Archive for July, 2005

July 31

Wrestle Till the Break of Day

By Marsh Chapel

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel or divine being—Jacob thought it was God—is a classic story of struggle to win a blessing. Sleeping in the open by himself after having sent his family, flocks and troops on ahead, Jacob was engaged by a man or angel or god in a wrestling match that lasted all night. Jacob was ferociously strong, a point made earlier in the narrative when on two occasions he lifted huge stones that usually could be moved only by several men working together. The god could not get away from Jacob, but had to do so because, according to ancient beliefs, the god could not last in the light of day. Even after the god sprained Jacob’s hip, Jacob held on. Jacob demanded a blessing, and at last the god relented and gave Jacob a new name, “Israel,” which meant that Jacob would be the father of that great people, Israel. Jacob demanded to know the god’s name, but the god refused; in ancient times it was thought that to know a person’s real name is to have some power over him. Jacob was satisfied that he had seen God face to face and lived; indeed, Jacob’s physical encounter with the god was more intimate than merely seeing. So, the first-level moral of the story is that you can wrestle with God to win a new divinely-blessed identity, and also to see God face to face. Jacob is the model of the spiritual striver, indeed perhaps of the mystic.

This incident takes on added significance when read in the context of the overall Jacob story, which runs from Genesis 25 to 35. That story is an artful contrivance based on the plot of Jacob’s birth, his fleeing from home, and living for twenty years with his shifty uncle Laban while he marries two of Laban’s daughters plus two concubines, and has twelve children by the four of them. He becomes vastly wealthy. Then Jacob returns home with all his belongings; the wrestling match takes place on the homeward journey. The art of the story is that the incidents on the outward journey are paralleled by incidents on the homeward journey. For instance, Jacob is born competing with Esau, his twin brother who was first out of the womb, and the end of the story has the brothers living peacefully and happily together. As a young man, Jacob cheats Esau out of their father’s blessing by disguising himself as Esau. Esau is furious, and Jacob flees to his uncle Laban, ostensibly to find a wife. Parallel to this, Esau welcomes Jacob back with much forgiveness on the return home. While fleeing Esau on the outward journey, Jacob has the dream about angels going up and down on the ladder to heaven, and this is paralleled by our story of the wrestling match with a god just before Jacob meets Esau for their reconciliation. The land Jacob flees to, Haran, is the place where his grandfather, Abraham, originally came from, and Uncle Laban is the brother of Jacob’s mother, Rebecca. So Jacob’s wives are his first cousins, keeping the heritage all in the family, as it were. Even Jacob’s flocks are taken from Laban’s flocks. For our culture, all this seems a bit incestuous, and the people who say the biblical ideal of marriage is one man and one woman simply don’t know the Bible. But the point of the Jacob story is to emphasize the purity of the heritage of Israel. Jacob, now renamed Israel, is the father of twelve sons whose descendents are supposed to be the twelve tribes of Israel, and the lineage goes back with purity to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and then back to Abraham to whom God made such extravagant promises about the Promised Land. Jacob’s Uncle Ishmael, who is older than his father Isaac and, at least according to the Muslims, is the rightful heir of Abraham, is excluded from the lineage of Israel. I talked about that several weeks ago. The Jacob story begins with a long genealogy of Ishmael’s descendents; Ishmael married outside the Abrahamic clan and his descendents are not part of Israel. Jacob’s brother, Esau, who had a better claim by birth than Jacob to be the heir of Abraham and Isaac, also married outside the Abrahamic clan, and his descendents became the Edomites, not the Israelites. A long genealogy of Esau’s descendents comes at the end of the Jacob story. Thus the illegitimate genealogies frame the story of the legitimate one. According to the Jacob story, only Jacob’s lineage is kosher, as it were.

