Saturday, August 2, 2014

Wrestling with God

RCL Proper 18A
3 August 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            Whenever I read the Scriptures, especially the Hebrew Bible, I am struck by the honesty of the writers and editors.  They are not afraid to write about human failings and feelings, even if those failings and feelings cast a shadow on their heroes.  For example, Psalm 137, probably written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, begins with these words:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.

This lament continues, but its final verses are often omitted when used in Christian worship:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord,
against the people of Edom,
who said, “Down with it!  Down with it!  
Even to the ground!

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!

We omit these verses for various reasons, but one of which is this:  We know these feelings and we have experienced them and we see them day after day in the newspapers and in television news casts --- but we do not know how to deal with them and so we repress them.  The psalmist, however, was willing to voice these feelings and, perhaps in doing so, began the journey of restoration, reconciliation and renewal.

            Let me give you another example of the honesty of the Scriptures.  Since early June we have been following the story of a remarkable family:  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his wives, Leah and Rachel.  Even though we have only heard portions of the whole story as it is told in Genesis, I think that you can get a picture of a family that has its ups and its downs.

            Jacob is, in my opinion, one of the more ambiguous characters in the Scriptures.  He is the younger twin of Esau, but he is Rebekah’s favourite and he knows it.  He manages to outwit his older twin and to gain what is, by ancient tradition, Esau’s birthright.  He ends up with two wives from the ‘right’ side of the family tracks, while poor Esau marries a daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s bastard born of his slave, Hagar.  When Jacob encounters the mysterious stranger in today’s reading, he is on the run from his brother.  But even on the run, Jacob is still calculating.  He has put his animals, his servants and his wives and children between him and his brother.  Esau will have to cut through them before catching up to his brother.

            But it is Jacob who wrestles with God, not Esau.  It is Jacob who holds so tightly to God that God cannot escape without adding the divine blessing to the blessing given to Jacob by his aged father, Isaac.  It is Jacob who leaves this encounter with a new name, ‘Israel’, which becomes the name by which all of his descendants are known, even to the present day.  Why is Jacob, the man of uncertain character, the one to whom God entrusts so much?

            Shortly before I was to be ordained to the transitional diaconate, I had a meeting with Dub Wolfrum, the then suffragan bishop of Colorado.  He asked me when I was to start.  I told him that I didn’t know where I was going to serve, when I was to start and how much I was to be paid.  Dub stood up, a tall man, took my arm and led me to the office of Bill Frey, the diocesan bishop.  As we marched along, Dub muttered, ‘Bill has a tolerance for ambiguity that I do not share!’

            Thirty-three years later I am more convinced that the life of faith is more about faithful ambiguity than it is about certainty.  We live in a world where there is a significant number of people who seek certainty.  Some are atheists who have abandoned any faith in God because God has not passed any of their tests nor offered any verifiable proof of the divine existence.  They are certain that God does not exist and they live their lives with this certainty as a foundation.  Others are fundamentalists, some religious, some secular, who have discovered in one set of dogmas or another a firm set of rules that governs all their behaviour.  There are few if any grey areas in their understanding of human life and in their relationship with whatever religious or secular faith they hold.

            But the certainty of atheists and fundamentalists is not the certainty that the writers of the Scriptures and generations of believers in the God who reveals the divine self in the fabric of time and space.  Faith is wrestling with God, wrestling with our images of God, wrestling with our uncertainties about God, without letting go before we gain some insight, a blessing if you will, that enables us to continue our journey, perhaps limping a bit, but continuing on nevertheless.  I have come to believe that this is what God expects of us and offers us --- not the security of certainty but the exploration of the mystery of God, of ourselves and of the universe in which God has set us.
            Right now the Christian tradition which nurtured us from our births or childhood or which we chose at some point in our lives for one reason or another is wrestling with God in an arena surrounded by the advocates of certainty.  Some people would have us give up the match entirely and reject any idea that God is worth the battle.  Other people would have us adopt one code of behaviour or another that provides answers for any question.  But these choices are not faithful to the God who wrestled with Jacob; they are too easy by half.

            Our vocation as contemporary Jacobs, flawed as we are, is to show the world that wrestling with God is actually the most important aspect of any human life.  We everyday Jacobs wrestle with how we name God, with how we do justice, with how we reach out to others, the list of wrestling rounds is almost endless.  We show the world our injuries, whether those injuries are the residential schools or the treatment of women or our attitudes towards people of other faiths.  But each injury is a sign of a blessing:  from the racism of the schools we can rise to a new relationship with First Nations, from the misogyny of the past we can rise to celebrate the role of women in the leadership of the churches, from our religious bigotry we can rise to discover new dimensions of the mystery of the Holy One who is the source of all things, visible and invisible.

            May we uphold each other as we wrestle with God and may God hold on to us firmly so that we do not give up.  Amen.

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