Go to the Mattresses with God (Wrestling for a Blessing)

This is the sermon I preached Sunday on Jacob, us, and wrestling with God. Text: Genesis 32:22-32.

Jacob was a trickster. He had managed to trade a meal of lentil stew for his older brother Esau’s birthright, to be next in line in his family. Lentil stew! I like lentils, but as soup goes, this wasn’t even chicken tortilla soup.

With the help of his mother, Rebekah, he tricked his blind father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau. Esau was getting ready to go all Cain and Abel on his brother Jacob.

 

Esau Comin’

 

Since Esau had made a vow to kill his brother—the Bible says, “Esau hated Jacob”—Jacob left his home and his family. He moved in with his uncle Laban and started a family of his own.

Some 20 years later, Jacob is coming back home. He’s days away from meeting up with Esau, so has sent ahead some gifts—you know, the usual: goats, sheep, cows… bowls of piping hot lentil stew. (No, wait, I shouldn’t send him that!)

Jacob knows Esau is coming.

Jacob and his crew come up to a river. It’s dark. The majestic mountains on either side of them and the starry night overhead are no match for the utter fear that grips Jacob now.

He helps his family cross to safety, and then in v. 24: “So Jacob was left alone.”

“So Jacob was left alone.”

Before he could worry whether Esau would pounce on him in his vulnerable state, a man jumps out of the shadows and they start to wrestle. Surely this is Esau! Jacob must be thinking.

There’s a well-represented strand of Jewish interpretation that sees this mysterious man as Esau’s patron angel… a proxy for Esau. But the story goes on to reveal this is more of a divine than human character he is wrestling with.

The fight seems to be pretty even. Verse 25 says, “The man saw that he could not overpower [Jacob],” but then he pops him in the hip so that Jacob begins to limp.

Jacob—ever the trickster, ever the procurer of blessings where they are not his to procure—says to the guy he has in a headlock, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 

Come to Jesus

 

“What is your name?” the man asks him. “What is your name?”

The answer is, “Jacob,” but naming in the book of Genesis and Ancient Near East was deeply significant. Your name was your personality. Your name was your reputation. Your name was your future calling and destiny. Your name was who you are.

“What is your name?” the godlike wrestler said. “Who are you?”

Jacob has a come-to-Jesus moment here, to use a religiously anachronistic phrase.

At this point he can dodge the question. He can say, “I’m not telling you that. Why should you know anything about me?” He can run off, though he’ll be hobbling and probably won’t get very far. He can lie and say he is somebody else.

“What is your name? Who are you?”

“I’m Jacob—I’m a trickster. I don’t trust people very well. My family was dysfunctional, my parents played favorites, and my family role was the conniving one. I want so deeply to be loved, that I’ll cheat, lie, and steal my way to it.”

Just one word in the text, “Jacob,” he says, but when I visualize this encounter, I think of Jacob’s answer as almost a confession of who he is, warts and all. By this point, surely, he must realize it’s not Esau he’s been wrestling with. “I saw God face to face,” Jacob would say at the end of this encounter, and face-to-face with God, he tells God his name. By saying, “I am Jacob,” he admits to God—freely—who he is, what he’s done, what his own internal struggles have been.

 

Go to the Mattresses

 

Tom HanksGrowing up my family had a few go-to movies that we’d watch on a Friday night. One of them was You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are two competing bookstore owners who also happen to be falling in love over AOL’s now archaic Instant Messenger service online, under the screen names of “ShopGirl” and “NY152.” They don’t at first that they already know each other in real life, too.

Meg Ryan’s character complains from her computer screen, as ShopGirl, to Tom Hanks’s character, as NY152, about Hanks’s ruthless efforts to put her local, neighborhood bookstore out of business.

Hanks’s character summons the Godfather and tells her, “Go to the mattresses.”

Befuddled at that reference, she asks him about it and he replies:

The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is “Go to the mattresses.” You’re at war. “It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal it’s business.” Recite that to yourself every time you feel you’re losing your nerve. I know you worry about being brave, this is your chance. Fight. Fight to the death.

(Watch the scene here.)

Jacob has gone to the mattresses. He’s fighting—if not to the death, then he’s fighting for some favor. He’s wrestling for a blessing.