The guiding theme of the Jacob story, however, is not only legitimacy of heritage, but alienation and reconciliation. As a young man, Jacob cheats his brother, deceives his father, and provokes God. Returning home, Jacob is eventually reconciled with his brother and father, and in our wrestling incident is reconciled with God, who had blessed him rather well all the time. The point is that God is faithful to the legitimate descendents of Abraham and provides the conditions for their reconciliation even when, like Jacob, they are greedy and full of lies. Jews and Christians have long taken the Jacob story to be a parable for the reconciliation of those who deservedly are alienated from the divine heritage. Christians have often interpreted Jacob’s wrestling partner to be Jesus Christ, or some kind of anticipation of Christ.

So let me say that the moral of the wrestling incident, when read in the context of the larger Jacob story, is that God comes to us when we are yet sinners and, if we hold on hard enough, not giving up even when the night is over and God has wounded us sorely, we can win the blessing of reconciliation with God and other people. Holding on to God in this struggle requires the tenacity that Paul described as faith. Although Jacob did not begin as a particularly admirable person, he clung to God in the pursuit of his own righteousness. May we all do as Jacob did: fight without giving up for reconciliation with God and our neighbors! No matter how bad we are, God comes to wrestle.

I admit that the metaphor of wrestling with God is a little sweaty for this time of year, and probably appeals to men more than to women. But you get the point.

A deeper dimension of this wrestling story needs to be investigated, however. Just who is the fellow with whom Jacob wrestles? What is his name, so coyly withheld? The text allows many answers: An angel? A primitive clan god belonging to Abraham and Isaac’s clan but not to Laban’s or the Canaanites? The one true God of Israel as the editors of the story have Jacob believe? The text admits of all these answers. I want to leave the historical dimensions of this question for biblical scholars and turn instead to a non-biblical source: a Methodist hymn.

Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer and brother of John Wesley who with him founded the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century, wrote a hymn-poem on the text of this story. He called it, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” It speaks in the voice of Jacob addressing the wrestling partner, whom he calls the unknown Traveler, and the first stanza is as follows. Listen to how it fits the story:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,

whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone,

And I am left alone with thee;

With thee all night I mean to stay

And wrestle till the break of day.

My sermon title comes from that last line.

That first stanza had a double meaning for the Wesley brothers. In addition to referring to the Jacob story, it referred to their own partnership in the Methodist movement. They often wrestled over what to do, and Charles was critical of John. But when Charles died, both of them were in their 80s, and John was devastated that his “company before is gone and I am left alone” with God. Shortly after Char
les’ funeral John tried to teach this hymn to a congregation and broke down in the attempt. I suspect that many widows and widowers feel this way about the loneliness of their remaining years with God alone.

Charles Wesley’s hymn gives a strange exposition of the Jacob story. It has Jacob say that he need not tell the unknown Traveler who he is himself, because his sin and misery are obvious, and besides the Traveler already calls him by name. The Genesis text does not suggest this introspection on Jacob’s part, although the name “Jacob” meant the “supplanter” because Jacob supplanted Esau as the receiver of Isaac’s blessing, and thus his name did refer to Jacob’s early sin. Wesley’s Jacob is desperate about his own unworthiness and does not need even to confess it. He asks, “But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.” Not the Traveler’s blessing, but his identity, is what Wesley’s Jacob wrestles for. The hymn goes on with several stanzas that end, “wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.”

Wesley’s Jacob asks our central question. We all wrestle with powerful forces, forces that make us to reveal our inmost identity when we often would hide that, even from ourselves. What are those forces with which we wrestle? God? Demons? What is their nature? Greed? Ambition? Fear? Doubt? Hate? Pride? Complacency? These deep struggles define our souls. They are the things that concern us ultimately, as the theologian Paul Tillich liked to say. Our lives are shaped around them as we wrestle with them through the years.

In Wesley’s exposition, Jacob becomes a Christian and asks whether the Traveler is Jesus:

In vain thou strugglest to get free,

I never will unloose my hold;

Art thou the man that died for me?

