Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon: "Good News For All"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 20, 2017 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:10-28

“Good News For All”

I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of some Good News today.
Not some Good News that helps us to forget everything that’s going on in the world.
But rather some Good News that helps us make sense of it.
And helps us to heal from it
And gives us hope that the “bad news” does not define us,
or stand as an example of the irredeemable brokenness of our human nature.

I’m in need of some Good News that shows us that perhaps the “bad news” we encounter is better labeled as “disturbing news” or “challenging news” because our response to the news should point us in the direction where God intends for us to go, and give us a sense of who God created us to be.
And because we’re human, neither is easy for us to face or accomplish.

Let’s begin our quest for Good News with a story.

In December 1938, a 29-year-old London stockbroker named Nicholas Winton picked up a newspaper and read about rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
Jewish businesses were being vandalized and forced to shut down, synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jewish immigrants had been rounded up and deported.  150,000 refugees were forced to seek shelter in makeshift camps and were facing a harsh winter with no help in sight.

As Hitler’s Nazi party began to take hold in Europe, their goal was to make life so unpleasant for Jews that they would choose to emigrate.
But few countries were willing to accept an influx of Jewish refugees.
Many countries, including the United States, tightened their immigration policies. In the summer of 1938, 32 countries met in France to address the growing refugee crisis. But virtually all refused to take in more Jews.

When the violence against Jews escalated in late 1938, Britain relented and opened its borders to the most vulnerable refugees - the children.

That winter, Nicholas Winton had planned on taking a two-week skiing vacation in Czechoslovakia, but just before he left, he received a letter from a friend who was working for the British government in Prague.
It contained an invitation:         
“I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help.

Don't bother bringing your skis.”

Winton joined his friend and used those two weeks of his vacation to set up a makeshift immigration center in his hotel room in Prague.
There he met with Jewish families who were desperate to get their children out of harms way.
Winton worked with Britain’s strict immigration requirement that every refugee child have a foster family to take them in on the other end.
He placed ads in newspapers asking for volunteers, and in some cases cajoled complete strangers into taking a child into their home.
Since the British government had already begun to evacuate British children from inner cities in the event of war, the British public was fortuitously familiar with the idea of opening their homes to those in need.

Nicholas Winton and his small staff of volunteers worked together to save 669 children.
Often going against their own moral code and breaking the law, to forge documents and bribe government officials.
Navigating a mountain of paperwork, and working as fast as they could, Winton and his colleagues loaded the children onto seven passenger trains and sent along escorts to make sure they made it safely through Germany and out of Nazi territory.

Winton’s greatest regret – On September 1st 1939, an eighth train containing 250 more children was loaded and waiting to depart occupied territory when Hitler invaded Poland and war in Europe was declared.  
The train never left the station.

For over 50 years, Winton rarely spoke about what he had done for those 669 children.
He thought it was simply part of his calling as a human being to step in where help was needed.
Then in 1988, Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic that contained the names of every child her husband helped, along with their parent’s names and the names and addresses of the families who took them in.
With the help of a friend, she was able locate 80 of those now adult children and asked them if they’d like to meet the man responsible for their escape.

Some of you may have seen the touching BBC video, where unbeknownst to Winton, he was seated in an auditorium surrounded by the children he had saved from almost certain death.
When they stood up and identified themselves, Winston broke into tears, as if he finally recognized the impact of what he had done. 

Nicholas Winton passed away in 2015, at the age of 106.
In an interview done just before he died, he said he lived by this motto:
“If something is not impossible, there must be some way of doing it.”

I like to think that that the Canaanite woman had the same motto in mind when she approached Jesus on that long ago day in the city of Sidon.
Jesus and his disciples were about 100 miles north of their usual stomping ground in Galilee. They were in pagan territory, and they likely sensed that they were the minority in this neck of the woods.

Then this strange woman approached and began shouting at them.
Seemingly not caring that her gender, her social standing, and her religious affiliation should have held her back and kept her from speaking to these foreign, Jewish men.
But her child was ill. And she was desperate for help.