Let’s not forget how the book of Genesis started—the God of the universe separated vast expanses of sky, water, and land; he created light; he made all kinds of beings and vegetation, culminating in the creation of male and female in his image.

This Lord of the cosmos, this magnificent God of the universe who spoke and breathed all things and people into being—this could be a God we puny humans choose to avoid. Out of fear. Out of a sense of unworthiness. Due to a notion that we don’t want to trouble God with our concerns, our struggles, our anxieties. Maybe we think we have to be strong, or keep it together, or look like we’re keeping it together.

Maybe we feel guilty for the questions we have, for how distant we’ve been, for how hard it is to pray.

But if that’s you, go to the mattresses. Go to the mattresses with God.

Are you angry, at your brother or sister, or at God? Are you nervous about your life? Go to the mattresses—take it to God. Do you feel betrayed, passed over, or left out to dry by God? Go to the mattresses—take it up with him and have it out.

Go to the mattresses with God, if you think you have a need to clear the air.

Go be alone, like Jacob was, and wrestle a little bit.

 

Jacob Wrestles
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel of the LORD, Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)

 

The stakes are higher for us than in the Godfather because we can’t say, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” With God, it’s all personal, and the blessing of our future seems to entirely depend on whether we can have an encounter with God.

I realize this is potentially dangerous advice to give to a group of Christians, to encourage us to go to the mattresses with God. You see Jacob limping around here, with a strained hip. And who wants another injury to have to worry about?

But there’s something about this human-divine struggle that is holy. There’s something sacred about grappling more deeply with the wonder and the mystery–even the sometimes elusive nature–of God.

 

Jacob Became Who He Was Always Supposed to Be

 

Jacob, the trickster, the one who contends on his own behalf, receives the new name Israel, meaning, “God strives,” “God contends,” “God struggles for you and for your good.”

Jacob became even more of who he was always called to be.

I think there are two main reasons we don’t go to the mattresses with God when we know we should, or could.

First, we think that God can’t handle it. We’re worried that the whole edifice will come crumbling down and we’ll have nothing left to believe in, when we really examine just who this God is, and just what this Word is, and just why justice does not prevail as it should in the world. We think God is either easily offended, quickly angered, or readily deconstructed, and so we stay at home. We don’t fight. We don’t engage in the struggle that is needed.

But if God is truly omniscient, if God really knows everything, then he already knows your questions, your frustrations, the things you protest about him, or others, or about the world. So why not give voice to them?

God can handle our frustrations, our consternation, our jadedness, even if we see him as the source of it.

Another reason we don’t go to the mattresses with God is we think we can’t handle it. We’re nervous that we’re right about God not being able to handle our complaints, our indictments, our protestations, and what would I have left anymore if that were true?

But if you’re keeping a midnight, solo encounter with God at bay for fear of what will happen—what do you have left anymore right now, anyway?

God can handle the struggle. You can manage to get in the ring—respectfully, of course—and go a few rounds.

Jacob, on that long, dark night, became even more of who he was always called to be. From the struggle emerged a new expression of God’s favor. From the wrestling came a blessing. Because he dared to face God—in all his honesty and uncertainty, and with all his passion—God gave him a new name, an altered identity, and declared Jacob to be a new person in God.

When we wrangle with God, we are not the same afterwards. We may come out of a period of holy wrestling a little worse for the wear, as Jacob did with his limp—which healed in due time—but we do so with a blessing. We get back up with a new name, a refined identity.

So if you need to, go to the mattresses with God. You don’t have to do it alone, like Jacob did; take a friend with you. Make a vulnerable new step of really chasing down some of your unfinished business with God, and sharing that journey with a friend, inviting them to walk with you, to pick you up and carry you when you’re limping.

And as the sun rises after your dark night, you will be able to rejoice at the new name and the even more abundant blessings you’ve received from God.

But sometimes, to get there, you’ve got to be willing to wrestle.

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

I. Can’t. Wait. To. Read. This. Book.

So I’m simply going to post a picture, leave a few links, publish this post, and close the computer so I can get to reading. Here it is–it just came in the mail today:

 

Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus

 

Thank you to Baylor University Press and thank you already to Prof. Reggie L. Williams for writing what looks to be an awesome book. Its full title is–get ready–Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance.

