A reflection by Geoff Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church, August 6, 2017
Jacob Wrestles at Peniel. Genesis 32:22 – 32.
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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 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.
Reflection: ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
Many of my congregation at Flinders over the last 20 years were those who had given up on the institutional church because it was not giving them a blessing.
- A lady marries an Orthodox man, but she cannot stand the patriarchy in the church. She now nurtures her own spirituality.
- A lady suffers a divorce and when it becomes known in her church, she is given the cold shoulder. She leaves. She joins the growing throng at coffee shops on Sunday morning, meeting with friends who accept her, as she is, without judgement.
- An older academic tries going to church, but finds pettiness and an old-fashioned conservative culture. He joins Rotary to find the connection he craves and, by contributing to the well being of others from the well of his experience, finds the meaning and sense of satisfaction he needs.
- A young academic, who had grown up in the church, loves the wonderful people there, but can’t relate to what they call worship. Not just his intellectual but his emotional and cultural life don’t connect. Going to church has become more about loyalty than human flourishing.
Likely, none of these examples are unfamiliar to us.
Should they have wrestled with more persistence for the blessing?
Today the Jacob text prompts me to reflect with you on one of life’s paradoxes – wrestling on the one hand – and letting go, on the other. My conclusion is that the key to negotiating this paradox is whether it results in blessing.
The key to dealing with paradox is to resist the temptation to collapse the opposite poles together into a grey mediocre compromise. Rather, it is to hold the opposites and live with uncertainty. That requires faith.
Was Jesus human or was he God in human form? I’m holding both together. Can God be a God of love in the world when there is so much horrific suffering? I’m holding both together – the reality of evil and the reality of love.
To live with uncertainty, to live by faith, is to keep open the space for God’s surprise, to keep open to what God may be offering as gift.
The text might suggest that we must wrestle for a blessing. But the other pole of the paradox is that we must let go to allow blessing the space to be received and enacted. That is the background to Jesus leaving his disciples – to create the space for the Holy Spirit to be received. Those of us who have retired from work may well be able to tell a story of surprising blessing that may come from the new space that quitting paid employment may bring.
Sometime blessing comes from hanging on and wrestling, other times it comes from letting go. Both may be as painful as each other.
Jacob had good reason to wrestle for God’s blessing. He had swindled his elder brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. He deceived his dying father by posing as Esau, gaining the final blessing that rightfully belonged to the eldest son. He ran away to his uncle Laban and when he heard that Esau was approaching with a small army, he sends gifts to try to placate him. He had his father’s blessing and consequently the status as head of the family and every material comfort as a result. But it is not enough! Only with God’s blessing can he face the future. Only with God’s blessing can he count on the surprise gift from God that may reconcile him with his brother. Jacob himself will not be able to resist Esau from taking revenge. So he wrestles for that blessing from God.
From the beginning, Jacob has been wrestling – being the second born in a culture that gave everything to the first born. Even in getting married, this culture has stood against him. Jacob has wrestled his way through the disadvantage life served up to him.
There is a cost to wrestling, even beyond the energy expended in the struggle. The antipathy created in Esau, 14 years hard labour to marry Rachel, the love of his life, at the expense of leaving Leah, the eldest daughter, with a loveless marriage. And in today’s reading, body damage at a time when they did not do hip replacements!
But when is the cost too much? When is it better to let go?
Let me return to my Flinders congregation.
Any organised grouping of human beings must wrestle with toxicity, particularly wrought by those who take out their disappointments in life, on themselves and others – the injustices, the disappointments, the pain, the fears and the deep hidden anger, making life difficult for all concerned.
What makes the Church different is what it claims for itself.
If the Church claims to be the source of blessing – the mediator of God’s blessing – then no wonder outsiders looking on will wonder how on earth such an institution can deliver! We may have ourselves to blame, in that the church may not have been so good at being open to confronting and expressing its own brokenness and too willing to tell others they are the sinners in need of redemption.
The church that thinks it is the mediator of God’s blessing will believe that only it has the truth, that the world is sinful, and therefore in need of what the church has. Therefore the mission of the church becomes an evangelism that is conceived as a crusade. And of course it is too easy to recognise the speck in another’s eye and be completely unaware of the plank in our own! Royal Commissions and media investigations are now revealing the dissonance between what the church has claimed for itself and aspects of its actual practice.
Yet we are pilgrims on a journey of transformation, serving one-another, and others, in the name of the Christ, who has shown us what love means, and, through his demonstration of life over death, the hope that is promised before us.
