Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gone Wandering 3: Wrestle Mania

Gone Wandering[1] 3: Wrestle Mania

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Genesis 32:22-31 Sunday, July 24, 2011

We have come some distance so far in our short series of readings from Genesis for the summer. We began with the birth of Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, moved last week to Jacob’s dream at Bethel of the heavenly stairway with angels ascending and descending. This week we bypass stories of the bait and switch pulled by Jacob’s Uncle Laban when Jacob married first Leah, thinking she was Rachael, then finally married Rachel. As we re-enter the story today, Jacob is on his way to meet with his twin brother Esau. Because he snookered Esau out of his first-born birthright those years ago, Jacob was understandably anxious about the coming meeting. He sent presents on ahead in hopes to appease the long-simmering anger of his brother. He lay down next to the river for a fitful sleep before the next day’s meeting, and it was there, on the banks of the river, that he wrestled with God, who gave him a new name. He had, all his life, carried the name Jacob, which in Hebrew means “one who grabs by the heel,” as he had done, emerging from Rachel’s womb, contesting Esau’s right to be called firstborn. Now, following his struggle at the river Jabbok, he received a new name, “Israel,” which means “the one who strives with God.”

We wonder about all the struggle chronicled in the stories of Jacob. We wonder if, by the end, he will be different than he was at the beginning. Will he always be the same, grasping, conniving person, or will he finally become a person who can be real with others, whose life can be honest and forthright, and satisfied.

Israel: the one who strives with God. Probably that would be a good name for many of us. Few people in my experience come to faith as an easy, simple matter. For most of us there is some element of struggle, whether it is for understanding, or a sense of calling, or a desire to experience the presence of God more directly. We all struggle with God, seeking God’s blessing, some word from God about the purpose, the meaning of our lives.

I recall hearing a story about a pastor in his earliest ministry, when he served a very poor little church in rural Tennessee.[2] The church had been in existence about fifty years but had never had a called pastor. The lives of the people were filled with tales of the sort of hard-scrabble existence that once characterized a good portion of the population of the South, and still does in many places. When the pastor came to that poor little church and community they wanted to celebrate his arrival by decorating their small one-room frame church building. They had no beautiful art to hang above the pulpit behind the preacher, so they had a contest for something to hang on the wall as a centering point for their worship. One of the children won the contest. She had found, in a magazine, a close-up picture of the face of a bulldog. That picture won the contest, and it was put on the wall above the pulpit in the sanctuary, with the following words written underneath it:

Get a good grip on your faith and don’t turn loose!

The people of that poor little country church were saying to God what Jacob said to the angel. “We will not turn you loose until you bless us.”

Sometimes faith has to be like that: tenacious, unyielding. Sometimes faith has to be gripped so as not to let it slip from our grasp, leaving us without faith, without hope, without purpose. Do not turn loose of God until you are blessed, be insistent about it, like the psalmist who cried, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?... Rise up, come to our help.”[3]

One thing is sure. No one comes away untouched from grasping after God. Jacob found that he had a limp in his gait from that day on, a persistent, step-by-step reminder in his hip socket that once upon a time he had grasped after God and perhaps had found more than he bargained for.

What led to his grasping for God?

Remember that twenty years before, Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright as the eldest son of Isaac. He had run away to Haran from the anger of his brother, where he arrived with only his walking stick and his life. While he was there he worked for Laban, his uncle. He earned two wives from this sharp dealing relative (perhaps it takes one to know one!), as well as amassing an Old Testament version of a sizable fortune in oxen, donkeys, flocks, slaves, wives and children. Now he prepared to return home to encounter his brother. Word was out that Esau had put together a small welcoming party of 400 soldiers. What would you do? How would you feel?

After sending all his entourage and his goods across the Jabbok River, Jacob remained behind, where he spent that famously restless night which turned into a wrestling match.

Have you ever had a sleepless night? Of course you have. You toss and turn, items from the troubles of the day rolling through your mind. The problem isn’t that you are sleeping. The problem is that you are very much awake when you should be sleeping. You worry, you fret. Small problems loom large. What am I going to do about the mortgage payment when there’s nothing in the bank? Where did I leave that memo that was supposed to be on my boss’s desk by this morning? How can I possibly clean the house in time for company when I have to work until 5:30? In the quiet of the night when our defenses are down, thoughts return to us, unbidden, until we find we cannot sleep. We are wrestling with our anxieties, if not with angels.