The first sentence is the best one-sentence summary I’ve read about why people like Bonhoeffer so much:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer championed a radical interpretation of Jesus and ethics that was validated by his resistance to the Nazis and his execution by them.

I’ll post a review of it (and of the also exciting Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker) before Christmas. Find Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus here (Amazon) or here (Baylor).

 

2 Exceptional Jewish Commentaries on Genesis, Part 1: The JPS Torah Commentary

This fall I’m preaching through Genesis. Two Jewish commentaries have been exceedingly helpful and illuminating as I prepare each week. In a short series of two brief posts, I highlight each.

 

1. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis

 

JPS Torah GenesisI’m a sucker for beautifully constructed books, and this is one. Nahum M. Sarna’s Genesis has the full Hebrew text of Genesis (with vowel points and cantillation marks), an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation), incisive commentary, and 30 Excursuses at the back of the book.

Already at Genesis 1:2 I found the commentary quoteworthy enough to cite it in a sermon. It notes that the Hebrew term create is used only of God:

It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely on God for its coming into existence, and is beyond the human capacity to reproduce.

There’s this gem on Cain and Abel, where Cain’s sacrifice points to “a recurrent theme in the Bible–namely, the corruption of religion.” Sarna tersely (yet effectively) comments:

An act of piety can degenerate into bloodshed.

And in Genesis 6, where the reader struggles to understand how a loving God could all but eradicate his creation, the introductory essay to “Noah and the Flood” reads:

The moral pollution is so great that the limits of divine tolerance have been breached. The world must be purged of its corruption.

He goes on:

The totality of the evil in which the world has engulfed itself makes the totality of the catastrophe inevitable.

Every passage of the commentary I read is like this–the perfect blend of lexical analysis and devotional implication. Sarna makes good use of ancient Jewish sources, so the reader gets the sense that she or he is really being exposed to thousands of years of Jewish interpretation.

This has often been the first commentary to which I turn after reading the text.

You can find it here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon. I waited a long time to purchase this volume, since it’s not cheap. This summer I found it on ebay, and have been grateful to own it since!

 

Next post, I’ll highlight the second of two Jewish commentaries on Genesis that I’ve been enjoying–The Torah: A Modern Commentary. UPDATE 10/16/14: See that review (part 2) here.

The First Youth Ministry Talk I Never Gave

A Day of Hope cover slide.001

On September 16, 2001, I was planning to deliver my first ever message as a vocational youth minister. It would have been about Philippians 3.

I had just taken a position at an Episcopal church in Illinois as part-time youth minister. In my excitement to start ministering among youth and families, I invited all the parents of youth to come to our first youth worship service that Sunday. In the weeks leading up to that service I worked hard on my sermon, which was going to be about Paul’s pressing on toward the goal and striving to know Jesus Christ more and more. I hoped this would be a central theme in my new ministry.

On Monday, September 10, 2001, I went for a long run and mapped out the outline to my talk. I came back from my run refreshed and ready to go; I couldn’t wait to begin that Sunday.

The next morning, as I walked to a youth ministry class, my friend Michael asked me if I had heard the news. What news, I asked? He told me about a plane, commandeered by terrorists, crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, taking the lives of thousands of people. When I arrived at class, my professor turned on the TV as our session was set to begin and just said, “I’m going to stay here and watch the news about this; feel free to stay if you like; feel free to go home if you need to.”

Maybe it goes without saying, but I didn’t preach to the youth and their families that following Sunday about Philippians. Instead, I turned to Psalm 46, and tried to convey some sense of hope, because of the strength we can find in God, even when awful things happen.

To try to do that I used a collection of projected images (that we had been seeing in the news all week anyway), with the text of Psalm 46, bit-by-bit, underneath, next to, or on top of the images.

Here is a .pdf version (unedited since then) of our worship focus that morning. Though it’s been almost 13 years since that Sunday, I’ve found myself–still–turning to this Psalm in the wake of tragic events.

I preached on Psalm 46 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. See also here.

