Listen Here or Read Rev. Tafel’s sermon from 10/20/19
Wrestling With God and Receiving Justice
October 20, 2019
New Church of Montgomery
Good morning! It’s great to be back worshipping with you all today.
Something you may not know about me is that I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area through pre-school and most of my elementary school years. When I was in Kindergarten my mom’s mother came to live with us since my mom went to work full time and I wasn’t quite ready for taking on the world of elementary school by myself yet—especially getting myself to the school. I have a few memories of what this time in my life was like. I remember my Grandma making peanut butter and jelly toast for me and she taught me how to play Rummy…which was really more for her than me I think—my Grandma loved to play cards.My Grandma would help me get on and off the bus each day and seemed genuinely interested in what was going on in my world. It was a great way to start off my school career.
The next year was a bit dicey since the bus service was not available to those of us who weren’t in Kindergarten. I don’t know what the determining factor was for the school for children between the ages of five and six—but apparently it was a big difference. I didn’t feel the shift—but okay. I think my parents took me through the way I’d be walking so I had some kind of idea of what I was in for. I remember walking with my sister and that was difficult for both of us as we could think of about a hundred other things we’d both rather be doing than having to walk next to each other on the sidewalk going to school. The good news is that we made several stops along the way and gathered a bunch of people to share the journey. I don’t think it was a mile from our house to school but it felt like walking to the moon—and back…and yes it was significantly awful in the winter. At some point along the way I became I latchkey kid. I knew the way quite well after that first year of walking. I knew how long it took to meet up with each group of friends. I knew where the honeysuckles were for a treat walking into school. I knew which yards I could steal flowers from for gifts for my teachers (except for my second grade teacher). I knew who the crossing guard students were and the whole process of crossing large streets together and how big the pack of kids were as we finally made it to the school. It was a journey every single day and there was a particular way to go about it and I knew what the consequences were if any piece of the puzzle was missing. I don’t think I knew how dangerous this whole process was while I was experiencing it but it was made clear to me several times that we needed to stick together.
This process became what I knew like the back of my hand. Whenever I engaged in a new project, going on a trip, or heck just running errands—this became my way of operating. There was a process of getting from point A to point B and it was detailed and organized. I would get super frustrated when I was younger if I was told we were going somewhere and we did not stick to a plan. There was more to the story but the summary is that I don’t deal well with chaos—or perceived chaos. There is a balance to be achieved between going with the flow and not having a sense of what is going on or what is expected.
This brings us to the lessons from Scripture. Ourstory from the Old Testament features Jacob wrestling with a figure through the night (some say it’s an angel or God but no one knows for certain). This incident takes place the night before Jacob is set to do battle with his brother Esau and Esau’s army (Jacob was on the run because he took their father’s blessing by deceit). There are several facets to this story: sibling rivalry, mysterious or other-worldly encounters, the birth of a nation, and our ability to make sense of it all—or not. In our theology the concept of wrestling (as Jacob did with the figure) “denotes temptation as to truth preceding conjunction with good.”
As I mulled this over and thought about how our theology boils down to its simplest form to the marriage of Divine Love (goodness) and Divine Wisdom (truth)—I wondered what temptationsexist before truth and goodness can be united. In this particular story the temptation is to operate from our natural or rational self as opposed to our spiritual nature. This is where our story from the Old Testament connects with our story from the New Testament. The unjust Judge in the story with the persistent widow is also an example of operating from the natural self and not the spiritual self.
In the example I shared above of what it’s like for me to go about my day or work on a project—I have had to do some serious unwinding of rigidity. I had the template of how to go to school imprinted young and hardwired from years of repetition. And so, it would seem I would be able to have a handle on life and what is thrown at me. And yet…I still struggle. As I wrestle with the theology and the point of existence—I work through the regeneration process time and again when faced with triggers and the curve balls thrown at me. What I am currently working on, is handing all aspects of my life over to Spirit. I mean, things go far better when I step aside and allow things to unfold but that is definitely not my default setting. An example, I was visiting with my Goddaughter last week and I was exhausted from working back to back overnights as Chaplain and it was pouring rain. I had to drive about a half hour north of Lansing to meet up with her at a local cider mill. I got to our meet up location way before she did and once she arrived we had a great time and got caught up with each other—and then I had to face the drive home still exhausted and still in the rain. I had flashes of which exit to take but it meant potentially more time on surface streets and so I ignored my gut instinct and the flashes that were coming to mind. Well, instead of dealing with more time on surface streets I had to deal with wasted time in a construction zone. Gee, was that my rational mind saying, “I got this!” only to be met with more frustration? What would’ve happened if I followed what I can only say wasSpirit communicating with me? I know this is how Spirit communicates with me and yet I dismissed it because I thought I knew better.
I would argue that this is the temptation that presents itself before truth can unite with goodness—the idea that “I know better!” based on life experience, our culture, family dynamics and advice, and whatever else stands as a barrier to God or Spirit’s operation in our daily routine which becomes the life we lead. So what do we do about it? As one who does not trust so easily I will say that it is an experiment in handing the reigns over to the Creator of the universe. My new life experience over the past couple years tells me that it works better when I show my gratitude, actively engage in the regeneration process daily or at least weekly, and witness to the positive changes that are unfolding around me. Again, this is not my default setting but it is quickly becoming so.
As one who has been standing with two paths before me I can say for certainty what life is like when I’ve been the one in charge trying to navigate what’s thrown at me, using faulty coping skills because that is what I’ve known (please hear I do not cast blame—this is rather a statement of awareness and observation), and doing my darndest to try and be proactive in ways that only trip me up constantly. As Robert Frost (yes a well known Swedenborgian) said—he took the road not taken and that it made all the difference. I am choosing a path unknown to me but boy is there more light and less chaos…and that is making a difference to me. It takes effort, courage, and persistence.
Coming back to the stories from Scripture—persistence is a key word or concept in both of them. Full disclosure: I gave the sermon title and theme to the folks here before I knew the direction this message would take—which happens more often than not but here we are. And as I am wont to do—I approach my projects and tasks with due diligence. The question I posed in the theme for this message (I know you all read the teaser on the church website!) had to do with wrestling with God and receiving justice…I mean I could’ve asked a larger question but not sure what that would be. I guess what I would ask is what does justice look like to you? Is it something you’re seeking in your daily life? Is it something you’re interested in pursuing on behalf of those who don’t have the ability to be heard…or even asked to the table? The persistence of the characters in both stories pursued their interests and ultimately interests beyond them…yes it seems like the answer was given to only them but Jacob fathered a nation and the widow’s persistence changed the mind of a city official which possibly had an impact on life beyond her story. When we actively engage our spiritual nature and the presence of God…truth and goodness unite and a legacy beyond us can unfold.
As I said, choosing a life unknown and unfamiliar and engaging God in all details takes effort, persistence, and courage. And when life throws curve balls and our circle tells us to get back in our comfort zone—we need encouragement. I look to folks like Brene Brown—a voice becoming well known in our culture—who is a researcher on shame, vulnerability, and courage. The title of her book “Daring Greatly” comes from the well-known (and especially now well-known) quote from Theodore Roosevelt. I will end with this quote that sticks with me quite often these days…