First, the disciples ignored her, and seemed uncomfortable with her outburst.
Her cry for help fell on deaf ears, as they urged Jesus to send her away.
Even Jesus himself seemed indifferent to her pleas.
Then she fell on her knees and again pleaded for help.

And surprisingly, Jesus rebuked her.
He told her he had come to save the children of Israel and it was not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.

Let’s pause right there and note that calling a woman a dog in first century Palestine meant pretty much the same thing as it does today.
It was not meant to be a compliment.

Jesus was likely comparing her to the wild dogs that roamed the foreign and “God-less” lands of the region of Tyre and Sidon.
These dogs were believed to be wicked and dangerous, much like the people who resided there.
In effect, when Jesus called the Canaanite woman a “dog” he was using an ethnic slur.  A slur that was commonly used on the Galilee side to refer to people north of the border.

But why would Jesus do this?
Why would this man of God, who preached compassion and grace, and who had just told the Pharisees that what comes out of our mouths should reflect what is in our hearts – Why would he say such a hurtful thing to someone who was clearly already in distress?

Perhaps because he had heard it said before, by people with deep-seated fears and by people of faith who really should have known better.
And he knew his disciples were thinking it, even if they weren’t saying it out loud.

As we know, Jesus was a cunning teacher, who knew how to take a figure of speech, a social expectation, or a racial slur, and turn it on its head -
by using it to get people’s attention and then shocking them further by offering a NEW way to interpret old, ingrained ideas and beliefs.

It’s tempting to say that Jesus’ initial dismissive reaction to the woman’s request came from the part of him that was fully-human.
But how likely is it that this astute teacher truly believed that this pagan woman was not as worthy of his time as the people of his own nation? 

This man who spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well – a woman who had been married five times - and quenched her thirst with living water.
This man who healed the hemorrhaging woman who pushed through the crowd in her unclean state just to touch his cloak, and with one glance he said her faith had made her well.
This man who saved the woman accused of adultery who was about to have rocks heaved at her head…by telling her accusers,
“You who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

Is it more likely that Jesus recognized the resourcefulness and faith of this Canaanite woman and saw her intrusion as yet another opportunity to turn people’s expectations and prejudices on their heads?

I imagine a wry smile appearing on Jesus’ face, as he used a phrase this pagan woman had likely heard in public squares, in whispered comments, and out of the mouths of the religious and the righteous over and over again...
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

And perhaps recognizing the teasing sarcasm in Jesus’ voice, the woman replied with a pointed retort of her own.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In other words, even those born outside the lineage of Abraham value and cherish what has been offered to the children of God...even when it has been tossed aside, because it was thought to be insignificant or worth-less.

Jesus response to this woman’s bold assertion that she too was worthy of the love of God, likely reflected what was in his heart all along:  He told her,
“Woman, your faith is great! Your daughter is healed as you wish.”

The Good News of this story is that the unconditional love and grace of God is meant not just for some people, but for all people – all who were willing to receive it.

And the Good News for us today is that we are capable of rising above our prejudices and our fears, and opening our hearts to those who are different from us - those who have a different story to tell than we do.

Each of us carries the same dis-order in our hearts that caused the disciples to disregard this woman who was clearly in need of help and clearly in pain.
She shouted at them and they ignored her.
She fell on her knees before them and they looked away.

Her story was not their story and because they had not experienced her life or her pain, they dismissed it. It didn’t matter what story she had to tell.
They dismissed her shouts and her cries telling themselves she was probably overreacting, or looking for attention, or likely brought her pain on herself because of something she did, or said.

How often have we said these same things ourselves when we encounter someone who has a different experience and different story to tell than we do?
How often do we ignorantly or arrogantly claim that the story another is telling is not true, because it is not true for us?

If we’re not black, or Muslim, or transgender, or female, or Jewish, or disabled, or living with a mental illness – we have no idea what it’s like to move in the world as a person who is.

We have no idea what it’s like to be followed in a store or pulled over by the police 36 times in one year because of the color of our skin.
And that's not an exaggeration.

We have no idea what it’s like to have slurs and threats hurled at us on the street because we look Middle Eastern, or wear a headscarf, or use the name “Allah” when we pray to God.

