Monday, November 7, 2011

Sermon - "Wrestling with God"

For the month of November, we are focussing on the theme of faith in our worship services and children’s Religious Education here at UUFLB. And we are going to start that discussion of faith in a very Unitarian Universalist place, by talking about doubt.

“Wresting with God” is a peculiar name for a sermon in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The name comes from the story of Jacob wresting with an angel. It’s a story of grappling with the holy, wrestling with the most important pieces of our lives. This story is pretty far removed from our lives, but it still points to a very important idea.
To give some background, Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. So he’s way up there in the Biblical family tree, a pretty important figure. The whole story of Jacob begins in one of those really, really strange Bible moments. Jacob, God’s chosen leader essentially cheated his older brother out of his birthright of inheritance. Jacob dressed up as his older and much dumber brother to trick his own father on his death bed. He pretended to be the older brother Essau, so that their father would bless him and make him the official heir. And Jacob pulled off the stunt so he could be the leader God wanted him to be. It’s strange stuff.

Eventually the cheating caught up with Jacob. In adulthood his brother found him and came after him with an army of 400 men. So Jacob ran. He sent his family and his flocks of sheep across the river at a river crossing one night. Then he came back across, all alone to get his possessions. While he was there, a mysterious being appeared. Some say it was a man, some say and angel. The two of them wrestled until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip so that it hip was wrenched terribly. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak. 
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, "What is your name?"
Jacob," he answered.”

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

This story is often used as the moment of a personal struggle with faith. It’s quite literally, if one reads the story that way, a moment of wrestling with divinity. It’s a hard fight. Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life from where the angel injured his hip. But Jacob struggled with divinity and he refused to let go of that struggle until he got a blessing out of it.
Jacob wasn’t the only person to wrestle with God in the Bible. I might even say most of the significant figures in the Bible have their major moments of doubt. The first response of every single one of the prophets is “no.” It’s a formulaic story of the prophetic call in the old testament. Every single one of them says no at first at least once, and often twice. It took getting swallowed by a whale for Jonah to accept his mission in life. The first time God came knocking on his door he took off and sailed away to escape what his life was shaping up to be.

And Sarah, the wife of Abraham laughs at God when she is told she will have a child. Even after the whole run in with the burning bush, Moses said over and over again, “No. No not me. You must be mistaken, I can’t lead people.” Until God finally said, “Okay you can use your brother to help you. He’s a better public speaker anyway.” Then there is the quintessential doubter, Thomas the disciple. He wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus after the resurrection, to prove that he is who he claims to be. Over and over again, in the Bible the example of a faithful life is the one that contains a serious level of doubt.

The Bible is full of incredible stories of burning bushes, whale attacks, wrestling angels. They are pretty fantastic stories that don’t make sense in our lives. But we have our own moments of wrestling. Seismic shifts in our lives shake us from the foundation up. It may be the death of a loved one. A spiritual awakening, gradual maturation, the birth of a child, or a near death experience. I’m sure you have had one or two of these in your time. They change the logistics of your life, but they also change what we believe in.

My own faith has been shaken several different times in these sorts of moments. Growing up in Oklahoma, a very Christian notion of God shaped my religious identity. It wasn’t totally simplistic, but I hadn’t seen enough of the world to mold my faith into something that was more sustainable.
So just a couple of months into my time in the peace Corps, that faith slid away. I was a Unitarian Universalist so the idea of not believing in God wasn’t terrifying. But it just change in my mind. In the Peace Corps I came to see that the God I had believed in before simply didn’t make sense in this world of inequality and poverty. The God that I knew didn’t fit the equation any longer.
But two years later, I landed in seminary. It was the exact opposite experience. There, God became completely expansive as we learned different possibilities through theologians’ ideas. God was many, many different things, each one of them exciting. I tried on lots of these different ideas of God. One after the other, across continents and centuries, these different ideas of the divine spoke to different pieces of me.
In the end, I don’t think any of them completely fit. Where I landed mostly was a fascination with Buddhist teachings. The Buddha explained that life is very difficult, but if we can let go of our clinging to the things that don’t matter, we can let go of that suffering as well. It’s a philosophy and lifestyle choice, designed to bring peace and wellbeing in this life. And Buddhism brought some peace, without God.
But even more recently, this year as a matter of fact, my relationship with God has been turned on its head once again. It’s a story that I’m still coming to terms with, still trying to understand. But I came to learn that much of my life I had been prayed for, without my even knowing it. Prayed for by someone who cared deeply about me and my journey. And the revelation of this prayer has rekindled a deep faith in a God that has watched over me, walked with me, for years. It has led me back to into calling that mysterious sacred peace of my life God.
My beliefs have shifted over the years in infinite mutations. Those are my major shifts. I’m sure you have plenty of your own shifts in belief that are interwoven with shifts in your lives. It’s tough to get very far in adulthood without some shifting in belief.