The secret of thy love unfold;

Wrestling, I will not let thee go

Till I thy name, thy nature know.

You see, there are a great many things with which we might wrestle ultimately that are not worth the effort. We all wrestle to make a living. But if we take it too seriously, it will deform our souls. We all wrestle to have a career. But taken too seriously, that deforms us. We wrestle to have family and friends, and we never have family and friends without long-term wrestling. But taken too seriously, that leads to dependency. We wrestle with our own character flaws, our greed, ambition, fear, doubt, hate, pride, complacency and a hundred other vices. To be sure, we need to work on these things. But if we wrestle with our sinful selves too seriously, we will be deformed into nasty judges whose self-hate sours everything. Haven’t we all known “religious” people like that? People who wrestle too much with what’s wrong turn into nihilists. The only thing worth wrestling with ultimately is God.

Wesley’s Jacob cries, “Yield to me now—for I am weak but confident in self-despair!” This introspective Jacob, in his self-despair, has nothing left to lose, and this gives him enormous strength. Remember the Janis Joplin song, “Freedom’s just another name for having nothing left to lose”? If Jacob had hope in his own strength, getting along without victory over the Traveler, he would have given up. But he becomes more insistent. “Speak to my heart, in blessing speak, be conquered by my instant prayer.” What gall! What confidence founded upon total despair, could let Jacob demand that the Traveler be conquered by his prayer! We softer types usually think of prayer as a petition. For Jacob it is a demand that God be conquered and reveal the Traveler’s name and nature. “Speak,” says Jacob, “or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love.” Love is Jacob’s guess, or hope, for the name and nature of his intimate wrestling partner.

Love is the only thing worth a lifetime of struggle. Love is the only thing that will not deform us when we embrace it each day. Love is not always an adversary, as suggested by the reference to wrestling. But one engages love like in a wrestling match. Learning to love through all the stages of life, with all the crowd of our friends and enemies, requires holding on through the night, again and again. What more important question can we ask than whether our ultimate concern, that with which we wrestle ultimately and life-long, is love or some fake?! So easily do we deceive ourselves, that we are about God’s business of love, that we need to go to the bottom of despair to ask Jacob’s question: is your name and nature really love?

Wesley, of course, is alluding to the text in 1 John that says “God is love.” He also suggests indirectly that the Traveler whose name and nature might be love is Jesus. But he does not say either directly. His Jacob does not ask explicitly whether the Traveler is God or Jesus, only whether his name and nature is love.

Then Wesley’s Jacob hears in his heart the Traveler’s whisper of his name and nature, a voice the Jacob in Genesis never heard:

‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure Universal Love thou art:

To me, to all, thy mercies move—

Thy nature, and thy name is Love.

The secret power of Wesley’s song is that it speaks salvation to the individual heart because it recognizes the paradoxical universality of love: “to me, to all, thy mercies move.” If the love that answered Jacob’s despair were only for Jacob, healing only Jacob’s vices and alienation, that would be for Jacob a fake love, a love that answers only his selfish concern for his own salvation. Wesley knew that real divine love loves everyone, the entire creation, and only an individual’s recognition of the universality of that love beyond his or her own benefit has true healing for that individual. Of course the point is that being healed means loving all those others just as the saving love has loved oneself. Truly to wrestle with saving love is to wrestle for the salvation of others as much as oneself. If the apparent love with which one wrestles is not the love of those others as well, then it is fake and cannot truly address the singularity of one’s own heart. Not all of the evangelicals of Wesley’s time, or ours, got that point. Even John Wesley frequently said that, although he knew intellectually that Christ died for the salvation of all, real salvation means the recognition that it applies to oneself. Charles Wesley reversed this in his hymn: in order to know that saving love applies to oneself, one has to recognize that it applies to those others just as well.

