Life is a struggle. Think of all the struggles we may face. The struggle to recover from an illness or injury. The struggle to provide enough for our families. The struggle to keep on living when a loved one has died. The struggle to grow up. The struggle to figure out what you want to do with your life—from this point onwards. The struggle to get out of bed when the sun comes up, or maybe even before. The struggle to manage your final days.
But if life is a struggle, some of us here in the USA are allowing the struggle to win. Look at the rates of opioid addiction. I know some of it starts with physical pain, but some of it is because of psychic pain, pain that comes with the struggle of life.
What I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t mince words; it doesn’t try to create a prosperity gospel; it tells it like it is—if you have the ears to hear. And what I hear today is that although life is a struggle, we are intended to participate in the struggle, to fight hard for what we want, to wrestle even with God if we have to, to be willing to get hurt in the process. And for that struggle, we get a new name; we get a new understanding of ourselves and our God; and we carry the scars, the limp, the cost, into the future.
I can’t preach this sermon on August 6th without the specter of the Hiroshima blast and the human fallout from it. We here in the United States gloss over what we did a half a world away. Yes, in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Yes, in desire to make the war in the Pacific end. Yes, all those things. But if you go to Hiroshima today, you can still see the “shadows” of people who were vaporized as they went to work, or school, or prayer. Life is a struggle. Struggles ask hard things of us. Struggles cost. In the end, we may gain something, but we also lose something. That is the meaning of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, with God.
Jacob’s struggle with the being by night also points out another truth—often we are alone in our struggles. Or maybe it is just that struggles seem harder when we are alone. Think of the liberation movements of the last century—there is power and community and even some safety in being a part of a movement, a part of a group. There are songs and people to get arrested with and better press coverage. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it is less lonely, less scary, less needful of ALL one person’s energy.
Jacob had a lot on his mind as he crossed back into Esau’s territory. He had tricked his brother out of his birthright. He had stolen Isaac’s blessing for the first-born. He had robbed Esau of wealth, of honor, of stature in the community. How would he be greeted? How can he manipulate, or trick, or cajole himself out of this mess? That night Jacob struggles with who he has been up to now. That night Jacob has to stare himself squarely in the eye. That night Jacob is unwilling to let go, even through pain, until he extracts a new name, a new self, and a new destiny.
Jacob’s struggle with the angel becomes an archetype of life, especially life for people who are in relationship with God. I found myself thinking about Sidney Chambers, the lovable 1950’s Anglican pastor in the BBC TV program “Grantchester,” who this season finds himself struggling with his call as he deals with his image of God on the one hand, and the strictures of the church on the other. That is a struggle that we as Presbyterians are supposed to engage in—“reformed, always reforming.” How do we preach a gospel that can be heard to a world that only sees the caricature of what they believe the church to be? A Struggle.
I found myself applauding Sister Simone Campbell and the 7,150 nuns who signed a Nationwide Call on the Senate to cast a “Life-Affirming NO vote” on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act—because “it would be the most harmful legislation for American families in our lifetimes, and it goes against our Catholic faith teaching [serving the most vulnerable people]”. No matter what our party affiliation, or our ideological bent, we are called, as people of God, to struggle for the “least of these, my brothers and sisters.” We cannot pass the buck to others, saying “Oh, that’s not the church’s business.” If it has to do with the poor, it is exactly the church’s business. That is what I hear in Jesus’ insistence that his disciples feed the masses who had traipsed after him into the wilderness.
I was astonished as I stumbled upon the story of the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mostly Protestant (Huguenot) town in southern France of 5000 people. Spurred on by their Reformed Church pastor Andre Trocme, his wife Magda, and his associate pastor, Edouard Theis, this town and the surrounding countryside of 24,000 people participated in active resistance to the Nazi-approved Vichy government. They would not ring church bells in honor of the government, they would not salute the Nazi flag, and they helped shelter, create papers for, and lead to safety 5000 people, including many children.
This couldn’t have been done lightly. I’m sure there were many conversations around dinner tables, many struggles of conscience against protection of one’s own life and family. It is a sobering exercise to ask one’s self what we would have done.
Krista Tippet, a journalist who has consistently been a seeker of the intersection of the divine and the human in all its forms wrote, “
“My time in Berlin [as the wall separating East and West was breached and fell] began to point me to the kinds of questions I’ve asked ever since. How to give voice to those raw, essential, heart-breaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together? Theology, which I began to ponder in my thirties, offered up vocabulary and resources to pose these kinds of questions. As much as theology’s public face has been equated across time with abstractions about God, and fights about God, I cherish its robust wrestling with the maddening complexity of human nature, human action, human being.” (Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, quoted in Seasons, p. 125.)
The church, this community, this place, is one of the spaces where we should feel safe in wrestling with those “raw, essential, heart-breaking, and yet life-giving places in us”.
The church, this community, this place, is one of the spaces where we need not be alone, at night, with our demons.
The church, this community, this place, is one of the spaces where we can learn not to be fearful of the cost of struggle, where we can claim our new identities and new paths, where we ready ourselves to cross rivers and step into unknown territory.
I am glad that we can watch Jacob grow
From a fugitive who dreams of a relationship with God
To a grown-up who is willing to fight, to struggle, to put himself up against even the angels of heaven.
I am glad because that is our story as well.
Wherever we start, whatever has happened in the past, God invites us into relationship.
Just be warned. That relationship, like every other, is not always calm, not always comforting, not always undemanding. Like Jacob, we may have to wrestle with ourselves and our concepts of God. Like the disciples, we may be asked to give more than we think we have.
Life is a struggle. A struggle worth having. A struggle for meaning, for our place in it all. But we, like Jacob, have been given a new name—“children of God.” We, like the disciples, have been told we already have what it takes to solve some of the most impossible-looking problems we face.
Together, with God’s grace, we are called to follow in Jacob’s footsteps, as we serve our brothers and sisters in need.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.