Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wrestling with God

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

There something important and powerful about a name.  Names have meanings and we associate certain things with a name, including such things as ethnicity or nationality, or age, as name popularity comes and goes, and sometimes just intangible things.  When I hear the name Jenny or Steve, I just imagine a certain type of person in my head.  Have you ever met someone and when you found out there name, you thought either a, that it sounds perfect for them, or b, that the name didn’t seem to match them at all?  Parents know that there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with picking out the right name for a baby, as you don’t want to give your child the wrong name.  When Linda was pregnant with Samantha, we didn’t know if she was going to be a boy or a girl, and while we had a girls name picked out, we didn’t have a boys name set, and so I proposed that we consider naming them after the first Yankee that we saw hit a homerun at the first Yankee game we attended after we found out Linda was pregnant, which just happened to be against the Chicago Cubs.
© Scott Stantis 

In the first inning, Gary Sheffield hit what Gary and  nearly everyone in the stadium thought was a homerun, and we thought well Gary’s not bad.  But as I said nearly everyone thought it was a homerun, but the one person who counts, which is the umpire, didn’t and so Gary was out.  In the fourth inning,, Derek Jeter came up with the basis loaded, and we thought how great would this be.  Derek had never hit a career grandslam, and as a Yankee fan this was our opportunity to name our potential son after the greatest Yankee of my generation, and one of the greatest of all time, and plus we could use either Derek or Jeter as a name, but he simply 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.  They often give meaning and importance, especially in the Bible.

When we looked at the story of Hagar, I remarked that neither Abraham nor Sarah ever used Hagar’s name because to do so would give her position and place, and that Hagar is the only person in the Bible to name God.  And of course they also represent people whose names are changed with changing circumstances.  Abraham starts out as Abram, which means exalted father, and then is changed to Abraham, which means father of many, or father of nations.  His wife sarai’s name is often said to be princess, although there is also a meaning of controlling or contentious, which certainly matches her personality better, but then it is changed to Sarah, which means, mother of nations, but the name change does not always necessarily indicate a change in personality or character as Sarah demonstrates and the same could be said of today’s passage.

Last week we began talking about Jacob, and I said that his name had some meanings which matched his character.  Does anyone remember what some of the meanings were? (grasper, usurper, overtaker) He gets that name because he comes out of the womb holding onto his twin brother’s ankle, and then he wheedles and tricks his way to attaining both his older brother’s birthright and blessing, usurping his brother, from whence he has to flee for his life, and there he encounters God in the wilderness, on his way back to find a wife.  But then the trickster gets tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the older sister, Leah, whose name has significance in that story, instead of Rachel, but he eventually is able to marry Rachel as well, and then tricks his father-in-law out of his best flocks, and then although he is not fleeing for his life, like before, he is seeking to get away from his father-in-law quickly, and as he’s making his way across the desert, he finds out that his brother Esau is coming towards him along with 400 men.  Although it’s been twenty yeas since they last saw each other, Jacob doesn’t know if his brother is still mad after all these years, and so once again is fearful for his life.  To prepare to again meet Esau, Jacob sends his wives and family, along with all his possessions across the Jabbok river to meet Esau while he stays on the other side, once again all by himself in the wilderness.  Although I want to point out one feature that we normally miss in translation, and that is that in the Hebrew there is a lot of wordplay that takes place in using similar words, like Adam is created out of the adama, man out of the earth, we might say the human is created out of the humus, but for one of the few times we actually get it here in the English, in that Jacob stops at the Jabbok.

Anyways, Jacob finds himself once again all alone in the wilderness, and once again he encounters God, only this time it’s not in a dream, instead Jacob wrestles with God.  God grabs hold of Jacob and doesn’t let go, and Jacob does the same, 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.  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, nor can Jacob escape from God’s grasp.

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.  This mirrors the story of Jacob disguising himself to steel Esau’s blessing, as his father Isaac too asks him his name, but that time he lies, this time he tells the truth, he identifies himself as Jacob, the usurper, the grasper.  Jacob has nothing and no one to protect him, he has only his name which says so much about who he is and how he operates in the world.  But then God tells him that he shall no longer be called Jacob, although in reality he continues to be called that name in scripture, but instead he shall be called Israel.  The Hebrew word Israel actually means something like “God rules,” but that is not what we are told.  Instead we are told that it means “one who strives, or wrestles or struggles with God.”  Later Jewish interpretation also said it meant one who is honest or straight with God, meaning one who doesn’t hide anything with or from God.

We come to know the people as Israelites and the land as Israel, because of this change of name from Jacob to Israel, and that it is Israel’s 12 sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel, and I think it is critical to remember what that means. That means that struggling and wrestling and arguing and being honest with God is rooted into the faith, it is rooted into who we are and into our relationship with God.  I think it has stronger practice within Judaism then it does within Christianity as we often talk about taking a sort of passive role with God with phrases like let go and let God, of giving ourselves over entirely to God’s will, and while that is an important part it is not the only part because it downplays entirely this key part of the faith and the reality of who we are as humans.  And we also overlook times in the gospels where even Jesus’ wrestles and strives with God.  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.  I believe 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.

And of course, that wrestling with God, surround events that make us question God, like the tragedies in our lives.  With Wyatt’s death this spring, that is certainly what has us wrestling God, an d when I went out looking for stories about people wrestling with God it was stories like this that came up the most, not to say that there aren’t other ways we strive with God.  Whenever we ask God a question in some ways we are wrestling with God, which is why some people say that we should never question God.  But often that questioning that striving leads to a different and deeper faith. In the th Gospel of John the first person to make a proclamation of who Jesus is Thomas, who calls Jesus “my Lord and my God,” and when does this happen?  After he has questioned and doubted if Jesus has been raised from the dead.  But the key to wrestling with God is not to let go.  That’s  what I see happen most often in times of tragedy is that people let go of God, and when we let go of God, it doesn’t solve any of our questions or problems, it doesn’t change the nature of the tragedy or the questioning, all it does is remove us from  the only person who can transform it into something else, into something better, the only one who can give us the blessing we need in that moment.  The key is not letting go.  If Jacob lets go it’s all over.  Jacob strives with God, but he does not let go and that is what makes all the difference.  And when we strive with God, just like Jacob, we do not go away unchanged.  Hopefully we don’t end up with a permanent limp, but when we actually encounter God and strive with God, and in refusing to let go, we are changed, we are marked, we are never the same people again.

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.

 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. We are all descendents of Israel, the child of the promise, the one whose name means struggles with God. 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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