A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached August 6, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
watch this sermon here.
READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Genesis 32: 22-31)
22 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. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.25When 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. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel,* saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
READING “Beatitudes” by Nadia Bolz-Weber, from Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.
Sometimes we need to wrestle ourselves a blessing.
The scripture we read today from Genesis tells this story: By himself at night on the bank of the Jabbok, suddenly and unexpectedly, Jacob is wrestling with a strange man all through the night until dawn.
The scripture doesn’t give us much information about it, but the fight was serious enough that “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.”
But Jacob does not give up, despite his hip injury. The fight goes on until Jacob’s opponent says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
The stranger responds by asking Jacob’s name, and then says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed (Gen 32:27-28).”
The name change from Jacob to Israel confirms that the figure with whom Jacob has been wrestling is not simply a “man.”
Jacob has spent the night wrestling God. He demands a blessing from God before he lets go. God concedes that Jacob has prevailed, and blesses him by giving him a new name: Israel, which means “triumphant with God.” Jacob walks away from the fight with a blessing and a limp, triumphant.
You and I sometimes wrestle with God, when our world is the darkest.
In the darkest nights of my life—when depression and disconnection threaten to crowd out both feeling and faith, I have always fought with God.
Yelling at God is an ancient spiritual practice, and a common theme in the holy scriptures. It is, perhaps, the holiest form of prayer. The psalmist cries, “Lord, How long will you hide your face from me?” Jesus himself cries out from the cross, “Why God, why? Why have you forsaken me?”
So I yell at God a lot. When I’m done yelling, I demand a blessing. And I won’t let go until I get one.
I am one of those people who attempts to make meaning of every personal tragedy, and fast. The idea of meaninglessness was always more terrifying to me than suffering. And though I counsel against this cliche in my ministry, I am quick to try and find a lesson in my pain.
We need our pain to be of use. We need it to make sense. That’s how we exert the illusion of control over the uncontrollable.
Whenever I was betrayed, I thought, “well, it’s a blessing to know at an early age that trust is illusory.”
When I divorced my first husband I thought, “It’s a blessing that this will make me a more empathic, less holy-than-thou minister.”
When I suffered depression, I thought, “well, it’s a blessing that I am in touch with the existential doubt inherent in the human condition.”
There’s a blessing in everything, I’d think to myself. But underneath all those introspective life lessons was always anger.
And so I wrestled. I angrily, stubbornly refused to let go of God during my moments of deepest suffering. I would shout, like Lieutenant Dan yelling at the storm on the shrimp boat in Forest Gump: “You’ll never sink this boat! … Come on! You call this a storm?”
“Hey God, if it’s true that you give people only what they can handle, you must think I’m pretty AWESOME!”
The word “blessed” means divinely favored; or “made holy.” And right now, it is the most over-used term I can think of: the kind of over-use that changes the definition of a term altogether.
We use the word “blessed” to talk about things we are just lucky to have. We use the word “blessed” to talk about things that we worked hard for and received because of a combination of luck and merit, not because of God’s special favor. We say things like “I have been blessed with children”, or “I was blessed to get a promotion at work.”
Most ubiquitous in popular culture, the word blessed is used to humble-brag on social media.
Most of you know what a hash tag is. For those of you who don’t, a hash tag is a number sign used on social media sites to categorize posts, so that you can search for topics with the same theme.
The hash tag “blessed” is one of the most popular hash tags on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Folks post pictures of their vacations, their meals, and their cars…together with the phrase #blessed, as if God must love us so much that he has personally purchased us a trip to the Caribbean complete with expensive wine, filet mignon and handsome, chiseled and tanned date.
Jessica Bennett, a style writer for the New York Times, writing about the hashtag “blessed” says:
"Here are a few of the ways that God has touched my social network over the past few months:
• S(he) helped a friend get accepted into graduate school. (She was “blessed” to be there.)
