Transcribed from the sermon preached July 12, 2015
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Genesis 32:22-32, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
The story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God falls between the stories of Jacob’s tricking his brother Esau out of his inheritance and their reconciliation. You may remember that Jacob, the younger son, conspired with his mother to trick his father into giving him both the first born birthright and blessing. Gypped twice by his brother, Esau was fuming, and promised to kill his brother after his father died. Now Esau did alright for himself despite Jacob and is coming with an army. Jacob, hoping for forgiveness and reconciliation, sends out a sequence of offerings to soften his brother’s anger.
Awaiting the actual meeting with his brother, Jacob is camped along a river. As it becomes night, Jacob runs into a man who seems to be the guardian of the river crossing. They wrestle all night. Eventually, Jacob decides this guy is related to the divine and asks for a blessing. Jacob won’t give up so the guy injures Jacobs’s groin. But Jacob still won’t give up and demands a blessing. Finally, the guy blesses Jacob with the new name Israel, because he has struggled with God face to face.
If all goes according the convention in the culture, Jacob is not someone who gets to be primary protagonist in scripture. “Bless me, make me a cake,” he might say, and his father would say, “no, that is not the way it goes. You don’t get the blessing. The established order says your brother gets the blessing.” On the one hand Jacob is a bit of a snake. On the other hand, who came up with the conventional order anyway? This bucking of the conventional culture is going to reverberate in the story of David, the young brother who makes his way from musician to giant killer and then king. This theme runs through scripture: don’t give up, be faithful to God, wrestle with him enough, and you just may get a blessing.
The other night I went over to St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear Cornel West. Now one might be tempted to look at the ongoing struggle of the African American Community and just say, the heck with God. Certainly more and more people have decided God is not making much of a difference. God is not preventing racist lunatics from shooting down church folks. God has not ended racism. God has not ended poverty and violence and discrimination. Meanwhile Central America is turning into a present day Sodom and Gomorrah, where society is disintegrating before the raw violence, corruption and disrespect of human life to such a degree one might be tempted to just erase everything and start over.
And the response from many in our nation to the cries of suffering is to say “tough luck; we white Americans got the blessing first. You further down the line just have to live with what is left. That is just the way it is. We had the trump card.”
Yet I am amazed at how clear the faith of folks remains. They are not buying conventional religion and culture that says God leaves certain groups out. Quite the opposite. Faith in the Creator and the sacrificial life and death of Christ means that a person’s worth is not set by humans, no matter how powerful or powerless we may be. Even as we strive for a just system and equal opportunity, our freedom is not determined by the justice system, or the amount of money in our pocket, but by the grace of God through Christ. Our ability to act out of love rather than hate, to seek to forgive rather than seek revenge, is determined by the Spirit of God within us.
We tend to think of Paul’s language of the world of the flesh and the world of the Spirit in terms of sex and pleasure versus disinterested spirituality. But it is much deeper than that. For Paul the world of the flesh is that world that gives primacy to the seeking of pleasure and power over the consideration of the good of others. It is the world where, out of fear of death, we are willing to fight and claw and cheat and sell our integrity just to stay alive and on top. It creates systems which favor the creators, subsidizes the powerful and puts road blocks before the powerless. In the world of the flesh there is not enough to go around, so we have to grab and hold what we can while we can. It is the world of sex trafficking, slavery, brutal intimidation, theft by legal or illegal means. It is the world where if we are without, and we are able to somehow claw our way up and grab a piece of the pie, then we act as fearfully and brutally as the next. In the world of the flesh we never have enough. The world of the flesh is that part of us that is tempted to allow the meanness of another to change our trajectory toward meanness. The negativity of others changes us toward negativity.
In the world of the flesh, we get jerked around by the opinions and actions of others; we become slaves to the world, slaves to the opinions of who is in and who is out. If we are out, we fight like they are right or we give up and give in, accepting their opinion and power. If we are in, then we are prideful at the gifts we receive. We pulled ourselves and by our own boot straps, why can’t you.
