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.  


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