We have no idea what it’s like to be thrown out of a public bathroom because we don’t fit gender norms or thrown out of our home or our church because it’s believed we’ve shamed our families and violated God’s law. 

If we’re seeking to escape the “bad news” of white supremacy demonstrations, or vandalized synagogues, or yet another terrorist attack, then the Gospel is not the place to look. 

But if we’re looking for healing and hope, and if we’re looking to truly challenge and change our hearts – the Gospel – the Good News is exactly where we’ll find what we need.

We may look into the angry and hate-filled eyes of a Nazi sympathizer, or an Islamic terrorist, or an overtly racist politician and say that’s not us.

But like most human beings – including the disciples, the men who followed Jesus in the flesh – we too carry fear and ignorance in our hearts.
And we allow ourselves to become complacent, or to look the other way, or to say "that’s not my problem to worry about" when someone else’s pain is spilled at our feet. 

But the Good News is we’re not stuck there.
Because the Good News is found all around us.

It’s found in Nicholas Winton, who risked it all to save so many, because he believed that if something is not impossible, there must be some way of doing it.

It’s found in the tens of thousands of people who marched in Barcelona, Spain, in the wake of Thursday’s horrific terrorist attack, chanting, “We are not afraid!” and “Our strength is their weakness.”

It’s found in my clergy colleagues across all faith traditions who organized prayer services and showed up in force in Charlottesville last week and in Boston yesterday to call out the evils of racism, and march on the side of love.

The world may appear at times to be drowning under the weight of bad news, but in reality it’s groaning with the growing pains of the Good News. 

This is hard, hard stuff that Jesus is asking us to do.
To love.
To listen.
To learn.
To lean into and become the people God created us to be.   


Thanks be to God and Amen

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: "Still, Small Voice"


Scripture Intro - 1 Kings 19:9-18 (RSV)

The first and second book of Kings chronicle the exploits of the kings of Israel who ruled after King David and after the once mighty kingdom had split into two.
The two books are essentially a tell-all tale of corrupt and wicked leaders and the people they led astray.
The hero of the story is the prophet Elijah, who pulls out all the stops to get the people of Israel to amend their wicked ways and find their way back to God.

The passage we’re about to read tells us of a very personal encounter that Elijah has with God.
When we enter the story, Elijah has just killed 450 priests of the pagan god, Baal, on the summit of Mt. Carmel.  Elijah had challenged Baal and his prophets, to a head to head duel with his God, Yahweh.  And Baal lost, badly.
Elijah celebrated the victory by having all of Baal’s prophets killed.
The problem was, Israel’s current King, Ahab, and his very influential wife, Jezebel, were followers of Baal, not Yahweh, and when Jezebel heard what Elijah had done to her priests, she became enraged and declared a vendetta on Elijah’s head.  In fear for his life, Elijah fled…and it is while he was fleeing that he ran headlong into the presence of God.

Now, before we go any further, we should note that this is one of those Old Testament texts that has parts to it that we may find distasteful or not in line with how we see God acting in the world or in our lives.
The passage contains divinely sanctioned violence and vengeance, and has God getting mixed up in local politics and naming who should rule next and whom they should kill in God’s name.

For some of us, this is a big enough obstacle to impede our understanding of this text so we’ll come back to this later.
But lets set it aside for now and put our focus on the part of Elijah’s encounter with God that rises up through all those difficult layers and speaks to us as people of God today.

As we enter today’s reading, God finds Elijah hiding in a cave and demands to know what he is doing.
“Why are you here?” God asks Elijah - not once, but twice.
And both times Elijah says he fears for his life because of his loyalty to God.

Let’s listen for God’s response to Elijah in this reading from 1 Kings, and listen for the word of God.

1 Kings 19:9-18 (RSV)

Elijah Meets God at Horeb

And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.”
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.
And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 13, 2017 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18

“Still, Small Voice”

My wife Stephanie and I adopted two kittens a few weeks ago.
They’re two and three months old and they’re adorable.
They do all the wonderful kitten things that kittens do.
They chase their tails. They ping straight up in the air and dance sideways across the room while they’re playing.
They nuzzle their soft little bodies up against your neck while emitting a small rumbling purr and ask for attention with the tiniest and squeakiest meow.
They bring us hope and joy in the midst of what is a very challenging world.

