Full Contact Religious Life

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Listen while you read

We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.
~ Emily Dickinson

When I was a kid, the local county rescue unit set up a wrestling ring in an old unused store across the street from our church. The Civil Defense Corps decided it was a great idea to use it for a bit of a fundraiser. They hosted a series of wrestling matches in there, and folks could pay to come and see the competition.

Keep in mind that this was very much small-town America, so it wasn’t anything spectacular. It was a bit “rigged up,” one might say. But it was interesting!

The group had set up a wrestling ring inside this building, in the main room. And, folks would come and bring chairs and sit and stand around the outside of the room. I remember being more than a little cautious, as we would all stand there and folks would cheer for the person they wanted to win.

I was always afraid that someone would get hurt. I would watch the two folks chase each other around the square, bounce off the side ropes, and throw one another down on the mat. There was a referee in there, but I remember thinking that, at a moment’s notice, they could simply toss him out of the ring if they wanted…and all chaos would break out.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the wrestling. We all knew these people, and we all lived together, so it felt a bit artificial to see them start fighting. I remember the noise of folks cheering their person on, wanting him to win. For each match, there had to be a winner, which meant there would always be a loser.

That was the part I think I liked the least: that someone would lose the match and be declared, in a sense, as weaker than the winner. Maybe it was just that they were less skilled at wrestling rather than being inherently weaker, but even so, the winner was seen as over-powering the loser. Winner….loser…..cheering crowds….

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Today’s Hebrew lesson is a remarkable text for many reasons. First, even though the text says Jacob wrestled with some unknown man, the ancients in the Hebrew tradition and we in the Christian tradition have always understood this to be much more than a wrestling match between two men. The text and the tradition holds that this is a wrestling match between Jacob and an angel of the Lord, a wrestling match between Jacob and the Divine.

The text says that Jacob was left alone, after taking his wives, servants and eleven children after leaving his parents and his brother Esau and crossing the ford of the Jabbok. He is left alone, and this strange, remarkable event takes place.

A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.

And the man sees that he has not prevailed against Jacob. There was no clear winner and loser in the struggle, and he struck him on the hip socket. He puts Jacob’s hip out of socket. And then the stranger tells Jacob to let him go.

But notice that Jacob doesn’t simply give in. I will not let you go until you bless me. And the man gives Jacob a new name. He gives him the name Israel. When we remember that names have deep significance, it all falls into place as we see the man telling Jacob, You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.

And, now Israel asks for the stranger’s name, but he doesn’t get that bit of information. That mystery is maintained within the Divine. But he does receive a blessing, and Jacob calls the Divine wrestling rink Peniel, saying For I have seen God face to face, paniym paniym as it says in Hebrew, and my life is preserved. And Jacob limps away…

Remarkable…..a wrestling match between the Divine and the human, with the seemingly impossible: rather than the Divine blasting the human into smithereens, there is a new development in the relationship, with a much more complex understanding of how we relate to God and God to us.

We begin to see that the life of faith, the practice of our faith in every day life, might be a bit more complex than we had originally thought. We are left wondering if, rather than a passive, polite, reserved religious practice where we only have to follow a well-proscribed system, we are called into a religious practice that is more of a full-contact sport—a religious practice that maybe is a bit more concerned with the wrestlings of religious experience than the strict dogma of an institution.

When we explore the image and story of Jacob wrestling the angel, maybe we begin to see what Emily Dickinson was pointing to: in her words, that we are called to wrestle with how “we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour which keeps believing nimble.”

Which keeps believing nimble….

I was wrestling with this text—pun very much intended—this week, driving down Thompson Bridge Road after going on a pastoral visit. I talk to myself in the car sometimes, putting thoughts together. And, I was reflecting on how “belief” is a much more complex process or action or reality than it is often made out to be in modern, popular Christianity. As I was reflecting on this—I kid you not—my struggle took on a new dimension as a blue truck turned out in front of me. There painted in huge letters on the tailgate of the truck was a single sentence: “Salvation is Easy: Just Believe.”

“Well,” I thought, “there it is…my whole point, right in front of my face.”

What do we do with these two contrasting images? Jacob wrestling with the angel, an encounter that leaves no clear winner and loser but rather initiates a new level of relationship between God and humans that is embodied in a new name, which means “for you have striven with God and have prevailed.” How do we reconcile this image with the message of the blue truck: “Salvation is easy: Just believe.”

I wonder if Dickinson—and others as well—may have the key with her image of “nimble believing.”

Nimble believing…. What if we put the question this way, as we reflect on our spiritual life. Are we willing to wrestle with God? Are we willing to enter into a deeper level of the relationship, of entering into an encounter that goes beyond merely following the proscribed formulas?

Our encounters with God aren’t always going to be pleasant encounters with God simply giving us what we want or appeasing us… I think we’ve been around the block enough times to know that the Divine reality is anything near the ATM God that we see held up in popular Christianity: pray harder and God will make you wealthy and prosperous, etc.

God, that mystery and source of all life who chose to incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and who breathes in us as the Holy Spirit in our lives…this reality is never exhausted. Even when Israel, the Patriarch formerly known as Jacob, wrestled with the Divine all night, he still didn’t receive the name. God cannot and will not be contained.

So, are we willing to wrestle with this reality? Are we willing to practice a “nimble believing?” Are we willing to lean into new spaces, to reach out and claim a blessing, to continue asking questions…to continue wondering…

If so, if we’re willing to wrestle, then every place we are, every step we take, becomes, for us, Peniel… and we can say with Israel: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 13, Year A
Genesis 32:22-31
August 3, 2014

One comment

  1. Thank You Stuart. I needed to read this this morning. Some days it is hard to ask God to help us because we try to snatch it back before we give him time and we believe enough for him to help us. I am so guilty of that. We all wrestle with things we seem to let worry us too much. But I am willing to wrestle with these things because I know that God will be there for me no mater what the outcome may be. He has a reason why we are still here , and I may never know what it is. That’s okay too, because as long as we are believing in His Mercy and Love things will be fall into place. I love you son. Keep doing what you are doing. God has more great plans for you.

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