After a long summer vacation, I returned to work this week. Getting back into the pulpit is a daunting task as I struggle to find just the right words for this Homecoming Sunday. Unable to settle upon which of the many possible readings on which to preach, I was struck by the possibilities of the Narrative Lectionary. Some musings:
You may not be able to tell from looking at me. But let me assure you that you are looking at someone who used to be a champion wrestler. Believe it or not, my wrestling skills actually helped me rise to the level of a world champion wrestler. Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement. When I was an amateur wrestler, I was a world-class champion wrestler. But like so many athletes, when my status changed from amateur to professional, I lost my championship status and although I still qualify as a professional wrestler, and I like to see myself as a champion, I’m no longer what you would call world-class.
Like many professional wrestlers my career began when I was but a child. Growing up I had a very clear advantage as I developed my wrestling skills. You see having a brother who was just 18 months younger than me meant that I had ample opportunities to hone my wrestling skills. My brother and I were always at it. I’ve got to say that even though we shared the same weight class for most of our childhood, when it came to world class wrestling holds, I had him beat. I had this wicked arm-hold sleeper, and that together with my full Nelson followed by a knee-arm press, was guaranteed to have my brother screaming uncle and agreeing to be my obedient servant until in no time at all. For years I reigned as the champion of our little world! I was unbeatable. My brother didn’t stand a chance. My reign as world champion would have continued if it weren’t for the abrupt ending of my amateur status.
One morning when I was about 13 and my brother was 9 and a half, we were going at it, and to his credit my bother had me in an ingenious hold. Somehow, he’d managed to secure me with what we professional wrestlers call an arm bar. That’s where you’re opponent wrenches your arm behind your back and applies just enough pressure to cause pain, but not enough to break anything. But just when Alan was approaching the point of no return, I managed with a feat of superhuman strength to rise up, twist around and swing for all I was worth and connect with what I though must be my brothers chest. I expected that such a thrust would have released my arm from Alan’s iron grip. But he still had me. I was about to hit him again, when for no apparent reason Alan released me from his grip. In an instant I wiggled free, spun around and connected with what I figured would be a fatal blow. Just before my blow connected with it’s victim, I realized that I was doomed.
But alas, I was committed and I couldn’t pull back, even though I wanted to. For kneeling over me was my father. It was all over in an instant as I connected with his chest for what I would learn later was the second time. How was I to know that the pressure on my arm was coming not from my opponent but from my father who was there as a referee to call the round. My amateur wrestling career ended that morning, when my father took my brother aside and told him in no uncertain terms that he was to never ever, ever, fight with a girl. Dad went to great pains to explain that we had both of us grown too old and that the wrestling must stop. I’m not sure exactly what my father said to my brother that convinced him that he could no longer wrestle, but it worked. So, with no partner with which to hone my skills my wrestling career was put on hold.
That is until the day, I traded in my armature status for that of a professional wrestler. Although I’ll never be a world champion wrestler, I don’t plan to retire from professional wrestling anytime soon. Maybe that’s down to my sparing partner, who is not only a world-class champion wrestler, but a champion of cosmological proportions. These days my sparing partner goes by the name of none-other than God Almighty. Let me explain. Where I come from, in the UK, they have a name for, priests, ministers, and pastors. We are called Godbotherers and because we bother God for a living, we are known as professional Godbotherers. Now I’ve never really liked that title, so I like to think of myself of less of a botherer and more of a wrestler. Because I get paid to wrestle with the Almighty, I prefer to think of myself as a professional wrestler.
I come from a long line of professional wrestlers who’ve taken on the Almighty. The story of Jacob wrestling with God has always been one of my favourites. I can’t tell you how many long dark night’s I’ve spent struggling with the Almighty, wrestling to achieve a blessing, some small word of grace that I might bring back to my congregation, my backers in this profession that all too often sees me wounded for my troubles, as I limp back to the pulpit to share with my congregation what I have learned through the night of sparing.
So, as I was struggling to discover what blessing I might bring to my congregation on this coming Homecoming Sunday, what word of grace I might bring to launch us forth in this new season of wrestling with the Almighty, I remembered that the Narrative Reading for this coming Sunday is the story commonly known as “Jacob’s Ladder” from Genesis 28:10-19. I was struck once again with my love affair with the timeless story of Jacob as I began to wonder, why do we come home? Why do we return to church on Sunday mornings? What is our worship all about? And before I knew it I was once again wrestling with the Almighty about questions of motivation, struggling for a blessing that I might bring back to share with my congregation.
Somewhere well into about round three, I was about ready to throw in the towel, when I remembered a book that I began reading over the summer. The book is entitled “Sacred Therapy.” It’s by a Jewish psychologist named Estelle Frankel. The subtitle for the book is: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness. I remembered a paragraph in that book, that I knew would provide balm for my wrestling wound.
Doctor Frankel writes: “For the Hasidic masters the entire cast of biblical characters lives within each of us representing dimensions of each of our souls. As a psychotherapist who spent the past 30 years immersed in the study of Jewish myths and metaphors, I have learned that: When we go beyond our personal predicaments locate ourselves within the larger story we open the doors to the sacred dimension and our lives become pregnant with meaning; living embodiment of Torah.” When you put your life experience in the larger context…that’s when meaning returns and the sacred returns. “We come to experience our lives as resonant with a much greater matrix of meaning in which any transition we undergo; whether it be a death divorce illness disability may initiate us into the larger mysteries of life. As we find reflections of our individual lives in sacred myths we tend to feel less alone in our suffering. We no longer see our personal struggles as simply personal instead we see them as mirrors of sacred processes that occur at all levels of creation at all times. And by locating ourselves in the crucible of the great myth we are guided on a journey of transformation. ”
For the past few years our congregation been reading from a new translation of the Bible called The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation. It was put together by a community of Roman Catholic Priests who were determined to produce a translation that more closely resembled the radical nature of the original languages. Last night as I was wrestling with Jacob’s story, I discovered a blessing in the foot-notes. In the NRSV; the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which we’ve used for years now, Jacob’s wrestling partner is referred to as: simply “a man”. In the new translation Jacob’s wrestling partner is referred to as: simply “someone”. The footnote explains it this way: “Tradition has called this mysterious stranger an angel, or God in human form. But the Hebrew in the following passage is almost completely lacking in proper names—each line of dialogue begins, “And he said,” without any indication of who is speaking, a dizzying construction which gives the reader the idea that Jacob and the Other are mirror images of one another—Jacob in effect wrestling with himself, or figuratively wrestling with his twin, Esau, whom he is about to confront. Indeed, in the chapter Jacob says of Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing like seeing the face of God.”
If the psychologist Estelle Frankel is correct, and we can begin to see ourselves in this scared story of Jacob, then perhaps we can begin to see that our wrestling partner is indeed our very selves. For what are we if we are not reflections of the divine? And what are our brothers or our sisters if not also reflections of the divine?
Locating ourselves in this sacred struggle we can begin to see reflections of our world’s struggle as various branches of the human family wrestle with one another. Perhaps this blessing can nourish us as we make our presence known to our fellow wrestlers if only to remind us all that we are kin.
Jacob was afraid of what he might find when he journeyed home. He was afraid that his brother would exact vengeance upon him. What he actually found was a warm embrace from his brother. May we and all our sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, however distant, find such a warm embrace. May all the world remember that we are all kin and may that recognition begin here and now with us.
Let wrestlers of every kind, both amateur and professional alike struggle together to achieve a blessing, so that one day soon the families of the world can gather together in peace to share the LOVE that heals us all.