Monday, August 8, 2011

Wrestling With God

Here is my sermon from yesterday. The text was Genesis 32:22-31.

When Linda was pregnant with our first child, we had already decided that we would name her Samantha if we had a girl, but had not yet have a boy’s name. Being a huge New York Yankees fan, I suggested that we should name him after whoever it was we saw hit the first homerun at the next Yankees game we attended in person, which happened to be a Yankees-Cubs game. In the first inning, Gary Sheffield hit what everyone in the stadium thought was a homerun. We thought, well Gary’s not a bad name, we could settle for that. But as I said, everyone in the stadium thought it was a homerun except for the umpire who ruled that it was a foul ball. In the fourth inning Derek Jeter came up to bat with the bases loaded. Now Derek had never hit a grand slam before, so we were all ready. What would have been great about this scenario is that we could have chosen either Derek or Jeter as a name, and what better name for a Yankee fan to give to their son, then to name him after the greatest Yankee of my generation, but Jeter flew out. Then in the seventh inning, Hideki Matsui, our hard hitting Japanese right fielder came up, and sure enough he hit one out, and as soon as it was clear it was going to be a homerun, Linda turned to me and said “we are not naming our son Hideki,” and so my dreams of a Yankee name were out. There is something powerful about a name.
Now I’m sure that some of you are probably saying to yourselves “when John said a few weeks ago that most preachers did not want to deal with Jacob, and even though I had never heard a sermon about him, I certainly did not expect that he was got to be talking about Jacob for weeks after week,” but put your concerns aside because today is the last day, at least for a while, that we will look directly at Jacob’s story. Now just as a refresher for those of you who haven’t been here to hear the whole story, or for those who have forgotten. Jacob is the second born of a set of twins born to Isaac and Rebekah. When Jacob is born, he comes out holding onto his brothers heal, which is how he gets his name, which translates roughly as usurper or supplanter. The name Jacob comes from the Hebrew word for heel, and he certainly lives into his name, as he does indeed become a heel, which the Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines as a contemptible person, and that certainly describes who Jacob is. First he tricks his brother out of his birthright, and then under the guidance of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him the blessing that is also due to his brother by lying when Isaac, who is in the dark, asks who is in the room with him, and Jacob claims that he is Esau.
After tricking his father and receiving the blessing, he learns that Esau is plotting to kill him and so he flees for his life, where he encounters God in a dream, then he travels back to his family’s home land where he is tricked by his uncle and first ends up marrying the wrong girl, only to get the one he really wants in exchange for fourteen years of labor. From these marriages, as well as liaisons with his wives handmaidens, he has twelve sons who will become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob ends up getting revenge on his uncle Laban for his trickery, by tricking Laban out of his best sheep and goats through a little selective breeding process.
And so today we find him, twenty years after he first fled from his brother’s wrath, freed from his service to uncle, going back across the desert to meet his brother taking with him all that he has. He sends some servants out to let Esau know that he is coming, and they return telling Jacob that Esau is on his way and that he has 400 men with him. Now as you might imagine, this has Jacob greatly concerned, after all the last time he saw Esau he wanted to kill Jacob, and so Jacob thinks Esau is still a little upset, and so to protect himself he divides all of his possessions and people into two groups thinking that then even if Esau destroys one group Jacob will not have lost everything, and then he sends both groups, along with a bunch of presents, out in front of him, staying behind with his wives and children.
Then for some reason that is not entirely clear, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River with them, and then crosses back to the other side alone, and then just like before, when he is alone in the desert, Jacob encounters God, and they wrestle all night long. I don’t imagine this was like a WWF match; there were no folding chairs or jumping off the ropes involved. Nor can we merely attribute this to another dream because Jacob comes away from the incident injured, and he does so because the man is not able to prevail against Jacob. Now some commentators have said that clearly God must not have been using all of God’s power, but that is to read something into the text that is not there. Instead, we need to see this as it is presented, that is God is not playing games with Jacob, toying with him, like a cat plays with a mouse, instead we should see that God actually struggles with Jacob, and Jacob struggles as well and has such a grip that God cannot escape.
As the morning approaches, seeing that Jacob cannot be overcome in their struggles, God touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint, although the Hebrew here is not clear exactly what happens, and to be honest I find it a little hard to believe that Jacob could continue to wrestle, let alone walk, with his hip out of joint, but that is what the tradition tells us. Anyways, God asks Jacob to let him go, to which Jacob says he will only do so if he receives a blessing, and so God asks him who he is. Sound familiar? The set-up is just like with his father Isaac, but this time, rather than lying, Jacob says his real name and with that admits everything that goes along with it, he admits that he is a heal to God. He can no longer hide. He is all alone, he has no one to protect him, he has none of his possessions to give him comfort or identity, he has nothing but his name. It might be said that this is Jacob’s dark night of the soul. And then God says that because of Jacob’s wrestling that he will no longer be called Jacob, but instead will be called Israel, which means struggles or strives with God. In other words, the name of the people to come and of the land they will inhabit is all about the idea of struggling or striving with God. This idea is found throughout the scriptures, and it even continues today, even extending to the role rabbis play in their congregations, as they see it as part of their job to question and probe and prod the members of their congregation to take them deeper in their faith.
