When you wrestle with another person it’s a win/lose proposition, but when you wrestle with God it’s always win/win.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… and the man said, you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans.
Not too long ago, I and the elected delegates to Diocesan Convention from the parish I was serving, attended the Pre-Convention Convocation which is designed to give those with a vote a chance to get a thorough preview of business that will come before convention.
The Dean welcomed us, and then he said something that caught me by surprise. He said, “For some reason they discouraged any substantial resolutions this year. I’m not sure why.” Sure enough he was right. They were all “Housekeeping Resolutions,” light-weight resolutions that weren’t exactly watersheds of progressive theological action.
I found myself harkening back to the days when delegates debated Women’s Ordination, issues surrounding sexual orientation, and what kind of credentials a person needed in order to receive Holy Communion in the Church. It would be my guess that almost all of those reading this reflection remember the controversy that was stirred up in our Diocesan Conventions following the election of the first openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire. Why it seemed like a different parish went down the road of schism every week. There was even a Bolivian Bishop who ordained four dissident Priests from right here in my diocese. We didn’t have very many “non substantial” resolutions in those days. I guess those aren’t looked upon as the “good old days” today, not because we disagreed, but because we were so disagreeable. Unlike Jacob and God who wrestled through the night and were able to bless each other before their departure, some just decided to make their departures minus any blessing.
The church throughout history has always engaged in wrestling matches. In fact, I would go on to say that the church has actually become stronger following times of struggle and fierce debate. But let’s be honest, some of us may have flexed our muscles a little too tightly during those wrestling matches of not so long ago, causing some members of our church not to want to wrestle any more. They want to call off the match, and have the referee send us to our separate corners — permanently. They want no more of those fuzzy, grey edges around theology and our pastoral practice. Therefore, some who remember those days of painful disagreement now only want to deal with “non substantial resolutions.” This might make for peaceful conventions, but it can also lead to a “non substantial” church!
The really sad thing about this is that as soon as we stop wrestling with God and with humans, we cease to be Anglican Christians; I also think we cease to be biblical Christians. Being willing to live with some blurred edges and a few grey areas, and to be able to disagree agreeably has been a hallmark of our tradition. It isn’t Dogma that binds many churches into the Anglican Communion, it’s our mutual love and respect that binds us!
I remember, a few years back, preaching a sermon on the story of the walk to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. I pointed out a true fact, namely that archeologists have actually never found the town of Emmaus, and so we can’t really prove that it ever existed. Now my point was not, nor would it ever be, to confound people and to contradict the Bible. Nor was my point to show how much I knew about biblical archeology. I used this simple fact to launch a metaphor. I wanted to be able to say that the walk to Emmaus can be any of our walks where we might meet Christ along the way, and that Emmaus could be any of the towns in which we live and move and have our being. I was attempting to help my listeners to engage the meaning of one of the most touching and beautiful and TRUTH-FILLED stories in all of Holy Scripture, to help them to integrate that meaning into their lives on Monday morning, when the real wrestling match begins.
During the postlude, as people were leaving the church, a regular attender of the church, shook my hand, promptly accused me of proclaiming that the Bible was full of lies, and told me that I didn’t have any right to question its absolute factual authority, and she continued on out the door. I have to tell you, that there have been few times when I felt more misunderstood.
I will admit that I find no virtue in a homogenized religion. I prefer a religion that allows, and, in fact, encourages me to struggle and to wrestle. The problem is that there are so few places on Sunday morning that people who believe in this way can call their spiritual home. In an attempt to fill the pews, more and more churches seem to be saying, “Join us, we don’t wrestle here any more, everything is cut and dried here, clear as a bell and literally uncomplicated.” The problem with this is it doesn’t remotely resemble real life! Such popular religiosity turns God into a good luck charm. It depicts Jesus as a kind of caped crusader, shielding us from all of life’s problems. But a wrestling spirituality teaches that Jesus often leads us into conflict, that in turn leads us into a self-death resulting in a great harvest. Popular religion centers its faith around a Jesus who promises us a blissful existence beyond the grave. But a wrestling spirituality focuses, as Jesus does, on the current world, the Kingdom that is here and now, transforming that same “here and now” so that it is worth preserving into the future. Popular religion offers us a Jesus whose main purpose is to make life easy. But a wrestling religion offers us a Jesus who calls us to take up our own cross and follow, especially the crosses of social justice and radical equality.
It is in this wrestling struggle that we meet God. Remember Jacob’s proclamation after his long wrestling match? He said, “I have seen God face to face.” If we find God at the ocean it’s most likely because of the churning and slapping of the waves. If we find God in the mountains, it’s most likely because of the rugged terrain and the ever-changing yet always beautiful landscape. It’s not that God loves confusion; it’s that God seems to enjoy diversity more than uniformity.
It was while they were still wrestling that Jacob was blessed by God. It was while they were still wrestling, that God changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” which, in Hebrew, literally means “wrestles with God.”
In the New Testament, the church is called “The New “Israel.” So if you stop to think about it, we don’t really need fewer substantial resolutions at church conventions; what we really need is to make sure that we’re living up to our name!
May our gracious God richly bless each of us in the continuing struggle. AMEN.
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