Thursday, March 5, 2015

Wrestling with God (1-11-09)

Wrestling with God
Rev Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
January 11, 2009
The Reading:
Genesis 32:22-31 (New International Version)
Jacob Wrestles With God
 22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man 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. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
      But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
 27 The man asked him, "What is your name?"
      "Jacob," he answered.
 28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [a] because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
 29 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
      But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, [b] saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
 31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, [c] and he was limping because of his hip.
The Sermon:
I’m a member of the FACEBOOK social networking system on the internet, as many of you are.  FACEBOOK provides an opportunity for friends to “update their status” and tell their network of friends what they are up to.
Monday night at 10:15 I posted this update:
“Jane is ‘Wrestling with God’ as she prepares for her Sunday sermon on the same topic.”
This was followed by a comment from one of my facebook friends, Deb Blackburn, later that evening:
She said:
“I put my money on offense.”
Well, no offense taken I suppose.  I guess most folks would think it rather foolish for someone to attempt to wrestle with God.  But Jacob held on to him and wrestled him all night long – until he got a blessing.  Of course he came away with a little injury as well.  Anyway, it’s true that I also have spent many nights of my 58 years wrestling with God.  But I prefer to dance with God!
We have waltzed and done the foxtrot too,
But more often it was the twist or the boogaloo.
And I’ve walked with God and talked with God,
I’ve yelled at God and raised hell with God.
I’ve raved at God and been saved by God.
I’ve shoved God and loved God.
My God has been multiplied and unified
My God has revolved and evolved time after time.
Especially after a glass of red wine.
Through laughter and tears of these 58 years,
I’ve changed God’s demeanor from angry to kind,
And at time’s I believe that I changed God’s mind.
Yes, I’ve changed God’s face and changed God’s place.
And I made HIM surrender when I changed God’s gender.
I’ve hated and rejected God.
Then translated and reflected God.
My God’s now Pure LOVE empowering us all
And I’m blessed to attempt to answer Love’s call!
Yes, my God has changed and I have too
And that can continue, thanks to UU!
Yep – Jacob and I have both wrestled with God – but he’s the focus of this sermon.  And we are going to use his story and see if there are lessons that we might learn.  We’ll begin by looking at three big questions regarding this story.
1st – Why was this story included in the Hebrew Scriptures?
2nd – Who was Jacob wrestling in the story?
And 3rd – Who won – and what were the results of this match?
Why was this story included in the Hebrew Scriptures?
      Stories in Hebrew scriptures (like other old religious texts) were often included to explain or defend some phenomenon or practice.
      The Hebrews needed to explain and affirm their special status as descendents of Jacob – especially since Jacob was not the eldest son.
      A special blessing from God would carry even more weight than the blessing of a father– confirming their “chosen” status.
2nd Question was – “Who was Jacob wrestling in the story?”
Like us – Jacob sometimes is not sure who is struggle is with!
Let’s review verses 24-30. 
 (See above)
FIVE times this figure opposing Jacob is referred to as a man.  Then he shares with Jacob that Jacob has wrestled with God and men --- and Jacob goes on to say he’s seen God face to face.
So is this a man or God? 
Let’s see how most artists portray Jacob’s struggle.

 Where did this angel come from?
Three possibilities.
  1. The evolution of religion and of God from one who “walks among people” to one who resides in heaven.  (theophany)
  2. Jacob’s god seemed to have limited power and knowledge in this match.  This does not match the later concept of Yahweh as all powerful and all knowing.
  3. There are other places in the Old Testament where “Angel of God” and “God” are used interchangeably when “He” appears.
THUS:  “God” became an “Angel of God” when the prophet Hosea recalled the story many generations later.
3rd Question was “Who won this wrestling match and what were the results?”
If you read many Christian scholars doing exegesis, they will tell you God won and explain with some kind of twisting of the story.  But if you read it literally, like most of them say we should….
      Jacob won!  “When the man saw that he could not overpower him….”
     Man / God breaks Jacobs hip.
     Man / God forced to bless Jacob.
