"Wrestled with him"-Sermon for Proper 13, Genesis 32:22-31
Perhaps now more than at any other time in our lives, many of us may find ourselves wrestling with God. There is surely much swirling all around us that would send any reasonable person into a season of profound spiritual and emotional turmoil…from COVID to race to deep intractable political divisions…from uncertainty about the economy and job security to parents making excruciating decisions about their children returning or not to school this fall…and of course all of this is on top of the quote “regular” challenges in life…kids struggling…aging loved ones needing greater care…challenges at work…and so forth. It, indeed, can feel like we are all rooting around blind and with both hands tied behind our backs…wandering in the wilderness…seeking shelter from the elements and wild beasts…standing at the edge of a river not knowing what might be found on the other side…friend…foe…safe quarter and green pastures…or maybe a landscape even less forgiving then the current one…it feels all so unknowable and perilous.
Dr. Brene Brown talks about the importance of normalizing our anxieties…so I want to say…if my words resonate with your interior experience…please know you are not alone. The healthiest people I know and who I speak to often and look up to…people I consider pillars of faith…mindful founts of wisdom…people who ordinarily have their life all together…have expressed to me, in this moment in time, their own anxiety…the emotional ups and downs they experience in any given week…or even in just a single day. We are in a moment of collective anxiety, and so I hope you know you are not alone if struggling to make sense of it all, remain clear headed, and be always up and cheery. There is nothing wrong with you. Your experience is entirely normal, and we are all in it together.
Further, I sincerely hope you are able to practice, especially in this season of uncertainty, what my psychologist friends call self-compassion. Pay attention to your self-talk. Be sure you are talking to yourself like you would a friend living through a difficult time. Be sure you are carving out some me time. I know that’s easier said than done…I live with a spouse, two school aged children, a basset hound, and two rabbits…but I am still leaving it on the list…even if an aspirational goal. And, though all things in moderation…be sure you are indulging in some play time and eat dessert a little more frequently. For those who are not homebodies…I think there are some safe ways to take some time away…perhaps the work of figuring that out in the midst of a pandemic might be worth it. What’s the advice Aaron Burr shares in Hamilton and with Hamilton, “Talk less…smile more”. Or really better yet…do smile more…and find someone you can really talk with…process with…a trusted person…a relationship in which being judged is never in question. And then there is exercise and deep breathing…choose you own self-compassion adventure.
But there is something else I really want to talk about beyond normalizing and self-compassion, though both are important tools in seeking to live a wholehearted and fully present life…whether living through times of peace or times of chaos. And, that thing I really want to focus on is where I began. For, I hope my opening images sounded familiar…and, if so, perhaps because I was very intentionally drawing them directly from our Old Testament lesson this morning. The story of Jacob at the river’s edge…wrestling with God. For, Jacob arrives at the river’s edge in his own place of uncertainty and anxiety. He has fled his home many years earlier…and he did so after some seriously questionable behavior…escaping the understandable wrath of his father and older brother…both of whom he had very intentionally manipulated and tricked…even lied to. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, had triangulated his mother and father. He had manipulated his brother, Esau, in a moment of weakness out of his birthright and inheritance, and he had lied to his father, Isaac, impersonating his brother, to steal his brother’s blessing. And, then with his mother’s help, interceding on his behalf with his father Isaac, Jacob slips away without his brother knowing…to protect himself and to avoid the coming consequences.
And now, some many years later, in today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob is coming home…to make amends…which is good…reconciliation takes risk and requires intentional action…but he has no idea what to expect…what he will find on the other side of the river…a family ready to embrace him back into the fold like the long-lost prodigal…or anger or resentment or punishment or rejection or, even, violence. In fact, some messengers had told Jacob that his brother, learning of his return trip home, was marching out to meet him with some 400 men…which sounds more like a waring party than a welcome wagon. The future is unclear…the fate and safety of the family he has forged and loves in his years away from home…is surely uncertain. So, it’s not even just about his own safety and well-being anymore. Anxiety inducing indeed…his own season of uncertainty.
So, Jacob, knowing that the encounter with his brother, for good or for ill, is imminent, retreats…not fleeing, once again, from what is to come…but more of a spiritual retreat…a night of preparation…a night alone of prayer and planning before his day of reckoning. He stands alone just on the opposite side of the river from where is brother awaits, the last physical barrier between him and his uncertain future…and Jacob wrestles with God. In the story before us, it is, indeed, a literal wrestling match. But, I believe for Jacob and the countless thousands of people who have read, studied, and marked this story in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is about more than a strange historical anecdote about some ancient wrestling match in a deserted place. It is a story about a person in intense crisis…a person staring into an uncertain future…a person fearing that he has placed his family, spouse and children, in a dangerous place…a person feeling like his future is out of his own control…a person feeling like pain and, even, death is surely imminent…a person struggling with his own past poor choices and the wounds he wrought on loved ones. It is easy to see how a person of faith might be looking to wrestle a bit with God in the midst of such a moment…in the midst of the interior storm raging in the heart and mind.
And, here is where I believe Jacob’s story is so very instructive, insightful, and maybe even inspirational for our own stories. For this time, Jacob doesn’t slip away…he does not run away from his crisis…he doesn’t leave his loved ones to fend for themselves…he doesn’t try to escape his checkered past or his fearful future…instead…he brings himself before God, and he wrestles…blood, sweat and tears…shed on the inside and out…and at the other end, though not left unscathed, he receives a blessing. For God showed up…he was there to wrestle back. And Jacob found in the struggle a new name…not Jacob but Israel…which means, “Wrestles with God”…but also…“God Contended” and “Triumphant with God”. A name that means God is with him, no matter what, in peace and in chaos, in living and in dying…that he has a future with God…the one who made all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things. Even the wound Jacob receives is a visceral reminder that God is at his side, in certainty and uncertainty, for the wound was literally in his side…in his hip. A reminder that we are incomplete without God…a reminder that in wrestling with God there is a blessing to be discovered for the living of our days. And with this reminder and with a new name that provides hope and a better understanding of who he really is…for names are not meant just to distinguish us but describe us and remind us of who we really are…Jacob crosses the river…this time not turning back…instead walking with God into his undiscovered future. And, if we were to read on, we would see that Jacob also walks into the arms of his brother…who does, indeed, run to Jacob to embrace the much beloved and much missed prodigal son and brother.
And so, I say to us, especially in this time of great turmoil and uncertainty, “let’s get ready to rumble.” Perhaps now is my time, your time, our time to go the mat with God. Though I think it would be somewhat misleading to say that a night of wrestling with God will somehow make all the great burdens we are carrying magically disappear, I do believe with all of my heart that the God of love will meet us if we are willing to show up ourselves. And, though sweat, blood and tears may be shed, in the end, God will remind us through the struggle something of who we really are…name us as God’s own beloved child…that God will prove that God is, indeed, at our side…that we will leave the wrestling match knowing that God’s blessing is with us, as we walk with God into our own undiscovered future and all the loving arms that surely await us. Amen.