They’re also a lot of work.
The litter box needs to be cleaned, constantly.
They get underfoot while we’re trying to cook dinner or carry a laundry basket down the stairs.
They climb up the window screens and scratch up the furniture.
They jump on our heads in the middle of the night wanting to play.
They have us leaping up out of our chairs to see what the loud crash was in the other room,  or what small object they’ve managed to find and are trying to swallow before we can pry it out of their little mouths.

Yes, it’s like having a toddler in the house.
And like a toddler, when you buy them a new toy, they’d much rather play with the box it came in…
because in their curious kitten minds every thing in the world is a toy.
Your computer keyboard, the window blinds, a thread on the carpet.

The other day one of them came trotting through the living room carrying the wet sponge from the kitchen sink in her mouth. 
I think it weighed more than she did.

Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows that it’s not all sweetness and unconditional love.
There are challenges, difficulties, and heartbreaks.
And given how many pets are returned to shelters not too long after being adopted, or are abandoned once they grow out of their cute phase,
it’s sadly apparent that some people are not willing to live with the challenges that being a pet owner brings – Things get hard, and they give up.

Perhaps pets should come with a warning label.
Perhaps the Bible should as well.

The Bible is also full of challenges, difficulties, and heartbreaks.
Not just in the stories themselves, but in the relationship we have with this odd and wondrous book as a whole.

It too is not all about sweetness and unconditional love.
While we often see the Bible reduced to inspirational sayings that are sewn on to throw pillows, stuck on car bumpers, and shared on Facebook,
the discerning mind and spirit knows that this book is about so much more than positive platitudes.
There’s a lot of hard stuff in here.
Some of it that you definitely wouldn’t want sewn on a throw pillow.

We may know that the Bible is not one book but many books.
That it’s a collection of history, and poetry, and prophecy, and song.
But it’s also a collection of myth, satire, political commentary, and humor.
It’s written by many authors over thousands of years each writing from their own perspective, with their own agenda, to a particular audience,
and too often the subtlety of the language and nuances of the context are lost to our modern ears.

The Bible is full of inspiration, and mystery, and joy, and hope.
And it’s also full of violence, prejudice, immorality, and people and divine beings behaving very badly.

Over its lifetime the Bible has been used to justify wars, colonialism, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, the mistreatment of those with mental illness, addiction, disease, and disabilities, and the misguided belief that we’re either blessed or damned based on our income, our social standing, or our ability to follow a set of arbitrary rules to perfection.

So where is God in all of this?
How do we pick out God’s still, small voice with such a loud chorus of human voices overlaying it and masking it from our ears?

There are likely very few of us here who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, in fact we may struggle to understand how anyone can see the Bible in this way given what we know about the contradictions it contains, the difficulties of transcription and translation, and the glaringly human fingerprints we see all over its pages – in its biases, inaccuracies, and limitations of context.

But even if we believe as many of us do, that the Bible is the sacred and inspired word of God, which has obviously been sifted through a myriad of human filters - how do even begin to remove those filters to get to the kernel of divine truth that lies beneath?

The passage we heard this morning about Elijah’s encounter with God is one of those Bible stories that is covered in human fingerprints.

Let's first consider the passage in its most basic form as a story.

Elijah is hiding in a cave when God seeks him out and asks him to name why he is not with God’s people as a prophet should be.
Elijah’s response is that he’s afraid of the people.
Too many of God’s prophet’s had been killed as it is, and now that he had killed 450 of the King’s priests there was a bounty out on his head as well.

Violence begets violence, as we may say today.
But for Elijah there was no such connection.

God then instructs Elijah to come out of the cave and go up on the mountain.
The implication here is that God wanted to be present to Elijah just as God was present to Moses on the same mountain, 500 years before.
But Elijah doesn’t budge. 