Consider Jacob’s guilty reflections. I can imagine Jacob thrashing back and forth until he bid God to help him in his worried sleeplessness. And God came, not as a host of angels or a menacing thundercloud on the mountain, but in a form unbidden, as a man who would wrestle with him until together they had made peace for Jacob. One writer asked, “How could Jacob even stay in the ring with God?”[4] But this was not God in all God’s glory. Here God took human form to encounter Jacob at his own level. The man who wrestled with Jacob – whom Jacob was entirely convinced was God – could not defeat Jacob any more than Jesus sets out to defeat us when we encounter him. It is not his purpose. God’s purpose is transformation, which is why God could transform Jacob’s name into “Israel,” while Jacob could not fathom the name of God. Staying perfectly in character, Jacob demanded a blessing from those he engaged. As he demanded a blessing from his brother, his father, his father-in-law, so here he demanded a blessing from God.

But a blessing from God never leaves us unchanged. God’s blessings are the very stuff of change, and Jacob discovered as dawn broke that the stiffness in his leg wasn’t his arthritis acting up. He was going to be sporting a limp in his walk from that day forward. Each step of the rest of his life would serve as a reminder of the One who, in blessing him, also transformed him into someone more human than he had been before.

Jacob went to Esau, limped up to him as it turns out, and did not make demands of him but simply invited him to share in the bounty which he now recognized had been showered on him, not by his own craftiness, but by the undeserved grace of God.

What Jacob learned at last – and maybe the limp he had to carry through his life was to serve as his daily refresher course – was that it is never by our strength alone that we do what we do and become what we become. The miracle in this story is not that Jacob finally came to terms with the fact that he was a sly deceiver – which he likely knew already. The miracle is that God recognized that quality in him too but loved him anyway.

What was true for Jacob can be true for us. As we limp along through our lives, finding daily reminders of our own shortcomings, we may rest in the assurance that God loves us enough to transform us, enough to save us, enough to wrestle with us through all the failures we throw in our own way, and his, contending with us through the man Jesus, who – like a mysterious wrestler in the night – came to us so that we might come home to God.

[1] Third in a series of five sermons on the Jacob/Esau cycle in Genesis.

[2] From a Southern Folk Advent Service, Candler School of Theology, Emory University © 1994.

[3] Psalm 44:23.

[4] Terrence Fretheim , New Interpreters’ Bible, Volume I, Abingdon, 1995, p. 568.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rung by Rung

Rung by Rung

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder

July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-17

Romans 5:12-19

Perhaps you have heard this old story by Matt Suhey, running back for the Chicago Bears. If you have not heard of Matt Suhey, it is probably because you are much more likely to have heard of his more famous, and faster, teammate, Walter Payton, a superstar running back in the 1970s and 80s. Anyway, Matt Suhey and Walter Payton were once on a camping trip together in Alaska. Matt Suhey awoke to find Walter Payton lacing up his running shoes. “What are you doing?” asked Suhey. “There’s a bear right outside our tent, and I’m getting ready to run.” “You can’t outrun a bear!” said Suhey. Payton replied, “I don’t have to. All I have to do is outrun you!”

So much for team solidarity. The story has a point, though, that ties in with our reading about Jacob. As you know, Jacob made his early life’s work a continuing effort to cheat his older brother out of the family inheritance. Once he was finally successful, Esau was understandably perturbed. So while the cover story for Jacob in our morning reading was that he was sent out of the country by his mother to search for a suitable wife, we know that in reality, he was also fleeing the wrath – and probably the superior aim – of his brother. Jacob was on the move. It might be less poetically stated by saying he was on the lam. He didn’t have to outrun a bear, all he had to do was outrun his brother, Esau. But he couldn’t outrun his fear of being in a strange place, his loneliness as he left behind all the familiar people and places of his life, or his guilt for what he had done to his brother.

Jacob thought that being on the move was a thoroughly horizontal proposition. We all suffer from the same delusion. Get out a road map and plan a route, say, from South Dakota to Indiana, and we’ll probably think of the whole drive as a long itineration along a surface that is mostly as flat as the pages in the atlas, more or less. Only a meddlesome person would take the trouble to remind us that we would be traversing the surface of the earth, which is a sphere, a globe, so that there is no truly direct way from South Dakota to Indiana, unless we were prepared to bore a hole in the ground and travel through the earth in order to maintain that straight line.

On a more spiritual level, though Jacob thought of his trip as a pretty straightforward journey, he was soon to discover that God had in mind another dimension for all his moving to and fro. Probably Jacob’s dream is the most graphic reminder there ever was that our journeying in this life is more than moving on the horizontal. God has in mind a vertical dimension for our lives. He made that abundantly clear to Jacob while the young fugitive lay near a rock and dreamed of the angels of God running up and down a heavenly escalator to be about God’s bidding in the world.

