Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Monday, March 30, 2009
John's Gospel is one of the loveliest pieces of literature ever written. I love John. I meet each week with a group of other clergy from other denominations. We had an interesting exchange about John recently. Some of us love John and some of us prefer the other Gospels. John is so much more ethereal than the other Gospels. Jesus is depicted in John's Gospel as entirely "from above," "other-worldly." Luke's depiction is more of a guy you could have a beer with. Matthew's Jesus is very friendly if you already understand who Jesus is. Mark's Jesus is a bit more rough. But when you read Jesus' words in John…well, every sentence is so loaded with meaning than you can't really preach the whole text.
So instead of taking on the full lesson today, I'm going to focus in on just one sentence. It is a sentence that seems simple enough. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John goes on in the next sentence to write, "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."
"And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself." We usually think of the glorification of Jesus as being the resurrection, right? We see Jesus transfigured and he glows. In the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus he is again in dazzling white, face glowing. But for John, the real glorification of Jesus is when he is on the Cross.
The Cross is the event that brings all of the threads of Jesus' ministry into one fabric—and since this is a glorification, John uses the words "lifted up." Jesus may have said "lifted up," we don't know. John's Gospel was written some 50 years after the Ascension. It is entirely possible that Jesus used these very words; however we know that the community for which John was writing would have preferred "lifted up."
To understand this we must understand that John's community was a group of Jews who lived very strict, disciplined lives. It is likely that they were influenced by some strains of Gnosticism. Gnostics believe in the division between the mind and the body; the mind is considered good—a source of spiritual transcendence—and the body is bad—it has to eat, and drink, be cleaned. You understand.
Some of that thinking still heavily influences American Christianity, I'm sorry to say. It's sad when you think of the many boys and girls who feel shameful about the changes their body makes during puberty. Just when teens are beginning to put childhood behind them this Gnostic stuff comes out through pastors and teachers about how shameful it is to have thoughts about the opposite sex.
And we wonder why it's so hard to get young families to come to church. I'll tell you partly why. They don't want to be preached at. They don't want to hear that their bodies are evil and filled with sin. They see that steeple out front and they think, "Those people believe my body is evil, I don't want to go in there."
Gnosticism. Some of it, like most things, some of it is healthy. St. Paul was influenced by Gnosticism. We get a lot of Christian teaching from Paul, and others. The author of Timothy wrote "Bodily exercise profits little." Really? Exercise is not all that good for you? We have recently learned that thirty minutes of walking a day can cut your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and can promote better digestion and mental acuity.
Well, you don't have to tell the author of Timothy that. I'll be fair. People walked everywhere back then. He probably got more exercise just being alive back then than we do today. But still. The full text of that is "..bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things.." You see, the body: not so good. The spirit: good, better, the best.
So when Jesus is lifted up, you see, this is the ultimate ascetical moment. The body is fully put under submission so that the spirit is fully glorified. It is in this glorification that the whole self of Jesus is fully realized—and in that moment, he draws all people to himself. (Pause.)
Except that he doesn't. As part of my research for this sermon, I decided to type this verse into Google—on the internet—just to see what came up. You never know. I discovered an article by a man, who I am sure is a devout Christian, who wrote that by no means does this text mean that Jesus saves all people. He went into the Greek version of the text and made the argument that "drawing all people" does not mean that all people will come to Jesus.
Well, I was all set to disagree with the man, but then I realized that I have to agree with him. My own experience tells me that he's right. The good news of Jesus is not that everyone comes to him, but that all people may be drawn to him. And that's quite another thing.
When I was at the National Gallery with our confirmands last year, we were going around to look at all the Christian paintings from the Medieval era through the Renaissance, and we saw countless—I mean countless—paintings of Mary and Jesus, known in the art world as, Madonna and Child. Here's Jesus sitting on Mary's left leg; there he is seated on her right leg. There's Jesus playing at his mother's feet. There's Jesus staring into Mary's eyes. Beautiful, beautiful paintings.
If you go up to DC to look at those paintings, you will see Madonna and Child everywhere. But start looking around for a painting of the Crucifixion. No? Not in this room? Well, maybe in the next one. There are the fifteen paintings of St. Jerome. He has cross in his hand. There's one of St. Anne. You won't find her in the Bible but the tradition is that she's the mother of Mary. Oh, and over there you see St. Gabriel and a lovely depiction of the Annunciation. Wow. That painting is enormous. Over there is a stunning depiction of the appearance of Mary at Loretto.
