Perseverance of the Saints

Saint James Fordham • 24c • Tobias Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…

We are now in a pilgrimage toward All Saints’ Day, and as we go, we will take some time to look at the theme of sainthood. The scripture readings today give us examples of one characteristic quality of the saints: persistence or perseverance. Saints — and that includes the big famous ones as well as the little less-well-known ones, the ones who have died and are at rest, and the ones who still crawl or walk or are carried on this earthly way — saints don’t give up, and they don’t give in. They persist; they persevere.

But their perseverance isn’t just stick-to-it-iveness, or dogged, bullheaded obstinacy. The saints persevere and persist in what is right, in what is just.

Consider the widow in today’s gospel. It’s clear she’s got a problem — though her cause is just, she’s been stuck in a town with a hard-hearted, hard-nosed judge on the bench, a man who doesn’t fear God or pay any mind to people. But the widow keeps coming to the court, demanding that her case be heard. She persists in her cause, perseveres in her pursuit of justice, and the judge, finally, gives in, worn down by her constant insistence that he do what is right. It’s easy to see the example of heroic sanctity in this widow’s struggle. One thinks of Harriet Tubman, or Saint Clare of Assisi, or Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, women with single-minded devotion to what was right and true and just, women who wouldn’t take no for an answer even from the pope or the king or the president, and who brought the machinery of inequity to a halt with their persistent resistance, grains of sand in the gears of injustice.

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But what about our other exemplary persistent person in this morning’s readings, Jacob. Jacob is not a completely attractive character, and hardly a saint. He isn’t particularly interested in justice, or even in doing what is right. He is far more like the parable’s judge than like the widow. He isn’t afraid of God, and as for people, he cheated his brother out of his inheritance. And if that weren’t bad enough he tricked his poor, old, blind father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother, whom he left high and dry with neither inheritance nor blessing. No wonder Jacob is worried what his brother Esau may do to him now that he is returning home after years spent in the next county with his father-in-law. He’s grown rich at his father-in-law’s expense, by playing fast and loose with the breeding stock he was supposed to be tending, doing an early form of genetic engineering to make sure he got the best of the flock. He’s built up a fortune, and he’s got a lot to lose if Esau looks for payback.

Jacob has reached a tension point in his life — what we’d now call a “mid-life crisis.” He’s made it rich through persistent conniving, but he’s about to have to face the music. Esau is heading his way with a small army, and Jacob is forced to stop and think what to do. And of course the conniving and deception doesn’t stop. Clearly willing to cut his losses, he divides his possessions, and is willing to risk losing half if he can keep the rest. Then finally he panics, and he sends the rest on ahead of him, across the river, until he is left all alone in the night.

And suddenly, into that solitude a stranger comes, a mysterious figure who wrestles with Jacob in the dark night of fear and distress. But even in the midst of his fear, Jacob’s old persistence comes to the fore. He doesn’t let go; he doesn’t give up. Even injured, with his hip out of joint, Jacob holds on to the stranger with whom he wrestles, this nameless opponent, through the dark night and into dawn.

And though he never finds out the stranger’s name, he himself receives a new name. This patriarch who strives and struggles with men and with God, finally pins God down by sheer persistence. For it is God with whom he wrestles, though Jacob doesn’t realize it until the match is over — and God blesses him with a new name: no longer Jacob, but Israel, the father of the nation that will bear his name.

Jacob persists through this unfavorable time. But something else happens to him. He is transformed. He is given a new name, a new name with a surprising meaning. For Israel — among other possible readings — means, “God perseveres.” Though God appears to lose the battle, God wins the war, the war that had been played out in Jacob’s heart from the day he cheated his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his old blind father into giving him his blessing. God perseveres because in this night of struggle, as Jacob faces the impending loss of all that he’s gained through his shady deals, in the loneliness of that night by the riverside, Jacob is transformed from sinner to saint, from a heel who until then did nothing but take, into a patriarch who will learn what it is to give. By finally letting go of everything else he has, and holding on to God alone, Jacob emerges with a blessing far better than the one that he stole from Esau. Jacob won the wrestling match, but God didn’t give up: God won Jacob.

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There are many saints who fit this picture, men in mid-life crisis who find that God is the only sure foundation for their lives. I think of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who held God at arm’s length for so many years, until he finally gave in. As a young man about town he was famous for his prayer, “O God, give me chastity; but not yet!” You can see him in the stained glass window by the door in the Peace Chapel, talking to his mother, Saint Monica, a good example of that other kind of persistent saint, whose perseverance played a big part in finally changing Augustine’s mind, and bringing him to the fulness of the faith.

I also think of John Newton, whose name I have mentioned in the past. He was a slave trader, a man engaged in the worst sort of bartering in human flesh and lives. Yet one night in the hold of his slave ship in the midst of a terrible storm, he turned his life over to God, when he realized how wretched and blind he had been. And you will recall how he later became an Anglican priest, and wrote the best known hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

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He is also a lesson to the fact that persistence in itself is not a virtue. For Newton continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion — it took time for the full message to sink in, and had he persisted in that horrible trade instead of letting the conversion work, his persistence would not have been to his credit.

It is persistence in the right, it is holding on to God, that makes a saint. The saints are those who hold on to the right, or when they finally come to see that they have been wrong, let go and hold on to God alone — as God holds on to them. Those who, like Timothy — another saint from today’s readings — are fortunate enough to have been brought up from childhood in the right way, persist in that path even when the times turn unfavorable. And those like Jacob or Augustine or John Newton, who start off in the wrong direction, and work hard at persistently digging deeper into self-centered but comfortable oblivion, even they can be blessed with a crisis that turns them around, that robs them of everything they thought was theirs, of everything they have, so that only God is left for them to cling to, wrestling through the dark night — or dark weeks or months or years — until transformed by God’s persistent blessing.

For God does not give up, even on the worst of us. That is the great good news of the saints. That is the great good news for all of us — called to be saints. God persists, and even if we are tempted to let go of our hold on God, God will never let go of us, persistent and persuasive as God is. So let us give thanks to God, and give thanks for all the saints, the saints who fight for justice and the saints who just plain fight, the saints whose lives shine bright as a rainbow from beginning to end, persevering in the right, and also those who flare up in a sudden flash of redemption like a torch at midnight, transformed by God’s persistent and persuasive grace.

If we cling to God, God will not let us go. And saints who plant themselves on that firm foundation have chosen well indeed. The soul that flees to Jesus, to repose in his strength and his love, he will never desert to its foes — that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, God will never, no never, no never forsake.+