Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wrestling in the Dark (10/5/14)

Wrestling in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 5, 2014
World Communion Sunday

Genesis 32:22-32
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

This series of sermons is called “Learning to Walk in the Dark:  The Via Negativa.”  This path is an invitation to become acquainted
with the dark,
with the night,
with the absence,
with the emptiness of the bowl or the cup,
with the longing of the soul,
with the negation,
with the silence,
with the mystery,
the unknowing,
the faith to doubt,
the falling,
the letting go,
the wrestling.  

I have read this poem before during this season.  It is by Robert Frost.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

There are things to learn in the dark.  God is not absent in the dark.   Another way to put it is that God is present in God’s absence.   I often use a qualifier when I speak of God.   I do that because I resonate with what Lloyd Geering wrote in his autobiography called, “Wrestling with God.”   Geering quotes Martin Buber regarding God, that God

“has become ‘the most burdened of all human words’ because it ‘has been misused so much’.”

I have found much God-talk way too loud and way too bright and way too sure of itself.   I find that much God-language, not all by any means, but too much of it either to be incredible or downright mean.   A God so bright there is no room for silence or doubt or exploration or even a breath.   

I was told this past week by someone who in recounting to me her experience of grief and loss that the dark was a comfort.  She didn’t want too much light.  She wanted to be physically in the dark.   The darkness has its own comfort, its own presence in absence.    That may be how God slips among us in the dark.   

I had a similar experience in the months after losing our son, Zachary.   I used the image of being on a lake in a boat in a thick fog.   That wasn’t necessarily bad.  It was comforting really.   If someone wanted to shine a God light on me out of love to light my path or whatever, I would have retreated further.  And I did. 

Sometimes you have to let go of God in order to fall into God.  The image for faith is not height but depth.    I rejected God language and spoke openly about it.   Of these last two years, I don’t remember a lot of it.   I do remember communion and just saying, “This is bread.  This is juice.  That’s it.”   

While it may have been disconcerting for some of you to watch and hear all of that, in a very particular way, that is the via negativa.  The stripping away, the leaving bare.   The absence.    This isn’t bad.   It isn’t evil or sinful.   In the absence is the presence. 

Like Lloyd Geering, I continue to speak of God.   We could have long conversations in the night about what that might mean and not mean for each of us.   Each of us has a valid experience.   Each of us is dignified with our own way of relating to or not relating to the word God and all that it means for us.   We bring to the word our own experience.    I know my own experience of the via negativa, that is my own grief that I did not choose but descended upon me, is nonetheless a path to dare I say, God.    Sometimes we seek out the dark and sometimes the dark seeks us.  Either way we are given the opportunity to learn to walk in it.    

I have been wrestling with God and rejecting or negating much God talk long before Zach’s death.    I don’t reject it all.   Just a lot of it.    I am grateful to find people who take me round again, like Lloyd Geering.    At the age of 96 he has published his latest book, Reimagining God:  The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic.  What is not to love about that?    He is not for everyone but he is a mentor for me.  Thus I share him with you.    That is the beauty of this life walk, whether the paths are negativa, positiva, creativa, or whatever.    You aren’t alone.  Even heretics have companions. 

Now to Jacob.

The rather odd story of Jacob wrestling all night has been a favorite for many.    That experience of wrestling all night is something we know.    Whether at a hospital beside or by the telephone or in the long heart to heart with a beloved or a family member, we know the struggle. 

Jacob is somewhat of a dark, sinister character.   He takes his brother’s birthright for a bowl of stew then tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing.   He is ambitious, his name, Jacob, actually means “one who supplants.” 

He is acquainted with the night.  He has a dream of a ladder ascending to heaven in which he determines that God has visited him.   In the story, God promises Jacob what he promised to Abraham.   In response, Jacob hedges his bets.  He wheels and deals with God, making conditions with God.  

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…”  (Gen 28:20-21)

Jacob gets a bit of his own medicine when Laban tricks him into marrying the wrong sister.  Jacob gets him back.  He gets both sisters and a great deal of Laban’s livestock.   

While Jacob is on his way with his wives, slaves, children, and livestock to meet with his brother, Esau, Jacob calculates.  He sends his family ahead of him with gifts for Esau, to test the waters before he meets with the brother he has wronged, the brother who has vowed many years ago to get his vengeance.   

While he is alone, by the River Jabbok, Jacob wrestles all night with a man.    The text does not use the word, God, but we know this is no ordinary man.   Jacob holds his own in this wrestling match.  When day breaks, the man asks Jacob to let him go because the night has ended.  Jacob refuses.  

“I will not let you go until you bless me,” he says. 

These stories about God in the Hebrew scriptures are not about the god of Greek philosophy that took hold of Western thought.   This god who wrestles all night with Jacob is not Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover or Plato’s Demiurge or Augustine’s Trinity.    This god is not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.    This god is more of an ancient tribal deity, who calls himself “the god of Abraham and Isaac.”   This god is not bashful about getting down in the dirt and wrestling.    

The narrator of this saga does not judge or condemn Jacob.  The narrator tells the story without an opinion.  Except for the naming of Jacob, “one who supplants” the narrator never says that Jacob was bad or sinful for stealing of the birthright and for what we see as calculating, self-serving behavior.    There is no judgment that Jacob was cowardly to send his family ahead to meet a potentially angry brother or wrong to wrestle with God or to hold out for a blessing.  The narrator simply tells the story. 

These stories don’t fit will into theological creeds and systems.   They are not obvious stories of inspiration for a walk of faith.   Here is Jacob’s walk of faith.   God as a man attacks him.  Jacob wrestles, that is fights, with this man, this Antaeus figure.  This is wrestling without rules.  One can imagine a dirty, bloody night with gouging and biting and kidney punching.  We aren’t given these details, but if someone attacks you in the middle of the night, what would you do? 

We might piously ask,

“I would like to begin my walk of faith.  How does one walk with the Lord?”   

Here is Jacob’s story.   You get attacked in the night by God, engage in a bloody all night bout for your life, hold your own without giving in, demand a blessing, get one, including a name change.   But you never get to know the name of God.  God remains a mystery.  And you get a permanent wound.     There is the walk of faith.  Are you ready to sign up and join the church?

The divine encounter is not about being spiritually spoon-fed and having all our wishes granted with rainbows and unicorns.    The via negativa is what it means.  God comes to us in the struggle.  Sometimes God is the struggle.   
The blessing is in the naming:

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

Israel is not to be confined to or solely identified with an ethnic group or a religion or a modern nation-state.   Israel is a mythical name that transcends history.    It refers to this way of encountering God that is an encounter by struggle.   It can be a doubting, a testing, a wounding.    All of this is not an absence of God, but a wrestling with God.   That wrestling with God through the night is a via negativa—a path to the Holy.

I invite you now to take a minute and think of a wrestling, a struggling of your own.  I invite you to think of that wrestling as a striving perhaps even with God.   Remember a time in which this Jacob—to—Israel story is your story.


Now I invite you to take a few moments and share this story with three others.   Please turn around and gather in groups of four, three is OK, five is fine, but four is divine.    Each take less than a minute and share your story of wrestling with God.


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