But no Crucifixion. Wait. No. Wait a second. Over there. Yeah. There's a little painting over there just a little further down. No one's looking at it right now. I suppose the eye is just naturally drawn to the Annunciation, but let's go over and look at the Crucifixion anyway.
Yeah, look at that. Hmph…. Lifelike, isn't it? You can see the blood coming out of his hands and his side. You can see where the crown of thorns has pierced his forehead. The artist has done such a careful job of capturing his muscle and bone structure—everything right down to the toenails. I can't help but wonder what John meant… "And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself." We can't even get the other people in this gallery to look at a painting of it.
This is not new. The crucifixion of Jesus has never been a popular thing to talk about. No one wants to hear about it. Even Paul wrote about that. He wrote to the Corinthians, "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God, and the wisdom of God."
You see the paintings of Madonna and Child—all three hundred and fifty million of them? If you don't know about the Cross, it's just three hundred and fifty million nice little paintings. But when you're a Christian, you look at every one of those paintings and there's a shadow that falls over them. It's the shadow of the Cross. Most people can't look directly at the Cross—but they see the shadow, they know the end of the story. And that draws them in.
"That little baby in Mary's arms—do you know what happens to him next?"
"Oh, sure, he becomes a great teacher."
"Well, yes… He does, but that's not all."
"He goes on and works miracles. Feeds five thousand men and their wives and children with five loaves of bread and two fish. He walks on water. He heals every kind of disease you can imagine."
"Well, yes. He does all of that, but that's not all."
"Well…I understand he's just a real nice fellow—just the nicest man you'd ever want to meet."
"Where did you hear that?"
"In church. You know, church is about learning to be nice, and doing unto others and so forth… And Jesus does that, you know? He's nice. And then he's raised from the dead and we all get to wear our Easter outfits and look for eggs and it's Spring…"
"Well, yes... That happens. But back up a little bit."
You see how much we want to just skip over the hard part? One of the children's books we have at home is called "My First Bible." It only has about ten pages in it, and I was very interested to see what was included. Well, you have the Garden of Eden. No snake, no devil, just two nice looking people called Adam and Eve. You have Noah and his ark. No flood, just a big boat and lots of animals. Children love animals.
Then there's Jesus. He looks like everyone's friend. Jesus welcomes the children, isn't that nice? Jesus teaches, and heals. Jesus has his Last Supper with his friends. Now, turn the page. What's on the next page? The Cross? No. Just a bright page with lots of flowers and the words, "Jesus rose from the dead." No Cross. "Mommy, how did he die?"
Have you ever sat down to read the Bible and flip over and there you are in the middle of one of the four Gospels, and the story is Jesus before Pilate, or Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or Jesus being crucified? Did you keep reading? Did you let yourself read the whole thing? Could you bear to sit there and read about the thorns and the nails and the dying breath? Could you read that?
Here I am talking around something, and not talking about it directly. The problem is that when Jesus is lifted up he will draw you in. But you can back out early if you catch on. You can walk through the gallery and see that that little tiny painting of the crucifixion is coming up, and you can look somewhere else. But if you look at him directly, there, on the Cross, he will draw you in.
It will be the hardest thing to look away, and do you know why? He is up there, because he wouldn't let you go. You could turn your back on the Cross completely if he hated you, or if he did it unwillingly. If Jesus had gone to the Cross telling you that you were despised by God, you could turn your back. And you'd never see any paintings of Jesus or his mother, or St. Jerome, or any of them, because Christianity would never have existed without the Cross.
There comes a moment in the life of everyone who hears about Jesus. You take anyone, sit them down, explain to them the whole story. At some point the person is going to have look at Jesus on the Cross.
And then will come this moment. You have to look at him up on the Cross, knowing that he's there because he loves you; and the moment will happen when you realize that ultimately you're either going to love him back or walk away.
You can toy around with the decision. A lot of people do that. They'll put it on the shelf for a couple days, or a couple years—go out and work their jobs, have children, and there it is…on the shelf…what am I going to do with him? But eventually the moment comes. You can put it off, but the moment will have to come sooner or later. And you only get two options—at the end of the day. You're either going to love him back, or walk away.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
(Teaching sermon for the Lent Study Eucharist)
When I titled this evening's event, I wrote, "Incarnation – the sacramental life of the Church," and it is not by mistake that I chose to address this facet of our Anglican ethos in the context of the Feast (or the Solemnity) of the Annunciation.
