Monday, July 25, 2011

Wrestling With God

A rought manuscript of a sermon I gave yesterday (7/24) at Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, NH.  I was preaching predominately on the semi-continuous Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Genesis 29: 15-28.

Sometimes when we hear Biblical stories, especially some from the Old Testament, it can be difficult to relate. These ancient stories of the faith can seem so foreign and in fact occasionally so offensive that we end up shrugging them off, assuming there’s little left for us to learn from them in our contemporary world. Today’s story of Jacob being tricked by his uncle Laban into first marrying Leah before Rachel seems like one of those stories upon first read. The story involves polygamous marriage between cousins, the deceit of a respected uncle and the fact that Leah and Rachel are given to Jacob like simple property without even being asked their opinion… from the perspective of our modernity this story can be troubling, particularly for women. We believe the whole Bible to be divinely inspired however, a work that can somehow still speak to us millennia later, and thus, the story of Leah, Rachel, Jacob and Laban deserves further exploration.

To figure out what this passage is trying to tell us, its helpful back up and look at the story of Jacob’s whole life. Jacob’s story begins with him fighting with his brother Esau in his mother’s womb. As the two siblings grow older, Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright, and then at his mother Rebekah’s instruction, takes advantage of his father Isaac’s poor eyesight to receive a blessing that was meant for Esau. Fearing that Esau will kill Jacob in retaliation, Jacob’s parents send him away to live with his uncle Laban and marry one of Laban’s daughters. Leah, Rachel, and their two servants eventually end up giving birth to twelve sons who found the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Leah also gives birth to at least one daughter, Dinah.

At the heart of this ancient story is a lesson about how God works through our flawed human nature to fulfill promises. In this case, God works through the deceitful actions of both Jacob and Laban to fulfill a much earlier promise made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Over fourteen years of working for his uncle, God sustains Jacob, helping him grow into the wealthy, powerful patriarch he would eventually become. The good news here is twofold really. While God can create goodness out of our flawed humanity, God loves us and remains with us even in the most difficult situations we face. In Jacob’s case he was lucky… all of his years serving Laban only seemed like a few days because of his love for Rachel. There are many times in life however when we are not so lucky… not only do we face difficult situations, but we do suffer… we really suffer. We loose children, get diagnosed with difficult diseases and fear that we won’t be able to feed our families, just to name few possible trials that our part of life. Even though we know God is with us in such difficult situations, sometimes that knowledge simply doesn’t comfort us.

I, like many of us, have faced such a situation… a situation where God’s presence was not comforting or simply could not be felt. A little over three years ago know as I was getting ready to graduate from college and take a dream job working a political campaign up here in New Hampshire, I learned my mother had been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. Only a couple weeks later I learned that I might have thyroid cancer and that I would have to have surgery. I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be possible to take the dream job I had worked throughout college to get. While I would find out after my surgery a couple months later that my diagnosis was a false positive, my mother died from her cancer the following December. I continued on eventually to work with Thrivent in a job I enjoyed but also knew I wasn’t called to do.

Throughout that difficult year, it was hard to feel God’s presence amidst that suffering… I didn’t have the good fortune that Jacob did. I never blamed God though, and eventually as I began seminary this past fall, I justified the whole ordeal through saying that God called me in that suffering to ordained ministry. I can’t believe that God made me suffer, that God gave my mother lung cancer, but I do believe that something good was created out of that suffering. Much like Jacob, I grew into the person I am today through a difficult situation. Understanding this concept did bring me some comfort, but not completely. It was only this summer, while working as a hospital chaplain at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, that I realized I not only never blamed God, but I never even let myself be angry with my Creator. This summer amidst the suffering of others I also came to know that it was okay to be angry with God for my own suffering… a very difficult lesson to come to terms with.

Amidst the trials of life, amidst the great sufferings we all face, it is okay to be angry with God and to come to God with that anger. Only a few chapters later in Genesis 32, Jacob actually wrestles with God, and in fact wins. A few of us may have the good fortune to be like Jacob in today’s Old Testament story, facing difficult times joyfully. However, whether due to our own sinful natures, the sin of others, or simply the fragility and mystery of creation, most of us will wrestle with God. Many of us may indeed be wrestling with God right now, filled with anger at our Creator. This one powerful reason for Christian community… God comes to us and comforts us through others… through friends, family, and congregation members, just to name a few. Paul writes in our reading from Romans today, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When amidst great pain we get angry with our Creator, God understands that anger and indeed feels that pain. In Christ, God was torn apart on the cross to save us from our sins, feeling the pinnacle of human pain. Nothing, even our own rage, is able to separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Christ, God promised to love us and be with us always and God keeps promises… Yes friends, God will do just that.

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