Thursday, July 31, 2014

Limping Through Life

When I accepted Bishop Doug Fisher's offer to join his staff in June 2013, I told friends and family it would mean, among other things, that I'd have more Sundays "off" than I had as a parish priest. As it turned out, however, my first year was booked pretty solid, with very few weeks off. No complaints - it's been quite fun and as readers of this blog who have followed me in my journeys know, I've gotten to see a lot of different congregations in Worcester County. But it meant that with just one exception (I'll be at All Saints in Worcester on August 17) I made a decision not to accept invitations to preach and do supply this July and August. I'll be back at it again in September, but the break has been a nice change of pace and given me a chance to "step back" from that normal preaching rhythm. 

So I'm off this week, too. But I went back to see what I've done before with the texts for this weekend - this eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Sermons have a context - and this sermon was preached nine years ago at St. Francis Church, in Holden! I've left it mostly as I've found it, however, with only some slight edits - and I guess if I was preaching this weekend on this text I'd still say something like this today. 

I should also add that I chose to extend the Old Testament reading that day to include Genesis 33:1-33 because I wanted to suggest that this very human encounter needs to be considered alongside Jacob's divine encounter at the Jabbok. The problem is that the lectionary will skip right over it and move on to chapter 37 next week, which is very unfortunate. So the "text" here is Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

*     *     *

While I’ve been on vacation, the Genesis narrative has continued to unfold. For those of you who, like me, may not have been here for a couple of weeks, this in a nutshell is what we have been told about Jacob:
  • The narrator has told us that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his dying father into blessing him. That, of course, comes at the expense of his brother Esau;
  • Immediately upon so doing, he runs for his life to his mother’s brother’s house, that is, to Uncle Laban's;
  • There Jacob meets his match; the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters - the younger one whom he wanted to marry and the elder one, Leah, whom he didn’t really bargain for.
We picked up the narrative today as Jacob is heading back home after these many years away. He is accompanied by his two wives, two mistresses, and a ton of kids—eleven to be precise. And yet, as he crosses the Jabbok River, he is all alone.

Think about that a moment. It suggests (to me at least) that no matter how big a family we come from, when we face our past and when we try to work out family-of-origin issues we can be supported by others but ultimately it is “our” work. A therapist or pastor or twelve-step program or a spouse can help us identify the issues—can support us in the struggle—but in the end they cannot do that work for us. There is some aspect of all of us that belongs to God alone.

While on vacation I read an extraordinary novel, The Kite Runner. It’s a sad and at times disturbing read that may not be for everyone. But I really loved it. The narrator, an Afghani living in San Francisco, reminds me in some ways of how I imagine Jacob. The crux of the story is a return home to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past—a past that cannot be changed, but that can be redeemed. That is all we can ever do with our past: we can’t change it. We can only confront it, and with God’s help pray for it to be redeemed and healed until new life is possible. That requires courage and risk and trust. This is the work of faith lived one day at a time. 

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel that we are most alone, that God meets us where we are. Or more accurately, it is in such moments that we become more deeply aware of God’s presence in our lives.

What happens on the banks of the Jabbok River is that Jacob has a divine encounter, which is immediately followed by a very human encounter with his estranged brother, Esau. (See Genesis 33:1-11.) This divine encounter leaves Jacob with a limp; the human one is characterized by an embrace. I want to suggest the two are connected: that divine encounters change us and demand of us that we chose to live otherwise, as people who are open to the possibility of healing and reconciliation.