Then the world erupted around him - as he stood in the cave and looked for God –in a mighty wind that tore apart mountains and broke rocks into pieces,
in an earthquake that shook the ground beneath his feet,
in a roaring fire that threatened to singe his skin –
But, we’re told, God was not in any of it.

Then the world went quiet, and Elijah heard a still, small voice –
The Jewish Study Bible translation calls it “a soft, murmuring sound.”

It was only when Elijah heard this soft, murmuring sound that he came out of the cave and was fully present before God.
Here God asks Elijah again, “Why are you here?”
And Elijah gave the same response he did earlier.
He feared the people of Israel were out to kill him.

This is where God does something that may seem un-God like to our modern day religious sensibilities.
God instructs Elijah to appoint two new kings and a new prophet to take Elijah’s place.
And as for the people Elijah feared, they would all be killed for their unfaithfulness, if not at the hands of the new kings, than at the hands of the new prophet, Elisha.

So we ask again, where is God in this story - and where are our human fingerprints obscuring God’s presence?

We see our human fingerprints when we consider that the entire history of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel contained in 1 and 2 Kings was written down hundreds of years after the northern kingdom had fallen and the inhabitants of the southern kingdom had been taken into captivity.
It was written by a demoralized people who were searching their past for an answer to a nagging question in their present. 

They asked, “Why has God forsaken us? Where did we go wrong?”

And their response is in this story they wrote about the unfaithfulness of their ancestors, led astray by corrupt and wicked kings, and a prophet cut from the same cloth as Moses who took on the mighty Baal and his priests and won.

We see our human fingerprints when we consider that the people who wrote these stories about this new God, Yahweh, were living in a polytheistic culture where gods controlled everything – the sun, the rain, the good and bad fortune one had in life – and while these gods could be appeased and cajoled with blood sacrifices and gifts, they could also destroy and kill if they were displeased or disrespected.

And while the people of Israel were just beginning to understand how this one God called Yahweh was a very different kind of God – one who was not in the destruction of the earthquake or the fire or the wind  – they still envisioned a God who could and would punish them or reward them at will.

They envisioned a God who expressed all of the emotions that human beings were capable of expressing.
And they told stories of a God who reflected all the best, and the worst parts of our humanity -
Our love, compassion, and mercy, but also our anger, our jealousy, our spitefulness, our vindictiveness, our impulsive urge to hurt and destroy that which has hurt us.

Because our ancestors couldn’t imagine any other way to BE in the world.
they struggled to imagine God any other way.

As Biblical Studies Professor, Peter Enns, explains in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, the people who wrote these stories had no other language or cultural reference to do otherwise.
If they stepped outside of their culture and wrote about a God who never took sides in a war, never struck anyone dead for disobedience, and didn’t meddle in local politics, the story wouldn’t have made sense to them or anyone else.
“So God let his children tell the story,” Enns says.

With the hope that we will continue to tell it and refine it re-imagine it as we go along. 

Even with all its messy human fingerprints, we should resist the urge to discount these ancient Biblical stories because they no longer make sense to us or fit in with our image of a loving, compassionate, and merciful God.
Because we’d be overlooking the fact that these stories are still very much about us.

We need only look at today’s news to find stories of modern day people who mirror these ancient world views.
People who believe our God created one race to be superior to others.
People who believe our God blesses and backs one nation over all others, especially in times of war.
People who believe our God endorses or chooses the people who lead us and thus we should never question or disagree with those leader’s divinely sanctioned words and decisions.

We may be 3,000 years removed from the world described in our Old Testament but in many ways we’re still standing in that cave with Elijah, straining to hear God in the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire.

Catholic theologian and Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr reminds us that
all of us are capable of hearing the voice of God from our “very first inhalation and exhalation, which is the very sound of the sacred.
It is the literally unspeakable Jewish name for God, YHWH (The name that) cannot be spoken aloud but only breathed: inhaling and exhaling through parted lips. It is the first and last “word” we will ever utter—most likely without knowing it.”

Perhaps this is the still, small voice, the soft murmuring that Elijah heard in that cave. The sound of his own rapid breath rising in the silence as he cowered in his fear.
Perhaps it was the sound of God moving through his lungs as he let go of that fear and embraced hope in a better tomorrow.
The kernel of divine truth that we find in this text that points us to a God who is found not in destruction but in the very breath that gives us life.

