This is a sermon that I will be preaching this Sunday at Community Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, IL. It is based on a sermon I preached last year during Lent at Fourth Ave United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY.
I often hesitate to publish the text of my sermons, because they are meant to be heard rather than read, but from time to time I make exceptions, and this is one such case.
Scripture 1: Genesis 32:22-32
Scripture 2: John 11:30-35
On December 30, 2009, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, my cousin Michael's pickup truck careened out of control and stuck a tree. He was killed instantly. His mangled body had to be cut out of the wreckage. If anyone who knew him had been allowed to see it, they would not have recognized him. He was only 22 years old. I know that in family you're not supposed to have favorites, but I'm not very good at following rules. With all apologies to everyone else, Michael was my favorite cousin.
He was born just before my eighth birthday, and he was not only my first cousin; he was also the first baby I can ever remember holding. Though as a young adult he grew up to love punk and indie rock, I'll never forget that as a toddler his favorite song was Billy Ray Cyrus's “Achy Breaky Heart.” And don't think that I ever let him forget that.
Like all of us, Michael was a complicated person, with a complicated relationship with God. The child of missionaries, he grew up as an American in Eastern Europe, living first in Romania, and then in Hungary. He was surrounded by powerful examples of faith, but as happens to all honest people he long harbored fears and doubts. He wasn't one to shy away from the dark corners of the life of faith, often mirroring Jacob's wrestling with God.
Our first scripture reading this morning is that story from Genesis. In it we find an anxious Jacob about to meet his brother Essau for the first time since robbing him of his birthright. After sending gifts ahead to appease both his brother and his own guilty conscience, Jacob sent his entire camp; his wives, his servants, his children, and all his worldly possessions across the stream to the other side, where he will eventually have to follow. But not yet. Not yet.
The text doesn't tell us why; perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he was afraid, perhaps he simply needed to take a moment to help him face up to what was about to happen, but after helping his entire camp ford the stream, Jacob returned for a moment. Alone, all of his companions and all of his belongings, everyone he could turn to, every thing he could hide behind on the other side of the stream, he wrestled with an unnamed man all through that night.
Scripture tells us that they, Jacob and his unnamed opponent, wrestled until the break of dawn, locked in a clench with no clear winner, neither able to shake off the other, neither able to triumph in their struggle. Who the man was, as well as why the man is wrestling Jacob is never made clear. And, I'd say, it doesn't matter. What matters is the struggle itself, which wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket, giving him a limp for the rest of his life, and which even changes Jacob's very name.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the man told him. “You shall now be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
A rabbi friend tells me that in this story it is the name that Jacob is given, “Israel,” that is the most important part of the story, not just because it shows us that this story is part of the creation myth of ancient Israel, but also and especially because of the meaning of the word “Israel” itself. It is a two-part word. The easy part is the second half, the suffix, “El.” “El” is simply a Semetic word for “God.” The first half, however, the prefix, is a bit more tricky. In Hebrew, the prefix “Isra” has a couple of different meanings. As fits this story, it can mean “to wrestle,” “to struggle,” “to fight.” But my rabbi friend also tells me it has another meaning, “to live with.”
These meanings – “to wrestle with,” “to struggle with,” “to fight with” on the one hand, and “to live with” on the other – taken together mean that there is a close relationship in the life of faith between living with and struggling with, or fighting with. Ultimately, in the life of faith – and, I might add, in family life – to live with is to wrestle with, to struggle with, to fight with. To live with God is to struggle with God. The life of faith is a life lived in the tension between living with God and struggling with God, living with God and fighting with God.
Jacob may have been standing alone, wrestling in the dark with a strange man in the tense moments before confronting his own betrayal of his brother, but he was also and especially learning something valuable about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live in the midst of struggle. It is to wrestle with God, to sometimes fight against God, but always, always, to live with God.
Faith is grappling with a stranger. Faith is groping in the dark. Faith is staggering alone in a deep and nearly endless night, praying for a dawn. Faith is being seized, being squeezed, by a mystery that wrenches your hip and wrests your name. And faith is living with God.
The year before he died Michael came to stay with me and my family in our home in Louisville, KY for a little bit, and gave me a glimpse into his complicated faith. Just as to live with God is wrestle with, struggle with, fight with God, so too my appreciation for my cousin's adult faith came in the midst of conflict. Sitting across from each other at RichO's Public House, a pub in New Albany, IN, just across the river from Louisville, we argued late into the night about how to read and interpret the Bible. As the night dragged on our volumes increased, each trying to shout down the other until Sami swore that she'd never be seen with either of us again.