Notice first, that this divine encounter is characterized by wrestling; that it leaves Jacob with a new name and walking with a limp. Most of us I suspect prefer our divine encounters to be tame and calming—to leave us with a sense of peace. I think of that “still small voice” that comes to the prophet Elijah, for example. The Spirit can and does work that way, to be sure and Episcopalians love it when that happens. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that can leave us stunned, and even wounded.
  • I think of Moses stuttering at the burning bush; 
  • I think of Isaiah of Jerusalem with a hot coal burning his unclean lips;
  • I think of Jeremiah, accusing God of having “ravished” him;
  • I think of St. Paul knocked off his feet and blinded on the  Damascus Road;
  • I think of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane;
  • I think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost like a mighty wind, and like tongues of fire—disrupting old patterns and breaking down walls.
My experience of the living God—the God of the Bible—is that more often that God challenges us, or if you prefer to say it this way, “pushes us out of our comfort zones.” Wrestling with God becomes a vital metaphor for the way that Jews, and later Christians, are called to relate to God. It’s not an easy relationship! But it means, I think, that to experience the living God, the God of Israel and Father of our Lord, is to experience something like wrestling that may well leave us walking with a limp rather than feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Encounters with God change us, and then they call upon us to live differently. Tracy Chapman has a new song out I heard for the first time this week - the words are printed on your bulletin today. It begins and ends the same way:
                        If you knew that you would die today,
                        If you saw the face of God and Love,
                        Would you change? Would you change?

Now that said, let’s be honest - in the human encounter that follows this divine one, it is Esau who really initiates the act of reconciliation here. And we know nothing about what his faith life has been like over the past fourteen years or so. Jacob gets up the next day and continues to journey home and it is Esau who runs toward him. It is the wronged brother who makes the first move. Nevertheless, Jacob is open to that possibility, knowing that with God all things are possible—including new life. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation written by Miraslov Volf, a native Croatian who teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace, which is a symbolic act of reconciliation, is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required and each needs to be mirrored by a response.*

            1. The opening of arms
2. Waiting.
            3. The closing of arms.
            4. Release.

It may appear to happen faster and more seamlessly than that, but anyone who has ever tried to hug a person who doesn’t want to be hugged (or who is being hugged by someone you would prefer not to hug back) understands this drama of embrace and the fact that these steps are always present and must be mirrored. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced, and at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, and only then, does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—an “outward and visible sign” of something that has happened within. It can only happen when both parties are ready, because reconciliation and intimacy can’t be forced.

Anyway, that is what happens between these two brothers. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is soft on sin, running out to embrace his “prodigal” son even before the kid can get through his well-rehearsed apology.

In general, my style of preaching is that I tend to tell the story and leave it for people to make their own connections. I don’t usually finish with “and this is what it means for our lives.” That is because I think that our lives are so rich, and our lives so complicated. Where are each of us this week in our journeys: are we Esau or Jacob or maybe Rachel or Leah? What you need to take away from the story this week might be quite different from what someone else needs to hear. So I trust the Spirit to guide us, as we come to the story, to draw our own conclusions. I figure if the story is told in such a way that it can be heard in new ways, then you will in a sense each write your own sermon. At least that’s my goal…

But that said, it seems obvious to me that this story is our story in some larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. It is, in some sense, paradigmatic. Jacob gets a new name out of this: Israel. That is, he becomes a representative of the faith of Israel. As Christians we claim to be part of an extension of that same covenant, and so the metaphor fits for us, too. We have experienced God in and through the Cross—through the Passion of Jesus. That leaves us, too, “limping through life.” Everyone who has struggled at all with their faith knows what it is to wrestle with God. Anyone who has experienced loss knows what it means to grieve broken relationships. And anyone who, by the grace of God, has experienced the healing of an embrace that represents new life knows what it means to celebrate the resurrection.

This is, I believe, a gospel story. There is good news here for us. I hear in it a call for us to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ: Henri Nouwen would say “as wounded healers;” the Old Testament might say as people limping through life. Either way, our limps and our wounds may well be signs of our divine encounters. As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms rather than as bitter people with clenched fists. It is to keep limping along with arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us - whether we are at the giving or receiving end of such embraces. Our highest calling as Christians is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and to allow for the possibility of healing that shows the world why faith really does matter.

© The Rev. Rich Simpson, Holden, MA, July 31, 2005

 * The pertinent section here is on pages 140-147, entitled “The Drama of Embrace.” Volf writes: “for embrace to happen all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening of the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace; and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression, and paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement.” (pg. 141)

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