Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Model Relationships (10/16/2016)
Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

I never cease to be amazed by the connections I find within the Presbyterian Church. I have a cousin in the congregation that I'm currently serving. I also have members in this congregation who are related to a member in the last congregation I served. Now if the two churches were only a few miles apart, this wouldn't be a great surprise, but they're more than 25 miles apart! This connection is where we begin the discussion of the story of Jacob wrestling with God.
Model Relationships (10/16/2016)

          I never cease to be amazed at the connections I find within the Presbyterian Church. I knew when I came to serve here at Rehoboth that I would find lots of connections to my family history. I wasn’t all that surprised when I found out I had a cousin in this congregation. But I was a little surprised when I learned that there was a connection between this congregation and the congregation that I served in Houston, PA.
          It seems that one of the members of the Houston congregation was married here in this church many, many years ago. His name was Don Morford and he married a Finley. I learned this from his niece, Sally Nicholls. And I gather that some of you had met Don over the years. He was a sweet, sweet man.
          As you probably know, Don passed away last Saturday; he was 92. Several of Don’s nieces spoke at his memorial service. They told wonderful stories about a life well lived and a man who was devoted to his entire family. Each of the speakers said that with Don, they knew they were loved. They knew they were loved. I can’t think of a better tribute.
          The main character in this morning’s reading from Genesis is Jacob; I don’t think many people would describe him with the same words as Don Morford. This story occurs at a place called Peniel. I should mention that place names are very important in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. In today’s lesson from Genesis that place is Peniel, which is a Hebrew word that means “the face of God.”[1] The implication is that the stranger who was wrestling with Jacob was God.
          At this point in the story, Jacob is returning to the land of his estranged brother, his twin, Esau. When Jacob left, he was penniless. The Jacob in today’s lesson is a very wealthy man, but there’s a catch. Jacob is a trickster; he has acquired his wealth through deceit. He cheated Esau out of his inheritance, and now, he’s trying to reconcile with Esau.
          This seems impossible. Esau should have no reason to welcome Jacob back. Jacob has shown no love for his brother. It would only be fair for Esau to reject Jacob. More to the point, it would be fair for Esau to get back at Jacob. That’s where this story was going before God stepped in. Esau was prepared to meet Jacob—with an army of 400 men. Esau would have been within his rights to confiscate Jacob’s wealth, and perhaps take Jacob’s life, too. That would certainly have been fair in the ancient Near East.
          But that’s not how God’s justice works. God’s justice is restorative. In order for that restoration to take place, Jacob must be transformed. So God steps into the narrative and meets Jacob in the night, just before Jacob is to meet with Esau. God and Jacob meet on the other side of the river Jabbok and they wrestle until the dawn. Neither one triumphs over the other.
          Think about that. God, who has the power to create heaven and earth, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, who made it rain for forty days and forty nights, that very same God cannot triumph over Jacob. Yet Jacob is given a wound that he carries with him for the rest of his life, and a new name, Yis-ra-el, Israel. In the light of a new day, “a new being has been called forth,” Israel is now a person and a community.[2] According to Walter Brueggemann:
Something happens in this transaction that is irreversible. Israel is something new in the world. Power has shifted between God and humankind. Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. There is something new underway here.[3]
Jacob, a trickster and a deceiver, has been reborn as Israel, and his descendants will become a community that is favored by God. Jacob is forever changed by his encounter with God.
          We don’t see this level of transformation in this morning’s gospel lesson. The unjust judge in this parable ultimately gives in to the widow’s plea, but it’s not because he had a transformative experience with God. No, the judge merely wanted to rid himself of a nuisance. If you think about it, Luke’s text almost seems to be tailor-made for Stewardship Sunday. Like the persistent widow, Stewardship chairs keep asking for money. Fortunately, you are not a congregation of unjust judges. And as I said before, this sermon is not just about stewardship, it’s about who we are and who we’re called to be.
          This parable is about God’s justice. Jesus tells the disciples not to lose heart. He also tells them to pray. Always. Jesus reassures the disciples:
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
How will God’s justice be done in our world today? Through the church. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon assert that “The church does not have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy.”[4] That is, Jesus established His church so that we would participate in his work of reconciliation. We are the church; we are the social strategy. This is what Jesus has called us to do.
