Monday, August 4, 2014

Wrestling with God

A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

I do not like to watch people fight on television. I do not like wrestling, I do not like boxing, and to be perfectly honest, I routinely mix up wrestling and boxing, which horrifies my husband. I am told they are entirely different sports, but I can’t stand watching either one long enough to learn the difference. Recently, despite my distaste for televised fights, I’ve been hearing a lot recently about yet a third kind of fighting, MMA, or mixed martial arts. Apparently, there is an MMA competition coming up where amateurs can compete to win a big pot of cash.

A man I know from my neighborhood who sometimes attends my church’s sandwich line is certain that that prize has his name on it. He’s been telling me for the last couple of weeks about his training regimen, his potential competitors, the friends who are coaching him. He’s told me how many push-ups and pull-ups he can do and described MMA techniques in exhaustive detail.

Finally, a few days ago, I couldn’t take it anymore. As he continued to wax poetic about roundhouse kicks and chokeholds, I told him that I thought it was a sin and a shame that people relax by watching other humans do violence to one another on television. I told him that I hoped things worked out, and I wanted the best for him, but that the world has too much senseless violence already, without people hitting each other for money and other people watching for fun. I got on my high horse, and I declared the whole endeavor ungodly and evil.

And then I read the scripture for today. It would appear that my personal distaste for wrestling is not actually reflected in all of Christian scripture and theology.


Our Genesis lesson continues the story of Jacob, which we have been hearing for the last few weeks. In the story up to this point, Jacob has been something of a trickster; he has tricked his older twin Esau into giving up his birthright, the rights of the firstborn son; he tricked his dying father into giving him the blessing which was also supposed to be for the firstborn son; he was tricked by his uncle Laban into first marrying Leah, the older daughter, instead of Rachel the younger daughter, but then Jacob tricked his uncle in turn into giving him a large flock of goats that make Jacob a very wealthy man.

Now Jacob has received a word from God, telling him to go home to the country of his birth. He has left Laban’s household, taking with him his wives, children, and flocks. He fears that his return will be dangerous, because of the enmity between him and Esau, and as he arrives at the Jabbok, he has heard that Esau is coming with four hundred men, whom he fears are ready to attack him and his household.

Jacob sends his wives and children across the river, and after they have left, he has a very strange encounter. He wrestles with a mysterious figure all night long, until daybreak (wrestling all night long is quite a lot of wrestling – I watched ten minutes of wrestling as I was preparing to write this sermon, and that was a lot of wrestling). The figure strikes Jacob on the hip and injures him, but still Jacob continues to struggle. Jacob’s opponent then says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob refuses; “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he replies. Then the figure asks, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” replies Jacob. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,” the figure says, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob then asks for the name of his opponent, but he replies “Why is it that you ask my name?” He gives Jacob a blessing, and Jacob names the place “Peniel,” “the face of God.” As the sun rises, Jacob walks away with a limp. In the verses after our reading ends, Jacob meets Esau and the four hundred men he has brought with him, but instead of taking vengeance for Jacob’s earlier betrayal, Esau embraces him joyfully, and the twins reconcile.

This enigmatic account is a pivotal moment in Jacob’s story, and the entire story of the Israelite people. Throughout this story, we hear echoes of Jacob’s earlier stories, and glimpses of what lies ahead. When we hear of Jacob wrestling with a strange man, we remember the very beginning of Jacob’s story as he and Esau wrestled in their mother’s womb, a wrestling which was so intense that Rebekah could hardly bear it. When we hear Jacob’s demand, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” we recall his earlier deception – the blessing he stole from his brother. When his opponent asks “What is your name,” we remember the lie he once told: Isaac asking which son stood before him, and Jacob replying, “I am Esau, your firstborn.” When Jacob’s shadowy opponent refuses to reveal his name, we think of the stories to come, of Moses at the burning bush hearing God declare “I am that I am,” the mystery surrounding the name of God, and the tradition that persists to this day in Jewish faith and practice, that God’s name is never uttered out loud.

