Archive for June 2010
This is a sermon I preached at our United Church of Christ Conference Annual Meeting in June. The texts were 2 Peter 3:13 and Genesis 32:22-32, and the theme of the Annual Meeting was “Transformed Lives, Changing Church, Responsive God.” The pictures in the post were chosen by me and displayed on a screen behind me during the sermon.
“But according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” — 2 Peter 3:13
That’s our theme scripture for this Annual Meeting. And I have to be honest, the first thing I thought of when I contemplated that scripture was the Great Pumpkin.
You all are familiar with the Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, right? The ever-faithful and devoted Linus believes that every year on Halloween the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch to give toys to all the children. Full of hope and expectation, Linus explains to Sally that the Great Pumpkin chooses just one pumpkin patch every year for his visit—the one that is the most sincere. He convinces Sally to wait with him, saying,
“He’s got to pick this one, he’s got to! I don’t see how a pumpkin patch could be more sincere than this one. You can look all around, and not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”
They wait and wait, and all they see is a certain incorrigible beagle. Sally is furious at missing trick-or-treat. She calls Linus a blockhead, and demands restitution. But Linus perseveres in his sincerity: sitting in the pumpkin patch all night, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Great Pumpkin will arise and he will be vindicated.
According to God’s promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Oftentimes, I think that in our anticipation of a church for a new time, for transformed lives and changing conference and even a responsive God, we are like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch. We seek out the most sincere church we can find—the one that practices what it preaches, the one that doesn’t exclude anyone, the one that serves the community, the one that genuinely welcomes all—and we sit in all our greatest sincerity, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Responsive Great Pumpkin God will arise and reward us.
Like Linus, our utmost sincerity has yet to vindicate us, as we face another Annual Meeting with reports of decreased membership and budget shortfalls and decline, decline, decline. So we wait again, and wonder if Sally is right—we are just a bunch of blockheads.
What I would like to offer today is another image, a different story about how God brings about a new church for a new time. And that is the story of Jacob.
Good old Jacob. The original “Jake the Snake,” and a trickster of the highest order. He cut his teeth swindling his brother Esau—first convincing him to give up his birthright for a bowl of porridge, then later wearing a hairy costume to convince his blind father Isaac that he was Esau and wrangle out of him Esau’s rightful blessing and inheritance as the eldest son. Esau understandably threatened to kill him the next time he laid eyes on him, so Jacob took off.
He ended up at the home of his uncle Laban, where he immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. He works seven years to earn her hand, but Laban has tricks of his own and switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob works another seven years to take Rachel as his second wife, but still feels that Laban owes him. He works out a skimming scheme, taking the best and strongest breeding lambs and goats from Laban’s herds and keeping them for himself. He amasses herds of hundreds by this petty theft. When Laban wises up, Jacob, Rachel and Leah pack up their herds, children, servants and household goods and take off. Oh yeah, and Rachel also steals Laban’s household gods, which sends Laban in hot pursuit. After much argument and many threats, Laban and Jacob work out a deal–you go your way, and I’ll go mine. They literally drew together a pillar of stones like a line in the sand and said, you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, and nobody gets hurt.
So with Laban’s line behind him, Jacob and his family are making their way back toward the land of his childhood, the inheritance he stole all those years ago, when they discover that Esau lies directly in their path. The same Esau who threatened to kill Jacob if ever they met again. And he was coming at them with 400 men.
This is where we find Jacob–on the run from Laban, headed off by Esau, in the middle beside the Jabbok River.
The Jabbok is not a mighty, rushing river at this point–it’s little more than a stream, really–but it sits inside a deep and jagged ravine, with steep edges leading to high peaks on either side. Jacob sits at the bottom of this deep, rocky pit, with Esau on one side and Laban on the other, and nowhere to go. He sends his family across the ford of the river, and sits utterly alone on the other side as the night falls, awaiting his demise. He is empty of tricks, without his entourage, stripped of his wealth, status and power, frightened and desolate.
Our situation in the church is not so different than Jacob’s at the Jabbok. We mainline Protestants have also lost our entourage—presidents and politicians from among our ranks who took our counsel; mainstream media who showed respect, even deference and understanding of our faith; blue laws that kept stores closed and restricted baseball games to Saturdays; wealth and power and status. We have run out of tricks for church growth initiatives, miracle youth groups and successful Sunday School programs. Sometimes, it seems like we are simply awaiting our demise.
And yet, according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Here’s the key: the God of Jacob and our God, that God of the new heavens and the new earth, the God of Jesus Christ does not simply arise out of the Jabbok River to save Jacob, any more than the Great Pumpkin arises from the pumpkin patch bestowing presents.
God shows up to fight.
There at the banks of the Jabbok, a man who Jacob seems instinctively to know is God shows up and they begin to wrestle. All through the night, back and forth, rolling in the dirt and mud at the side of the river, grunting and squirming and pinning and grabbing, God and Jacob, the Bible tells us, wrestle, and one does not prevail over the other.
