The story so far: Our last reading was about Abraham and the angels who visited him. We are skipping a generation here, when we come to the story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Jacob is a bit of a trickster, like Coyote in Native American Navaho tradition. He has a twin, Esau, who is actually the older one. Even before they were born, they wrestled, and Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. When they grew up, they were constantly at odds with each other, and as parents sometimes do, Jacob’s mother, Rachel, favoured Jacob, while their father, Isaac, favoured Esau. Through a trick, Jacob received the birthright blessing—inheritance—from Isaac that was actually due to Esau. Naturally this made Esau angry, and Jacob had to flee for his life to his relative, Laban. There he met Rachel and fell in love. Rachel’s father, Laban, required him to work for seven years before he could marry Rachel; then he tricked Jacob and substituted Leah, Rachel’s older sister, on the wedding night. Jacob had to work seven more years before he could marry Rachel. Jacob repented what he had done to Esau, having been tricked himself and not liking it, and decided to go back home and seek forgiveness from Esau. This is where we rejoin the story, as Jacob returns to his home.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and Someone wrestled with him till daybreak. When the Someone saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then Someone said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Someone asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then Someone said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But Someone replied, “Why do you ask my name?” and blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, my Heart,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Holy One, you are as close as our hearts; you desire nothing more than relationship with us, and are willing to join in a struggle with us for that relationship. Give us grace to struggle, and grace to win and grace to submit. In all your names, amen.
Jacob, Jacob. He’s the original bad boy: his mother’s favourite, the one whose charm lets him get away with things no one else could; he’s the relative who always stirs things up at the holiday get-togethers, and then stands back watching the result. He somehow always gets what he wants, and while he’s not ruthless, he’s not above putting undue pressure on others. Esau isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box, but he’s still the oldest and his father’s favourite. But one day Jacob goes too far, tricking Esau out of their father Isaac's blessing, and he has to leave town before his brother kills him in righteous anger. Like so many before and after him in this same situation, Jacob goes to relatives who offer him work and a place to stay until things cool down at home. That time away teaches him many things—the value of family, the pain of being tricked himself and empathy with those he has tricked. He comes to a maturity of spirit that allows him to wrestle God to a draw, and then to win.
Fr. John McNeill, whose life we are remembering and celebrating today, wrestled mightily with God over the place of homosexuality—and bisexuality—in the sight of God. Fr. John, as a good Catholic and Jesuit, had been taught that homosexuality was disordered, and not part of God’s plan; therefore, anyone who identified as gay or bi had to be celibate—had to renounce physical intimacy with a same gender partner. And yet, as he worked with same-gender loving people, and knew himself to be gay, he found it harder and harder to accept that a God who had created individuals as same-gender loving would also forbid them the same deep, meaningful relationships that different-gender loving individuals could share. He struggled and wrestled for many years, finally publishing his book "The Church and the Homosexual" in the 1970s. This created a firestorm that ended in his being silenced by the Roman Catholic church—he could no longer write or speak on the topic. He continued, however, to work with LGB clients and patients. After several more years, he was commanded to no longer work with same-gender-loving people. This he could not accept, and continued his work. Fr. John was expelled from the Jesuit order and removed from the priesthood. While this was devastating, he also realized he had been freed. With no constraints on his writing or speaking or work, Fr. John was free to proclaim God’s unending and faithful love to same-gender-loving people.
Wrestling with God. Everyone of us has been in that place. Has anyone here never had to wrestle with their faith, with their God-image, with their own fears and anger and regret? Didn’t think so. When have we wrestled with God? Maybe it was when we were first coming out, and could not reconcile our faith with our knowledge of ourselves as same-gender-loving people. Maybe it was when we felt called to a work or ministry or some other action, but could not see a way clear to respond—finances, our own reluctance, the fear of what others might say stood in our way—and we wrestled with God. Maybe we, too, were caught between two points that seemed irreconcilable—and so we wrestled with God.
So Jacob sits alone by the river. We don’t know why he stayed there by himself—perhaps he wanted some time to gather his thoughts, to bolster his courage before he met his brother again. Maybe he wanted to pray, to be sure he was doing the right thing in the right way.
We don’t know how the wrestling started, either. Just this person and Jacob, suddenly wrestling. We don’t know exactly who it was that Jacob is wrestling, either. Someone in the Narrative Lectionary group on Facebook suggested it was Esau—brothers, especially twin brothers, will do that, apparently—sneak up and attack. Sometimes the translation says it was an angel who wrestled with Jacob; others that it was God. The person is symbolic, of course—mostly, Jacob is wrestling with himself. He’s struggling to come to terms with himself as both a person of integrity and goodness, and also a person who tried to cheat his twin brother out of everything he had.
Hard as the struggle is, Jacob doesn’t give up. In fact, his opponent uses a bit of trickery to get Jacob to let up—dislocating Jacob’s hip. Once again, the trickster is tricked—not only did Laban trick him, but Jacob’s wrestling opponent does too. In both cases, Jacob is changed, is marked. After Laban tricks him, Jacob ends up with two wives, Leah and Rachel—which causes issues down the line—and after this wrestling match, he walks forever after with a limp.
Fr. McNeill came away from his struggle with the sure knowledge that he could not turn away from his same-gender-loving clients, patients, friends, sisters and brothers in Christ. He was marked by the certain knowledge of God’s all-inclusive love and care. It led him to struggles with human institutions—the Catholic Church and his own Jesuit order—but he had been marked by his struggle with God and that courage, that insight, that understanding, could not be taken away from him.
