Mandrakes, Debbie Downers, and Curveballs

I preached a sermon while drawing on an iPad.  I just took some screen shots after my sermon, so my apologies if the pictures don’t match up 100% with the words.

My sermon was based on Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling a stranger in the night.

These ancient stories of Israel are just the best.  Genesis is full of these stories, that at first glance, are just bonkers.  But once we take a second to figure out what’s going on, there is just so much good stuff in there.

Okay.  Jacob.  He was the grandson of Abraham and the brother to Esau. He’s the guy who put some animal fur on his leg to pretend he was more hairy and stole his father’s blessing from his brother.  And then his brother got mad, and Jacob ran away.  And then he’s the guy who worked 7 years to marry a woman, and was given the woman’s sister instead, so he worked again.  mandrake3And then there’s this bizarre story of the two wives trading mandrakes for the opportunity to sleep with their shared husband. What’s a mandrake?  All I know is that it’s a plant grown in Professor Sprout’s class in Harry Potter.
What a strange guy this Jacob is.  And then, twenty years later, along with some wives, some servants, some kids, and whole lot of goats, sheep, and money, he is making plans to go home.

But there’s one thing.  Jacob thinks his brother is still mad at him, so he sent him a text, asking, “You still mad bro?”.  But he didn’t get a response, even though his phone said “read” and Jacob thinks that his life is in danger.  Now, Jacob obviously missed the point of the expression “Women and Children First”, as he sends his family and servants and wealth ahead of him to danger in an effort to butter up his brother, and this is where we pick up the story about him wrestling someone in the night.

What a strange story, isn’t it.  Wrestling strangers in the night, touching each others hips, exchanging names and asking for blessings.  What in the world is going on?

Well, my best answer is that nobody actually knows what actually happened.  We have one version of the story, but Jacob wasn’t live tweeting the events.  This story was written down thousands of years after Jacob lived, and I doubt there was a video camera filming the wrestling, so we have no idea who the assailant really was, or if he was real, or a dream, or what was said between the two.  So, my first question about this story, and maybe better question, is this… Why was this story written? Why has this story been passed down for thousands of years and is now sitting in front of us?image3

3 reasons, I think.  Number one is that Jacob wrestled with God.  Number two is that Jacob was blessed after the wrestling.  And number three is that he was left limping for the rest of this life.
Okay. Let’s start off exploring these three things by drawing a line.  We can call this line “Construction.”  This is the stage of life where we, as humans, construct our faith.  This is where we build it up.  This we give Bibles to our childrimageen and tell them that God loves them deeply.  We tell them stories about God making the world and Daniel and the Lion’s Den and David and Goliath, and how but we leave out the part where David cuts Goliaths head off and brings it back to his army base.  And then as they grow older, we talk about Jesus, and sin, and redemption, and doctrine, and grace, and love.  Construction.   Building up of faith in our lives.  Love it.

And then, we draw a second line.  We can call this line deconstruction.  This is where we wake up one day and realize that not everything fits into nice little boxes.  Deconstruction is where we start asking questions.  We ask questions about the Bible, such as why are there two creation stories?  And if Genesis was written thousands of years after Jacob lived, who wrote down this story? Or we ask questions about how God seems so violent, why people use their faith to justify violence, or about the role of church of and state.  We look around at other religions and they seem like nice people too, or we wonder how evolution and the Bible work together.  This is called deconstruction.  I like to say that deconstruction is where we wrestle with God.

This is deconstruction line is the realm of university students.  They move away and start asking questions, and we wonder if they’re ever going to find their way back to church.

Deconstruction can also be a lonely place, especially if one’s faith community is primarily in the construction phase, and you aren’t allowed to ask questions or doubt or disagree. You can also stay in deconstruction a long time… measuring this in years is not out of the question, maybe even decades.

But then, staying here in deconstruction isn’t the best either.  This is where angry people hang out.  This is where the Debbie Downers and Negative Nellies live (with all apologies to the Debbies and Nellies who are reading this).  Living in permanent deconstruction can quite easily lead into cynicism, arrogance, and relativity.