The Annunciation is when the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary, as we just read from Luke's Gospel, and announces that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. We do not know why Mary is chosen. It is to be understood that she is a common girl from a small town. Other than that, the only distinguishable characteristic, is that she is obedient to the Angel's—and by extension—God's word to her, and that she allows herself to become the bearer of God—the Theotokos.
In addition to that, you will find in our Hymnal 1982, a full ten hymns celebrating the unique presence of Mary, including Hymn 269 "Ye who claim the faith of Jesus" of which each stanza ends, "Hail Mary, full of grace." The veneration of Mary is not common in the Diocese of Virginia, but that does not mean that devotion to her within our common life is completely absent. It simply means that special devotion to Mary is most often left to private observance out of respect for those who find it disagreeable.
That said, the feasts of the Purification (Feb 1st), the Annunciation (today), and the Visitation (May 31st), also the feast of day of St. Mary the Virgin (August 15th) are all to be found in The Book of Common Prayer, and in some parishes of Episcopal Church, those feasts are kept with great reverence.
Now, lest you think: Humph! That's not Protestant. Well, let me again say that we aren't just flat out Protestants. Anglicans are choosy people. From our very beginning we have striven to be a big tent where people can discover their own piety within a common tradition. We are not the Roman Church; we do not mandate or even make normative any specialized form of devotion. However, we never said that Rome got everything wrong. Some Anglicans want the Reformation to look more like Lutheranism; and some Anglicans have little to no disagreement with the Roman Church. Being a good Anglican means letting people find their place on that continuum without criticism or condemnation.
We believe—and this beliefe is present throughout every Christian church of every denomination—that God is three persons: Father, Son and Spirit. The Son is an eternal person of the Trinity. The Incarnation therefore is the birth of that Son as a human being. Now, please listen carefully. There was a Son of God, before there was Jesus. Do you understand that? The Son was eternally with God from before time and Creation. The person who is the Son, became the human being we call Jesus. The divine nature of Jesus is one with the Father and the Spirit, but in the Incarnation, the Son becomes flesh. And from that moment on, the eternal Son is no longer simply a divine being, but a human being as well.
So before Jesus ever learns to walk, and talk, and grow up and teach and heal and be crucified and resurrected, even before all of that…he's already sacrificed the freedom of his pure divine nature to take on flesh and bone. What I am trying to get across to you is that Jesus gave himself up to death, just by agreeing to be born. Now, let that sink in a little bit. Do you want to talk about it? (Pause for conversation.)
All right. Now, the Incarnation is the eternal Son becoming flesh, just as we read in the Prologue of John's Gospel. Then what is the message to us in God being willing to take on human flesh in this Created world? That God believes creation is good (just as we read in Genesis) and that human flesh is worthy of the presence of God.
You see, Jesus is the Prime Sacrament. A sacrament, you will remember, is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given…as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." In other words, Jesus is the point of intersection between humanity and God.
When Jesus takes bread and wine and says, "This is my Body; This is my Blood" he is saying, "I cannot remain with you as a human being, but this shall be the place of intersection. This bread and wine shall take my place at your tables and at your Altars."
Let me be very clear. For Anglicans: The bread stays bread, and the wine stays wine, but they both become ennobled with the presence of Christ when they are duly consecrated in the presence of the congregation by a priest or bishop. Yes, God is everywhere—his spirit is all around us. But Jesus, the eternal Son, is made real and present to us at each celebration of the Holy Eucharist. And when we receive the consecrated bread and wine, the life of God made flesh lives in us, and we in him.
Now, we could get into a question of symbolism here and ask all sorts of questions about how it works, but Anglicans prefer to back away from questions of how. Instead, we take on face value the words of Jesus "This is my Body. Do this for the remembrance of me."
The ramifications are many. Since God chooses human flesh to contain the eternal presence of the Son, and since, by the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, humans become united with the divine life of God—then every person under the sun is worthy of respect and dignity. No one can be said to be useless or unworthy, because God so loved the world…
In addition to that, through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, we become united to Christ and are therefore, like Mary, called to be bearers of God, pregnant—if you will—by the Holy Spirit and called to give birth to Jesus Christ in our world. If God is willing to choose a simple teenage girl from a small town in Palestine to be the literal God-bearer, then God can and will choose anyone and everyone to do the very same thing, but in a much more symbolic way.
