Monday, July 31, 2017

Limping Through Life

One of my recent posts was entitled Finding Ourselves in Genesis. If you preach (as I do) in a liturgical church that uses the The Revised Common Lectionary, this year has an option to be reading through some great texts that come from that first scroll of the Bible. But the ninth Sunday after Pentecost (which would normally fall this coming Sunday) gets benched on August 6 in order to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. On August 13 we will return to our regularly scheduled program for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, having skipped over this wonderful story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok River in Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

Don't tell the "liturgical police" but if I were in a parish this coming weekend I'd suggest that we since we remember the Transfiguration every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we get Genesis 32 only once every three years that it's too great a text to miss and the preacher's prerogative might be exercised in order to be sure this reading is heard in the assembly. Twelve years ago, on July 31, 2005, I preached a sermon on this text. I've very slightly edited that sermon below for any who may be interested in what we'll be missing this week. I've kept the cultural references in tact, however, to a novel I'd just finished at the time (The Kite Runner) and to a "new" song I'd recently heard by Tracy Chapman, as well as to the work of Miraslov Volf, whose book I returned to once again during my recent Sabbatical and still commend to all. (RMS)

As the Genesis narrative has unfolded this summer, here in a nutshell is what we know about Jacob:

·        The narrator has suggested that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his father into blessing him in his old age; 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;
·        There he meets his match as the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters: the younger one whom Isaac 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, his 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 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 and 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.

Have you read the 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: in this case to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past, a past that cannot be changed but might be redeemed. That is all that any of us can ever do with our past: we can’t change it, we can only confront it and with God’s help redeem it and pray for the healing that makes new life possible. That, however, takes courage, and risk, and trust. It is the work of faith.

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel 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. The 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 and 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. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that 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 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! Episcopalians for the most part embrace that notion. We refuse to limit faith to a creed or to a Church Council, or to a formula or even to the Bible itself. We are always trying to remember that all these things point us to God, but are not in themselves God. To experience the living God, the God of Israel and Abba 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 the living 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. 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: 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. Including reconciliation. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace, written by native Croatian theologian named Miraslov Volf who now teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace—which is the symbolic act of reconciliation—is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required as each needs to be met with a response. (1.) The opening of arms (2.) Waiting. (3.) Closing of arms. (4.) Release.[i]

It may happen faster 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 wish would rather not) understands this drama of embrace. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced. And at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, it is because each step is mirrored. Only then does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—literally 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 in Genesis. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is "soft on sin" and runs 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 you this week in your own journey? Are you Esau or Jacob, 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 and 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 a much larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. 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, in and 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 we do that “as wounded healers.” The narrator of Genesis might say as people who are limping through life. Either way, our limps—our wounds—may well be signs not only of divine encounters but invitations to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is always gospel work.  As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms: arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us. Regardless of whether we initiate such embraces or respond, these moments represent our highest calling as Christians, as people who are always ready to allow for the possibility of reconciliation that shows the world why faith really does matter.

[i] For anyone interested in more detail on this, see Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It is truly an extraordinary book. 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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