When pure universal love is the one with whom we wrestle through the night, nothing of God’s business is impossible for us. Our vices will be cured and our hopes fulfilled, as these things count within God’s love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,

Hell, earth, and sin with ease overcome;

I leap for joy, pursue my way,

And as a bounding hart fly home,

Through all eternity to prove

Thy nature, and thy name is Love.


-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

July 24

Heaven in Earth

By Marsh Chapel

Dearly Beloved, we have in our gospel text this morning five of the classic sayings of Jesus: the mustard seed, the yeast of the loaf, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the harvest of good and bad fish. Most of you have heard many sermons on each one. Gird your loins, because you are about to hear another. I should point out at the beginning, however, the special significance of this particular kind of Jesus-saying. In the last century, some influential theologians and their preacher-students argued that Christianity is to be understood in terms of a great story, a narrative. They demoted God from being the creator of all history and stories and turned God into an actor within the story, fighting against evil, which was sometimes personified as the Devil. Those of you who have followed the “Left Behind” series of books, which seems to provide the metaphoric if not theoretical substance for much contemporary conservative Christianity, might think that the witness of Christianity is a story, the story of God redeeming the world from evil forces. The New Testament does have passages that present such a narrative, particularly in some of the writings of Paul and in the Book of Revelation. The greater part of the New Testament gospels, however, is not about a story like this at all. Rather, it is about our proper relation to God who holds us under judgment. We are right now in the kingdom of heaven whether we know it or not. Most of Jesus’ own teachings, as in our texts today, and in the Sermon on the Mount earlier in Matthew’s gospel, and the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospels, and in the parables and admonitions throughout all the gospels, are about our proper relation to God now before whom we stand under judgment, not about a cosmic war between God and Satan. Whereas the cosmic drama can be called “Christian Narrative,” Jesus’ kind of teachings, and that of other books in the New Testament, can be called “Christian Wisdom.” In our time, many conservative Christians take the narrative to be the primary form of Christian understanding, with the wisdom passages interpreted as support for the narrative. Many liberal Christians take the Wisdom teachings to be primary, and the narratives as symbolic or metaphorical language to intensify the points of wisdom about our relation to God.

Our texts this morning about the kingdom of heaven fall under three sorts of wisdom teaching. The first two make the point that from very small and insignificant things can come very large and spiritually important results. The seed of the mustard plant is tiny. Yet it grows into a shrub that both is large and shelters other beings. This is to say, from a tiny, insignificant beginning, a great charity can come. Those of you who think you have nothing significant to contribute to the work of Christ in the world, don’t worry. You do not know what great things might come from your small gifts. We should note from this passage that small gifts in the kingdom of heaven are recognized by how they provide for others. How many of our sisters and brothers in Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Latin America would welcome nothing fancier than a secure place to make their nests!

The second saying, that a woman’s bread-yeast leavens the whole loaf, makes the point that some Christian virtues need not be imposed from on high. When insinuated subtly, like yeast, they can spread throughout the whole community and transform everything. Yet they are not seen themselves. Who thinks about the yeast in bread, if you haven’t made the loaf yourself? Jesus, of course, was not thinking about the Christian community when he thought of the loaf, because there wasn’t any such thing in his time. He was thinking rather about his whole society, and the yeast was the gospel and witness of his small band of disciples. Speak the truth in small places, and it might well spread throughout the whole. What a hopeful message! May we have the humility to understand our gospel lives on small terms, and yet have the courage to knead them into the entire loaf of our society!

The second sort of wisdom teaching in our gospel this morning is about the unique and overwhelming value of the gospel that we hear. You stumble on some great treasure in a field, and then quickly go to buy the field to gain ownership of the treasure. Jesus’ point is clear: when you discover a great treasure, you should mortgage your future to acquire it. The gospel message is that you need to be willing to sacrifice a lot or all of your previous investments when you discover the treasure of the gospel: the gospel will bring you into God’s presence. Your retirement fund brings only pre-mortem security.