We may sometimes strain to hear the voice of God speaking to us through the pages of this wonderful yet difficult book.

But we should remember, the Bible is not an answer book, an owner’s manual, or a “How To” guide that tells us how to get God to love us so we can collect our rewards in heaven. 

It’s a story.

It’s a story told over thousands of years by a people who little by little are getting to know and understand their Creator, while struggling to comprehend the role they play – we play - in re-creating this world anew.

And like any story involving human beings, it can get messy, and complicated, and have us shaking our heads in disbelief at times.

The Bible can still be that purring kitten that we pick up and nuzzle when we need a shot of hope and joy in the midst of suffering and sadness.

But when it challenges us – when it gets hard,
I urge you to stick with it.
I promise you, that still, small voice will rise up and be heard.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Sermon: "Wrestling with God"

Scripture Intro - Genesis 32:22-31

Our reading this morning is one tiny yet powerful snippet of the story of Jacob.
If you’re familiar with his story, you know Jacob was not a model biblical figure.
He cheated his brother out of his inheritance, colluded with his mother to deceive his father, and stole a blessing not meant for him.  
Jacob and Esau were twins, but Esau was born first, and Jacob came out of his mother’s womb holding onto to his brother’s heal as if he were attempting to keep him from slipping out ahead of him.
Right from the beginning Jacob was chagrined that HE was not the first to see the light of this world, and therefore his brother, Esau, by luck of timing and position, was to be the rightful heir to the family inheritance and the paternal blessing that could only pass to one son, not both. 

Esau grew to be a big bear of a man who loved to hunt and tend the livestock, while Jacob preferred quieter pursuits that required more brains than brawn.
When their father, Isaac, was on his deathbed and blinded by age, Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau, and asked his father to bestow the blessing that would transfer all of his earthly goods and power to his first born son.
Jacob even went as far as to put on Esau’s clothing so he’d smell like his brother, and just to be sure he threw on a few goat skins so when his father reached out to touch him, he’d feel the rough and hairy arm of Esau, rather than the smooth arm of Jacob.
When Esau discovered his brother’s deception he vowed to kill him.
But Jacob fled with the inheritance and the blessing.

Our scripture reading this morning picks up the story years later, when Jacob is experiencing remorse for what he has done
Jacob is on his way to make amends with his brother, to ask for Esau’s forgiveness for taking what did not belong to him.
He’s wracked with guilt and he’s terrified.
He’s convinced that his brother is going to send out an army of men ahead of him and rain down justice upon Jacob’s head, by taking all that he has and leaving him for dead.
That night, Jacob prayed to God for protection, and even sent a messenger ahead with gifts of livestock and servants to soften Esau’s heart.

Listen now to the story as it continues in the book of Genesis, and listen for the word of God.

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservents, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, along with all his possessions.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
So the man said to him, “What is your name?”
And he said, “Jacob.”
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”
But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”
And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 6, 2017 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31

“Wrestling with God”

3:00 a.m.
That’s the time of night that my consciousness seems to think is appropriate to initiate a wrestling match with whatever is occupying my mind.

It’s in those wee small hours of the morning, that my brain decides to hit the replay button on the events of the day – the conversations I’ve had, the things I accomplished, the things I have still yet to do.
Inevitably this ever-rewinding tape gets stuck on the things I think I should have said or done, or could have said or done differently, or shouldn’t have said or done at all.
Not to mention the wide assortment of things I’m thinking about doing – or am anxious about doing in the future… whether it’s the next day, or next month, or next year.

Oh, how our brains love to wrestle with these things in the dark of night.
Once we’ve settled down - and let our guard down - and quieted down to the point where the only voice we’re hearing is the one inside our own head.

Of course we have other body parts that conspire to keep us awake at night as well.
An aching hip, a restless leg, a twinging neck.
But our brain has a way of throwing itself into the ring and getting in on the action…as we lie there thinking:

“This knee is killing me – I should really have it replaced – but I can’t afford the time or the expense.”

