Sermon of the Week:
That Was Close!
Week one of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Jacob Wrestles, Less than Perfect, Anxiety, Abraham and Isaac, Betrayal, God Can Handle It, Names. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I don’t know about you,
but if I had my way, I’d require every problem to have a simple solution.
Give me a black-and-white description of a problem,
with a clear and robust way to resolve it.
My car won’t start.
Ok. What’s wrong? Well, the problem is a bad battery
(caused by a forgetful driver who didn’t close the door)
and so the solution is a jump start,
or a new battery,
or, worst case, maybe replace the alternator. Voila. Simple. Take care of it, and it’s done.
Or, what about that strange noise we heard in the garage?
Well, thankfully it stopped when the mousetrap went off the other day.
No more noise. That must be the end of it, right?
I hope so.
Hungry? Go get some food.
Tired? Get some sleep.
Restless? Well, maybe stop watching the Royals and that might go away.
Who doesn’t prefer things to be simple, clear and unambiguous?
Cut and dry.
But so little in our life works that way.
It is almost always more complicated…
Maybe you’re hungry, and you have no money to buy food.
Maybe you’re tired, but your kids need you
and the dishes aren’t done
and the dog knocked over the plant so there’s dirt and leaves everywhere
and that noise is back in the garage
and you’re not thinking very clearly…because you’re tired….
Or, to take another example,
you’ve had some blood work done,
and the results weren’t….conclusive
and there are more tests needed
but any way you slice it, it isn’t very good
and your plans for the next 6 months aren’t viable any longer
because the treatment options all have side effects.
Which one should we try?
Or maybe you’ve found yourself
in a situation where your close friends are fighting.
I mean, really angry at each other,
and we can see both sides of what they’re going through
and we don’t know how to help or how to be honest
without hurting one or the other, or both!
But they’re looking for some help, and saying nothing will hurt too.
These are hard questions.
So much in life is complicated, complex, multi-faceted.
So little is black and white and simple.
And, honestly, it is exhausting.
Very little these days is clear cut.
Sometime we can have all the information we need to know
but the options don’t have an obvious “right answer.”
And then there are other times where we just can’t know everything we need to know
but we still have to make our best decision based on the best information available,
and live with the consequences.
Who wants to do that?
Give me the cut and dry any day, right?
We prefer the simple to the complex, even though life is more often than not complex.
Maybe this can help explain
why so many people lean toward the unrealistically simple solution
to life’s difficult problems.
If you just read THESE books, you’ll find the secret solution to parenting, or dieting, or dealing with your partner, or whatever…
If you just PRAY this way, this many times a day, facing this direction and using THESE words
you’ll hear God. Oh, for sure.
And, by implication, the other people who don’t do that don’t stand a chance.
If you just watch THIS news and not THAT news, you’ll get a sense of what is really going on.
If you take THIS anti-malaria drug, it will protect you from COVID,
Don’t worry that we don’t have any good science on that yet.
If you BURY those emotions deep enough,
you’ll be able to ignore them and maybe they can go away on their own….
You can begin to understand why Self-help books are a hot commodity these days,
as are unquestioning forms of faith and religion…
The kind of faith that encourages you to check your head or your heart at the door.
Honestly: I used to stay up at night
wondering why in the world anyone would be attracted by fundamentalism…
and there are a lot of different kinds of fundamentalism…
but just a quick recap of the news,
or a brief assessment of the stresses that human beings face in this modern age,
in our day to day lives,
and you can perhaps
understand the appeal.
Life is really, really hard sometimes.
And there is something alluring
about just shutting down our critical faculties
and refusing to participate any more.
One of the things we talk about from time to time in these sermons
is what makes for a healthy religious journey,
and why the particular form of Christianity that we follow
seeks a different sort of path.
Unfortunately, there are many different religious traditions,
including some forms of Christianity,
including some forms of protestant Christianity,
that proffer overly simplistic answers to these deep human predicaments.
I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about.
Often they are heavy on authority figures,
encourage a shallow reading of the sacred text,
or argue that their way is the only way, and everyone else doesn’t actually love God or love Jesus.
And sometimes, many of these unhealthy forms of piety
discourages us from expressing our true feelings,
or asking our deepest question and doubts…
because our feelings are messy and complicated
and if you only believed more truly,
prayed more fervently, loved God more,
you wouldn’t doubt, you wouldn’t question, you would just believe…
or so the story goes.
And the result is, more often than not,
a crisis of faith when the going gets rough…and it does for all of us at one time or another.
I was thinking this week
about when I was training for ministry at The University of Chicago Divinity School.
I spent a semester as a student chaplain at Rush University Medical Center,
and it was such a profound learning experience.
I wasn’t prepared for often patients and families
tended to bury their true emotions about what was happening to them,
because they didn’t think they were feeling the “right” sorts of feels
or because they were so used to not dealing with their emotions
that they were afraid that they would bubble over if they let them out…
My assignment at Rush University Medical Center was to work with the multiple acute-injury patients
often patients recovering from back surgeries, heart attacks, multiple traumas
some of the hardest experiences that human beings can face.
My job was to be present with them,
a caring, interested listener who wasn’t a doctor or nurse,
someone willing to talk about their faith if they wanted to,
and I could be there
to lift up their concerns to God in prayer.
Some of the time I felt useful,
and here or there I would have an honest encounter
where the patient would have the fortitude to share what he was truly feeling
or how she could admit how she was struggling to work out what was going on.
