Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Genesis 32:3-8, 24-31, Psalm 44: 23-26 (the Message) ~
Thursday morning I was out walking my dog, Samwise, after dropping Tate at his summer job, and, as I walked, I began talking to God. I haven’t spoken much with God lately, probably because I haven’t had much good to say. And, like many of you, I labor under the delusion that God needs us to be nice.
But, I was done being nice. So, I led with: “What the flip God (I did not say, “flip”)? What’s going on in this world? Why are things so messed up? Why is there so much hatred and negativity and chaos and stress? What are you doing (or not, which is what I meant)?”
God was silent. So, I continued…
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for my dog and these beautiful trees and this gorgeous cool morning and, frankly, for being alive (I’m well-trained in the politeness and gratitude school of God-talk). But, really? Have you looked around? Have you noticed all the meanness? The close-mindedness? The fear? What the flip, God?!”
God mumbled something about Job and humans not seeing the whole picture but was mostly silent. So, I goaded…
“What’s the plan? Is there a plan? Are you even here? What are you going to do about all this?!”
God sighed. And spoke.
What are you going to do?
Sometimes I hate God.
And that’s what this sermon is about. Wrestling with God. Being angry with God. Questioning God. Needing God. And taking a good look at ourselves.
One of the things I love about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is that all its characters (including God!) are so very real (meaning flawed). Especially the heroes. And, the story of Jacob is no exception. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of his life, leading up to and providing context for this morning’s scripture reading: Jacob and his brother, Esau, were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was born first, with Jacob “holding onto his heel,” and this foreshadows much to come. When the boys grew up, Jacob first tricked Esau into giving up his birthright (i.e. firstborn status) and later tricked their father, Isaac, into blessing him as firstborn. After these deceptions, and fearing retribution from his vengeful twin, Jacob ran away and remained in a distant land for many years.
Fast forward, and both Jacob and Esau are married with children. Jacob wants to return home (in fact, God has told him to), but he’s afraid of Esau’s wrath. When he finally decides to go back, he sends a messenger ahead and discovers Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men! This doesn’t calm his fears. So, he sends several servants before him with a succession of gifts he hopes will appease his brother before he (Jacob) and his family arrive.
Which brings us to the point of today’s reading: when Jacob, alone on the bank of the river (his family having already crossed over), wrestles with a “man” the story later reveals to be God. It’s an odd passage (in many ways). But one of the oddest aspects is the suddenness with which this happens. “Jacob was left alone…” Okay, we got that. “… and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” What?! Suddenly, with no warning, preface or explanation, he’s wrestling? With God? How odd.
Or is it? On second thought, perhaps it’s downright familiar: we ask for help (or intervention), meaning now; it doesn’t come right away or we’re worried it won’t come soon enough or we’re afraid it will never come; and suddenly we’re in the midst of a wrestling match with God! We find ourselves walking down a bike path in Bethesda one morning saying, “What the flip?” or in hand to hand combat from midnight to daybreak.
What we learn from Jacob is that it’s only by continuing to wrestle that you receive God’s blessing. If you stop too soon, if you just give up, if you “let go of God,” you may never reach the turning point. Sure, you might avoid dislocating your hip, but you won’t see the face of God. And, Jacob is one of only two characters in the Hebrew Bible to do so— and live.*
This is important, because in biblical times, coming face to face with God meant certain death. Even Moses saw only God’s “backside.” For the most part, God appeared as a voice, an aspect of nature, or an action. Thus, the fact that Jacob saw the face of God and lived makes this story unique: its writers wanted us to pay attention.
In fact, not only does Jacob see the face of God and live but God renames Jacob, “Israel,” meaning “God-wrestler.” And this is key! I mean, why would this biblically chosen nation and people be named, “God-wrestler,” if wrestling or struggling or even arguing with God were unimportant? Why would Jacob have wrestled until he saw God’s face and received God’s blessing if wrestling or struggling or even fighting with God were unimportant?