I don't think we agreed on a single thing that night; and it was wonderful. We gave each other permission to disagree, and to disagree passionately, about what was most sacred to us, arguing with equal parts heat and love. His willingness to stand up for his understanding of the Christian faith, even to his older and much more formally educated cousin, taught me that while we may disagree on the particulars of faith, we each shared a common faith, a common passion for theology that bound us more closely to each other than any agreement could have.
In that moment we both wrestled with each other and lived with each other, just as in our respective faiths we each wrestled with and lived with God.
One of my favorite songwriters is a man named Terry Taylor, who in one of his songs asks of those of us who easily profess, and, I might add, profit from our faith, “How did this get/ How did this get/ So easy for you?” His message is this: If it's easy, if it comes easily, whatever it is, whatever you call it, you can be certain that it isn't faith.
Another great songwriter, Steve Taylor (no relation to Terry Taylor), makes roughly the same point as he echos Flannery O'Conner in his song “Harder to Believe Than Not To”:
Nothing is colder than the winds of change
Where the chill numbs the dreamer 'til a shadow remains
Among the ruins lies your tortured soul
Was it lost there, or did your will surrender control?
Shivering with doubts that were left unattended
So you toss away the cloak that you should have mended
Don't you know by now why the chosen are few?
It's harder to believe than not to
Harder to believe than not to
Too often Christian discourse steers itself away from the dark places. We are, after all, afraid. Afraid of the darkness of doubt. Afraid of the shadow of death. We are afraid, I suppose, that admitting our doubt will drive out our faith, that admitting our darkness will drive out what remains of the light. And so we retreat from our fears. We deny our own doubt. We flee from the shadows, pretending they aren't there. But such fear, such denial, such retreating from the shadow of doubt, the shadow of death, is neither faithful, nor, I would argue, Christian.
Faith cannot be afraid of doubt, lest we admit that doubt is stronger than faith. Light cannot be afraid of darkness, lest we admit that in the end the shadows have power over the light that, in fact, creates them. And Jesus stood next to the tomb of Lazarus and wept for his friend.
So the Gospel of John tells us in our second scripture this morning. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had been sick. Word was sent to Jesus to come quickly, but by the time he reached the village of Bethany Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Dead. Grief, and the accusations that so often accompany it, abounded. Echoing the words of her sister Martha just before the passage we read this morning, Mary confronted Jesus. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother would not have died.”
“You could have saved him, Jesus,” she might have added. “You could have saved him, but you took your time. And there he lies in his silent grave, pawing the dust and awaiting the end of time.”
Grief. Accusation. Rebuke. Anger. Fear. Despair. The air must have been thick with these things as Mary's words reverberated in Jesus' ears while he walked slowly to his friends' tomb. And when he got there, what did Jesus do? He wept. Jesus wept. He mourned for his friend.
Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him about the resurrection. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that death would not have the final say. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him of the coming Easter, which would shatter the power of death, which would rob it of its sting. And surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that in his hands, in his hands were power of life. Surely Jesus knew that in a few short moments he would call out to his friend, and from within the grave, and beyond the grave, receive an answer. Yet in that moment, at that place, Jesus wept, Jesus mourned with the others the death of his friend Lazarus.
I thought about this passage as I stood at Michael's grave after his funeral. The words “Jesus wept” repeated themselves endlessly in my mind as I too shed my own tears for the dead. And as I watched the casket holding his body lowered into the ground, draped in flowers and in final farewells, I needed no one to tell me of Easter. I needed no one to tell me of the resurrection of the dead. I needed no one to tell me that he was in a better place. I needed no one to tell me to rejoice for and with the dead. For my cousin's truck careened out of control, and traveling far, far too fast, hit a tree, robbing parents of a son, robbing siblings of a brother, and robbing me of my favorite cousin.
Jesus weeping outside the tomb of Lazarus, knowing fully that in a moment he will call, “Lazarus, come out!” and to everyone's surprise be met with an answer from the man himself; that is the best metaphor for this season of Lent that I can think of. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the dark moments in the life of faith. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the quiet spaces that are too often punctuated by our tears of mourning, by our silent weeping for loves long lost. And, Lent tells us that the denial of death is one of the most powerful expressions of the fear of death; that the denial of doubt is really a lack of faith, a belief that doubt will ultimately prove stronger than faith.
Lent calls us not to skip ahead to Easter, but to fully experience this quiet season of self reflection, where in the darkness of doubt and death the seeds of resurrection are planted and watered. Lent tells us to be patient. Lent tells us not to rush miracles, for in the immortal words of Miracle Max in the Princess Bride, that always produces rotten miracles.