Within Christianity this understanding has certainly been tampered to some degree. At annual conference this year, one of the speakers was talking about how Jesus practically ran to the cross he was so excited to complete his assigned task. That is how the Gospel of John portrays Jesus, at least to a degree although I think that’s a stretch, but it is certainly not how the other gospels portray Jesus, in particular Matthew and most especially Mark. Mark says that Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted, has Jesus ask God to remove the cup from him, and then has him cry out on the cross, quoting the 22nd Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That is the picture of Jesus striving with God. Of course, Mark also has the disciples striving with Jesus, with each other and with God, and they never quite seem to get it. We are supposed to be struggling and striving with God, it is inherent to our faith, to deepening our faith. If we are not asking questions then there is no way we can be learning; to ask a question is in and of itself a form of striving.
Just three months into my first pastoral appointment I received a call to perform the funeral for an 18-month-old boy. At the time Samantha was just a little bit older than Ethan was when he had died. The meeting with Ethan’s parents, Jane and Anil, is seared into my mind in hearing them tell me the story of Ethan, his very short life and the night he died as they held him in their arms. To say that I strived with God would be an understatement. Over the course of those days as I walked with the family, I yelled at God, I cried a lot, I prayed, I asked for strength and guidance, and I searched for answers. I know that some of you have lost children and I can only imagine that your strivings were and are even greater. But in my striving I did not let go of God and God did not let go of me. In the end I became a better pastor, in that you might say I was blessed. But, if given the choice and I could do it all over again would I hope the same thing happened? Absolutely not. It is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. Nor am I saying that a blessing comes out of everything bad that happens to us, but what I am saying is that in striving with God and also in refusing to let go that we are forever changed, we are marked, just like Jacob, and we are never the same people.
When Jesus was approached and asked what the greatest commandment was, he didn’t say that it was that you shouldn’t make graven images, or that you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s donkey, wife or large screen HD television with surround sound. Instead what does he say? “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he continues, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In my opinion, as Christians we should push to have the billboard you see heading into Clovis which contains the Ten Commandments read this command from Jesus instead. But it is impossible to live into Jesus command without striving with God. It is impossible to love God with your heart and strength and soul and most importantly with you mind and not struggle and strive with God. We are not commanded to check our minds at the door, as it so often seems we are being told, instead we are told that we are to use our mind, to use our intellect, which is given to us by God and to strive and struggle with God. But here is the key.
It is not just enough to question and struggle, but we also have to not let go of God in the process. That is where so many people go wrong. They begin struggling and in the struggle they let go of God and therefore fall away. But in his striving Jacob holds on to God so tightly in the dark of that night that God has to ask Jacob to let go. Our problems arise not in struggling with God, not in questioning God, not in challenging God, not in yelling at God, not is crying out to God, after all scripture is full of plenty of examples of people doing this, we need look no further than the Psalms, although they can easily be found elsewhere. We are encouraged to do those things in our striving with God, that is the only way we can love God with our whole being, instead our problems arise in letting go of God, in distancing ourselves from God when we are striving and struggling.
But, there is one more piece of information that is crucial to understanding this story of struggle, and our own struggle. In addition to Israel meaning one who strives with God it also means God strives. It is God who takes the initiative and begins the struggle with Jacob and with us, so then the question becomes what is our response to God’s invitation to this relationship. As Methodists we believe that we can either choose or reject to have a relationship with God, that it is our choice. That is certainly not the case with other denominations. Nor do we believe that our response is merely a passive acquiescence to God’s movement in our direction. Instead, we are engaged in more of a dance, in which there is a give and take, there is a movement together and, for lack of a better term, there is a sort of mixing it up, sometimes we have to wrestle. God challenges and we challenge. God questions and we question. God evaluates and we evaluate. God does not let go, and we too should not let go. God loves and we love.
In order to be in relationship with God, in order to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our heart and all our strength, then we have to be ready to say everything to God, to question everything with God, to bring all of who we are to that relationship. We cannot say that we are only going to bring God the good stuff, that we cannot take our anger or pain or suffering or sorrow or doubts to God, as if somehow God could handle that if we could, or maybe that God would not love us because of those things. But, as Paul tells us, there is nothing which can separate us from God’s love. Indeed, who is the first person in the Gospel of John to make a profession of faith in Jesus saying “My Lord and my God.” It is Thomas, immediately following his doubt, which leads him to deeper faith. A name is a powerful thing, and we all have a name that God calls us, because we are all God’s children, and as every parent knows children strive and struggle, indeed it is the only way they learn and can come to be the people we want them to be, to be the people that God has called us to be. Struggling with God is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, but we had to remember that in our struggling we have to hold on to God, do not let go, and know that God will never let go of us. May it be so. Amen.

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