“Is this discomfort in my chest just indigestion or a sign of something more serious?”
“I’m so tired of this chronic back pain…what did I do to deserve this, God…seriously?”
Somehow the stakes of the wrestling match get even higher once we bring God into it.
As Jacob discovered as he laid his head down alone along the riverbank –
the things we’ve done, or feel we should have done, have a way of catching up with us.
Often manifesting in the form of a wrestling partner who wakes us up in the middle of the night and challenges us to break free of its unrelenting grasp.

I had one of those 3:00 a.m. wrestling matches not too long ago.
In mid-May – right at the beginning of my sabbatical.
I was up in Sullivan, Maine – near Bar Harbor - on a 10-day solo retreat.
I had rented a house that sat right on Long Cove, surrounded by 15 acres of trees and water and wildlife.

I brought up a stack of books and my journal and planned on using a good chunk of the 10 days to read, and write, and pray. To spend time communing with God, alone – which believe it or not is something full-time pastors often struggle to find space to do.

I also brought my bicycle and my walking shoes – and maps of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park - with plans to ride and hike and explore – to move outside of the house on the cove and give myself a break from all the reading, and journaling, and praying.

But something happened on my first morning there that changed those plans.

I laid out my books and my journal and reveled in the quiet expanse of time that stretched out before me – and I patted myself on the back for intentionally structuring my sabbatical so I'd have this uninterrupted space to talk to God and to listen deeply for God’s response.

But then I got distracted - by the beauty of the cove and the outgoing tide, and decided to take a walk down the embankment to explore the mudflats. 
Having that serious and focused conversation with God would have to wait until later.

It was there, at the bottom of the embankment, that I took two steps out onto the exposed wet grass, lost my footing, and went down hard…landing flat on my back in 3 inches of standing water….with my arm instinctively flying out to break my fall.

As I sat up, soaking wet and clutching my elbow in pain, my first thought was “God, I hope I haven’t broken my arm.”
And as I gingerly climbed back up the embankment, my second thought was, I kid you not, “Well, at least this will make a good sermon illustration someday.”

Once I got back up into the house, I did what any reasonable person would have done after taking a serious fall and feeling excruciating pain…

I went online and googled “injured elbow” to determine how bad it was.
Because I wanted to convince myself that it was just a sprain and there was no need to disrupt my sabbatical plans even further by seeking medical attention. Telling myself I couldn’t afford the time or the expense.

But as the pain increased, I updated my google searches. I typed in “hyper extended elbow”  - “dislocated elbow” “fractured elbow” – and “broken elbow.”  I was covering all bases here.

Now, there is a danger in using the internet as a medical diagnostic tool.
It’s easy to fall down the WebMD rabbit hole, where you start out wondering if a minor pain or rash is worth having checked out, and you walk away convinced you have a rare disease and you’ll be dead by the end of the week.

I did just the opposite.
I had an elbow the size of grapefruit and my forearm was sticking out at an odd angle and I walked away from my internet search thinking – ah, it’s probably just a bruise. Nothing two Advil and an ice pack can’t fix.

The next thing I did was search through the rental house to see what I could find to fix it myself.
When it comes to avoiding a trip to the emergency room by coming up with your own first aid solutions, I’m like MacGuyver. 
Within 20 minutes I had swallowed two Tylenol I found in the medicine cabinet that had expired in 2009, I’d rigged up an arm sling using a spare bicycle tube, and I had a bag of frozen vegetables velcroed around my elbow.
It was a mixed bag of carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, in case you were wondering.

I was determined to not let this little mishap interfere with my retreat plans.
And I was certain that I could remedy the situation all on my own. 
I am my mother’s daughter.
My mother avoided going to the doctor or seeking medical care at all costs.
At the age of 88, when we finally convinced her to let us take her to the emergency room to have her shortness of breath checked out, she insisted on wearing a large pair of sunglasses as she sat in the waiting area.
When asked why she was wearing sunglasses indoors, she said with exasperation, “I don’t want anyone to see me here.”
As if admitting you needed medical care was an indication of some kind of moral failing.