The story of the pearl of great price makes much the same point, but with a significant existential distinction. Here you are, the pearl merchant, or spiritual seeker, hunting out some kind of heavenly bargain. Let’s be plain about what it means to be a spiritual seeker, rather than a committed practitioner. A seeker is one who has rejected all the options encountered so far. So the seeker’s mentality juggles two passions. One is the negative passion of rejecting the religious culture of birth, and also all those alternative cultures offered as possibilities. The other is the hopeful passion that keeps one moving, always looking, experimenting, risking ridicule and humiliation because of unanswered religious questions.

Suddenly you come upon a religious way of life, like the others as one pearl is like other pearls, but vastly more compelling and beautiful. At this point, you sacrifice all your other commitments and bring to the pursuit of this pearl of great price everything that you have so far invested in other spiritual paths. Jesus had a profound point here. Spiritual commitment is not divided democratically among lots of possibilities. You need one particular path. You might be able to synthesize one traditional path with other paths, but the synthesis has to add up one singular path to which you can give your whole devotion. Jesus’ gospel, he was saying, is that path.

These last two sayings of Jesus make the point that religious life is ultimate. We have many important and legitimate concerns in life—making a living, helping our family, serving the nation, perhaps making a contribution to society and culture that moves beyond our immediate contacts. The religious dimension of life, however, means that in and amongst all of these concerns there is a call to an ultimate concern, something before which we would sacrifice everything else. Hopefully we will not be called upon to sacrifice our other duties and interests. Hopefully we can find the ultimate within each of them. But when push comes to shove, sell everything else and buy the pearl of great price or the field with the treasure of heaven.

The first two sayings of Jesus, about the mustard seed and the yeast, declare that we can do great things out of proportion to our powers. The second two sayings declare that this is possible only if we subordinate, perhaps to the degree of sacrifice, our other concerns to focus on the heavenly treasure and pearl. The fifth saying, that fishing nets are indiscriminate about what they haul in and that fishermen have to separate the good fish from the bad, is more complicated. This passage has lent itself to the belief of some of our conservative Christian sisters and brothers that there will come a final showdown, an Armageddon, in which God’s forces of righteousness will battle it out with the forces of evil, and finally prevail. But all the passage actually says is that there is a real difference bet
ween good and evil and that this distinction will be recognized in each individual case. Each of us, sinner, schlub, seeker, sage, or saint, revealed nakedly as who we are, stands in judgment before God. Neither fudging nor excuses is allowed when we stand in ultimate judgment. Moreover, that ultimate judgment is not some distant moment when we die and show up on St. Peter’s. Rather we stand under judgment every moment of our lives, and because the Hound of Heaven has our scent, we should always be prepared to give an account.

Fortunately, the gospel of Jesus Christ promises mercy and forgiveness to all who confess their sins. We do not have to wait for a judgment on history to know that we stand before God now. We do not have to wait upon some mythic cosmic drama in the distant future, or perhaps a rapture next week, to acknowledge our ultimate relation to God. Our eternal identity within the eternal life of God is the matter of utmost urgency to us now and at every moment. Theologically speaking, it would be a religious subterfuge to say that our ultimate identity in God’s perspective depends on whether God wins some historical battle with Satan and evil. That ploy is a device for escaping responsibility and displacing it onto God, as if God were a character role in a drama about the victory of good or evil over one another.

The surprising thing about all these Jesus-saying is that the kingdom of heaven is never represented as a hereafter in some transcendent sense. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is something we should look for in our daily lives, says Jesus. Like great plants growing from bitty leaves, or a smidge of leaven making a whole loaf rise. Like suddenly finding a great treasure in our workplace, or a pearl of great price among the things we deal with daily. Like suddenly recognizing that, though we fly with turkeys, we shall be judged as to whether we soar like eagles. Other places in the Bible refer to heaven as a transcendent hereafter. I’m sure you have many different images of a heavenly afterlife. But in our gospel text for today, there is none of that afterlife transcendence business. All of these sayings of Jesus refer to the kingdom of heaven at hand, in the daily affairs of Earth, not in the bye and bye. How do they help us understand our situation to be in heaven in Earth? I believe three important lessons can be drawn.