Mary is forever blessed for having said yes to being the literal Mother of God. She is the only human being who could look up at Jesus on the Cross and say, "This is my Body, This is my Blood." Any mother in the world could tell you that no human being—other than Jesus—felt more agony on Good Friday than Mary; and likewise, three days later, no other human being could have felt a greater joy.
That is why St. Mary the Virgin, the Blessed Mother, is full of grace. And today we thank her for being the means by which the presence of Christ enters our world. It is the mystery of being filled with God—which has become our mystery, too.
Each day this series of prayers and scriptures sets the backdrop of the day, because each day is a day to hear the Angel's call to be a bearer of Christ, and to incarnate in our own unique way the mystery of God's initiative in human flesh. We are collaborators with God in the mystery of Christ--the flesh that holds the presence of God.
When I was in seminary, I remember hearing a friend speak with some disdain about Mary. She said, "I am sure she was a very nice person," and that's as far as she could go. I don't know or care whether Mary was nice or not. I believe that she was not unlike most of us, except that she was chosen by God to be the means by which the Word would literally become flesh. So I have no problem whatsoever commemorating her, celebrating her, loving her, and addressing her.
Her relationship with Christ is unique beyond words. Only two other persons could look at Jesus on the Cross and say, "This is my body." God the Father, and Mary. It was her flesh that was stretched out on the Cross, literally, her flesh. Any mother could tell you that. The pain of Christ was also her pain that she uniquely bore.
I have not always appreciated Mary. For most of my short life, I lived in kind of Protestant indifference. But somewhere along the line, I opened my heart to her--mostly out of curiosity--and for the reasons I've described above my heart has never returned to where it was. She remains a mystery of her own.
On this day, I give thanks for the "most highly favored Lady" as Hymn #265 reads (Hymnal 1982, The Episcopal Church).
Blessed be Mother of God, Mary most holy.
Blessed be Mary, Virgin and Mother.
Blessed is she who believed.
Monday, March 23, 2009
From our Old Testament reading:
The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. 
And now from our Gospel lesson:
Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
I have always been confused by the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Part of my confusion is that when we think of snakes being mentioned in the Bible, we think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Snakes are evil.
But then here you have Moses and the Hebrew people making their way to the Promised Land and they get attacked by poisonous snakes. Actually, the Hebrew reads, fiery snakes. People are dying; there is panic and confusion. They go to Moses and say, "Moses, pray from God to get rid of these snakes." Moses prays, and God does not take the snakes away. Instead, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and when the people look to the pole, they'll live.
Sure enough, it works. How does it work? I don't know. There are some interesting theories about it. One theory is that the bronze serpent works psychologically—that if you get bitten, you tend to focus on the wound, and obsess about it and die. But if you take your mind off the wound, and believe that you'll get better, you will. It's like a placebo. It works because you believe it will.
Another theory is also psychological. If a snake is on the ground, alive—in its natural habitat—it represents a significant threat. But if the snake is just the form of a snake—in other words, like a dead snake—and it's up on a pole where you can look at it and see that it has strengths and weaknesses just like you do, then psychologically, the wound doesn't seem quite so serious.
But you know there are other reasons why we have this story in the Bible. Back from way before the people of Israel, back in Greek civilization, back even further than that, you will find the symbol of a snake on a pole. Even though we tend to think of snakes as evil, historically they are a symbol of healing. In fact, a snake shedding its skin is an old symbol of rebirth, or resurrection.
When Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness—and I want to be very clear about this—he is not creating an idol. The people are meant to look at the snake, not worship it.
Now fast forward to our Gospel lesson. Jesus is talking with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, you will recall, is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He comes to Jesus at night, because he's afraid to show genuine interest in Jesus in public. Nicodemus is a scholar; he has an open mind.
He says to Jesus, "We know that you are from God. No one could do what you do without being from God."
Jesus responds, "You can't understand what I'm about unless you can be born from above."
"How can you be born after having grown up?" ask Nicodemus.
Jesus responds (and I'm paraphrasing very loosely here) "Nicodemus, you don't understand me fully, because your way of looking at God is all wrapped up in keeping stale little rules, and stale little festivals, and you've missed the point. Moses lifted up a serpent of bronze and people got healed of snake bite. Whoopee. But when I, Jesus, am lifted up, whoever believes in me—translate looks at me—will have eternal life."
