Sunday, October 16, 2016

Struggling with God

A Sermon preached on Pentecost XXII, 16th October 2016 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Genesis 32: 22, 31, I Timothy 3:14–4: 5, Luke 18: 1–8

What a strange God we are introduced to in today’s readings. One who gets into fights, one who is compared to an unjust judge. I am reminded of a film/movie I saw earlier this year - the Brand New Testament (or in its original French: Le Tout Nouveau Testament). The film’s subtitle is “God exists, and lives in Brussels.” The God of this film, which is very funny by the way, is a bit of a slob who wears a dressing gown and slippers all day, and is a grumpy sadist who appears to have created humankind just to have something to play with and torment at times. 

In the parable from Luke, in which Jesus tells his disciples about the “need to pray always and not to lose heart,” (Luke 18:1) Jesus gives us the character of the equally grumpy “judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” (18:2) He only grants the widow’s plea for justice because he is fed up with her bothering him. So is God and God’s response to prayer like this judge? Does God only answer prayers when we get on God’s nerves long enough? No, of course not. Jesus is using a typical Jewish rabbinical from of argument called “from the lesser to the greater.” If, he says, even a slob like the judge grants justice to those who continually come and plea for help, how much more will God, Abba, Father who is love in person, grant justice to those who cry to him day and night. 

And yet, even with God there may be a period of waiting involved before we receive the justice we believe we deserve, or before God reveals how we can achieve justice in any given situation – we may well have a role to play in answering our own requests.
That is why, Jesus says, we need to pray always and not to lose heart. Prayer is a two-way communication; prayer is one means by which we open our hearts to God to show God where we need help, strength, confirmation, or reassurance. And we can use prayer for our complaints and questions too. When I pray, I often use the words “why” and “I don’t understand” and “help me!”  And that is nothing in comparison to what Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, said and felt at times. She went through long periods of doubt and suffering, her dark nights of the soul. She struggled with her faith and with her God. It seems to me that in this passage, Jesus is also preparing his disciples and followers, us, for those times when we do not receive the help, strength, confirmation, and reassurance we hope for. When instead we feel abandoned and alone, just as Jesus did for a moment on the cross when he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). 

Jacob’s mysterious encounter in Genesis describes a prolonged struggle too. Jacob’s life was one of never-ending struggles. Fleeing his father-in-law, he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who has vowed to kill him. This is the night before that encounter. Jacob is on his own, he has sent his family with everything he had on ahead of him and probably collapses into a deep, exhausted sleep. But not for long, for an unnamed man visits him during the night and wrestles with him until daybreak. Is this God? Jacob thinks so: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30) he says as he renames the place Peniel or “I have survived.” 

Well, I think Jacob struggled with many things that night. He fought with his own conscience, his failures, his weaknesses, his sins. He fought with his doubts, with what he felt were God’s unrealistic expectations for him: that he would inherit the land and that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in him and in his offspring.” (Genesis 28:14) Him, Jacob the conman, Jacob who betrayed his brother, Jacob who was about to meet that brother in battle, come on God, pull the other one!  

But although injured, Jacob comes out of his struggle with God both strengthened and renewed. He receives a blessing from God, replacing the blessing he had obtained from his father by trickery. And he is given a new name. No longer is he Jacob the deceiver, but Israel, which means something like “who contends or struggles with God.” As the man tells him, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”(Gen. 32:28) I think that means not just that Jacob has striven with other humans, like his father-in-law, his brother Esau, but also with Jacob’s own very human weaknesses, and prevailed. 

What we learn from this incident in the life of Jacob, from the story of the unjust judge, and from the example of Saint Teresa and many, many other saints is that it is OK to be impatient and persistent and to struggle with God. Struggling with God is in our Judeo-Christian heritage, it is in our DNA. We heard how the word Israel means something like struggle with God. Saint Paul teaches us that we are Israel: by adoption we are also Abraham’s children, we grafted on to the olive tree that is Israel (Romans 6), and we are members of the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:16) 

Jacob was afraid that he would die, not just for struggling with God, but simply for having seen him face to face. Throughout the Old Testament, we read of many occasions when people would hide or turn their backs rather than face God: Elijah wraps his face in a mantle (1 Kings 19:13), God puts Moses in a cleft of the rock to protect him. (Exodus 33:22) As Christians we do not have to fear death from struggling with God, nor from seeing God. God became human. In Jesus, God, whom according to John “no one has ever seen” is made known and visible to us. (John 1:18)  And through Jesus we learn to see God as a loving parent, not one who punishes, but one who wants us to grow to fulfill the promises given to us, both as individuals and as humanity.

But growth and development often involves struggle and even pain. We know that from our own children, they need a sparring partner, they need parents to rebel against and to struggle with. They need parents they can argue with. They need parents who will let them make their own choices and even mistakes. They need parents who will sometimes not do or give the children what they ask for, because we feel it is not in their interest, not good for them, or simply better if they do it themselves. These are struggles in love and out of love, and in most cases, because I don’t want to deny that not every parent/children relationship is good, the children still know and feel that they are loved simply because of who they are, and that all the struggles and fights and arguments will not change that relationship, on the contrary it is deepened and strengthened.

This is the God we are introduced to in today’s readings. The God who not only accepts doubts and complaints and struggles, but welcomes them. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he is told that all scripture, and at that time Scripture was only what we now call the Old Testament, so stories like Jacob’s, that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” That is the purpose of our lives in Christ, that through scripture, through worship, through our relationship with God, and especially through our struggles with God we will learn, change, grow, and improve to become fully proficient and properly equipped for every good work God has planned for us, and to live this and the eternal life we are promised to the full. For that we pray always and do not lose heart.

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