The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected. Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?
Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32
We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.
I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.
But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.
Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.
Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.
Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.
The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.
There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.
I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?
Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis. Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.
Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.
It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.
But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.
And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.