We are marked by those struggles with God too. We find a new direction in our lives, a new purpose; we learn the power of love, or wisdom, or courage. Whatever it is, we take something away from it that marks us forever.
I always try to come back to a why?, with challenging readings like this. Why would God do such a thing as wrestle with Jacob—or send an angel to do so, if you prefer—when, one would think, God could simply tell Jacob he was being controlling, a bully, a trickster.
Because, my friends, God is a God of relationship. Certainly God could have simply told Jacob some home truths, lectured him, given him a good talking-to. But the reality is that experience is the best teacher. When children are told not to do something, how many of them don’t do it? Right—it’s almost like a dare. “Don’t touch that stove! Don’t look in that closet! Don’t swing too high!” They just go ahead and do it, don’t they? We’re just like that as adults too. Something about how humans are wired. So yes, God could have had a conversation with Jacob, as my mother used to call them—“Martha, we need to have a conversation about your math grades….” But God’s infinite wisdom knew that would make little difference. Yes, Jacob had experienced being tricked by Laban--which probably opened his eyes to what it was like being on the other side of a trick. But God chose to bring it home in another way. God cheated—“When the Someone saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the person.” God put Jacob’s leg out of joint so that Jacob would not win. And yet it seems he did after all, because it is his opponent who asks to be let go.
In that wrestling match, Jacob and God come to know each other more fully. They take each other’s measure; they deepen their relationship. Wrestling is a very intimate sport--this was not a debate or discussion. They are deep into each other's personal space, flesh to flesh. And in that deeper relationship, Jacob is able to deny God, to say, so far and no further, to refuse to be overcome. And God respects that!
Here is the beautiful thing, the one thing I want you to take home with you today, if you remember nothing else that I have said. Jacob wrestled with God and it was OK!
Our God is not a dictator or a control freak. God is OK with questions. Think about a really good teacher you had—they weren’t afraid of questions, because that is how a person learns. Struggling with our faith, our love, our doubts, our understanding of God—that doesn’t weaken our faith or love or understanding, nor strengthen our doubts—like exercising a muscle, doubt and wrestling make our love and faith stronger. That struggle, that doubt, helps us find the bedrock of our faith, of our love. We may find those foundations look very different than we had thought they did—I think Fr. John had that experience. But they are still there, and they are strong enough to hold us up.
My friends, we all struggle with God, in ways large and small. It is part of our nature, part of being human. Anyone who tells you they have never struggled—never doubted, never even wondered—is either a child in faith or not being truthful. The simple-seeming question of why good people suffer is a basic struggle people have with God. Those of us in the LGBT community have struggled with how to reconcile what the institution of the church has told us with our knowledge of God and of ourselves as God’s beloved child. There are many struggles, and we have all experienced many.
And they have left their marks! Like Jacob limping, some of us show our marks plainly—those of us who heard and accepted God’s call on our lives to serve as clergy, those of us who recognize God’s love for them and share it openly with others through works of hope and charity; those who are confident of God’s love and so share it with others. We have brothers and sisters, though, who have other marks. They have been so damaged, so hurt in a struggle to understand how God can love them that they have left—faith, hope, the knowledge of God’s love for them—all discarded as they seek a path of wisdom, sure that anything that causes so much pain cannot be a divine path. And they are right. Because they were not struggling with God; they were struggling with institutions and individuals, fallible and prone to mistakes, even terrible mistakes such as telling someone that God cannot and does not love them.
Here is the difference: When I came out, I struggled with my call. I knew God had called me to ministry—I felt that as clearly as sunshine on my face. But my church at the time, the United Methodist Church, would not ordain me; I would be summarily expelled from the ranks of those on the path to ordination, and forbidden to respond to God’s call on my life. I struggled—and the marks I received were pain, and depression, and grief and rejection and confusion. But someone wise said to me, “Your call is from God, not the United Methodist Church.” And I struggled again, but this time with God—where could I go, how could I answer this call, this demand which had consumed five years of my life? What was I to do? Why had God called me if the very place I heard the call was not where I was to serve? And yes, there were marks. The bitter-sweet sense of Methodism in my family and life; the excellent seminary education I received at a Methodist seminary, Wesley Seminary in DC; the understanding that calls may change and transmute over time; the knowledge that I do have the strength and courage to stand up to an institution and say, “No, this is wrong, this is hurting people, this is not what God desires.” When I struggled with the institution, the results were pain, a sense of being lost, and grief. When I struggled with God, the results were resolution, understanding and a new sense of purpose that led me to MCC.
So maybe you’re wondering about now how that Gospel reading fits in. Why did I include that? My friends, when I said everyone struggles with God, I meant everyone—Jesus too struggled with God. That night in Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with what he knew God wanted—balanced against his very human fear. In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the struggle is resolved by Jesus’ anger—"OK, I’ll show you, God! I can die—just watch me!" But I don’t get a sense of that in this reading at all. Jesus wrestles with God, and is reassured. God is with him and will be with him, even through what is coming—Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and ultimately, resurrection. The marks of that struggle are on him, too—his serenity in the face of the faithlessness of his disciples, the derision of those who mock him like the soldiers, those who demand answers they will not understand, like Herod. It carries him through the fear, the pain, the grief of betrayal.
Jacob struggled. Jesus struggled. Father John struggled. We struggle. We receive the marks of that wrestling that strengthens us and gives us the grace to rise again in the morning, changed and marked by the experience, and able to go on.
In all God’s many names, amen.