First, because we live in God’s kingdom, even if we miss the point and believe we are only in our own kingdoms, there are real differences between right and wrong, like good fish versus bad fish. To be sure, sometimes affairs are too complicated to be understood clearly, and sometimes there is real moral ambiguity in the sense that what helps also hurts. Nevertheless, for Jesus there are profound and plain values that distinguish right from wrong. These are summed up as love, and are made specific in the public sphere in terms of justice, peacemaking, humility, care for the poor, and so forth. You know the list. In more private spheres love means kindness, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism, acceptance of people different from ourselves, and you know that list too. When our politicians sacrifice justice to greed, peacemaking to belligerence, humility to bullying, and care for the poor to tax breaks for the rich, we know the net contains bad fish. When our social culture sacrifices kindness to indifference, forgiveness to retribution, non-judgmentalism to contempt, and inclusiveness to chauvinism, we know the net contains more bad fish. Jesus says we need to behave like the good fish.

The tragedy for contemporary Christianity is that so many Christians who believe in the story of God fighting the Devil think that they can be good fish just by taking on the name of God or identifying themselves by the name of Jesus Christ. They think that, if they are on God’s side, then God must be on their side. But that self-righteousness so often leads them to act like the bad fish: they fool themselves into believing that the greed of our economy has God’s favor, they claim that their war-making is righteous because God is at war with the Devil, they think that arrogance toward others is justified because they are the spokesmen of Jesus, they dismiss those who suffer on grounds that they must deserve it, and they believe that they deserve to be richer themselves. Because they think God is at war and they are on God’s side, they believe that their own wars are God’s battles. That belief corrupts Jesus’ values of love, justice, peacemaking, humility, charity, kindness, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism, and inclusiveness of love. Jesus said to love our enemies, not fight them. The true Christian theology is that the unmeasurable wild creator God loves even the forces of evil, and redeems them. The little apocalyptic God who wars against the Devil and unbelievers is a holdover of ancient paganism, and has entertainment value only for those whom Jesus would regard as the bad fish.

How do we behave like good fish instead? Here is the second lesson from the gospel sayings. To live with the values of the Christian gospel is likely to require sacrifice, discipline, and the focusing of our many interests on what needs to be done to live the life of the gospel. All of creation is good, we Christians say, and our lives are lived in many dimensions, with many purposes. Nevertheless, we need to put first things first in order to love properly and teach others to love as well. Christian discipline does not mean getting rid of all the dimensions and interests of life save one: it means ordering them all so that they add up to a life and community of love. Learning such discipline is a life-long task for spiritual development, and it requires both individual and community effort. Moreover, it sometimes requires sacrifice, like selling prized possessions to buy the field of treasure or the pearl of great price. Think of the sacrifice Jesus made in order to be true to the priorities of love and redemption of enemies.

The third lesson from our collection of Jesus’ sayings is that our small efforts at the disciplined living of the way of love can have enormous consequences. Like the great bush that grows from a tiny mustard seed, sheltering many birds, our small loving endeavors of justice, peacemaking, humility, care for the poor, kindness, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism, and acceptance of people different from ourselves, can make a difference worthy of the kingdom of heaven far beyond what we see. Like a little leaven in the loaf, we can raise our whole society with the multiplier effects of love. We do not need to enlist anyone else in an army to fight God’s battles as we see them. We need to model for them, and lead them into, the ways of love that have the power to redeem the worst.

The kingdom of heaven is where we live now, and our citizenship consists in being called to the disciplines of advancing love in justice, peacemaking, forgiveness, kindness, redemption and all the rest we know so well. Jesus’ point is that, because this is heaven’s kingdom, our small acts of faith have ultimate significance. Let us rejoice in our hope. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville