22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

                                                                                                                                         -Genesis 32: 22-32

November 9, 2014

There are a few cardinal rules they teach you in Preaching 101: never wear a costume, never make yourself the hero of your own anecdote, and never, never start a sermon with a golf joke. Another of these cardinal rules is that sermons are not the place for “I” or “me.” Sermons are the place for “we” and “us.” They are the moment when a pastor strives to speak to the community about God and even speak to God about the community and they are not a time to speak about themselves. I am breaking that rule today. For the next three weeks we are focusing on what we are calling “This I Believe.” You may remember that Edward R. Murrow started a radio program of this name in the 1950s. He would ask people—famous and ordinary alike—to write a short essay about a guiding principle of their life. Then, they shared these essays on the radio. Eleanor Roosevelt offered one. So did Jackie Robinson. And Helen Keller and Harry Truman.

During a season of thankfulness and gratitude we thought it could be helpful to share what we believe: what sustains us when you pull away everything else. This week is my turn and next week is Phil’s. On week three we will celebrate one of the earliest Christian “This I Believe” statements found in I Corinthians which reminds the Church what forms the core of who we are and what we believe together.

For me to share what I believe, I must first share with you what I struggle with. I struggle with the verse read today in Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” I struggle with this because the evidence at hand seems to be contrary to it. Those who love God do not have “get out of suffering free” cards. They have their share of difficulties and, sometimes, because of their faithfulness, they even have more than their share. I also struggle with it because so often it is said to folks in an effort to help and what it does is hurt instead. You will hear these words offered at a funeral as someone pats the grieving person’s hand: I know you are sad, they will say, but remember all things work together for good for those who love God! What was meant to help now leaves the grief-stricken person a victim as well for they are left with the impression that either this suffering is God’s will or they suffer because they do not love God enough.

This represents what has been called the “tapestry” theory. You have probably heard it before. It reminds us of what a tapestry can look like: its intricate design, its beautiful colors and images. But flip the tapestry over and you will see the knots and the frayed threads. Our lives, the theory goes, are like the backside of a tapestry and the hard parts are those knots and frayed ends. But turn the tapestry over and all of the hard parts will make sense and show a beautiful picture in the end. All things work together for good for those who love God.

I do not believe the tapestry theory. I do not believe a life cut short can be compared to a stubborn knot on the backside of God’s design and I do not believe God takes our struggles so lightly either. I do not believe that terrible things can be sewn up so simply.

Then, what do I believe? I believe in wrestling. I believe that when something terrible happens we have a responsibility to take it seriously enough to wrestle with it. Even if it takes all we have. That’s what Jacob did. His fight in the dark is one of my favorite scriptures because it feels like the life of faith to me. Jacob is in the fight of his life and yet he will not let go. The struggle is too important to walk away from. I believe in wrestling because Jacob’s wrestling moves him to a new place but it also moves God. While we might want to believe that God could have beaten Jacob at any time in the night or that God could have left him whenever he wished, that is not what the scripture says. It actually says the opposite. It says that the stranger recognized that he could not defeat Jacob. It says he wanted to leave. But Jacob would not let him. Jacob held on. What faith! I believe in wrestling because it not only moves us but, brazen as it sounds, wrestling moves God too.

You know how the story goes that there’s this married couple and they keep fighting over the color of the carpet, except the fight was never about the carpet? I believe that when the car accident comes or the diagnosis is handed down, we wrestle in the night with the circumstance when, all along, our real fight is with God. And I believe in getting in that ring. I believe it is faithful to struggle with him and hold tight, refusing to let him go until he gives you some kind of blessing out of it. In fact, I believe that our wrestling shows us our faith is still within us. It is when we walk away completely, throw in the towel, that we are faithless.

I do not offer this belief lightly and I do not believe wrestling toward a blessing is easy or simple. I do believe it is true. Every year I send a card to a woman who lost her daughter in a car accident four years ago. Last year I wondered if I could share my belief with her, if I even should. Finally I decided I would. I wrote to her that I grieved for her even now and I could not imagine her grief. I wrote, nothing can replace your daughter but my prayer for you is that you will continue to wrestle with God and to demand some kind of blessing out of the experience. I put the letter in the mail and held my breath. Would she be offended thinking I believed the whole thing is balanced as long as God blesses her somehow? I waited and then a letter arrived. She was gracious and kind and she also disagreed. She said, I cannot imagine any way for any blessing to come of this.”

But this is what I still believe. I believe it is our right to come before God and to wrestle with him over the most painful parts of our lives and to refuse to let go until he blesses us. We are not just some thread in a tapestry but our difficulties can take us out of the picture altogether. Wrestling means God doesn’t stop sewing on us. It means some kind of image can still form out of our lives, even if it is now completely different than it would have been. I am not the only one to struggle with Paul in Romans 8. Even Paul might struggle with himself here because even the ancient manuscripts disagree. Instead of, “All things work together for good for those who love God,” they translate it this way: “We know that God works toward good in all things.” “All things” is not the subject but “God” is the subject. God is at work ensuring that suffering is not my end. It is not your end. Indeed, if we will hold on to him, God wrestles us toward a blessing. This I believe. Amen.