• S(he) made it possible for a yoga instructor’s Caribbean spa retreat. (“Blessed to be teaching in paradise,” she wrote.)…..
……God has, in fact, recently blessed my network with dazzling job promotions, coveted speaking gigs, the most wonderful fiancés ever, front row seats at Fashion Week, and nominations for many a “30 under 30” list. And, blessings aren’t limited to the little people, either. S(he) blessed Macklemore with a wardrobe designer (thanks for the heads up, Instagram!) and Jamie Lynn Spears with an engagement ring (“#blessed #blessed #blessed!” she wrote on Twitter). S(he)’s been known to bless Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with exotic getaways and expensive bottles of Champagne, overlooking sunsets of biblical proportion (naturally).
“There’s literally a (woman) in my Facebook feed right now who just posted a (picture of her backside)— and all it says is ‘blessed,’ ” said Erin Jackson, a stand-up comedian in Virginia. “Now wait. Is that really a blessing?”…….
…… The Pittsburgh comedian Davon Magwood recently tweeted: “Caught a piece of bacon falling out of my sandwich right before it hit the ground,” It was followed, naturally, by the punch line: '#blessed.'"
The week since I have been home from vacation has been harrowing for this congregation. There have been hospitalizations and terrifying diagnoses and prognoses, job loss, the death of a couple of parents, the death of a son, and a son in law, and a seven year old grandson of a realtor in town in a tractor accident. There have been falls, injuries and chronic illnesses. (I hate cancer so very much. I want to stab it until it dies.)
I have a pretty large care team here that I lean on: it includes the diaconate, the meal-givers, the card-writer and sender team, the caregivers and called to care teams, and the prayer chain. We send each other emails to update each other on folks who need care. This week was an email onslaught. At one point, Heather Cline, who is pretty much on all of these teams wrote to me and said, “Holy expletive, is it only Thursday? This week needs to be over, and start a new one.”
If God is blessing people with engagement rings and expensive bottles of champagne and graduate school admissions, what is God doing to the folks in our congregation who are suffering under the weight of depression, loneliness, addiction, disease, death, hunger, fear, and mourning?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t worship a God who favors the happy, the coupled, the strong, the fertile, the healthy, the rich and the well-fed.
The God I worship says this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs' is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the ones who love people across borders: of race and religion and politics and lineage, across boundaries of language and culture.
Blessed are the humble.
Blessed are those awaiting diagnosis and prognosis,
Blessed are those who have to tell the children.
Blessed are those who sit in the doctor’s chair, with no one to hold their hand, blessed are the ones for whom no hand holding can protect.
Blessed are those who burn the clothes they were wearing on the day they heard the news.
Blessed are the betrayed, and the ones who forgive their betrayers.
Blessed are the ones who are not over it yet.
Blessed are the children who are always left out: the weird ones, the ones who don’t get it.
Blessed are caretakers who are ill themselves in body and spirit.
Blessed are the millions of victims of the opioid crisis and their families and loved ones, and blessed are the victims of the crack and AIDS epidemics who were less visible because of the color of their skin and their sexuality.
Blessed are they who have lost a child, no matter what age. Blessed are they who listen without fixing, who don’t fall apart so that we can.
Blessed are the beaten up and the broken and the lost and desperate to be found.
Blessed are the wounded, and the healers and the wounded healers.
Blessed are those who have loved enough that they know what loss feels like.
You are holy and Jesus blesses you.
Beloved, you are lucky if you have healthy children and grandchildren and beautiful things and warm memories. You are blessed if you have wrestled with God through the dark night of the soul, and did not give up until you prevailed. You may have walked away limping, but you were given a new name.
The Japanese have this beautiful practice of mending broken objects by filling their cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage, and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.
So beautiful, blessed people, our call is clear. May our broken places call us to revolutionary love. May we go out and help the others who suffer, even though we walk with a limp. We were made not to be blessed, but to be a blessing. May we prevail.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.