Genesis 32: 22-31
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Good morning, my name is Shana Hutchings and I am one of the Seminary Interns here at St. Andrew’s. I am also serving a church outside the city, so I am delighted to be here with you this morning. Please pray with me.
I am currently in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church and one of my tasks during this journey was to write what is called a Spiritual Autobiography. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what this is, it can be summarized as the story of your life in light of what God has been doing. Some famous authors of Spiritual Autobiography include St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Anne Lamott, and Kathleen Norris. In my case, I had to write a 2500 word essay of my life of faith so far. Some of you might not know many Seminary types, but we are a bunch of people, as a whole, who are slightly obsessed with our ongoing dialogue with God. Sometimes, this is somewhat of a problem. One of my favorite authors, Lauren Winner, who is a professor and an ordained Episcopal priest, shared something in her most recent book, Still, that her priest told her and that I think summarizes the plight of many seminarians. She says that her priest often tells her some variation of this. She tells me “that I am a little too invested with how I’m feeling about church and God, and perhaps not invested enough in how I am serving Church, God, neighbor.” And, indeed, when I was given some guidance on how to go about writing this essay, I was told by Bruce that the essay should be “something fairly straightforward. Personal, but not necessarily a blow-by-blow of every Dark Night or personal venture down the slippery slope.” For some people, thinking of writing a 2500 word essay may seem daunting, especially if they have not been in school for a long time, but as Bruce astutely observed, for seminary types, myself included, 2500 seemed like a very constricting word limit.
I wish that I had used today’s passages as a guide for my writing. I think these four passages document the life of faith in light of God’s providence in a tremendously helpful way. Our Old Testament passage gives us the well-known story of Jacob’s wrestling with God. Jacob wrestles here with what he thinks is a man, but after prevailing over him, Jacob is blessed and in that blessing, he realizes that he has been wrestling with God. Although I am guessing that none of us have had this exact experience, I feel confident in saying that we have all wrestled with God. There are times in our lives when we feel we hear God, but perhaps are not ready to act, or perhaps we are crying out to God, wondering what in the world He is thinking. But God does not leave us alone in our wrestling. That is the good news for us in Jesus Christ. Our New Testament passage and Gospel reading speak to us about this, speaking really to the need for us to persevere in faith and practice. 2 Timothy speaks about the importance of scripture and community for us, for it is scripture and community that keep us grounded in the faith we profess. The text warns us about itching ears and urges us to resist the urge to accumulate for ourselves teachers that suit our own desires. I think we can all see how easy this is to do in a time with infinite possibilities to obtain information. In our Gospel passage, we learn how important it is to remain vigilant in prayer, even in times of intense trial and persecution. These passages fill out for us, really, the life of faith. We have times of wrestling, like Jacob, but most of our lives are filled with the very basic elements of faith, daily prayer, scripture, and community and the decision-making process in light of those elements. Later in Lauren Winner’s book, she talks about how, after her divorce, she stayed at her pastor’s house in one of her spare bedrooms. She was given the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” which is a memoir of a woman, also recently divorced, who traveled the world eating and praying in search of fulfillment. Winner says, “I read the memoir in two sittings, and then the next week, I read it again. But after leaving my husband, I didn’t go to Italy. I just went, again, to church. I went to church by habit. I went prompted by some deep-buried intuition. Most days I went brittle, like a dry piece of gingerbread. Like the hinges of an old book.”
I would like to suggest that the hinges in Winner’s book, and our own books, is the message of Psalm 121. This has long been one of my favorite psalms. It speaks so beautifully of God’s providence and care. How comforting it is to think about looking up to the hills, knowing that God cares for you! It is a psalm of confidence, but not a false confidence. It acknowledges the presence of difficulty, of evil, and of the tedious nature of life. It has been called a psalm for the pilgrimage of life, an apt description. It seems to have in its structure, the movement of our lives without explicitly saying so. And all the while, acknowledging that God is sovereign, yet intimately involved in our lives. God will not let your foot be moved, God will not slumber, God will keep your life, God will keep your coming out and your going in. God is your keeper. For those of us in Christ, these actions were revealed and continue to be revealed in Christ, God become flesh, and Christ’s church, the ongoing body of Christ in the world. Father Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox priest with a background in numerous Christian traditions, puts this psalm in the context of the church beautifully, “For all that, the protection that God provides for me is not a merely individual blessing. This is not a psalm about ‘God and me.’ I may pray this psalm and lay claim to its blessings, rather, by reason of my adherence to His Chosen People, the Church. I am a sheep of His flock. My personal confidence in God’s guardianship stands within a context determined by His covenanted interventions in human history.” We are part of the long story of faith, the autobiography of the church, and we journey in light of God’s ultimate care for us within that context.
As we go forward, I would like challenge all of us to think about our spiritual autobiographies. I do not think spiritual autobiography is simply an exercise for seminarians. I recently read an article by a professor who offered a class in Spiritual Autobiography in her church. The class consisted of reading classic autobiographies, writing exercises, and sharing. The class was so popular that the instructor had to move it to a larger space in order to accommodate all the students. The class attracted college students, working parents, retired folks, and some seminary students. Although she said the amount of reading was a common complaint, the students were very enthusiastic about the class and threw themselves into it, no matter their background. She said that most of the students were worried that, compared to the dramatic accounts they read for the class, their weekly trudges to church would seem rather dull. She encouraged them, though, “that those were the stories we most need to hear: we need the stories behind that trudge to understand why we keep making it.” She told them that their stories were to be seen as prayer on paper. They were to be a thanksgiving to God and to those who have been with them as they made the long pilgrimage of faith. This is exactly what I found as I made my way through writing mine. Yes, I included some difficult and traumatic events, but my story was primarily about God’s faithfulness through a lifetime, evidenced by the presence of scripture, wrestling in prayer, and most intensely, through my interactions with members of the body of Christ, those living in the community of faith and witnessing to Christ’s love today. May we think about our stories of faith, even try to write them down, in light of the God who will keep us from all evil, who will keep our lives, who will keep our going out and coming in, and who continues working through his church, surrounding us with His love and protection, giving us the strength to endure suffering, evil, and doubt through the power of the Holy Spirit on the long road of faith together.
Thanks be to God. Amen!