They wouldn’t. The point is: God wants us to wrestle. Because God desires real encounters! Not just polite interchanges. Or respectful rituals. Or grateful prayer. God wants to be in it with us. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: for us to be in it with God! And if we want this as well, if we want to be in real relationship with the Source of All That Is then, like Jacob, we might need to get down and dirty, to risk being battered and bruised.
For God can handle our anger! God, who in my conception is Love (writ large), can handle our very human anger.
The bigger challenge may be how we handle it. I mean, it’s strange that, in a society with so much meanness, bullying and even downright hatred, good clean anger is suspect! And, by “good clean anger,” I mean our emotional response to that which is not right. I do not mean anger as an action that hurts other people—or, anger that’s repressed and denied, which emerges in passive aggressive twisted ways. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to express the emotion of anger— first and foremost to God. Because it helps us not only develop a closer more honest relationship with the Divine but also defuse any toxic expressions of anger toward others.
I firmly believe that acknowledging and expressing our anger is more important now than ever, because many of us are pretty darn peeved at the way things are going in the world. In addition to our President’s recent fire and fury tweets, how about:
- White supremacists marching close to home
- Innocent lives lost
- LGBT teens thrown out by their families, forced to sell their bodies on the streets
- College students deported for reporting to immigration
- Families who can’t find their loved ones to bury in cities destroyed by war
- Young men who have a “better chance” of being incarcerated than educated
- Young women forced to marry their rapists.
- National leaders who act like whiny toddlers or belligerent middle schoolers
- And, up close and very personal, my own son’s chronic illness.
That’s my short list (for today). So, I ask: what are you angry about?
[listen to responses]
The truth is, these problems, tragedies, injustices should make us angry (again, “an emotional response to that which is not right”)! And I’m telling you: it’s okay to rail at God about them. In fact, as one who went a bit AWOL on God this summer, I’m fairly certain it’s a lot healthier to get angry than it is to give “them” (my newest, trinity inspired God pronoun) the silent treatment.
So, let’s take a moment to “get real” with God. You’ve each been given an index card, and there are small pencils in the pew racks. I invite you to write at the top of your card: “I’m angry with God because…” “God” being whoever or whatever you conceive God to be. Then write at least three things that make you feel really angry at who or whatever God is for you. Write them down, fold your card, and the Deacons will pick it up when you’re done. Your responses are, of course, anonymous unless you ask me to respond.
[time for writing and collecting responses]
I’ll end with a prayer over all our honest expressions of anger (written and unwritten), followed by a few words.
God of our heart, why is this world so hard? Why is there so much tragedy and sorrow? Why do babies die? Why do humans inflict pain? Why do animals suffer? We don’t know. That’s the honest truth. We don’t know, and it breaks our hearts and befuddles our minds. Sometimes we’re so angry we could spit or throw things or break something. Sometimes we can’t begin to connect with you. Sometimes we blame you. Sometimes we hate you. That’s the truth. So, help us. Help us to help one another. To be Love in this world. To be Peace. To be Compassion. To be Justice. Strengthen our resolve to do good even when it seems that doing good is not the way of the world. And let it bring us comfort and even joy as we do our small part each and every day. Amen
In closing, here’s what I encourage you to do: be real with God. Be honest. This week, connect with the Source no matter what you’re feeling. You don’t have to be polite. You don’t even have to be respectful. If you’re angry or upset, let it out! God wants to be in real relationship with us. As a bonus, I promise if you cultivate this sort of emotional honesty with anger, you will also grow in humility (we don’t actually know that much in the cosmic scheme of things), gratitude (for all the amazing and wonderful gifts, just as real as tragedies), and forgiveness (because “letting go” of our anger will ultimately keep us sane).
I don’t want to walk around angry all the time— and I doubt you do either. But I do want us to know it’s okay to be angry with God. Because if we’re willing to wrestle, even struggle mightily with the Divine, I believe we will see God’s face: God’s right-with-us-in-it face.
* Hagar is the other.