It was nice to hear West in a Church, as the secular filter of popular media so often lops off the religious depth of progressives. Speaking of how the Church shaped him as a child he said, “I was a Jesus loving free black man before I entered the world of Harvard or Yale, before this nation’s systemic racism could try to tell me any different.”
To paraphrase West, ‘now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. It is by the grace of God in Christ that we are able to maintain integrity in the face of oppression, honesty in the face of deception, decency in the face of insults, and virtue in the face of brute force.’
Now in the world of the flesh some of us may have the luxury of checking out, of just focusing on our own lives and putting on blinders to all the injustice and complicated troubles of the world. But for Christians saved by the sacrificial life and death of Jesus, the integrity of our faith calls us to act, to pick up our cross, to be God’s instruments for justice, to honor and celebrate the beauty of all God’s diverse creations by living hope and love. We know for instance that racism is driven in part by negative stereotypes which are deeply ingrained in our culture. Stereotypes are generalizations that are extrapolated from small encounters. We meet a grumpy employee through a fast-food drive up microphone and extrapolate, “Now those people can’t help themselves.” Now if you are a member of the dominant race or culture, and a member of the dominant race or culture is grumpy, you would not likely think the same thing. You wouldn’t attribute that person’s grumpiness that lunch hour to the grumpiness of his or her race or culture for all places and all time. The jump to extrapolate stereotype from individual encounter serves to establish otherness. It defines someone out of a relationship. The continuation of racism shows the continuation of our slavery to culture that serves no good purpose. We let it drag our mind and spirit down. Even the souls of the privileged are burdened and bogged down by the mud of racism.
Now if we are free in Christ, what good purpose does it serve to extrapolate negativity? None. If we are free in Christ, we are free to be kind and positive to both the kind and the grumpy, of any race or culture. The determinative factor in any encounter is not the other person, but God and God’s work in our lives. God is subject. If we let God think, work and speak through us, what would happen next? The focus is entirely different regardless of whether we are culturally in or out. Why? Because if it wasn’t for the love of God in Christ, we would all be out. Yet because of the grace of God, we are all in. And despite what the world of the flesh may say, culture has no power before the Spirit of God that is within us. This is too beautiful a vision to let go of, no matter how hard the struggle. We may even get hurt along the way, but we are not letting go, not until we are blessed. We wrestle to be blessed. God ought to bless us with a racist free mind and world, and we are not going to let him go until we get it. Emmett Till was brutally murdered by racists in the South. His father said, life is short, “I don’t have a minute to hate.” This didn’t mean he didn’t want justice or that forgiveness was quick or easy coming. It just means that it is up to us to live the way we hope we all can live.
There was a baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding, because, she said, it was against her religious beliefs. We assume she assumed she was Christian. The best response I saw on Facebook was someone who asked, “Well what would Jesus do if he was a baker? Jesus said, if someone asks you to walk one mile, walk two. So I suspect if a gay couple asked Jesus to bake a cake for their wedding, he would bake them two.” Some have a religion of fear and scarcity. Blessing has to be horded. Jesus has a religion of love and abundance. Here at St. Johns we have a two-cake religion, a two-cake Jesus.
Racism is only one of many, many ways in which we categorize people in or out, as deserving or undeserving of our love and blessing. Even families have their own culture of ins and outs. Nobody has a monopoly on sin, suffering or misunderstanding. But more importantly, nobody has a monopoly on joy and thanksgiving. And here is where one of those doctrines we may struggle with intellectually makes all the sense in the world when it comes to living a life of joy and hope: God is sovereign and infinite: The love of God is not locked up in a bank vault. She is not issuing love like it is the last canteen on a desert march. Love is something that grows as we give it away. The more we give, the more we have to give. This doesn’t mean that we have no physical limits, that we need no humility in the ordering of our lives.
On the contrary, we can even love ourselves in our limitations, knowing that we are not in charge of the love. God has the whole world in his hands. We are not God, but we get to ride in the wake of God’s love. We can live out this blessing with joy. We can celebrate, even along the way.
 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.