Alton Parish—Genesis 32:38, 22-30; Luke 18:1-8a
You may know that today is my first day officially off of sabbatical, which began way back on the 18th of June. And the last time I was in Alton was not too very long before that sabbatical began, as I came to St Paul’s to preside over the institution and induction of your rector. Mother Cindy has now been with you here around six months. It has been her privilege, little by little, to be allowed into the lives of the people of this wonderful parish. You have already begun to develop a “history” together. Stuff has happened—stuff that has called for that difficult-to-define activity that we call pastoral care. And as Mother Cindy has attempted to provide pastoral care, she has, along with many of you, had to face once again some really hard, really critical issues of faith and life: How can I have doubts and still believe? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? How come bad things happen to me when I’m really not such a bad person? These encounters always reveal in a fresh way how much the shape of our lives is determined by the difficulties and the adversities we face. It’s a universal human experience: We all have problems. Some seem to have more than their fair share, and some seem to have less, but we all have problems. And most of us, at one time or another, find those problems to be a very important element in our prayers. We pray about the things that bother us. We ask God to fix them, to make them go away, or to give us the strength to endure them with dignity.
The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, I think, applies here. We pray, and seek answers to, our personal problems. These usually have to do with matters of health and safety, with household finances, with educational and marriage and career decisions, and the like. We also pray about the things that worry us on a more public and collective level. We pray for the community in which we live, for our nation, for peace and prosperity and justice throughout the world. As Christians, we pray for the church. We are spending so much energy struggling among ourselves that we are distracted from focusing on the real mission of the church. For more than a decade, as our Episcopal Church has passed through the troubled waters of conflict, many of us have prayed, “How long, O Lord, how long? How long will it be until we can worship you and proclaim your gospel in peace and with a united voice?” But our prayers seem to be unanswered, because the conflicts and divisions continue. After decades of praying for racial reconciliation at a national and local level, we are dismayed to discover just how deep the remaining rift is. How long, O Lord? How long will our prayer go unanswered? Many of you have been bringing the same physical ailments and emotional wounds before the Lord in prayer for years and years. How long, O Lord, how long?
We can only conclude, it often seems, that all these unanswered prayers are a sign of something terribly wrong. Either God is not really all-powerful, or we’re praying in the wrong language, or we don’t have enough faith, or something. We assume, of course, that the measure of God’s love for us is the degree to which our life is “smooth sailing.” If we’re living in God’s favor, he will smooth out the bumps in the road. So if the bumps are still there, that’s a sign that something’s amiss. If my prayers aren’t getting answered, then God must be mad at me, and if God’s mad at me, it must be because of something I did, or failed to do.
I wonder whether human beings tend to project on to God the expectations for ourselves that we are unable to meet. Our natural inclination, of course, among those of us who are parents, is to provide our own children with as bump-free a road as we possibly can. We go out of our way to shield them and protect them from the various hazards of life. We desperately want to spare them from pain and heartbreak. But we can’t, of course, and we realize that. But God is omnipotent, so we’re told, and so he can spare us, his children, from bumps and bruises, and if he doesn’t . . . well, that’s where we get the idea that something’s wrong. We can forgive ourselves, sometimes, for our failures as parents, but we expect more from God. He is, after all, God. We hold him to a higher standard.
In reality, however, I would suggest that God’s fatherly care for us is not defined by the standards that we set for it. In many ways, it is more like human parental care than we might think. The ancient and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with … well, who was it he was wrestling with anyway? It’s hard to tell, at first, but by the end of the narrative, it becomes apparent that Jacob is actually wrestling with none other than the Lord himself. This event took place at a watershed moment in Jacob’s life. He was about to be re-united with his twin brother, from whom he had parted several years earlier on something less than amicable terms. He wasn’t sure what sort of mood Esau would be in, and he feared for the safety of himself and his family. He went so far as to separate himself from the rest of his household, so as not to provide a united target. And it was while he was thus alone, in the middle of the night, that a shadowy figure engaged him in a wrestling match.
Does it seem strange that God would express his love for one of his children by appearing in bodily form and picking a fight with him? Indeed, it does. The first thing we must acknowledge, of course, is that God was under no obligation to do so. So, even though the experience was a struggle for Jacob, it was an honor, at least, to have God’s focused attention for that long a time! But the nature of their activity—wrestling—is also significant.