How My 2-Year-Old Helped Me Practice What I Preach (or, Saying Psalm 23 Through Gritted Teeth)

My two-year-old gave me an unexpected opportunity yesterday to practice what I just preached Sunday. I noted in my sermon that I had been understanding Psalm 23 as a “counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance,” a “subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.”

I mentioned some potential circumstances which make us feel far from the idyllic pastoral imagery of the Psalm, and then suggested that those are some of the best times to (defiantly) pray Psalm 23:

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

An instance I didn’t think to include was:

When your two-year-old daughter draws with permanent marker all over the brand-new cork floor that the church graciously put in last year in the parsonage kitchen… say this Psalm.

When I noticed the damage, this image is about the opposite of how I was feeling:

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

I was feeling more like this:

The Scream

For at least 10 minutes as I frantically scrubbed, I didn’t even remember there was a Psalm 23, let alone think to say it.

But then I took a step back (by God’s grace) and began to quietly say–through gritted teeth:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

And when my gracious and patient wife came home, she gently reminded me of the “magic sponge” we have under the sink that takes permanent marker off of everything. Within minutes, the green marker drawing on the floor was gone. Gone. The cork floor is good as new.

True, there are much darker valleys in life to walk through, but I think sometimes in parenting those little mini-valleys of frustration and exasperation can add up pretty quickly. And for us parents, they can be the regular “stuff” of our everyday existence. We need good Psalms to pray for the big valleys, and good Psalms to pray for the little valleys.

For those moments–should my two-year-old again somehow elude my watch like she has been so eager to do lately–I will try again (and again) to remember to “say this Psalm.”

A Poem I Wrote in Spanish After Reading Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Some 12 years ago I wrote the following poem-prayer after reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and some of his other writing on the church. I found it again the other day so am posting it here:

Hasta que haya la paz, no descansaré.
Hasta que las guerras cesen, no abandonaré la lucha.
Hasta que la justicia reine, seguiré leyendo, predicando, y gritando.
Hasta que haya una verdadera liberación humana, no dormiré.
Que vengas, Jesucristo. Que venga tu voluntad y tu reino,
como en el cielo, así también en la tierra.

 

“O God, is this any way to run a world?”

Psalms of Lament

Whether it’s another school shooting, a cancer diagnosis, an unjust imprisonment, violence perpetrated against the peaceful, or an unkind word that brings tears to the eyes of the one who received it… there’s a lot to lament in this world–too much.

A year-and-a-half ago I read a fantastic book called Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems (see more here). I continue to come back to her modern-day lament psalms from time to time. Of course, it’s hard to top the lament psalms in the biblical book of Psalms, so really Weems and David go together. I appreciate the freshness with which Weems approaches the important practice of lament.

Weems tragically lost her son just after his 21st birthday. It is out of that sense of loss and grieving that she writes many of her lament psalms. She says:

This book is not for everyone. It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep. It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities. This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.

So if you are weeping right now, or weeping with someone who is weeping… or if you feel like maybe you should be weeping but can’t, or don’t know how… here is Weems’s Lament Psalm Thirty-two (posted with publisher’s permission), which can help to give shape and voice to a heartfelt prayer of lament:

O God, explain to me
the cruelty of your world!
Make sense of those
who make no sense!
Tell me why the innocent die,
and evil people live
to kill again!
Tell me why the faithful
are shunned,
and the self-righteous
point their fingers!
Tell me why the wounded
are wounded,
and sorrow falls
on the shoulder of sorrow!
Tell me why the abused
are abused,
and the victims
victimized!
Tell me why the rains
come to the drowning,
and aftershocks
follow earthquakes.
O God, is this any way
to run a world?
O Merciful One, let us rest
between tragedies!

Speak to us
for we are your people.
Speak to us of hope
for the hopeless
and love for the unloved
and homes for the homeless
and dignity for the dying
and respect for the disdained.

Speak to us, O God,
of the Resurrected One!
Speak to us of hope,
for in spite of
the tidal wave of tears,
we remember your story
of new life!

Tell the world again,
O God of creation!
Tell us that winter will fade,
and spring will wash us new,
and the world will green again,
and we will be new creations
in the garden of our God.
Free us from these tentacles
of sorrow,
and we will fall on our faces
and worship you,
O God of goodness,
O God of a new green world!