I had some tears writing this sermon.
It conjures up many memories from a lifetime of faith.
These stories in Genesis are life giving for us, I think.
But perhaps not the way one might expect.
I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to want things to be simple,
to prefer the black-and-white description of a problem,
with a clear and robust solution.
My car won’t start. The diagnosis is a bad battery
(caused by a forgetful driver who didn’t close the door)
and the solution is a jump start,
or at worst a new battery.
Hopefully not a new car.
Or, that noise in the garage,
thankfully it stopped once the mousetrap went off the other day.
No more noise. That must be the end of it, right?
I hope so.
Who doesn’t prefer things to be simple, clear and unambiguous?
Cut and dried.
But so much in our life never works this way.
*The blood work wasn’t quite clear, and there need to be more tests
but the treatment options aren’t very good regardless.
*Our friends are fighting, and we can see both sides of the argument
and we don’t know how to help or how to be honest
without hurting one or the other, or both!
*There is SO MUCH TO DO—around the house, for work, for school,
cleaning and cooking and mending—
how can there be time for it all?
So much in life is complicated, complex, multi-faceted.
We’d have enough if it were just our lives and our struggles,
but then heap onto it the crazy world we live in:
What is the right thing to do about tens of thousands of children,
young kids, mind you,
flooding into the United States,
fleeing not just poverty, but unspeakable violence
and political strife and drug cartels
in Central America?
Just pack them up and send them back?
Keep them in make-shift detention centers on military bases?
Free them to be with family and loved ones who will care for them?
If we acknowledge the biblical call to care for children in our midst,
along with all the vulnerable, the hurting, the hungry,
the responsibility to treat well
the foreigner traveling in our land—
my bible uses the word “alien” alongside with
widows, and orphans, to describe those
most in harms way
If we acknowledge that, how do we respond to so many kids
in the middle of an already fractious, tentative, politically fraught
question about immigration policy and reform?
Not easy. Not clear at all.
And that’s just one headline story from this week’s papers.
Most of the others are even more complex, if equally disheartening.
*A civilian airliner was shot down in the military skirmish between Ukraine and
Its been almost two weeks, and international observers
still haven’t been given good access to the site.
*This violent separatist group under the name of ISIS
is causing havoc in Syria and Iraq, burning churches,
crucifying opposition forces
(and I mean that literally, not figuratively).
*And then there’s the ongoing conflagration
between Israel and the Palestinian Territories,
a conflict that has been on the world’s stage for decades.
*Oh, and it’s the political season again, with attack ads and billboards
popping up all over town.
I think all this complexity is why so many voices promote simple answers.
In a world filled with ambiguity, with stress and strain,
it is easy to understand why people want cut and dry solutions to matters.
And some have offered them:
If you can simply study THESE books, you’ll find the solution.
If you PRAY this way, this many times a day,
facing this direction and using THESE words
you’ll hear God.
If you ONLY watch THIS news and not THAT news,
you’ll get a sense of what is really going on.
If you BURY those emotions deeply enough,
you’ll have more room for THESE instead.
Self-help books are a hot commodity, as are simplistic forms of faith and religion.
The kind what encourage you to check your head or your heart at the door.
I used to wonder why anyone would be attracted by fundamentalism
but just a quick recap of the news, or a basic grasp of the stress we face
in our day to day lives, and you can perhaps
understand the appeal.
Life is really, really hard. The more you look, the more you live,
the harder it seems sometimes.
And there is something alluring about just shutting down
our critical faculties and refusing to participate any more.
There are strains of this in all forms of faith, including our own,
particularly a form of piety that discourages us from expressing our true feelings
or from expressing our deepest questions and doubts.
I was once a student chaplain at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
and I loved the experience.
I had been deep in my academic program, removed from ministry for too long
and the chaplaincy program was a chance to get back into relationships.
I had missed it.
What struck me, though, was how patients and their families
tended to bury their emotions.
I was assigned to several units with some of the most painful acute injuries
back surgeries, heart attacks, multiple traumas
some of the hardest experiences life throws at human beings
and my job was to help the patients and the families and doctors and nurses
explore God’s presence with them and to connect them with God
Time and time again, patients and families would see me
and the chaplain’s insignia on my jacket
and smile and tell me how their faith was sure, and strong,
And sometimes that was true. When it was, I was amazed.
I sat with them and marveled at the way they
found God piecing it all together.
But more often it was not, and just a few minutes of conversation
revealed deep pain and a mountain of fear
and, more than that, guilt that these feelings
were NOT WHAT GOD WANTED.
God couldn’t fathom them wavering, or struggling. It was not Okay.
