feel like we’re always on the right track and we’re always making progress rather than it being our job to plug away during those times when we’re feeling a bit dry and desolate.

St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast day was yesterday, called this phenomenon “aridity”, which means “dried up”. We’ve all probably experienced this at one point or another. It can be discouraging, and it can elicit some unfortunate reactions if we’re not ready for it. It can feel like we’re trudging through the desert rather than being led through green pastures beside still waters.

We can stop praying and reading the bible and receiving the Sacrament altogether. This is like assuming the oasis in the distance must be a mirage, so it’s better to sit down in the desert and die instead of venturing toward the potential life right in front of us. Or, we can blame the Church. This has become a very popular way of avoiding the call to persevere.

The proper response, I think, is to keep praying and reading scripture and receiving the Sacrament. The proper response is to keep at it. You’ll make it to that oasis in the desert eventually. You’ll experience Grace and consolation eventually. Don’t let discouragement get hold and decide to just give up. Keep at it, and in the end the struggle will seem a distant memory compared to the abiding peace we can experience in Christ Jesus, in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.