This is a truly revolutionary dream, because for all our suspicions that heaven and earth have little to do with each other, Jacob’s dream declared to him and to us that God has continuing association with earth, that earth and heaven are not separated by some great divide, but joined by the unfathomable purposes of God.

All of us harbor our own stories of the road. A light-hearted decision made, a mate chosen, a career almost accidentally embarked upon, a friendship casually engaged, so many events in our lives – which we would have thought existed in a more or less horizontal dimension – have developed into deep experiences which reverberate profoundly throughout our lifetimes and have influenced every action since. We are spiritual creatures, no matter how seldom we pause to think of ourselves in that way, and anything we do is riven with spiritual implications, touched by the purposes of God.

I remember once receiving a little Sears Roebuck guitar for Christmas. I didn’t much play it after I got it because in a few short days I discovered that it wouldn’t play itself, that I would have to go through the digit numbing pain of learning where to place my fingers and when to strum in order to make anything resembling music come out. All in all, it seemed like too much trouble. The little guitar sat in a corner for a few weeks, until my older brother got it in his head that he could teach himself to play, and before you knew it he was doing just that. But after all, it was my guitar. I couldn’t let that happen. So I began the arduous process of teaching reluctant muscles to work together to make music. As things stand, I would appreciate it if you would help maintain the secret that my brother remains my superior in guitar playing to this day, but my initial and hardly commendable motivation to stay even with him, forced me to learn, and kept me from missing the opportunity to expand myself in those learning-filled adolescent days, learning how to play a guitar so that my singing could be accompanied by my own playing. But, having learned that, what became of that ability?

Now, make whatever you like of that small illustration, but that simple journey toward musicianship, begun almost as much in competitive spite or sibling rivalry as with any more admirable motivation, has over the years resulted in uncountable hundreds of opportunities before wonderfully diverse gatherings of people in varying states of appreciation for my musicianship; fellowship, in my growing up years, with dozens of other fellow-travelers who like to play guitar together; zillions of campfire sing-alongs with the faces of young people and old folks smiling and singing, people who – even though some of their voices have now gone silent – remain more real to me at this very moment than many of the folks who populate our more run-of-the-mill dreams; and many evenings in which the only audience for my playing was myself and the angels who must have needed some musical accompaniment while they made their way on that heavenly escalator back and forth into my growing-up world.

All of us have similar stories. Things we thought we did for only the most pedestrian of reasons, we later may have discovered were experiences that have enriched our lives, breathed into us the very breath of life. Perhaps a casual conversation started at a dining table in school was transformed into courtship and a life-long conversation over breakfasts and dinners; or a childhood choice one day to read instead of play baseball was transformed into a decision to major in English and teach others to love reading; or a fascination with toy trains became a first step toward a lifetime of engineering or public works; or any of a hundred other decisions, once made and for whatever reasons, have turned into life-transforming journeys.

Jacob’s dream was granted to him to tell him what we all know in our bones if only we stop to think about it long enough. It is that the God who created us loves us still and will make of our own common experiences something holy, something truly redeemed. It is perhaps summed up in the phrase which typifies God’s dealings with Jacob and everyone of us ever since. “Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

It was a promise that God would have to repeat several times through the years before humanity would begin to really believe it, if we ever really have.[1] That is why it is one of the names for Jesus that we hear most often at Christmas: Emmanuel. God with us. Jeremiah reports that God gave the assurance of his presence to his troubled people in just these words that Jacob heard no less than 6 times as they were being assailed by armies they could neither defeat nor understand.

“I am with you.” It is the heart of the story – the heart of any story worth anything more than a good cry, when you get right down to it. All good love stories have that element. Juliet promised to be with Romeo, even unto death. And, as it turns out, that plot wasn’t invented by William Shakespeare. The very same promise was God’s promise to his people, and Jesus lived and died that very promise for us. Says Paul in his letter to the people in the tiny church in Rome, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift of that one man Jesus abounded for many.”

New Testament scholar, Paul Achtemeier says, “thus does grace triumph over evil, by burying evil in an avalanche of grace.”[2] I really respond to that image! Think of the little things we have entered into, the small decision to take up the guitar, the tiny misstep from which we have learned immeasurable lessons. To shift metaphors, the tiny specks of our little life’s choices are bobbing on the ocean of human existence, until God picks us up on a mountainous wave and we find ourselves cascading atop the foaming water on our way toward the shore of his purpose.

