Sunday, February 04, 2001

Which Angel Is It?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Genesis 32:22-32

Lost My Car

Wednesday, Peter, our eastern European car mechanic, gave me the bad news. Along Monroe Avenue, along the River Jabbok, on the banks of LIFE, we meet up with death, forms of death, dark angels with whom we wrestle from dusk to dawn. We do not change them. They change us. We do not name them. They name us. Our struggles name us. Especially those chronic struggles that continue without conclusion, they name us.

Peter gently and kindly let me know that the angel of death had come to our beloved Dodge caravan. After many miles and trips, adventures and repairs, boogey boards and camping gear and dog days wet willies and laughter and mayhem - the poor thing died. With this vehicle we had visited the ocean and the mountains, attended weddings and funerals, carried kids to college and back again.

"But is there not anything you can do?"
There is nothing to do.
"Surely you can repair the transmission, the axles, the carburator, the front end and the frame?'
No, I cannot.
"You mean - this is it?"
This is it. Donate the car to a good cause, maybe your church. You cannot change this.

Lost My Dog

Five years ago at Christmas, that old van took us, five humans and one dog, a little farther out on the River Jabbok, a little farther east on Monroe Avenue. That day the angel we wrestled was not in the auto repair but in the animal clinic. It seemed like we had left so much behind over the last year - schools, friends, church, home, family. Now one more "goodbye" loomed inside the veterinarian's office. The poor dog could not walk and could not breath, could barely hear and see, and looked up drooling with such a plaintive gaze, a hard gaze to hold. No barking, just the rough labored breathing of the last day. One by one we said our farewell - a hand on the head, a hug, a kiss, a tear. We tried to negotiate with the veterinarian, the implacable white-gowned angel of the day.

"But is there not anything you can do?"
There is nothing to do.
"But surely you can administer some medicine, suggest surgery, provide a therapy, offer a new drug?"
No, I cannot.
"But Molly is more than dog, she is a friend, a member of our family. You don't understand. There must be something you can do."
No, there is nothing. Take her ashes and remember the good times, and someday find another dog or give someone a pet as good as the one given you. You cannot change this.

Lost My Mom

Still farther east on Monroe Avenue, or farther out on the River Jabbok, depending on your point of view, beyond the auto repair, on the far side of the pet cemetery, you know that there is a funeral home. One day we stopped there, late in the afternoon. Some of the community had gathered to honor the life and faith of a woman who had lived a long and happy life with great and joyful faith. Her sons and daughter welcomed all with conviviality and an air of celebration. A great life and a great lady! The room resounded with laughter and conversation. And then we left, walking out into the cold night air. There, before the best of deaths, one could feel the lurking, stalking presence of the angel, which one is it? - that implacable presence of what does not change, the chronic contest of life with its own ending. And a silent internal conversation ensued.

"Is there nothing more to be said or done?"
There is nothing. All the rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full.
"But surely there is something more than can be offered, at such a time, more faith, more friends, more feeling."
No, there is not. You cannot change this.

Chronic Struggles

We notice, as we move through our brief set of days, that many of us wrestle with lasting, implacable losses and hurts. The arthritis that mounts its attack each morning, and lies in wait each night. The past, that is to say permament, frozen in time, forever present, unchanging hurt of a deed done or endured. The inexplicable, unfair illness, incurable and unchanging. The social ill that seems to have been addressed in one generation, only to reappear, metastasized, in another. The chosen, permanent departure of someone loved. Perhaps you have wondered, as I have this week, whether the faith of Jesus Christ has anything to offer in the midst of such a wrestling match. That is what I would like to talk with you about this morning. Does faith mean anything in the midst of unwinnable struggles? Does the faith of Jesus Christ have anything to say to those grappling, wrestling to a draw, with unconquerable opponents? What does our faith say when, as we struggle along, we realize: Though you will wrestle until dawn, you cannot change this?

Named by Trouble

Which brings us, straightway, to Jacob. You will remember his earlier life. With help from his mother, Rebecca, Jacob stole his Father Isaac's blessing, out of the hands of hapless brother Esau. Isaac was old and blind and Jacob pretended to be his brother, and with guile received the blessing meant for another. You will remember the hatred that Esau, the loser, felt as he did see his thieving brother prosper. I believe the Scripture says that he hated Jacob and wanted to kill Jacob. For Esau was deeply, permanently hurt. I hear his voice week by week ringing out from Genesis 27: 38, and ringing out in the actual experience of this congregation: "Esau lifted his voice and wept." Jacob, in whom there was guile, then fled. He fled to Haran and on the way dreamed of a ladder coming down out of heaven, and heard God bless his future. Then, remember, he went to his uncle, Laban, and fell in love with Rachel, served for seven years to earn the right to marry her, was tricked by Laban and married to Leah, and then was given Rachel too by a satisfied, guileful, father in law uncle. From these odd stories we learn the history of the people of faith, and particularly the provenance of the twelve tribes. Further entanglements ensue, involving kinfolk, sheep, he-goats, capitalism, camels and bitter conflict. Jacob has learned, through hardship, to seek blessing where he can find it.

Now Jacob comes to a point of reckoning. He must the next day face his brother Esau, after many years of separation. His fear is evident. He sends his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the river. Jacob stays alone by himself as night fell. Everything Jacob is and has will be on the table the next day. He wants some time apart, some time to think, or perhaps to plot.

