Genesis 32:22-32 and other voices (John D. Kaputo & Sam Keen)
Introduction…My Last Wrestling Match!
Many years ago, when I was substitute teaching, I was called in to teach Physical Education classes for sophmores and juniors. The P.E. teacher gave me strict instructions to have the students work on their weight lifting and not be in the gymnastics rooms. That is what I told the class. About halfway through the period, however, a half dozen students went into the gymnastics room. I proceeded to explain to them why they were not allowed to be in there. But then I decided to offer them a challenge: if anyone could beat me in a wrestling match, then the whole class could do whatever they desired. I had wrestled before, knew some moves, and appeared to be stronger than the students in the class.
Well, the class chose a student who was pretty scrawny-looking. I was sure to win. I immediately took off my tie and started to get in a wrestling stance with the student. By now everyone in the class, including some from other classes, had come over to watch the wrestling match. We circled each other a few times, and then it happened. In less that 8 seconds I was flat on my back and this student had me in a half nelson; from which I could not move. All of the spectators began counting to three. I was pinned! I was embarrassed…
How humiliating…until I was told just whom I had been wrestling! Zachariah Taylor. A sophomore and the Idaho State wrestling champion for two years in a row. He had taken third in the National Competition and was preparing for the ’96 Olympics. Only I would have issued a challenge without knowing just who was in the room! True—Dat!
In life’s journey, we find ourselves in many different kinds of wrestling matches. Some of us take on things that we are not prepared to battle. Some of us are wrestling with ourselves. Some of us are wrestling with deeper more philosophical questions of meaning and purpose. We wrestle with decisions, we lose a loved one or struggle in a relationship, we lose our job or cannot make ends meet, we struggle with an addiction… We all have our struggles. And of course, as members of this church, we struggle toward bringing peace and equity to a world and nation that seems to be going backward.
Jacob’s experience at the Jabbok river
And then we find this peculiar story in Genesis about struggle and hope. We see a nervous Jacob about to meet his estranged brother, Esau. He had been gone from his hometown for 14 years and he was worried that his brother had not forgiven him for cheating him out of his birthright. When he gets to the river where his brother is on the other side, Jacob starts scheming. He sends presents over to his brother. He then sends his wives and children.
And there he sat alone…waiting. Thoughts were racing through his mind…about what he had done, what he should do, what would come of all this, and where in the world was God when he needed God most. The answers did not come immediately and Jacob remained there tortured by these thoughts. We have all been there, haven’t we? We sit alone wrestling with ourselves. We have done all we can to protect ourselves. We won’t know till tomorrow whether we’ll get away with it, and there we sit, stewing in the darkness, anxious and afraid. We share Jacob’s lonely retreat too often. As F. Scott Fitzgerald has said, “At 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s always the dark night of the soul.” All of our journeys have this in common: we have all been afraid and have felt helpless and alone. And times where God is nowhere to be found!
An Unrelenting God of Love
But here’s the crazy thing: Jacob was not alone. Something moved in the shadows. “Who are you?” shouts Jacob. But the stranger is silent. Who was this ghost? Was it simply Jacob’s conscience? Maybe. We have all battled our consciences and too often come away the winner. But it had to be something more that wrestles with Jacob that night. “Who are you?” we cry with Jacob. But in our heart of hearts we know. It is an unrelenting God, who refuses to let us go, who races after us when we are running away, who wrestles with us throughout the night.
Now I don’t know what you believe about God. In September as I do every year, I asked the high school students who is God to you? No one responded with “God is all powerful” or “a being in the sky”. To be sure, the old master narrative of Christianity is dying. John Caputo is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Syracuse University. As a post-modernist and a proponent of what he calls “weak theology”, he believes that God as we have known him must pass away so that God as we could know her may emerge.
I agree with Caputo. And that is why I have always like this peculiar story in Genesis – God is mysterious and moves in the shadows of our lives. God wrestles with the same questions that we do – hoping against hope – yearning for a new name and a new birth– but even more, this story in Genesis shows us that God is the struggle itself. Accused heretic, Meister Eckhart wrote in one of his sermons back in the 13th century, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” And I would add, one struggle!
God is not a force who acts on the world through coercion, violence or the suspension of physics and free will. Instead, God is something that we participate in. God is a verb, an action we bring to the world to make love and justice known! God is the one who wrestles with us – not to take our lives away but to love us back into a fight that needs us!
The Children’s Ministries are re-adopting a new curriculum entitled “Godly Play”. It is an excellent curriculum that coincides with our progressive theology and allows children to experience and create images of God on their own terms. So I asked the session Elders on Thursday night to recall when they first became aware of God. Many of the stories were downright scary and derived from conservative churches. I was reminded of a story about two mischievous little boys, ages 8 & 10. The parents were at their wits end as to what to do about their sons’ behavior. So the parents took the boys to see their pastor. The 8 year old boy went in to meet with the pastor first. The Pastor sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “where is God”? The boy made no response, so the pastor repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?” Again the boy was speechless. Before the pastor could ask a third time, the boy bolted from the room and ran directly home, slamming himself into the closet. His older brother followed him into the closet and asked what had happened. The young brother replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it.
There are certainly many images for God. God as a verb – god as love – always loving us back into a fight that needs us, works for me. Because love always finds a way; it pushes up in the cracks of the heart and society and tears down our assumptions. Like lifelong LGBTQ couples who live lives of integrity and faithfulness in the face of cultural assumptions that devalue their love, love forms alternative communities and economics as a pushback against cultural injustices. Love gives us hope against hope even in the midst of our despair – even in our current reality of a president who lives in “crazy land”! Love is the place where we invite atheists, Muslims, Jews and the whole of humanity in to make the world a better place, whether we march for Peace with Muslims in Iraq or work toward equity with Christians and Atheists in the United States, love realizes that we all engaged in the same thing. In fact, love is the place where there is no line between the atheist and theist.
If you ever venture up to the Youth Loft on the other side of the church, you will find that the youth painted a mural up the hallway about two years ago – after our last mission trip to Cuba. The youth painted a picture of the PCUSA & Cuban Presbyterian symbols. If you haven’t seen it, I invite you to go up to the loft sometime. And the youth voted to add a quote of a famous theologian of sorts whom they have come to admire. Do you know who I am talking about? You may have heard of him, Jimi Hendrix. Do you know what quote I am talking about? “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”. Whether in our personal lives or our corporate life together, God calls us to battle and never give up for the cause of peace.
I can see Jacob walking down to the river the next morning. He’s limping but he will not forget this night. He’ll always be reminded of the struggles that tore him apart, and the wrestling that put him back together. When we wrestle with God, we come away as Jacob did, banged up a bit perhaps, but love brings us closer and deeper and with a greater strength for the journey than we ever had before. I will never forget the times my father sat on the sofa after dinner and invited us to wrestle him. There were three of us boys – we were afraid but we would gang up on Dad and try with all our might to pin him down—I do not remember who won – it didn’t matter! The struggle brought us together and always gave us a new beginning.
This church is a place where you find folk who have spent dark and lonely hours on the hillside at the Jabbok River – folks who share the same personal struggles and are fighting for the same human rights you do. I love how the trustees phrased it in their stewardship letter to all of us – for members of this church, Southminster is our home base. Whether we come often or not, everyone is welcomed, we always pick up right where we left off – we are anchored by the same values of love and justice – every day is a new morning – because – we serve an unrelenting God and God is our verb!