Or there was the one evening, when I was on call,
when I had a page to go to the delivery room
and I met there a young woman, in her teens,
who had delivered a stillborn child, about 22 weeks along.
And she was traumatized.
I stayed there, and I wept, and I prayed with her and the nurses.
I didn’t have anything really to say. What do you say?
The young woman’s mother was in the corner, not able to look over
acting as if everything was fine, nothing to see here.
Deep painful denial.
And after about 15 minutes, the young woman’s father came in the room
a mechanic, you see, and he wasn’t able to get off work,
wasn’t able to be there for his daughter
he wasn’t there to fix it.
and took one look at my jacket, and he got angry, so angry.
He spat in my face
crushed, hurting, broken.
These stories in Genesis are life giving for us.
This one, maybe more than most.
We’ve been walking with Abraham, and then Isaac, and now with Jacob
as they wander about trying to make sense of the God
who loves them, who nurtures them
who doesn’t magically make everything better for them
but who none-the-less walks with them through
very human experiences
picking up the pieces
and guiding them where God wants them to go,
ultimately leading them to the right, safe, healthy place.
These patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, these greatest ancestors of the faith
aren’t perfect human beings. They don’t have their act together.
They make awful choices. They struggle, a lot.
Someone this week likened it to reality television—think Big Brother
and I think that’s a good way to capture the drama of these narratives.
Where do we get the notion that to be faithful is to be perfect?
To have it all figured out?
To not struggle with hard choices?
Its certainly NOT from the bible.
Jacob doesn’t. A few weeks ago we looked at his deception and deceit
as he saw his starving twin brother Esau and
he USED that hunger to buy Esau’s birthright from him.
In the chapters between that reading and the text for today,
Jacob has an amazing, if sordid, life history. It’s a mess.
His father Isaac grows old and loses his vision,
and he calls in Esau to give him a final blessing. He favors Esau more, you see
and if Esau has no more birthright, by God he’ll have the blessing.
So he sends Esau out to capture some game to make his favorite meal
over which the blessing can happen.
And Esau goes to make it happen.
But their mother Rebekah intervenes, and calls Jacob to her
dressing him up in Esau’s best outfit
and giving him Isaac’s favorite meal
and told him to go to his father’s chambers
pretending to be Esau.
And he did, and in this way
connived his way to Esau’s blessing as well.
Isaac is hurt.
Esau, as you might expect, is livid, and bloodthirsty.
So Jacob goes away, looking for a wife.
And he finds one, two actually, back at the estate of his maternal grandfather
a few countries away.
On his way there he meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel
and goes to grandfather Laban to seek her hand.
Laban makes him work 7 years first, which he does, gladly
but tricks him into marrying his older daughter Leah.
What goes around comes around, I guess.
But Jacob loves Rachel, and works another 7 years in order to marry her.
And once married to both, he and Leah and Rachel (and two of their servants)
promptly have eleven children…
with no small amount of drama and tension between all of them.
And things turn south between Jacob and Laban too,
so Jacob packs up in the middle of the night and flees along with his family
back home. Laban comes chasing, because Rachel has stolen
some idols from Laban’s house
but when he comes to inspect their belongings
Rachel successfully hides them, and they’re free.
But where can they go? They turn home, and home is where Esau is.
Its been more than fourteen years,
and Jacob isn’t at all sure where he stands with Esau.
Jacob has taken everything from Esau. His birthright. His blessing.
Jacob has grown wealthy managing Laban’s livestock
has eleven sons, a thriving flock of his own.
So he sends a scout ahead to go find Esau and to see how things are with him
and the scout comes back with a frightful report:
Esau is close, and he has 400 fighters with him,
and he’s coming to see you.
A confrontation is coming.
So Jacob crosses back into Canaan,
and he separates his stuff and his family and he sends them on
to protect them from the coming fighters
and Jacob is alone.
But he isn’t. Not really.
Someone is there, and the two start wrestling.
Its such a beautiful story, Jacob wrestling with the stranger at Jabbok.
There is a triple play here on the Hebrew word “wrestle,” actually,
since Jacob and Jabbok and the verb ‘to wrestle’ all have the same roots.
The text is obscure: who exactly is Jacob wrestling with?
Is it God? Is it an angel? Is it a human messenger or emissary. We aren’t sure.
But we know that they wrestle, for hours, until day break.
Jacob neither wins, nor does he lose.
It’s a contest that continues, without easy answers for either party.
Jacob bears the physical scars of the confrontation, his hip is put out of joint.
And they end in agreement to stop,
once Jacob extracts a blessing from his sparring partner.
What kind of Blessing? A new name.