So that night up in Maine, with my elbow stiffening and swelling – I was engaged in a 3:00 a.m. wrestling match with myself. Alternating between downplaying my injury as nothing to worry about and lambasting myself for not seeking medical care immediately as I should have.

I was also wrestling with God.
Even if my arm injury was just a sprain, the internet experts told me it would take months to heal and there went my plans to spend a good portion of the summer on my bicycle as I longed to do.
And if it was broken, my entire sabbatical travel itinerary was up in the air.

God may have had other plans for me on my sabbatical, but I was not buying into it, not yet.

When Jacob was lying awake in the middle of the night on the side of the river, wrestling with his fear and his guilt, he didn’t expect to end up in an actual wrestling match with God. 
And while the text tells us that it was a man who wrestled with Jacob, and others have wondered if it was an angel sent by God, we’re given a clue about Jacob's opponent’s identity in the naming that happens at the match’s conclusion.
The mystery opponent changed Jacob’s name to Israel – meaning "one who has wrestled with God and prevailed."
And Jacob called the city where it took place Peniel, saying,
“For I have seen God face to face and I have lived.”

This ancient Hebrew story can be seen as allegorical, with Jacob representing the people of Israel who longed to receive God’s blessing - to live in relationship with God - yet they kept falling into the trap of thinking they didn’t really have to commit to that relationship to experience it.  
Continually, they acted as if they could just step into this relationship at will, without much effort on their part, or rightful claim to it.

As modern people of God - this applies to us as well. 

It is TRUE that we don’t have to earn God’s love, and we don’t have to earn God’s grace. Both are given freely and unconditionally.
But if we long to have a relationship with God we have to put some effort into it.
We can’t expect to know God or hear God if we never talk to God or quiet the busyness around us enough to listen.
We can’t expect to recognize God’s presence in our life if we’re not looking for it or don’t know where to look for it in the first place.

Now, it's important to note this distinction. 
I’m not saying we have to earn a relationship with God by dutifully putting in prayer time, by doing good works, by adhering to biblical law, or by confessing belief in a theological creed.
This is not about making a deal or striking a bargain with God to get God to acknowledge us or bestow favors upon us. 
Jacob’s story tells us that.

Before Jacob used deception to gain his father’s blessing, he made a prior deal with Esau to gain his inheritance.
When Esau came in one day after laboring in the field he found his brother Jacob making a stew. Esau said, “Give me some of that stew. I’m starving.” 
And Jacob being the ever-conniving sibling said, “I’ll give you some stew if you give me your birthright.”
Sounds like a fair trade, right?
I once got my younger brother Larry to give me half of his baseball card collection in exchange for a plastic dinosaur I got out of a cereal box.

Deception is fair play when you’re trying to add another notch to the sibling scorecard.  Of course Esau wasn’t known for his smarts and he was hungry, so he actually agreed to this highly uneven exchange.

But as Jacob discovered when he wrestled with God, striking deals to gain God’s blessing is not what God intends for us to do. 
It’s not about promising to scratch God’s back if God scratches ours.
We can live in relationship with God even if we fall short of God’s expectations and mess up, a lot.
Even if we get angry at God and question God’s ways, even if we struggle to find the words to pray, even if we don’t believe a word of the creeds.
Because living in relationship is not about being perfect – it’s about being personal. 
It’s about being our true authentic selves, warts and all.
It’s about clasping hands with God and working up a sweat and giving ourselves over in the struggle to understand, to listen, and to grow. 

My elbow injury ended up being not a break but a serious sprain.
And I spent those 10 days on the cove in Maine not on my bike or out exploring Acadia as I intended, but instead completely immersed in reading, writing, praying, and communing with God. 
The only people I saw for the entire 10-days were the wonderful people in the the Ellsworth Hospital emergency room.  
It was not the retreat I had planned, but it was the retreat I needed.
It was glorious, and it set the tone for my entire sabbatical.

There is so much that we can’t know about God given our human limitations.
There is so much about God that will always remain a mystery. 
But God longs to live in relationship with us just as we long to live in relationship with God. 
Sometimes it takes a 3:00 a.m. wrestling match to make it happen.