Now let me pull that apart. The serpent of bronze was just a placebo that worked. The people wanted healing from a snake bite, so God provided it. God used an ancient symbol to provide healing. But Jesus says, "God isn't interested in small time healings; God is interested redeeming your whole being."
Moses lifted up a bronze serpent. Nicodemus, you thought that was big time stuff, didn't you? Well, whoopee. A snake on a stick. So what..? But consider this, God so loved the world that he didn't just dust off an old symbol and say, `Well, that'll hold them…they'll be all right.' No, no, no. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that when he is lifted up and people look to him, they'll never die. They will have everlasting life. You see, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be redeemed through him." (Pause.)
Jesus' vision of redemption and salvation is so much more expansive than just "gettin' to heaven." I remember back when I worked for the Salvation Army, one of my co-workers said, "Why do you want to be a priest?" I said, "Well, what do you mean?"
She was a Salvationist—an actual member of the Salvation Army, the church. She said, "Why would you bother with the same people every week? It doesn't matter." I said, "Why do you think it doesn't matter." She said, "Well, they're saved, right? If they're saved, you move on to the next."
See in her mind—and you'll find this a lot—people think of salvation as something you get—you get saved, and then that's it. You're getting into heaven. But wait a second. Salvation is much bigger than just getting your ticket punched. When Jesus rises from the grave, he shows us that God wants to absorb the pain and the sin of the world, and to restore us completely. And that's not something for just the "sweet bye-and bye;" it's also for the "sweet here and now." You don't have to wait till heaven to enjoy a full relationship with God; you can have it right now.
Still, a lot of people will run from this. They like the God who just does the nickels and dimes. They want a snake on stick that they can look at and feel better, and then move on—because you see, they don't have to change anything.
You see it in the doctor's office. I'm sure Dr. Cottrell and Dr. Haeberle (Dr. Miller) have seen countless patients who come into their office and say, "Doc, my back hurts, give me some painkillers." Now, the real prescription is to lose some weight, and become more active. But they don't want the big answer; they want the snake on the stick. Give me the medicine, and leave me alone.
I used to see it in the shelter countless times. They'll do anything but change. They'll play by the rules; they'll get a job; they'll work themselves out of the shelter, and then six months later, there they are--lost the job, lost the apartment, lost the girlfriend, lost their deposit, lost their money. And you look at them again, and it's hard to be compassionate, because the real prescription is intense social work. The real prescription is alcohol or drug rehab, counseling for childhood neglect, career, social, networking skills.
But they can't envision a better life, because this is how it was with daddy, or mommy. They've always scraped by—that's just life for them. You try to give them the big answers—the real prescription… "Uhm….yeah…thanks…can I just have the snake on the stick?"
A couple years ago I was getting gas and on the other side of the pump was a guy and his motorcycle. He had on black leather from head to toe, and he seemed to me to be the kind of man who works in an office all week and rides his bike on the weekends.
I don't remember how we got to talking, but he asked me, "Do you have a motorcycle?"
"No," I said.
"You should get one," he said, "they're wonderful."
"What do you like about it?" I asked.
He said, "Well, let's say you have an argument with your wife. Now, you go out on your bike for thirty, forty minutes, and it's like… You smoke marijuana?"
"No," I said.
"Well, it's like smoking marijuana…you just feel all relaxed and wonderful. Makes you forget all your troubles." He looked down at his bike, and just gazed at it. What was he looking at? Chrome and leather? No. A symbol of independence, freedom? No. He was looking at salvation—his salvation. His ticket. His temporary "Get Out of Jail" card. His medicine. His anesthetic from an unhappy existence. And that's all he thought he needed.
I looked at the bike, too. It was five and a half feet long, beautiful chrome, polished, well-worn leather saddle bags. Anyone looking at that bike would have thought—that's a nice bike. And I would have too, except that when I looked at the bike after that conversation, all I could see was a snake on a stick.
What about you? Is that all you want, too? You just want a little forgiveness here; and a little healing there? Come on. Salvation is so much more. God can heal wounds that go back to childhood. God can give you answers to questions that you've been asking for years. When you sit back at the end of the day, drowsy from the evening meal, wondering, "Is this as good as it gets?" God is always coming back with "No, it's not. It can better than this…but you have to be willing to trust me, and you have to be willing to let me in."
A lot of people will never do that. They're satisfied with little answers, and little understandings, and little faith, and a little God.