So far I have been talking about wrestling with whether or not something called God exists. And wrestling with different ideas of God. But that’s not nearly a wide enough scope. As Unitarian Universalists we have a great many different beliefs. And the sort of wrestling we do involves all of those beliefs. Both the diversity of beliefs within our community, and the diversity of beliefs within our selves are too expansive for plain old wrestling with God. You see the wrestling comes when we try to put our beliefs together to make some sense of the world around us.
More than a question about God, what I’m talking about wrestling with our world view, how we understand the world around us, how we make sense of it, and where we find hope in the midst of that jumble. That’s why theology is a huge academic discipline. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. It’s not just a question of whether or not God exists to you, but a much, much more complicated question of how do all of those pieces of your belief fit together.

Lets run a little test. I want to ask you some questions, and you don’t need to respond or raise your hand. Just think of the answer for yourself. Do you think there is something called God? Are people basically good, or bad? Do we have more free will or do other factors dictate our actions? Is there life after death? Do we have a soul that is separate from the matter and energy of our body? Can prayer change the world outside of ourselves? Finally, Do the answers to these questions fit together? It’s hard enough to come up with answers to these individual questions. But it’s all the harder to make the pieces fit together.

A lot of this sermon is inspired the book by Rev. Chris Schreiner is going to present a workshop on this Tuesday night. The workshop is about how atheists and theists can engage in meaningful dialog. In talking about the way our beliefs fit together, Chris uses the metaphor of the bricks of a house. Our beliefs are built one upon another, sort of like the bricks or stones of a house. Over they years they build up, layer upon layer. But sometimes in our lives, something happens that changes one of those beliefs. And if we take out one of those beliefs in the wall of our house, you can’t just stick another one in its place with a little glue. It takes some masonry skills, to build up and whittle away at the bricks that surround the hole. When one of our beliefs is changed, the beliefs surrounding it change, and making things fit back together again can be exhausting work.

This is a big piece of what we do as a church. On Sundays I try to explore a variety of different viewpoints. In fact I frequently contradict myself between different sermons on a similar topic. If you listen closely you’ll notice it. That’s because I do my best to offer different perspectives. The goal is to help our masonry, to help you whittle away or build up existing beliefs to make room for the changes as we learn and grow.
And it’s what happens when I talk with people in pastoral care. Yes part of the discussion is social, but the much bigger part, comes in questions that friends aren’t likely to ask. “What does this all mean for you?” “Where do you find hope in this situation?” These are the questions I ask and talk through with people when they are ready, when their lives change and a brick is disturbed. “What does this all mean to you.” When we are at our best as a religious community, we walk with one another, as we rebuild our houses. We stay with one another and offer support in the times of wrestling with God.
The reason why that story about Jacob is so amazing and used frequently isn’t because it is a good wrestling match, or because Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel. The real nugget of the story is when Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” If nothing else that’s what I want you to take home from today’s worship service. When wrestling with God, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I will not let go of this struggle until I get something out of it. Because the only way out is through. The only way out of those transformational moments is to actually go through them, and grab a hold of whatever blessing there is to be found.
As Unitarian Universalists we do doubt well. We can deconstruct and analyze others and ourselves with great speed and accuracy. And it’s a skill we have earned. Most of us have come from other religious traditions. Most of us have made the conscious decision to step away from a religious community of our family and upbringing, to saying no, that doesn’t sound right. No I won’t say those words that I don’t believe in. Most of us coming here having already consciously chosen to doubt the beliefs that were handed to us.

And you have come to the right place. As an institution we are not keen on authority. We pride ourselves on the democratic process, ensuring that no one person is given authority over others without their consent. Unitarian Universalism is a tradition of doubters. We can knock those bricks out one after another. But eventually we have to come through to the other side, to believe something.

Doubt is good thing. Asking hard questions is good and it’s something we do very well. As UUs however, we are not always great at following through with the struggle to it’s conclusion. We ask questions long enough for the status quo to be unsettled, for our beliefs to be challenged. But our mission is deeper than that. Our role as a religious community is to hold onto those questions, to continue to wrestle, until we come upon an answer, a meaning, a blessing on the other side.

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