But most of the time,
patients and their families would see me
and the chaplain’s insignia on my jacket
and they’d just smile and tell me how their faith was sure, and strong, and unbroken.
Thanks for checking. Nothing to see here.
Again, sometimes that was actually true. When it was, I was amazed.
I sat with them and marveled at the way
they found God piecing it all back together
or how God was there with them as they were searching for answers, you know,
giving them encouragement and love along the way.
But more often it was really not all that true,
and, if they permitted a few minutes of conversation,
they might reveal a deep pain and sometimes a mountain of fear
and, more than that, guilt, oh so much guilt,
that these feelings they were feeling…pain and fear and maybe anger
were NOT WHAT GOD WANTED.
They were convinced that God couldn’t fathom them wavering, or struggling.
It was not Okay, they might confide in me.
That always broke my heart, the spiritual anxiety on top of their physical woe.
I particularly remember 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.
He was crushed, hurting, broken.
We all were, in that moment.
And my heart broke as they wrestled with their pain
and I wished that they knew “they had permission” to do that….
We would prefer things to be simple.
In the end, we don’t want to have a mess of feelings,
we’d prefer not to deal with them, thank you very much.
Here’s the thing:
when you look at scripture, there’s nowhere you’ll find
God shaming you for your struggles
as you wade through the deep-water moments of life.
Instead, you find lessons like we find in the Psalms, for instance,
poems that lift up every sort of feeling that human beings have ever felt–
yearning, heartache, abandonment, jealousy, vengeance, unrequited love,
deep concern for loved ones—
it is all there, in the Psalms,
healthy emotions and harmful feelings alike,
an example for us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear,
that God can understand ALL of these things we feel,
that God is big enough to withstand it,
that God can empathize with us, and loves us through thick and through thin.
We could lift up other scriptural examples, of course,
most notably we could talk about what it means
for God to become human, God’s incarnation in the life of Jesus of Nazareth,
or how God must have felt at Jesus’ betrayal and death,
or the amazing affirmation of life in the resurrection… all examples of God getting it…
but for today I want us to focus on this really fascinating moment in the life of Jacob.
We should offer a little bit of context about Jacob:
Jacob is one of two sons born to Isaac,
twins, actually, him and his brother Esau.
Isaac was Abraham’s son,
and Abraham was a big deal,
because he was the one who first received the promise of God:
the covenant that God will walk alongside him and his offspring
a people who would become a light for the world.
Later, the God who made that promise
would be called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”
so those three names are rather important figures in our collective history.
But here’s the thing:
These patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible,
these greatest ancestors of the faith
they aren’t perfect human beings. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
They don’t have their act together.
They sometimes make awful choices.
They struggle, a lot.
Abraham struggles with what do with Hagar,
and an absolutely irredeemable moment with the near sacrifice of his son Isaac.
Isaac bumbles around looking for a suitable life partner,
eventually marrying Rebecca,
with whom they have these twin boys—Esau and Jacob.
The way Genesis describes it, this family from Abraham to Jacob is kinda a mess.
Someone this week likened it to reality television—think Big Brother,
have you seen that show?
and I think that’s a good way to capture the drama of these narratives.
So Isaac and Rebecca have the two boys.
In that culture, the first born has special privileges and responsibilities.
They inherit the family estate.
They’re given the best seat at family functions.
It is good to be the first born.
Jacob was the younger twin,
and that never sat well with him.
Genesis says that, when he was born,
he was clutching Esau’s heel.
He was always wanting to be the first born,
to be the one with the special privileges and responsibilities.
And so, according to Genesis,
Jacob schemes his way into getting Esau, hungry after working in the fields all day,
to trade away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.
And then, to add insult to injury,
Jacob would later trick his aging father Isaac,
his eyes not working very well,
to mistake him for Esau, and to grant HIM Jacob
the special blessing meant for the firstborn son.
When the dust settles from all of this: Isaac is hurt.
Esau, as you might expect, is livid, and bloodthirsty.
And so Jacob goes away, looking for a wife.
Along the way, Jacob 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 then Laban tricks JACOB into marrying his older daughter Leah.
What goes around comes around, I guess.
But Jacob loves Rachel, and so he works another 7 years in order to marry her.
And once married to both, Jacob 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.
But where can they go? Well, they turn home, and home is where Esau is.
Jacob, remember, has taken everything from Esau.
Fourteen years ago. His birthright. His blessing.
Sure, Jacob is now secure, with livestock and wives and children…
Everything he ever wanted.
But there is no escaping a confrontation with his brother.
Esau will surely be wanting revenge.
So Jacob 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.
What is Jacob going to do? Run? Hide? Attack? Seek forgiveness?
According to our reading today, Jacob crosses back into Canaan,
and he sends his wife and his belongings on ahead
to protect them from the coming fighters…
and Jacob is alone.
But he isn’t alone. Not really.
Someone is there, and the two start wrestling, in the middle of the night
there at the ford of the Jabbok.
It’s such a fascinating 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 root.
It is almost as if the whole story is building up to this confrontation.
The text is unclear: whom, 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 loses.
It’s a contest that continues, without easy answers for either party.
And they end with an 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.
Israel, a name which means:
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 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 happens to Jacob.
Well, he crosses the river, and finds Esau and Esau’s men.
And Esau runs up to him, and embraces him—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. It was a close call!
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 fails to clear things up 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 Nazareth,
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!
May it be so.
Image: Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), Paul Gauguin. See https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/4940/vision-sermon-jacob-wrestling-angel