Perhaps Paul was able to see it more clearly than anyone before him. From the time of Adam we have been on the move, yet the one evil we have never outrun is our sinful selves. But one day, Jesus appeared on the road of our aimless wanderings and things took on such a direction that the world has never since been the same.

Since I began with a story about two friends, perhaps I can end with one. There is an old Asian story[3] that one day a man found his neighbor on his knees, searching for something. “What are you looking for?” came the obvious question. “My key. I’ve lost it.” Both men proceeded to take to their knees and continue the fruitless search. After a while the neighbor said, “Where did you loose it” “At home.” “Then why are you searching for it here?” exclaimed the exasperated neighbor. “Because there is more light here.”

If we have found ourselves – like Jacob – tempted to wander far afield, leaving home looking for something to fill the emptiness of our lives, we can be sure that as earnestly as we may search, God is as near at hand as our next heartbeat, as present to us as our restless dreams, as ready to define our lives into purpose and meaning as he is to suffer and die on the cross for us.

Dear friends, as we scurry about the level places of our lives, we may be reminded that there is a ladder, extending to heaven, and that earth and heaven have met in Jesus Christ. We need never be alone and lost again, no matter where we are.


[1] Genesis 26:3, 26:4, Isaiah 41:10, 43:5, Jeremiah 1:8, 1:19, 15:20, 30:11, 42:11, 46:28, Haggai 2:4, Matthew 28:20, John 13:33.

[2] Romans, by Paul Achtemeier, John Knox Press, 1985, p.102.

[3] The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello, S.J., Gujarat Sahitya Parakash, Avand, India, 1982.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gone Wandering 1:

Living in Tents and Other Quiet Pleasures

First in a series of five sermons

on the Jacob/Esau cycle in Genesis

© Robert J. Elder, Pastor

15th Sunday in Ordinary time: July 10, 2011

Genesis 25:19-34

Today we embark on something that preachers aren’t supposed to do during the summer months, at least according to common ecclesiastical wisdom: we are starting out on a five-week series of sermons! Not only is this considered the “low season” for church attendance – an odd time to expend the extra effort required to put together a coherent series – but all this effort is dedicated to an Old Testament character. Still, over the next several weeks, I will try to walk us through the story of Jacob, patriarch of Israel, to see the ways in which the record of his life speaks to the activity of God in our lives today.

Why would a sermon series about Jacob be of importance today? He was a man born of a time and place so different from ours that we might suspect that we could do just as well attempting a sermon series on the minds of alien invaders from another galaxy.

I’ll tell you a couple of reasons why I think it is important to encounter Jacob and his strange Old Testament world. His other Bible name was “Israel;” biblical tradition traces all the Jewish people who once called Israel home back to this man. To understand Jesus’ ministry in Israel, we must understand Israel, and to understand Israel, we must understand the one in whom the story about the nation of Israel first began to take shape, the man named Jacob.

In the course of learning about this man, we may begin with bright hopes of sharing a story about a person of high character. But it won’t take very long to find such hopes disappointed. We may take him or leave him, but in the end, Jacob will strike us as a figure characterized by the sort of ambivalence that marks any real human being. One scholar (Terry Fretheim, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 516.) said that, take him or leave him, we will discover him to be sometimes simple, other times complex, sometimes positive, other times negative, sometimes clear and other times ambiguous. In the end of the story, the biblical miracle is that God takes him, just as he is. This is the story which sets the tone for the whole history of Israel, and which sets the reconciling stage for the work of Christ and his ministry. If God takes on one such as Jacob, the thinking will go, then why would there not be hope for me? I may be no better than he was, but I am certainly no worse!

In this story, then, we have the gospel in a nutshell. We may be self-serving, ambitious, scheming, capable of tawdry little episodes in our lives, but God knows we are also capable of high morals, clear values, good works. In any case, God takes us, will have us, just as he had Jacob.

So scene one in our story for this first week in the series opens on the front porch of Isaac’s and Rebekah’s house. Both are praying for children. In scene two, after the same sort of barrenness which her mother-in-law, Sarah, experienced, Rebekah was given a difficult pregnancy. We are startled to learn in a blunt way that she is to give birth to twins, when the narrator flatly declares, “The children struggled within her.” Children? That’s the first we know there is to be more than one child born.

Right away, Rebekah questioned the purpose of life. We might think that to be an overreaction, but the word used for “struggle” can be literally translated “crush.” Anyone who has ever felt a baby move knows the trampoline effect of even a single child in the womb. With twins, using the word “crush” might not be an overstatement. Even before birth, these two boys were engaged in a struggle, contesting with each other, trying to crush one another, vying for the all-important first place in the birth order. In a literal way, when it came to inheritance in those days, the last one out was a rotten egg, or at least as good as. The contest in Rebekah’s womb was an omen of a life-long struggle to come between these two boys and the nations to which they would give rise. By the time Rebekah was on the gurney, heading to labor and delivery, she was more than ready either to die or to have the boys’ conflict out in the open.

