A God Who Always Shows Up to Wrestle
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan during worship on Sunday, August 6, 2017 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO.
Text: Genesis 32:22-31
I remember really not being sure anymore.
Because at that time, nothing made sense. Going to work didn’t make sense. Talking to my friends didn’t make sense. Sitting alone certainly didn’t make sense. Neither did grocery shopping or working out or dealing with my landlord or brushing my hair. In the days and weeks and months after my little sister died unexpectedly many, many years ago, nothing made sense to me. We’d had the funeral, I’d seen her one last time in that casket, then I was there when they put that tiny little box into the ground. Through too many awkward conversations and far too much mac and cheese, I’d listened to every last it of good advice and well-meaning words of condolence and love that incredibly sweet and generous and lovely people had been so kind as to offer. And at some point, it really felt like I had said all the words. I had no more left. I had planned and organized and cried and processed and felt and watched Love Actually 57 times. And I had nothing left. I was completely numb.
And I couldn’t possible see, feel, or imagine how there was a God in that. I had read the hospital report, I had gone over the details many, many times. I knew the logistics and the specifics. There was nothing holy or sacred about what happened. It was medical. Clinical. Scientific. And it was done. A whole person. Done. A whole story. Done. In ashes. Now in the ground. Right by my grandma.
So for a long time, numb as could be, I walked through the motions. “Fake it till you make it”, my mom advised. “Just come along with us,” one of my other sister’s said. So I went to church, but there was no more God in it for me. I still liked the songs. And the people were sweet. And you know I liked the cookies and juice.
But God no longer made sense to me in this world.
It’s fascinating to me how grief looks so different in different people. How we handle things differently, process things differently, experience and journey through the same exact things so differently. For so long, I felt like my family had taken their grief to one side of the river- and with it, their faith, their laughter, their joy, and their ability to move on- and I was stuck on the other side, lost in my numbness, all alone.
In our text today, Jacob the wrestler, the one wrestling within his mother’s womb, the one who wrestled away his brother’s birthright, the one who wrestled away his father’s blessing, the one who wrestled to gain wives and fortune, now sends all that he has- his family, his herds, all of his possessions- to the other side of the river, and is left alone to wrestle for his soul.
It is when he is alone, on the river bank that night, as he is leading his family back to God’s promise land, back to face the wrath of his brother, back to face the decisions of his past, back to face an unknown future, all alone, that Jacob the wrestler, wrestles with God.
We’re not told how it started. Was Jacob quietly waiting. Sitting silently in prayer, resting and gathering his thoughts, devising a plan. Was he screaming and shouting about. Calling for a fight. Seeking out trouble. We’re not told how it started. Did God just show up? Was there a leading in? Or a flashing presence? Who threw the first punch? Who drew the first blood? Were words tossed about or did they go straight for the body?
For such an important match, we’re not told a whole lot.
But here is what we do know. God showed up that night to wrestle with Jacob. And God was willing to wrestle all night long.
I spent a year in a numb fog after my sister died. I knew dust and I knew doubt. I went through the motions and more often, I just walked out. On faith. On believing. On God. But God kept showing up. God kept showing up for a match that took more than a year. For a match I snuck back into three years later. For a match, I still revisit in dark moments and times.
And I may limp a little from our battles. But I know how strong it’s made me, how strong God has made me, in doing this work, in skirmishing and roughhousing this way. In struggling and scrappling together we are both stronger. God knows my moves. I know some of God’s plays.
In the end, day breaks. A new light rises, and God offers a blessing, and changes a name. Jacob is Israel- the one who wrestles with God face to face. Jacob is Israel- changed in name and in gait. Jacob is stronger. Jacob moves differently. Jacob is blessed. Jacob continues on.
And God keeps showing up. To challenge. To wrestle. To bless. To encourage.
So I keep showing up, too. Numb, or tired, doubtful or jolly, with confident moves and lots of friends, or kind of afraid and all alone… however I can, I keep showing up, for a God who is willing to wrestle with ME.
All. Night. Long.