Today is a third sermon in a series on faith. Our first Sunday focused on faith as a discipline. It takes practice, ritual, commitment in order to have a strong faith. Practicing faith brings about healing. And still all of the obedience in the world doesn’t matter, if we don’t have gratitude. Gratitude brings about wholeness. That was the take home message last week. This week we focus on struggle that leads to hope.
You see it’s easier be a person of faith in here. But out there, in the world, with all of humanity, being a person of faith, is a struggle. Because life is a struggle. My neighbor down the street, the only neighbor who welcomed us to the neighborhood, a 37-year-old mother of three small children died last week after battling cancer for the past five years. That puts any struggle I may be having in perspective. I’m sure in your heart right now you can name someone who is struggling. If you have a heartbeat, you have a struggle.
Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister identifies eight elements of our human struggle as change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring.
Think about those eight elements for a minute. –Think for a minute which of those elements in your life have you ever or are currently experiencing?
Think about the struggle for the church. Where have we experienced the struggle of change, powerlessness, vulnerability or exhaustion?
One of the most powerful stories of spiritual struggle is the story of Jacob wrestling the angel. Our story today is like picking up on the third episode of a four part mini series. We find Jacob on a journey in between the home of his uncle Laban, where he had lived his adult life, married and had children; and the land of Canaan where he is now headed, his place of birth. Since moving to his uncle’s house, life has been pretty good for Jacob. He came with nothing and had acquired wives, children, servants, flocks and herds, all the signs of wealth and prosperity of that time. He has been able to avoid the conflict between him and his brother Esau. Jacob has a pattern of causing conflict with his family members. In fact today, his uncle wants to kill him. His brother wants to kill him. His father is disappointed in him and his mother….blames herself.
With Laban out to get him, Jacob has no choice but to go home and face his adversaries. To get home he will have to cross paths with his brother Esau. Esau has every right to take him out. And if Jacob were in Esau’s shoes, Jacob probably would have taken Esau out. – At least that’s what Jacob thinks.
Upon Jacob’s arrival to his homeland, he learns that Esau is on his way to see him, bringing with him 400 men. We are told Jacob is greatly afraid and distressed. He tries to do everything he can think of to save himself and his family. In a panic he divides his family and his belongings hoping that at least some of them will be saved. Jacob laments to God asking for deliverance. He thinks maybe he can make up for his sin by showering Esau with gifts. So he puts together a bunch of animals and food as peace offerings and then he sends an apology letter. He then sends his family on and Jacob sits alone, in the dark, and waits for the morning. He falls into a fitful sleep and is suddenly visited by what the Hebrew translates as a man or a messenger. It’s a mystery. Is it God? An angel? A human being? Is it himself? All of these are possibilities. Modern psychology would argue that Jacob is experiencing an internal battle within the anxiety ridden Jacob. Quite possible. I have been there. Maybe you have too. Knowing that the next morning was a huge test, or a medical exam, or a confrontation, my sleep can be interrupted with the craziest anxiety dreams. (The other night I had a dream there was literally and elephant in the room). One could argue that this is the first Biblically recorded anxiety attack. But through this internal wrestling, the visitor tells him he has now wrestled with a divine being. Eventually, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” The line is blurred here between the struggle with another human being, or an inner psychological struggle of confronting your own demons, or the struggle with God’s own self or all of the above.
In his struggle he becomes blessed. He is given a new name. In the same manner, when he confronts his brother, he finds that his brother has forgiven him, they are reconciled and Jacob finds himself doubly blessed. He has his brother back and he gets to start anew.
“The Jacob story brings out into the open what is often experienced as hidden. It makes public and visible what can often be private and invisible.”
Is there that old friend that you have struggled with and when noticing them in the restaurant you turn around and chose a different place to eat to avoid seeing them? Such a struggle causes anxiety.
Is there that family member who has hurt you or whom you have hurt and now you don’t know how to approach or forgive them, so you hope they don’t show up for Thanksgiving Dinner? Such a struggle keeps us from being our true selves.
More internally, is there an addiction or a temptation that you struggle with that you just assume nobody know about, but it’s an internal struggle that keeps you up at night? Such a struggle feels vulnerable.
When these things happen we are engaged in what Sr. Joan Chittister calls “a spirituality of struggle.” She says, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act. God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness. Yet it is a struggle…How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them? To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” (Sr. Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, p. 16 )
The process of struggle to blessing is just that, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. When a marriage is struggling, couples have to rethink expectations. When workplace ceases to be rewarding, people have to find a way to make it work. Moving from struggle to blessing is a process, in which the outcome always results in us being somehow changed. It is a slow but determining deconstruction of the self so that a real person can be reborn in us, beyond the expectations of others, even beyond our own previously unassailable assumptions. And struggle is its catalyst.
I have been concerned with the stories I have heard with how many of you struggled with past clergy leadership here at OPPC. It sounds like for many of you, it was a huge struggle. It sounds like there was a lot of change, that led many of you to places isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. I’m so sorry this has happened here. My prayer is that for those of you who carry the burden of anger or resentment is not that you would just get over it, but that you could struggle with God until you can find yourself in a place of forgiveness and find healing.
Here is the good news: God does not leave us in our struggling. God struggles with us. The other side of struggle, is blessing. If you have ever overcome a real struggle in your life, you know that the other side of struggle is conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”
So too God wrestles with each of us until we have the courage to confront our pain, admit our limitation, accept things as they are and move on. When we find ourselves on the other side of struggle, we discover that on that hard journey, we have been blessed.
This requires a measure of faith.
The Apostle Paul expresses this measure of faith this way:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Let us pray –
You are enough. As the rain hides the stars – as the autumn mist hides the hills. As the clouds veil the blue of the sky. So the darkness of our world hides your shining face from us. Yet if we may hold your hand in the darkness, it is enough. Since we stumble in our going – You do not fall. Amen.