Sermon and Intercessions for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 19)

The readings this week are Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8

I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the unknown man who, it turns out, is either God or an angel – a messenger from God. As in the picture on our notice sheet today, by Marc Chagall, the unknown man is often portrayed with wings. There’s a wonderful sculpture by Jacob Epstein of this scene – a huge, monolithic piece of art which towers above you when you look at it, the stone somehow conveying that both were determined to be immovable, undefeated – hence they wrestled until dawn.


Jacob comes out of this encounter with two new things:  a new name and a dislocated hip which makes him limp. He is no longer Jacob – the usurper, but Israel – the one who has wrestled with God. And the one who has wrestled with God is now permanently injured – the blessing endowed by the angelic or divine being is a wound, a disability. 


It is, I think, quite a challenge for us to think of a wound or a disability as a blessing. We tend to equate wellness and good health with blessing, and when we are ill or injured, we pray for healing. But illness, injury, disability and even difference are parts of the reality of life, places where we can receive God’s blessing, and, very often, part of our identity as humans, as God’s children. Being healed and being cured aren’t the same thing. 


It’s a difficult line to tread: it’s not right to glamourise suffering, and it wouldn’t be right to tell someone coming to terms with a life changing injury or illness that this is a blessing. At the same time, many people living with disabilities find that their disability is part of their identity: I have heard both deaf people and people on the autisitic spectrum say that they wouldn’t want to be ‘cured’ – they are very happy with the way they are. 


What we can say, I think, is that we can receive God’s blessing no matter what our condition, and that, very often, an illness or a disability, can make us more aware of God, more aware of the many blessings we have – much more so than times when life is plain sailing and we don;t have to stop and think. Certainly illness can make us think about our priorities, the really important things in life: it can also nudge us to the perspective of eternity – again, this reorders our lives and helps us to focus on what is really important.


This is challenging. It’s so easy to fight against our physical and mental limitations and differences and put faith on hold until it’s sorted. But what if, like Jacob, these things we wrestle with are the places where God blesses us? I think getting older is a good example of this – I’m less mobile and less able to remember everything than I was 10 years ago. I find this very frustrating. But there are blessings with getting older – I’m wiser than I was, more confident about who I am what I believe and what I stand for. My recent knee injury means I currently can’t walk far and have to walk more slowly – but this means I stop to look more, to appreciate God’s beautiful world – this is truly a blessing! I’d still prefer to be able to stride out, but writing this sermon has made me realise there are blessings which I hadn’t noticed before.


So what are your wounds, your disabilities, your limitations? Can you find a blessing in them? I set you a challenge for this week!


The woman in the Gospel reading is a bit of a wrestler too: those innocuous words, ‘because she keeps bothering me’ are actually translated as ‘because she keeps beating me black and blue’, It’s a complicated parable because the judge, whom we instinctively identify as God is not much like God at all – in fact we’re told that he didn;t fear God and had no respect for people, and that he was unwilling to help this rather fierce widow – which would absolutely have been is duty. I think we have to conclude that the judge doesn’t represent the God we worship,


I’m not sure that the widow represents us either, which is what we would instinctively expect. Apart from anything we’re not inclined to go around beating people up! And do we really believe that we have to ask and ask, grovel, even, in order to make God answer our prayers? 


So, what are we to make of it?


I think there are two possibilities: the first is that Jesus is telling us that God is NOT like the judge: that God hears the cries of God’s people and responds, willingly, lovingly, quickly. Towards the end of the parable are these words: And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. Words that can be understood in the way I suggest – God is not like this judge, God hears, grants justice and help his people.


The other possibility is to turn the parable completely on its head, and put God in the role of the poor widow and humanity, perhaps us, perhaps society, in the role of the judge. This is rather startling, but it does make sense in surprising ways. So here is God, just as we see clearly in the person of Jesus – the word ‘widow’ is a powerful word, standing for all who are marginal, dispossessed and vulnerable, and we know that these are the people with whom Jesus identified. 


Of course, we know that Jesus appeared before a judge who couldn’t be bothered to do the right thing – a lazy man, who preferred his own self comfort to the rigour of justice and righteousness. And there is a warning to us, if we read the parable this way, that, in society, and in our dealings with anyone who is vulnerable, we must not be lazy: there is no room for ‘can’t be bothered’. 


Jesus also said, whatever you did for the least of these little ones you did also for me. And whatever you did NOT do for the least of these little ones, you also did NOT do for me’. 


Our country has become a very callous place. Our leaders seem to have forgotten about a very simple but important thing: kindness. Let us not follow this road, but walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the compassionate and kind One.


Oh God, 

with whom we struggle,

because you are a mystery beyond our knowing,

and because there are often unanswered questions,

things we don’t understand,

give us strength and determination,

like Jacob, not to let go,

but to hold on, until we know fully who You are.

Give us vibrant and active faith.

Help us to remember that you call us by name – we are yours.


We pray for your world,

especially for those who are victims of injustice,

those who have fallen victim to financial scams,

those who have no redress,

those imprisoned unfairly,

those who have no access to legal help,

for prisoners of conscience

and for political prisoners.

for ourselves, as, like the widow in today’s Gospel,

we feel powerless to change things

to save the world and give a future for our children and grandchildren.

We pray for all those who work in justice systems,

and in governments

that they will act with integrity and judge with fairness,


We pray for all those who are vulnerable

in a world where fairness and kindness

seem in short supply:

for people who are lonely, poor or ill

for victims of bullying and abuse,

for all who live in poverty,

those who are bereaved,

for all whose lives are marred by violence.

And we pray for people in positions of power,

that they will be shaped by the divine life we know in Jesus,

in acts of compassion, mercy, and kindness.


And we give thanks for all the gifts you give us;

for wounds and limitations which turn out to be blessings,

for our differences, the variety of humankind 

– an expression of your creativity.

We give thanks for the beauty of autumn –

bright berries and leaves,

shining in the low light of the sun,

for dew drops reflecting the light,

spectacular clouds

and for moonlight and starlight brightening the night. 

Give us eyes to see reflections of your glory in the beauty around us,

and fill our hearts with gladness.