See, when we’re sitting at the Jabbok, without our tricks, without our entourage, enemies on either side, God doesn’t show up to save us or to vindicate us—God shows up to wrestle us, to challenge our strength, and to change our very name.
This, of course, is not what we want. We would much prefer the God who rescues us to go out ahead of us and fix the things that are broken. We would much prefer the God who vindicates us to go and deal righteously with our enemies. Why can’t God just rise up from the pumpkin patch and give us presents? The God who wrestles us deals with us—taking us firmly by the shoulders, holding on tight and refusing to let go.
When God has got a hold of you, you’re in for some transformation, and that’s hard work. Wrestling is exhausting, sometimes even agonizing. All we really want is our nice herds and families and children and servants and wealth back. We just want to do our jobs, go to church, be nice, sincere people and get a good night’s sleep. But there is no sleeping at the Jabbok. God has come to us in this time and place in Christian history to wrestle us into a new way of being. We wrangle over theology and politics and resolutions. We debate how to worship and pray and talk about God. We reinvent children’s programs and youth ministries. We struggle over mission projects and giving, and reach out in service to a world of endless brokenness and need.
So when all this wrestling leaves us feeling like we are being mauled or attacked or beaten, we must always remember who our wrestling partner is. We are not wrestling not some demon, some danger or distress or horrific creature of the night. We are wrestling with God Almighty. We may be far away from our entourage, but as long as we are wrestling, we are in constant and compassionate contact with God Almighty. We are locked in God’s embrace, so close we can feel one another’s breathing, and smell each other’s sweat and hear one another’s heartbeat and feel the heat from each other’s bodies. This wrestling is a time of utmost holiness and intimacy with God, where we, like Jacob, might claim to see God face to face.
When the wrestling gets us down, we must remember who we are wrestling with, but we must also remember what we are wrestling for. We are wrestling for a blessing. God wants more from us, because God wants more for us—more than the tired old scraps from Laban’s table, more than the life of trickery, more than being Esau’s nemesis. More than a has-been, wannabe, used-to-be church. God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a land and a future, many generations of descendants who come to love God and become a blessing to all nations. That promise is ours as well, as Jacob’s children. God also promises us a future—new generations who will continue to serve and love God, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. That is the blessing we are wrestling for, and we must not give up or let go until we receive it.
When the dawn comes that morning at the Jabbok, and the wrestling match between God and Jacob is over, nothing about Jacob’s situation has changed. Laban is still seething behind him, Esau is still hunting him down with 400 men. He is still without his entourage. If anything, Jacob has only been weakened—exhausted and wounded from his night of wrestling. Likewise, our circumstances are not going to change—the world will not return to bygone days, blue laws or baby boom churches. But like Jacob, if we hold on until dawn, we will have been changed so that we are ready to meet that world, and we will have received the blessing of God’s promise for the future.
Like Jacob, we will have a new name. Jacob’s new name was Israel, “one who strives with God.” What will our new name be? What new name will carry us as leaders of the church into the future? Will God call us out to be explorers and entrepreneur? Inventors? Pioneers? Reformers? Artists? Guides? Whatever new name God blesses us with, that name will reveal our true identity as those who have wrestled with God and received a blessing.
The change will not be easy, and we will not emerge unscathed. Jacob acquired a permanent limp from his night at the Jabbok, the result of a hip knocked out of joint. I suspect we will have some parts of ourselves and our churches permanently knocked out of joint as well, and we will come out with a limp. Our entourage will not be coming with us. Like Jacob, our strength and ego and power and charming good looks will not be the first thing people notice about us. Instead they will notice our brokenness—our limp. But maybe, just maybe, that limp makes us approachable again—to the mass of humanity who does not feel strong and powerful and charming and good-looking, perhaps a limping and vulnerable, but open-hearted and humble church will be just what they need to find God again. We will have received a body shaped by God, even if God has to pummel it into submission to get it there.
I imagine Jacob the next morning, as the sun dawns behind him, walking up the hill from the Jabbok, boldly ready to meet Esau, looking like Rocky Balboa at the end of the prize fight. Swollen cheekbones, split lip, blackened eye, yet triumphant. Limping, but confident, strong and proud. Through the bruises, his eyes are smiling and his mouth is wide in a grin. On his lips, a single word: Hallelujah!
According to God’s promise we are wrestling for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
As we embark upon this Annual Meeting, I remind you that we are at the Jabbok. Let us wrestle on—not with each other, but with the God of the new heavens and the new earth, who would give to us a new name and a blessing for the future. Refuse to sit and await our demise. God is here with us, holding us tight to wrestle us into new being. Let us keep up the struggle and listen for the blessing—so that the only sincere word that we can utter is, hallelujah! Amen.