When I look out at you all during the sermon, and during the rest of the service, I see people who I think have known this for years—that there's more to God than just little bitty—but you've been afraid to believe that. That's understandable. Faith takes faith.
But, you see, God asks for all of you, because he loves all of you. Like anything else that really matters in life; it takes everything. It takes a commitment that goes all the way to the foundations of your soul. And it will change your priorities, the ways you spend your time and your money, the ways you relate to your family and your friends. Authentic, real Christianity must go into every corner of your life.
A lot of people never get there. A lot of people are too scared to move in that direction. Don't be scared. You are walking by faith—but though the path seems dim, and even frightening at times, the path does not lead to some empty, half-answer snake on a stick. The path leads straight into the heart of almighty God.
 Numbers 21:4-9
 John 3:14-21
 There is plentiful information about the Caduceus, the Rod of Asclepios, and the Nehustan (which is the Hebrew equivalent) that would take the sermon off course at this point. But the symbolic history is fascinating, if you're interested. It is very likely that the story of Moses erecting the Nehustan was part of oral tradition that explains the presence of a bronze serpent on a pole in the Temple. People would offer incense to the bronze serpent—again an ancient symbol—possibly leading to the telling of this story of Moses as an etiology. The Nehustan was removed by King Hezekiah as recorded in 2 Kings 18.4 for becoming an idol. Cf. The New Jerusalem Bible Commentary, pg. 88 and the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, fn, pg. 241.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
17 March 2009
I just read a very small part of the very long story of Jacob's life. In many respects, hearing just the part I read today is like tuning in to a television series halfway through the season. If we don't know what Jacob has been through, or what happens next in the story, we can still enjoy what we have to see, but we don't fully understand why things are happening.
Sometime you might sit down and pick up the Bible and just read the whole book of Genesis. I can guarantee you that there is more action and suspense, more political intrigue, more tender love stories than anything you will see on television. And if someone calls you up on the telephone and asks you what you are doing, you can respond truthfully and piously, "I am reading the Bible." Honestly, read Genesis in one of the recent translations—you won't believe how much fun can be.
What I read is the famous story of Jacob wrestling with God. People often think Jacob wrestled with an angel, but if you read the text, it just says, "Jacob wrestled with a man." And at the end of the chapter Jacob interacts with the man, and becomes convinced that the man was God.
In the story, Jacob is literally wrestling with God, because he afraid of meeting up with his brother Esau, who you might remember sold his birthright to Jacob for bowl of soup. Jacob is wrestling with God, out of guilt, out of fear of what to do if Esau wants revenge. The end of the story is really quite wonderful, but I don't want to spoil it for you. (Pause.)
Have you ever wrestled with God? I know I have. Maybe not in the same way that Jacob did, but there have been many sleepless nights I've spent wrestling with what to do, and not feeling entirely sure in the morning whether I was any closer to an answer.
I remember when I was a little boy in Sunday school and learned from the teacher that God always answers prayer. She read the part in John's Gospel where Jesus says, "Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and a door shall be opened to you." And I remember wondering what the difference was between that and the Disney song, "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true." How is Christian prayer different from that?
And I wrestled with that question when I was about eight years old. We wrestle with those questions when we are growing up, and moving from childhood to adulthood, and wondering if God really is as good as the Sunday School teachers told us.
Think of the men who went off to fight World Wars I and II. There had not been armed conflict at on that scale in our nation's memory. These men went off with the blessing of a grateful nation, and discovered that even if they weren't going to be killed, that something inside them was going to die. You can't witness the things they saw, and not be changed.
Some of you may have seen the Ken Burns' documentary that's been on public television, called simply, "The War." I was talking with a parishioner who had watched part of it, and he quoted a man who was being interviewed who had looked around to see his friends massacred and then looked up to heaven and prayed, "God you have to come down here to stop this. Don't send Jesus—this is no place for children."
These wars took bright-eyed young men, and changed them forever. People who had not seen what they had seen could not really understand what they had been through. They came back home and filled civic clubs, churches, and bowling leagues. They came back to start businesses, and build infrastructure, and get degrees, and teach, and get ordained, and have children. But they could not come back as they had been. They had been changed. They had no language to talk about what they had seen. No desire to talk about it. "Let's put this behind us and move on." And who could blame them?