Of all the images in the Bible, I find this one, of Jacob roaming the riverbed alone, one of the most haunting. Here he has come around to the permanent, lasting struggles of his life. History, family, brother, past deeds, all. Like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill again, Jacob has come home to lasting hurt.

All of his life has been a struggle, and so perhaps it should not surprise us that the writer here in Genesis simply inserts, with no comment, that Jacob "wrestled with an angel until dawn". Jacob did not prevail and the man or angel or lasting condition or divine presence, never named - did not either prevail. They wrestled to a draw, and they wrestled all night long. We are meant, I think, to see that Jacob is caught up in an unwinnable, lengthy contest.

Now it is just at this point in the story that something remarkable happens. I wonder if we who profess the faith of Jesus Christ, who endured the cross, might also grow in our faith from this one Scriptural moment. Here is what happens. Jacob has wrestled with an angel all night long. He has not won, but neither has he died. He has struggled, and has still enough native guile to try to wring a blessing from this lasting struggle. "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." He asks the name of the angel, trying to learn which angel it is with whom he strives. Jacob receives a new name and a new identity, then, as his opponent renames him: you shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, one who wrestles with God.

We find our name in the middle of our struggles. Or, we are given our lasting name in the middle of our lasting struggles. Or, we became who we are meant to become right through the heart of our chronic struggles. So, I ask you…

I wonder, for you, which angel is it? Which presence has you caught? Which messenger? Which approximation of God? (For an angel, like a church, is always both a representation and a demonization of the divine.) Which condition? Which struggle? Which chronic difficulty, lasting opposition, unchanging reality has you in a half-nelson? Can you name it? Can we at least have the courage to ask its name? For there is a strange and hidden good here.

We are in earshot this morning of ancient promise. The promise is that in our struggles we will learn our true names.

We are in earshot this morning of good news. The good news is that through struggle, you may be given a new identity.

We are in earshot this morning of a whispered blessing, that within struggle there is quite possibly the birth of a new person.

We are in earshot this morning of the voice of Christ, in whose incarnation God has grappled with our chronic, implacable contests.

More than we would like, more than we admit, more than we appreciate, more than we know, we are identified by our troubles. And as my friend says, if we all through our troubles up in the air at the same time, we would probably end up picking up our very own to go home with anyway.

One Who Struggles with God

Fifty fine females from our church have retreated this weekend to the rounded shores of Owasco Lake, to pause and talk and have some fun. In a light snow they may walk through a clearing where 25 years ago the camp manager was killed in a tragic hunting accident. Why do such things happen? We do not know why such things happen. His widow has now struggled with the lasting separation in his death, inflicted without a breath of warning, on a random November day. She has wrestled an unchangeable loss, wrestled from dusk to dawn. She has done so with grace, dignity and courage. So she has wrung at least this blessing from a night of pain. She has received a new name: one who struggles with God-through loneliness.

Many of you know men and women who have had to grapple with addiction. They have faced a permanent feature of their social setting and their physiology. They are alcoholics. They are some of the most courageous people around. Some night one may come to you and say, "I am a drunk. Help me." And there are ways to help. But the condition does not change, it is a wrestling partner for the long haul, all the way from dusk to dawn. So one introduces oneself still as an addict, but in recovery. Did you hear? Right there, right up against the wall of a lasting condition, some find a new name, "recovering". We have AA groups that meet in this church. You may have a close friend who faced his condition 20 years ago, struggled, and prevailed. He has received a new name - one who struggles with God - through addiction.

I will carry with me all my life the loss of a young woman who took her own life, now many years ago. We just do not know why these things happen. Some of the wisest and most sensitive people we finally lose to themselves. This summer, a paragraph from Vaclav Havel arrested me: "I have never been able to condemn suicides. I tend to respect them, not only for the undoubted courage needed to commit suicide, but also because, in a certain sense, suicides place the worth of life very high; they think that life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, without hope. Sometimes I wonder if suicides are not in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life." She has received a new name - one who struggles with God—through hopelessness. Yet her family marches on, struggling with a lasting and unchangeable condition. They do so with courage. They have received a new name - one who struggles with God - through loss.

No one understands anyone else's marriage. Each is its own continent, language, culture, and sovereignty. Sometimes marriages do not make it, and they end either in form or in content. But every so often you can see hints of struggle that goes on, over against what is largely unchangeable - personality, temperament, history, psychology. You can think of times when you were witness to couples at daggers drawn, and all seemed lost. A Saturday night argument. A tearful session after church. Something overheard at the other end of the phone. What a courageous love one perceives there. Over many years, dusk to dawn as one grapples with another, they receive a new name - those who struggle with God - through matrimony and acrimony.

Which angel is it, with whom you wrestle all night long?

I will wonder my whole life why such struggles beset the people of faith. But I am a Christian because I have seen that the faith of Christ empowers men and women to struggle on until dawn, and so to be clothed in a new name - one who struggles - with God.

If you have come this morning, or some morning, having wrestled all night long, or all decade long with a chronic condition that will not change, receive in Jacob's story a good word:

We are in earshot this morning of ancient promise. The promise is that in our struggles we will learn our true names.

We are in earshot this morning of good news. The good news is that through struggle, you may be given a new identity.

We are in earshot this morning of a whispered blessing, that within struggle there is quite possibly the birth of a new person.

We are in earshot this morning of the voice of Christ, in whose incarnation God has grappled with our chronic, implacable contests.

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