Scene three is the delivery itself, an all-important moment in a society that promised everything in inheritance to the first-born son. By the social standards of the time, whichever son emerged first would inherit Isaac’s birthright, along with the promises God had made to Abraham, and through him to Isaac and the nations to come from them.

No wonder that when the boys came out, and hairy Esau came first, Jacob came along right behind, clinging to him by the heel. Years later, when Jacob would wrestle with an angel, I wonder if it reminded him of the intrauterine wrestling match with his twin brother.

Then the scene shifts abruptly. The boys are grown. Esau has become a hunter, a man with a subscription to Field and Stream and a gun rack in the back of his pickup truck, more often than not to be found in the wild, stalking game, sleeping under the stars. In contrast, Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents,” tending to the front lawn and the morning paper, enjoying a more domestic, settled life than his brother.

At last comes the critical scene in this little piece of the drama that was Jacob’s life. The paragraph starts innocently, “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew,” it says, “Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.” It is easy to see what is coming. Esau, a man of the hunt, preferring to live in the fulfilling present than sit around awaiting a secure future, Esau gave up his privileged position as first-born son, future heir, in favor of stew for lunch. Short-term satisfaction was bartered away for long-term entitlement. While Jacob seems to be a bit of a schemer in this, there is not much of a kind word for Esau in the passage. In the end, five verbs describe what he did in simplicity itself: he “ate, drank, rose, went away, despised.”

But what does this make Jacob? A schemer, to be sure. Opportunistic. Clever. Patient, even. In his quiet tent-living, Jacob had apparently had plenty of time to consider a way to wrest the birthright away from his brother. When the moment came, he seized it without hesitation or second thought. At this moment, he doesn’t seem like much of a model of religious faith, does he?

Here, then. we have a plain word about the way God works in the world. God does not wait for plastic saints to be born before taking action. God’s purposes can be accomplished even through the lives of scheming, clever, quiet tent-dwellers like Jacob. That his mother favored him over Esau surely was a leg up for him, and demonstrates again that God chooses to work in and through human actions and choices, our participation – even our bad decisions and off-center intentions – are redeemable by God as he creates the future. By granting Rebekah the “insider” information that the elder son would serve the younger – making this a text favored by the babies of families everywhere – God helped plant within her the kind of predisposition toward Jacob that would help bring God’s desires to pass.

Both boys come off looking less than saintly, and to try to make just one of them the villain is to misunderstand what the story is about, as well as to misunderstand what it is like to be human and alive in a world filled with confusing choices and opportunities. Jacob took advantage of his brother in need. And Esau came off as the most careless of sons, so casually despising his birthright. Why would God choose either one of these two to carry forward the promises he has made to Abraham and Isaac?

It seems to me that this is the question of the hour not only for this passage, but for us in our struggle to walk in faith. Why would God choose me? Or you? No one is more aware of our own shortcomings and failures, our dull bad-choice moments as well as our scheming hearts than we are. No one is more able to see the manifold reasons why we are bad candidates to carry forward the work of God’s kingdom than we are. And yet, God has chosen us! Some days we may doubt it, but we are seated here this morning, more than for any other reason, because we are responding to some call to us. Even if we are aware of it only in the vaguest way, even if we came to worship today almost by accident – as an afterthought – we are here, and God’s plan is now prepared to make use of our awkward commitments even if it beats us to see how or why.

In the end, we do make a difference in the work of the kingdom, and even our compromised, stumbling attempts to discern God’s will and do his work are honored by him, refined by him, made whole through Christ in such a way that our lives have meaning far beyond any meaning we might have imagined for ourselves. Jacob, standing in the shadow of the doorway to his tent, watching his brother Esau slouch away, rubbing the remnants of his afternoon stew from his beard, Jacob probably was unaware of a potential for fulfillment of God’s purpose dwelling in that moment. But his lack of awareness of it did not make it any less real.

Neither does our lack of awareness of God’s immediate purpose in our lives mean that there is none, only that we have not yet begun to see it. God is still working on the future that we may create together in relationship with him in Jesus Christ. That is the legacy of Jacob and the promise which has continued through the faithful people who have called him father right up to the present day. We are in their number. God has chosen us and has plans for us, too. Praise be to God.