31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 22, 2019
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Two weeks ago, in the midst of a week that was already going to be busy with my son’s upcoming birthday, fall ministries, and some unexpected pastoral concerns, I struggled with Amazon and UPS to get student Bibles for the third graders.
In a comedy of errors, our shipment that should have arrived on Tuesday was delivered to a neighbor who was on their honeymoon, whose neighbor took it inside until Thursday night when they discovered it was ours, who returned it to us on Friday afternoon– two days after I discovered it was missing and had re-ordered it, using someone else’s prime account so I could get it overnight without paying for overnight shipping. The replacement shipment of Bibles that should have been delivered overnight, finally arrived on Monday, one day after they were needed.
I share all of that because I was super stressed out by Bibles. Unnecessarily stressed out by Bibles, and when I finally got both shipments of the Bibles, I was tempted to keep both, even though Amazon had already refunded the money for the first “lost” shipment.
In my stress, I wrestled with my conscience about what was the right thing to do. On the one hand, to keep them was stealing. Well and truly, no doubts about it stealing. I had not paid for them. They were not ours. On the other hand, this voice in my head said, ‘They are the ones who messed up. They were unwilling to even look for the lost shipment. They are the ones who promised overnight and did not deliver. Keeping both is like a consolation prize for my time and grief.”
Have you ever wrestled with your conscience like this? Have you ever known what the right thing to do was, but this little voice whispered “but” “perhaps” “just maybe”? And you wrestled.
In the passage we heard from Genesis this morning, Jacob is wrestling. There is some mystery about who Jacob is wrestling with, even Jacob is not sure who he is wrestling with, and over the years, different interpretations have said Jacob is wrestling with himself with his conscience, wrestling with his fear, even wrestling with God.
As people of faith, as people who are trying to live faithfully, Jacob, whose name means trickster or usurper (as in someone who takes what is not theirs); as a person of faith, Jacob might not be on your list of faithful role models. Over and over again, Jacob connives and takes what is not his. His brother Esau’s blessing and birthright. His father-in-law’s sheep.
And now, Jacob wants to return home. A home occupied by the brother he has cheated and angered. So is Jacob wrestling with himself, wrestling with his conscience? wondering how to put right what he has done wrong? Trying to figure out how to change and be a better person?
Or is Jacob wrestling with worry?
Despite someone once giving me a little magnet that says “Give your worries to God. He’s up all night.” I’m really good at taking them back and spending sleepless nights, imagining what potential confrontations might look like. I plan out what I am going to say. I speculate what the other person is going to say, which of course it is always the worst case scenario. And then I wrestle with my worry over and over again until day break.
Was that what Jacob was doing? Imagining what it was going to be like when he finally met his brother face to face after all of these years? Was Jacob taking his worries back after having entrusted them to God? Is this a story about wrestling with fear?
Or maybe as Jacob came to believe, he was actually wrestling with God, wrestling face to face with God. Asking the questions many of us have asked, “Why is this happening? What are You doing, God?” And expressing the frustration many of us have felt, “Change this. Make it better. Do it my way.”
Wrestling with God, fighting with God, is not something many people admit – except to their pastor, because we feel embarrassed. It feels unfaithful to challenge God, to question God, to wrestle with God. It can feel like a failing. Look at Jacob though. Jacob wrestled all night with God and he wasn’t punished. Jacob was blessed. Blessed to become an honored ancestor of three religious traditions. Blessed with a new name: Israel, a name that means “God perseveres”. A name cannot get more faithful than that.
Much of Jacob’s early life is not a role model in how to be in relationship with God or others, but on this night, by the Jabbok river, Jacob teaches us to keep wrestling. No matter who you are wrestling with, no matter what you are wrestling for, if it feels important, if you know it’s what God would want, be tenacious. Hold on and keep wrestling.
Yes, keep wrestling with your conscience. You might not always do the right thing. Who of us does, but if you keep wrestling, it means you are trying to do what is pleasing to God.
Keep wrestling, not with your worries but with giving your worries to God. We won’t always be successful. We will try to take our worries back – a lot – but keep trying. And those people you are worried about, those people you are having imaginary struggles with in your head when you should be sleeping or eating or enjoying life, don’t wrestle with your fear or your assumption of what your next interaction will look like. Instead, be tenacious about a new way of relating to them, pray for them, and like Jacob, hold on to them until there is a blessing to be found.
And most of all keep wrestling with God. I am proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ, to belong to a Christian community that says it’s okay to wrestle with God, to doubt, to believe, to grow, to listen for God’s still speaking voice, to ask questions, to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions. Even Jesus wrestled with God, because wrestling with God means you are in relationship with God, which is what faith is all about, continuing to be in relationship with God, even when you are angry, even you are frustrated, even when you are afraid.
As people of faith, we are called to be like Jacob and even when the odds are against us, even when it looks like we might never win this fight, to hold on anyway, to wrestle, be tenacious, and demand a blessing for ourselves and the world.