     Jacob walks away with a blessing, a new name, and a limp.
     Jacob is a changed man in action and name.
(Israel means struggling with God)
SO WHAT are the lessons we can learn from this story.  What are some possible metaphorical analogies we could explore?  They are probably innumerable but here are 5 possibilities that I considered or wrestled with.
7 Possibilities
      Story represents struggle with faith in God.
      Story represents our struggle with good or doing good.
      Our blessings come through struggle.
      Our blessings are accompanied by pain.
      Blessings from fathers – not enough.
      We are humbled in our attempts to face the divine.
      We take on new identity after struggle.
I decided to go with the first one this time – perhaps because I had a book handy which did just that!
Rev. Tom Owen Towle, a widely published Unitarian Universalist minister, published a book in 2002 entitled:  Wrestling with God:  A Unitarian Universalist Guide for Skeptics and Believers
Tom dedicates his book:
To all religious pilgrims who pitch tent in the creases between belief and skepticism, uncertainty and devotion…who willingly carry on a persistent lover’s quarrel with God.
From Owen-Towle’s intro:
My life-journey has been one extended wrestling match with God – evolving from an early mindless embrace to categorical rejection, then gradually yet resolutely proceeding toward my current status as a questioning believer or trustful agnostic.  I have emerged a theological hybrid who chooses to juggle live tensions concerning the Holy.  However unorthodox my spiritual condition may appear to mainline scrutiny, I proudly reside in the middle realm, straddling the three A’s, atheism, agnosticism, and affirmatism, simultaneously.
Tom asserts that he’s in Good Company –
quoting Voltaire:
To believe in God is impossible – not to believe in God is absurd.
And theologian, author, and diplomat Michael Novak:
A conscience faithful till death is of more importance than being on a certain side, whether of belief or unbelief.
But isn’t living in that kind of paradox stressful?
Owen Towle says:
I am at peace with Walt Whitman’s claim:  “Do I contradict myself?  Yes, I contain multitudes!”  (Tom goes on to say) Probably innumerable Unitarian Universalists, when pressed would admit to being religious mongrels.
I don’t think I like being called a religious mongrel.  I think of an ugly dog when I hear that word.  But mongrel simply means mixed breed.  And if Barack Obama can refer to himself as a “mutt” – then I guess I can accept Owen-Towle’s term.  Personally, now that I own a beautiful, energy efficient Prius, I’d prefer the term Hybrid – which Tom also uses.
So why does Owen-Towle use the title “Wrestling with God” for his book exploring his mongrel beliefs.
He says:
Along with Jacob, the epitaph of countless Unitarian Universalists could gladly read:
 “You have wrestled with beings divine and human” (Genesis 32:29). 
We have been known to emerge from many a theological skirmish both limping and graced with a new name such as the one Jacob acquired, “Israel” – literally, “the one who struggles with God.” 
Owen-Towle uses Pascal’s division of beliefs in making his own argument for checks and balances.  Pascal was an eminent 17th century apologist for the Christian religion, as well as a mathematician and an experimental scientist.  He divided humanity into deniers, believers, and doubters and noted that each attitude brought a valuable gift to the theological table.  In his volume of confessions he stated that:
“Denying, believing, and doubting completely are to humans what running is to a horse.” 
Tom Owen Towle uses three A words for these same classifications.
Those that DENY God – are the Atheists
Those that DOUBT  -- are the Agnostics
And those that BELIEVE are the Affirmatists
He contends that all of these are important aspects of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
Tom provides a laundry list of atheistic postures.  See if any of these sound like YOU or someone you know.
The devoted atheists – those individuals who splurge more effort debunking god than some believers do celebrating Him/Her/It. (The New Atheists that I discussed in a sermon last year would fit this category for sure.)  Peter Christiansen good naturedly lampoons this group:  “I tend to be wary of ‘professional atheists’.  They spend a little too much time thinking about God.”
The distracted atheists – those people who don’t have the time to waste on god-talk.