Jacob, the one descended from Abraham through Isaac,
through turmoil, pain, deception, struggle, and agony,
through rejection and sacrifice and sorrow
this Jacob is given a new name: Israel.
The one who contends with God, and Survives.
What I love about this story is that Jacob wrestles with God
or at least with someone who is there in the name of God.
And not only that, this one who is shown grappling with God
becomes the very NAMESAKE of the people of Israel,
the people of our own Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Israelites understood themselves as people born of wrestling
with God, who brought to God their broken, hurt,
angry, less-than-noble natures
and found a God who nonetheless
loved them, engaged them, challenged them
encouraged them, reprimanded them
stayed with them.
There is NO false-perfection to these stories. NO false-faithfulness.
No claim that we have to have it all worked out in order to be worthy.
No. God comes. God loves. God heals. God even wrestles.
In the middle of the darkest of nights, God is known to appear
in unexpected forms with the offer of blessing,
even if it takes a struggle for us to get there.
It was Jacob’s wrestling with God, refusing to let go, that made Jacob into Israel,
the Father of the People of God.
A nation that struggles with God and perseveres.
And wrestling with God is what makes Us the People of God too:
A crazy, violent, hungry, war-torn world!
Violence in our city streets, in nations far away, in our own lives.
Pain at the loss of loved ones. Indecision about our future.
Struggles with friends at school.
Decisions about when to place parents into hospice care.
How to feed the hungry and needy when they come to us
and we are tempted to send them away.
Disagreements with our brothers and sisters
about how to read this scripture text or that passage,
but still wanting to stay brothers and sisters with them.
Fear about the future of our community, about change and loss.
All of these rightly bring us to a place of contest,
where there aren’t easy answers
where faith isn’t black-and white.
But: here’s the thing—true faith is always a give and a take with God.
And all of us, each of us, will have moments
where our faith is stronger or weaker
marked by comfort, or marked by struggle.
And that’s okay.
God is God. We are human.
God is infinite, we are finite,
of limited understanding and empathy and perspective.
God stays engaged with us anyway. Wrestles with us anyway.
Lets us have our doubts and our anger and our fears, anyway.
Doesn’t let us go. And more than that, blesses us when we are all through.
Until our next match
What happened to Jacob?
He crosses the river, and finds Esau and Esau’s men.
And Esau runs up to him, and embraces him—his long lost brother
and Esau loves him.
It doesn’t always work out like this, to be sure,
but here, in this story, the author wants us to see this clearly:
for all the stress, and angst, and worry
the next moment is one of hope, of peace, of reconciling.
To be sure, Jacob doesn’t fully get it.
But in the course of the story it is a moment of hope for all of us,
that even though we wrestle and struggle,
something good can still come.
God is faithful still.
One of the things I see in the stories of Jesus, too,
is a call for Jesus to make everything much more simple.
Jesus draws a crowd and heals and teaches
and there is this consistent call to clear things up:
Hasn’t it been written?
Are you the one to take our land back?
John the Baptist said, what do you say?
And one of the fascinating things about Jesus is that he often refuses to do so for us.
In fact, following Jesus often doesn’t clear things up as much as
he makes it all much more muddled.
Wait, who is my neighbor?
What, how do I go through the eye of a needle exactly?
I have to be born again? How exactly does one do that?
And even the straightforward, simple things are never easy,
never fully clear in practice:
Loving God and loving neighbor, ok, but how, exactly?
How should I act, vote, shop, work, live in a way that does this?
Forgive seventy times seven, ok, if I can get past the first one.
You, you give them something to eat.
But I don’t have enough for us, Jesus, how can I give some to them too?
The life of faith wasn’t promised to be easy for us.
So why do it? Why give it our energy, our time, our passion, our commitment?
I submit to you that it is far, far better to wrestle with these things
to seek the healthy, the loving, the beautiful, the true
and to teach our children and our children’s children
how to do these things healthily,
than it is to choose the false, easy solution.
And I also submit that Jesus had it right, when he said that we do this better together,
as a community, where two or three are gathered,
sharing with each other, learning from each other, giving to each other.
For it is THERE that we find God agitating among us,
not just a sparring partner, though that when we need it,
but also an agent of healing and of grace and of rest
when we need these the most.
So may we not be afraid that our struggles aren’t faithful,
that our doubts are any less true than our faith
that God loves us any the less because of it all,
but may we find in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
in the God of Jesus of Nazarus,
the one who allows us the space, the struggle, the doubt we need
to learn that God is a hopeful, healing, life-giving God
and wants us to be hopeful, healing and life giving too! Amen.
Image: Jacob Wrestling the Angel, by Rembrandt