I am not a particular fan of cats, but I love and live with one who is, so my home, over the years, has served as a maternity ward and nursery for several generations of felines. I have observed that one feature of feline parenting involves an activity that can only be described as wrestling: wrestling between mother and offspring, and wrestling between kittens. We would probably classify it as “play,” and no mortal wounds are inflicted, but it does have the character of struggle; there are winners and losers. It is, course, a rehearsal for life outside the comforts of the living room, practice for the real world of the great outdoors. The wrestling match has a very serious and very practical purpose.
And we realize, of course, that mature parenting resists the temptation to “fix” everything for kids. Mothers and fathers know that, sooner or later, they will have to give their offspring the freedom to make choices that will result in suffering. Hopefully, this takes place in small doses and in a relatively safe environment. And sometimes this means that parents themselves are the ones who are the source of this perceived, and hopefully minor, suffering. What relationship between a parent and a child does not sometimes feel, to both parties, like a wrestling match, a wrestling match somewhat less playful than that between two kittens?! Yet, to deny children this experience will rob them of the tools which they will need to cope with serious adversity later on in life.
And in this aspect, God’s parental care is very much like human parental care. An important sign of God’s love for us is that he is available to wrestle with us. I would go so far as to say that a relationship with God that doesn’t include wrestling is an immature relationship. Human parents don’t wrestle with newborn infants because they’re too fragile, and they’re not yet capable of learning from the experience. If God avoids wrestling with us spiritually, it may be for the same reasons: We’re too fragile and not capable of learning from the experience. Those Christians throughout history whose holiness and devotion was so heroic that the larger church calls them “saints” are invariably experienced spiritual wrestlers. Their walk with the Lord has not been easy or mild or filled with unmitigated joy. They have struggled with God in prayer.
This is the notion behind Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart,” and the parable he told about the woman who simply pestered a government official until he granted her request. God, apparently, doesn’t mind if we pester him—or, to describe it another way, if we wrestle with him! He even invites us to do it!
So what are the qualities of a good spiritual wrestler? Looking at the example of Jacob, I would suggest three:
The first is honesty. Jacob was afraid of his meeting with Esau, and he was honest about that fear. It was the whole reason he was alone on the riverbank that night. It won’t do to be anything but brutally honest with God. He knows what’s in our hearts anyway, so it’s not like we can put one over on him! It is best to tell it to him like it is. If you’re angry, be angry, and don’t disguise your feelings with polite piety that you think God wants to hear. Remember who you are trying to impress; he can see right through you. If you’re depressed, be depressed. If you’re fearful, express that fear, name that fear. And if you’re happy, don’t try to restrain your joy; let it all out! A good wrestling match is an honest wrestling match.
The second quality of a good wrestler is vulnerability. Jacob didn’t shy away from the fight. He didn’t even know with whom it was he was wrestling, at first, but he got right in there. You can’t wrestle unless you are willing to take the risk of engaging in the struggle. You can’t just circle the ring; you’ve got to get down on the mat and mix it up with your opponent. Sure, it’s a risk, but it’s a greater risk not to.
The third quality of a good spiritual wrestler is tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness. Jacob persisted for hours, well past the point of fatigue. It was the Lord himself who called “timeout” and suggested a way of breaking off the struggle. Tenacity means we don’t judge the fruits of our efforts by their short-term results. Too often we quit doing something good and healthy because we don’t see any immediate benefits from it. Spiritual growth, whether it’s the spiritual growth of an individual Christian, or a parish community, or a segment of the universal church, such as the Episcopal Church—spiritual growth, like organic growth, is rarely a “right now” proposition. There can be long delays between sowing and reaping, between planting the seed and harvesting the crop. If we have the discipline, the tenacity, to stick with what we know is right even when we don’t feel any great benefit from it, we will be good wrestlers.
Jacob finally agreed to break off the struggle with his divine opponent when he was wounded; his hip was put out of joint. But before doing so, he managed to extract a concession from the Lord—a special blessing, the blessing of a new name, the name by which his descendants would be known: Israel. So Jacob emerged from his night of wrestling with two souvenirs: a wound and a blessing. We need to know that if we take the risk of wrestling with God, we will be changed by the experience. It will be demanding of all our resources. It will, at times, hurt. But the experience of Jacob tells us, and the words of our Lord Jesus tell us, that the blessing is worth the pain. God the wrestler is ready in the ring. That’s the good news today! God loves us enough to make himself available to wrestle with. There are some hard knocks waiting for us in the match, but we will come out of it stronger, better. Are we going to keep God waiting, or are we going to get down on the mat and mix it up with him? Amen.