Commentators have observed the ambiguity of the figure with whom Jacob wrestles. Is it a man? An angel? Is it God? Some have been reluctant to accept a portrayal of God in human form, engaging in the primal physicality of a wrestling match. Others have pointed to the words at the beginning of the story, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But by the end of the story, Jacob and his opponent seem to be clear about who Jacob has been wrestling with: “you have striven with God and with humans,” the figure declares as he gives Jacob his new name, Israel. “I have seen God face to face,” Jacob asserts as he names the place “the face of God.” Perhaps, like so many before and after him, perhaps including us, Jacob recognizes God not in the moment of wrestling, but as he reflects on his experiences.

Jacob may be the first figure in our faith tradition to wrestle with God, but he is certainly not the last. Faithful Jews and Christians have continued to wrestle – although perhaps more metaphorically – to this day. Some of us here have wrestled with God, as well – with questions of faith and doubt, with scriptures that are difficult to understand or difficult to live, with religious traditions or identities that don’t seem to fit, with seasons of despair and difficulty, where God seems distant or absent.

Sometimes Christians have a tendency to minimize or silence those long, dark nights of wrestling. Sometimes people of faith are shamed or blamed for wrestling with their faith, made to feel as if questions or doubts or struggles made them less Christian or less holy than their cheerier and more certain brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard encouragements to just have faith, to look on the bright side, to rejoice always. Perhaps you’ve heard words like, “God never gives you more than you can handle” (which is not in the Bible), or “Every cloud has a silver lining” (also not in the Bible) or “It’s always darkest before the dawn” (once again, not in the Bible). Perhaps those things are true, sometimes; perhaps those kinds of words are helpful, sometimes. But when you’re in the middle of a long, dark night, when it feels like you might be fighting for your life, when you’re wrestling with grief and turmoil and despair and doubt, those words may not be very helpful. But maybe this story can be.

Because when we hear this story, perhaps it can remind us that there is no shame in wrestling. We are not promised that the life of faith will be simple or easy. We are not called as Christians to always be sure, or always feel happy. But we are invited to be faithful, even tenacious, in the face of challenges, to hold on to our faith even when the only way we know to hold on is to wrestle. This story reminds us that wrestling with faith and with God does not mean our faith has failed, but that our faith journey is taking a new turn.

Faith is not some fragile knick-knack that must be carefully kept on a shelf, guarded from the elements, handled with kid gloves. God is not brittle or breakable. God can endure our questions, our doubts, our fears, our wonderings. God’s love is strong enough to persist through long dark nights of wrestling. There is no shame in struggling with faith; the challenge is not to avoid struggle, but like Jacob, just to hang on, when hanging on seems almost impossible.

“I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” Jacob said to God.

I once heard the Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible speak about this story. Trible is known for her work on troubling, violent stories in the First Testament, stories that she refers to as “texts of terror.” In response to stories like that, Trible said, or in response to other troubling teachings, like the ones that are used against LGBT people, or the ones that were used to condone slavery, or the ones that are used to silence the voices of women leaders, one faithful way for Christians to respond is to wrestle like Jacob did: to study and pray and question and struggle, to be tenacious, refusing to walk away from faith, but also refusing to meekly accept the harm that is sometimes done in God’s name. One way to respond is to take hold of those scriptures and cry out with Jacob, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

When we are able to do that, surprising things can happen. Sometimes the blessing is a new understanding, or a changed perspective. Sometimes faith deepened or hope restored. Sometimes a transformed heart, a transformed relationship with others or with God. Sometimes a change in our lives. And sometimes the blessing is in the wrestling itself. Whether we wrestle with a difficult scripture, a troubling teaching, a crisis of faith, or something else, we can echo Jacob’s words: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And perhaps when the morning dawns, we will find that in that wrestling, we received a blessing. Perhaps we will find ourselves marked and changed and transformed by that struggle.

Perhaps when the morning dawns, we will find that we have seen God face to face.

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