For those men there was always a little tinge of sadness, a little edge in their voice. They came back to their churches and looked around at the people, who had not been through what they had been through, and they looked around at the stained-glass windows, and at the Altar, and listened to young clergymen preaching sermons about the goodness of God, and they wrestled with that. Deep down inside, without words they wrestled with how this could be true, when they had seen that. How can God be here, when it was clear to them that God had not been there?
They didn't stop coming to church. Many of them found God in the midst of the struggle. Some of our greatest theologians and preachers emerged from that generation. Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neibhur, Richard Neibhur, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Han Urs von Balthasar, Reginald Fuller, Karl Rahner, and they all wrote prolifically about the struggle of finding God in the mess.
Existentialism, as a philosophical movement, actually began with the Christian theologian Søren Keirkegaard, who wrote profoundly about the loneliness of faith—the struggle to find God in the silence, and in the disillusionment of chaos. Whether you are a priest or an atheist you still stand where you are trying to relate to the world as one, solitary, individual.
Keirkegaard points to Abraham as the Knight of Faith, the man who listened for the voice of God, and obeyed it. Despite the fact that no one else believed that there was only one God, and even if there was only one God, why would he talk to Abraham and no one else?
Abraham sets off with is family to find the place that God wanted for them, all because he followed the voice of God within him. Could you do that? Could I do that?
The people who came back from war were wrestling with God. The sun is coming up tomorrow. There is only so much change a man can take in his life, so let's support our government, let's support our churches, let's support our families and friends, and let's get on with it. Maybe God will show up, maybe he won't, but we'll keep on wrestling! We'll keep going.
In the last few years, we have found out that Mother Teresa—for most of her life—wrestled with God. She describes in her journals and letters that she found no solace in the Eucharist, and went for long stretches of time without any sense of God's presence. Mother Teresa probably did more for God and for humanity in one day that most of us will do over many years. And yet the anguish she faced was that though she was doing it all for love of God, she felt no love from God in return.
Anti-religious commentators were quick to jump on this story as proof positive that God could not exist. If God was real, then surely Mother Teresa would have a direct line, and that she and God would have been as close as anyone could be. Roman Catholic theologians were also quick to jump on the story to give historical and theological perspective. They cited St. John of the Cross's notion of the "dark night of the soul," and of purgative contemplation.
That what was really going on in Mother Teresa was such transcendent peace that it was probably difficult for her to know where she ended and where God began. She had achieved a level of such faithfulness that she couldn't even gauge it. No, no, no…
All of them missed it completely. She was wrestling. How could God not be there in her emotions, when God is clearly at work though her fingertips? How could God allow her to be praised by famous and influential people for her great faith, when she felt nothing but darkness inside? She was wrestling with God.
We all can understand that. Our faith when we were little boys and girls was a different faith than it is now. We've seen things that have taken our innocence away. Some of us are veterans, and have seen things that have changed us forever. We've seen car crashes, been lied to a couple times, made some decisions that have not gone well. We don't have many illusions about humanity. We've seen things you can't pretend were nothing.
And it's likely that on more than one occasion we have come into church, knelt down to pray, and felt absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. And we have asked ourselves the question: how can this be true, when I have been through that? How can God be here, when it doesn't seem that he gave us an ounce of help there?
But do you remember in the story of Jacob wrestling, where in the midst of the struggle, the man puts Jacob's thigh out of joint? The man did it because he could not prevail in the struggle with Jacob. Jacob is so tenacious in his wrestling that he simply won't give up. The thigh being out of joint was a wound that Jacob would have as a sign of his struggle.
And as the sun is coming up the man asks Jacob to let go and Jacob says, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me"? "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So the man asks, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he says. "Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humankind and have prevailed." "Tell me your name," Jacob says. And the man replies. Are you listening? The man replies, "Why do you have to ask? You know who I am." It's God.
Of central importance is Jacob's refusal to let God go. "I will not let you go until you bless me." Mother Teresa could not let go. The veterans could not let go.
There is a profundity of faith in the wrestling that would be easy for us to overlook. Just because we are wrestling with God, doesn't mean we have given up. There is a difference between someone who says, "I feel nothing from God," but still comes to church every Sunday, and the person who says, "God is dead" and walks away.
The veterans know that. Mother Teresa knew that. You and I know that when we really think about it.
There is a difference between wrestling with God, and refusing to stop until we receive the blessing—and just closing the book…and walking away. There is a difference.
 Originally Proper 24C. 21 October 2007. Christ Church, Gordonsville Genesis 32:22-30