So let’s draw a new line.

We’ve had construction.  Then we’ve had deconstruction.  And then we have reconstruction.

This is where we rebuild our faith, only this time it’s deeper.  It’s filled with mystery.  It’s filled with more love, especially for those not like us.  It’s filled with more grace.  It allows paradox.  It holds less things tightly. It’s more empathetic.  It’s better at loving our enemies.  It’s less anxious.  It’s filled with more peace.  It’s more giving.  We have reconstructed our faith in the image of Christ.  This is the stage where we can really say with all sorts of authority, no matter what our lives look like – God has blessed us.

We have wrestled with God, and God has blessed us.

Back to the three things about this story.  I believe that these are the first two reasons why we have this Jacob story passed down to us for thousands of years.  It’s okay to wrestle with God, and at the end, if we make it to sunrise, we will see God’s blessings all around us.

But before we go to the limp, a few things about these three lines.

I haimageve drawn them linearly. In reality, it looks like this:  A three dimensional scribble of life that goes in all sorts of unexpected places.
Life isn’t linear.  We love and we lose and we win and we hurt and we suffer and then we believe this and then we believe that and then we don’t know what to believe anymore, let alone how to act.  This movement is not always linear, but I just found it easier to draw.

Secondly, I turned 32 this week.  If I reflect, I can look back at my own story and find these themes.  I can look to Sunday School and youth and working at camp as all part of my construction.  And then I can look at my time in university and living in Zimbabwe and then working in churches and seeing their dark side as deconstruction.  And then I can look at my spiritual direction and prayer life and book reading and learning from Mel as learning to love better as all part of my reconstruction.

And the great irony of this is that most likely, on a big life timeline, I am probably somewhere over here, still in the “construction” phase.  If any of us at 32 think that we’ve arrived, we are probably wrong.  This is a life long journey.

Okay…  There’s more, but let’s talk about the limp first.

Why the limp?  Why would the stranger touch the hip of Jacob and leave him limping for life?

We only grow and mature because we have to.  Life forces us to.  And, to quote Richard Rohr, the only things that make us grow are great love and great suffering, and great love always leads to great suffering.  And suffering will leave us with a limp.

image1Let’s go back to the timeline.  You’re here, life is great, and you’re singing kumbaya every Sunday.  And then, you experience some sort of suffering that doesn’t fit very well into this (look at the lines on deconstruction part).  It could be a job loss.  It could be that someone close to you passes away.  It could be a health crises.  It could be the end of a relationship or a marriage.  It could be that you prayed for something and it didn’t happen.  It could be an intellectual crises, like you read a book and now you don’t know what you believe anymore.

These are some of the things that life throws at us, these things that we don’t have control over, and they force us to grow and mature.

Life throws us curve balls, and they leave their marks. They leave us limping.

This is the story of Jacob.  He was raised up.  And then, either through his own actions or the actions of others, he lost control of his life.  He had to run away to avoid his angry brother, his father in law manipulated him, his wives were trading mandrakes for sex, so I’m assuming that home wasn’t a bastion of peace.  All these stories moved him along, and they represent the wrestling.  And at the end, he made it to sunrise, he saw the blessing, but he was limping.

We grow, we wrestle, we see our blessings, and we are limping.

Richard Rohr says, “Wrestling with God, with life, and with ourselves is necessary. . . The blessing usually comes in a wounding of some sort and for most of us it is an entire life of limping along to finally see the true and real blessing in our life.” 

This is the story of Jacob wrestling a stranger in the night.  It’s a story about wrestling, a story about blessing, and a story about limping.

It’s an ancient story, but it’s also an invitation. An invitation for us to wrestle with God.  And invitation for us to look for your blessings.  And an invitation to embrace the limps and scars that we acquire along the way as part of our growth.

It’s an ancient story, but it’s really an invitation. An invitation for us to wrestle with God.  And invitation for us to look for your blessings.  And an invitation to embrace the limps and scars that we acquire along the way as part of our growth.