The functional atheists – those who sit in church or temple pews, going though rituals and mouthing doctrines, yet harboring in their hearts, and displaying in daily life, scant acknowledgment of a divine companion….  They are, for practical purposes, disguised unbelievers.
The hopeful atheists – those who emphasize human freedom and potential.  They gravitate toward humanism and occasionally embrace a naturalistic or mystical worldview and focus on human sized projects.
The cheerful atheists – those who live confidently and comfortably a-theos – without but not against the notion of deity.  These folks are more accurately termed non-theists and are essentially at peace, both spiritually and socially, living void of metaphysical reference.  
The pessimistic atheists who stress human forlornness in an impersonal, even hostile, universe.  Such nonbelievers have frequently grown up with tormented and twisted ties with God. 
Tom Owen-Towle finds atheism most valuable as a clarifying, cleansing vehicle and least useful when stubborn or combative.  He says that “Atheism is beneficial when employed in service of religious wisdom rather than as an outright negation of it.”
And honest Atheists have good company.
There are nontheistic as well as theistic forms of Hinduism.  In Theravada Buddhism there exists no single, uniform concept of a personal deity.  As for Zen Buddhists, when one famous Roshi was asked, “What does Zen say about God,” he remained silent. 
Confucianism is essentially atheistic in that it concentrates on rules of behavior for the conduct of human life but has little to say about deity as a personal entity. 
Jainism possesses no notion of a creator god, yet remains an uncommonly ethical faith.\\
Tom argues that:  “Atheism at its healthiest, dare I say, at its holiest, provides a critical, purifying role in the pursuit of a reasonable religion.”
Tom’s Second A is AGNOSTICM.
He posits that:
Agnosticism supplies the essential gift of measured indecision, challenging earthlings to handle the sacred lightly without forcing it into formulas, to “live in the questions” (Rilke) rather than yielding to either certitude or apathy.
Most Unitarian Universalists KNOW that the more we KNOW, the more we KNOW that
This has led to lots of jokes folks tell about Unitarian Universalists.  Here are a few.
UU Prayer: "Dear God, if there is a God, if you can, save my soul, if I have a soul."
One long time visitor considering membership said, “I'm not even sure if I am a UU. But I suppose that removes all doubt.”
What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist and  a Jehovah’s Witness?  Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know why she’s there.
What do you get when you cross an insomniac UU with a dyslexic? Someone who stays awake at night wondering if there is a dog.
Did you hear the one about the poor bigot who was so angry at one of our churches that he burned a question mark on our lawn?  
And Finally:
For the members of any religion...
To have a few doubts is normal.
To have many doubts is a crisis of faith.
To have constant doubts is a conversion to Unitarian Universalism
The THIRD A that nourishes Unitarian Universalists is Affirmatism.
Owen-Towle says that
 Affirmatism unflinchingly insists upon the inherent sacredness of existence!  In the midst of healthy noes and perennial maybes, the affirmatist is willing to venture a steady, unyielding YES to existence in its entirety. 
He quotes Dag Hammarskjold (Dog Hammud held), who was a Swedish diplomat, Christian mystic, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, and  a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I don’t know who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.  But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to Someone or something.  And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
Owen Towle also reminds us of the tale of Moses striking the Dead Sea with his wand and nothing happening.  The sea opened only when the first person plunged in, took the risk, and voiced a full-souled YES to Life, Life, Life.
As Unitarian Universalists, we, like Jacob, may wrestle with our understanding of the sacred and the divine.  But in the end, we are blessed – though humbled from the struggle, and we hopefully say YES to each day, each hour, each minute that we are given.  
Owen Towle provides this summary statement regarding the three A’s:
Holding to the critical gifts of our atheism, agnosticism, and affirmatism we love God as wholeheartedly as proves reasonable.  Unless we succumb to premature hardening of our spiritual arteries, we will argue with heaven all the way home.  But the good news intrinsic in our life affirming religion is that, as Thomas Carlyle remarked:  “Life is one long quarrel with God, but we make up in the end.”
And BLESSED we shall all be.

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