The struggles we all have in our lives and the knowledge of tough times among members of our community have contributed to Pilgrim being a church of empathy. When it comes to being surrounded by a community of care in tough times, Pilgrim is a wonderful church to belong to.
Sandy and I were first attracted to Pirie St Methodist in the 70’s by its openness and freedom. We did not feel any sense of restriction and there didn’t seem to be church-culture pettiness that undermined exciting experiments in music styles, the creation of new forms of liturgy and expressions of community. There was an absence of ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ signs around the place. Rather, we were welcomed and empowered not to conform, but to be who we were in Christ, and contribute our gifts as we were able.
In more recent times, it seems, every little change at Pilgrim, even re-arranging furniture, has demanded a huge misdirection of energy – a huge waste of energy – with inevitable spiritually depressive consequences. Who would want to put up one’s hand to be on the Council of a church of in-fighting?
But I am in awe at those among us who continue to wrestle for blessing and not for the counterfeit complacent comfort of gatekeepers who seem to have taken upon themselves the role of nay-sayers, believing they are doing a good thing.
No newcomer comes to church without hope of a blessing. They come for ‘yes’; they have long experienced ‘no’. No newcomer arrives without deep needs for healing, for being understood, and a family of care to belong to. Every stranger is looking for a blessing. We care, but we must ensure we point not to us, but the Source of blessing, and through that relationship find a spiritual home that becomes a touchstone for life with authenticity and integrity. Not to do so, places us as glorified social workers, and we can be sure that fatigue and adaptive desensitisation will be just around the corner. By ourselves, the needs of the world will overwhelm us, and we will become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
So the first point is that we are a community of disciples, practicing the love of God on a journey of continuing transformation. We may accompany others, we may reflect God’s love as in a mirror dimly, but we are not the Source of good news in ourselves. A time to wrestle and a time to let go are practiced here.
The second point:
We change the unrealistic expectation of the church being the mediator of God’s ‘Good News’, when we accept that God, the source of blessing, is at work in the world, not limited to the church.
This was the lesson the Jews had to learn when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 584 BC. Jahweh was at work beyond their limited religious imagination.
So if God is primarily active in the world, where does that leave the church?
I like to consider the church as an experimental resource centre, partnering with God in what God is doing in the world. It is not the mediator of God to the world. The church is a touchstone that assists our orientation to the Source of blessing.
With Justin’s forbearance, (and with deference to any medicos among us), a medical analogy.
Just as doctors not only develop knowledge and skills in the medical school, they also continue to keep up with what’s happening by staff meetings and corridor conversations, as well as conferences and reading journals and so on. They also learn from their patients. They practice medicine. And that practice continues to evolve.
But while the doctor creates the best conditions possible, the actual healing takes place in the patient. To expect the doctor to heal is a false expectation. The doctor’s knowledge and skill creates the optimum conditions for the miracle of healing taking place in the patient herself.
So the church might be likened to the medical profession. It cannot of itself heal. But it can be a community of spiritual practice, learning and keeping on learning, to create the best conditions we can for the healing that God’s love is yearning for God’s world. Best spiritual practice!
Going back to my Flinders congregation, in as much as we are judgemental, in as much as we fail to value and empower those who are different to find and worship God in their own cultural ways, in as much as pettiness and wilfulness to maintain irrelevant practices that alienate ‘normal’ people, inasmuch as we gatekeep and try to control decisions of the church in our own interest, and in as much as such toxic behaviour is not openly and honestly confronted, God will continue to be God active in the world, leaving the church to its own stubborn devices.
We wrestle with our own human frailties. It is a spiritual law: give up, let go of, the attitudes, thoughts and practices that feed those human frailties that deny blessing to ourselves and others. Keep wrestling for blessing; and keep letting go of toxicity to make space to receive it.
I have talked this morning about those who have given up the wrestle with the church and given some reasons that might also implicate us.
But that doesn’t mean they have given up their wrestle with God for the blessing they know God holds for them. Its just that its unlikely they will come through any church door any time soon. They have understandably lost confidence in the church.
Today the Jacob text has prompted me to reflect with you on one of life’s paradoxes – wrestling on the one hand – and letting go, on the other. My conclusion is that the key to negotiating this paradox is whether it results in blessing.
I invite you to spend a moment to reflect on your response to this text of wrestling with the angel for a blessing and perhaps also reflect on what might be the opposite side of this story – what must be let go of to open the space to receive such a blessing, to let go of all that adds to toxicity in our community and undermines the spirit of love and freedom that God promises to us as a blessing.
What are we wrestling with, and what must we let go of, to receive God’s blessing?