          So right now, you folks might be thinking, “Pastor Alan, we like you, but that’s an awfully big task you’re setting before us.” And yes, it is. But the work belongs to the entire church. It can’t be done overnight or all in one place. Yet we are all called to do what we can to work towards God’s restorative justice. “But pastor, there’s so much work to do and so few of us.”
          In the two weeks that I’ve served as your pastor, I’ve heard a lot of stories about the people who used to be members here—the Flemings and the Finleys and so many folks like them who have entered the church triumphant—the ones who knew how to organize and run a chicken-and-biscuits dinner or a Christmas pageant. This congregation has lost a great deal of human capital. And here I am telling you that it’s your job to work for God’s restorative justice in the world. Right now some of you are looking at me like I’ve got a third arm growing out of my side. It’s okay. I forgive you for thinking I’m crazy. I mean, maybe I’m a little crazy, but for completely different reasons.
          Scripture offers a witness to God’s work on behalf of the people who are called Israel, the children of Jacob. This is why I believe the task of working towards God’s restorative justice is our job, too—and it’s not just crazy talk! Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s the best kind of crazy talk.
          Remember, Jacob is the grandson of Abraham. God promised Abraham that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. God made this promise when Abraham was 75! And his wife, Sarah, was barren! The idea that an elderly couple with no children would bring generations of children and grandchildren into this world—so many generations that they would be called a nation—that’s preposterous! Impossible! Yet that’s what God promised Abraham.
          The promises continue, even unto Jacob, a trickster and a deceiver, a cheat! God chooses one of the most unlikely people and God makes a promise. In Genesis, Chapter 28 (28:13-15), God appears to Jacob in a dream:
And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God promises faithfulness to Jacob; in the same way, God fulfills the original promise made to Abraham. According to one scholar:
God’s relation to Jacob, through both his father and his grandfather, stresses not only a familial link, but divine continuity across generations as well. The story involves God as well as Jacob’s ancestors. God’s own self is identified in the context of a divine journey, which God now promises to continue with Jacob. And this journey exists outside of the land of promise, “wherever you go.”[5]
That is remarkable! So maybe it is crazy to say that we’re part of that promise, too! And maybe it’s crazy to say that we’re called to be part of God’s restorative justice, but it’s crazy in all the right ways!
          Still, it’s difficult to figure out how we’re called to do that when we’re not surrounded by all those wonderful people who used to be a regular part of our lives. Yes, we understand God’s love and justice through the study of the scriptures; we also understand God’s love and justice through our human relationships. Remember the story of my friend, Don Morford. His nieces said that they always knew that they were loved. That love belonged to Don and it was freely given to all of his family members; that love came from God. That love that you all shared with former members—that also came from God! Though the individual members may have passed into the church triumphant, the love of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, though the power of the Holy Spirit, that love remains with us this very day!
          Our identity is in Jesus Christ, who calls us to do God’s justice in the world. In this time of transition, we must focus on our true identity as we discern our call to mission in this congregation, this community, and in the world. We will continue to be transformed through the relationships that we have right here and right now. This requires the active participation of the entire congregation. This is about making decisions—how you will invest your time, energy, and yes, your money, in the life and missions of Rehoboth Church. You may have to wrestle with these decisions as Jacob wrestled with God. You must also work to discern your own calling. This is another part of the wrestling match. And as you struggle with these questions of how to give of yourself and what you are called to do, remember that Jacob struggled with God and was reborn as Israel. And like Jacob, when we come together to do God’s work in the world, we are born anew in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God is always faithful to us. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love and act upon that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Genesis. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982; 268.
[2] Brueggemann, 268-269.
[3] Brueggemann, 269.
[4] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 43.
[5] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. I, (1994, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 542.

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