Encounter: Feeling the Burn

Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 31, 2022

 

 Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 I got the news of my grandfather’s death on a day that was already overcast. I zipped off a quick, stiff lipped email letting a few people know. Though I barely let myself know this, it became clear in my disappointment, that I had hoped… I had hoped this 92 year old man would pull through, even live forever. As soon as I could change clothes, I broke into a sprint. I hit the trail, the bike path that is at the bottom of our hill where I have pounded out joys and frustrations countless times over the years. Others were on the trail, but I couldn’t see their faces. I may have cried or just let my heart burn for a while. A text popped up on my phone, “Sorry friend.” I took a deep breath, feeling cared for. And then I stepped into a giant puddle of water, which soaked my shoe. Shaking it off, I squished along, accepting a physical annoyance to mark the aggravation of my soul, and then another text popped up, “Love you. Want a casserole?” I laughed. My spirit perked up! Not a second later, my dry shoe stepped into a huge pile of dog poop. My rage turned against an entire world of dog people, “Who does that? Seriously!” My run was over. I gave up, turned around, and trailing behind me was a set of footprints. One faint but stained with poop, and the other stark and wet. I envisioned a lovely photograph of those footprints, and in cursive lettering, the quote, “Why, Lord, during the most trying chapters of my life are there these two pathetic footprints? Isn’t that when you were supposed to be carrying me? And then I imagined my Lord responding, ‘What, and step in the poop too?’”

Laughter, that carbonated holiness as Ann Lamott calls it, inevitably overtook me. And I walked home, weeping and laughing and limping the rest of the way like a lunatic.

Maybe for you it wasn’t sodden shoes and sad news. But I suspect everyone here knows thudding disappointment. Disappointment with a job or a loved one or a political reality or a trusted leader or your own body. Even disappointment with God. You know the ramped-up expectations, the time invested, the anticipation, and the crushing let down. Sometimes hope followed by disappointment invades us, unbidden, when we were doing just fine in our lives. Other times it seems to follow us, that little dark cloud, making us paranoid that this is a pattern for us.

It’s that disappointment that Cleopas and the other felt on the road to Emmaus, seven miles away from Jerusalem, even though scholars have no geographical record of the place. I suppose Emmaus might be the name for “anywhere but Jerusalem.” Where we go when we have to go but have nowhere in particular to go. It reminds me of the sullen masses of Nats fans flooding the exits after a Drew Storen meltdown, if you remember those. The disciples were crestfallen. Defeated. Heartbroken.

And of course in their rehashing of it all, someone else was walking along with them but heartbreak is blinding, and “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” That makes sense to me. A grieving mom told me that a few weeks after her son died, she got utterly lost in Target, a place she had been almost weekly for the past 10 years. Suddenly, it was like a foreign land.

This stranger inquires what is going on, and the text says, “They stood still, looking sad.” It’s that wordless pause, where they take a breath in as if it might hold in the tears too. They may feel exhausted by this stranger’s intrusion, but they feel catharsis coming.

Fine, if you don’t know, you must know. There it is, the sarcasm, the edge of rage. They spoke of a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God, whom they had followed. And now, it was over. Brutally, totally. But they finally said it out loud… “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We fell for it. We were in. Hook line and sinker. But we must have been wrong.

Now, if a team wants to make their supervisor feel awful, they simply have to say, “We had heard such great things about you, Jim, thought you could really turn things around here. But we won’t make that mistake again.” And there is nothing worse than hearing a parent say, “I’m not mad at you… I’m just disappointed.” The disciples had trusted him. They had staked their lives on him. And now, they were adrift on a sea of loss, three days gone and the hard reality sinking in.

And they felt singed even more by the bright light of false hope. “And our women, well, they astounded us with this crazy notion that he was alive again.” Cleopas and his friend were too exhausted for this head fake. After all, when you are going through Hell, you’re supposed to keep on going. It’s like John Cleese said, “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t take (John Cleese, Clockwise. And profound gratitude to Sam Wells, “We Had Hoped,” May 4, 2014). His words were an inspiration for this sermon. They had already lost their future. They could not spare their sanity. They had seen too much already to burn energy on more empty things, even empty tombs. So they walked on, towards God knows where.

This story is my favorite in the Bible for many reasons, but mostly because of what happens next. To be sure, Jesus shows himself to be no kind of grief counselor, with his lengthy Bible exercise and the way he scolds them for their dim faith. If any of us did that to a grieving person, we might get the bird, and I don’t mean the bird of peace. But we are not Jesus, and this is not a story about grief counseling. This is a story about resurrection, Jesus revealed to people who were in no way expecting that to happen.  People, perhaps, like us.

First, Jesus is revealed to people when they realize that the sad story they are telling themselves is not the right story, not the full story. The actual story is one of God’s presence and power and constant surprising grace, something complete and marvelous even as it completely messes with us.

Second, this is a story about Jesus revealed to people in the breaking of the bread, something we do month after month because disappointment can be so blinding that we have to rely upon other senses, taste, touch, smell, to notice the risen Christ.

Third, this is a story about heart burn, and what I mean is the way the disciples move from sullen despair into a smoldering sense of their purpose. When you realize that perhaps loss is where the key teaching was to be found. They start asking, “Did our heart not burn inside our chests when he opened the scriptures to us?” They run to Jerusalem, and they meet up with others who also have powerful stories to tell.

So if you notice there are three key movements in this story: there is a revelation of Jesus in the long love story of God, there is communion, and there is mission. Sounds like church, right?

And the best news is that this still happens. For those of you who have been disappointed that God hasn’t followed the script with you, remember, resurrection is always a gift, always a surprise. It’s never something we could manufacture through devotion. The Pharisees tried to manufacture grace through devote then too, and they were unsuccessful. But that also means resurrection is not something that could be stomped out by policy or deepest doubt or the strongest armies. The Romans tried to stomp it out then too and were unsuccessful.

As we walk this road together, we ask, did our hearts not burn inside our chests when we sang together at our loved one’s funeral? When we realized the sad story we were telling ourselves wasn’t the only story? When we went from feeling useless and lost to repurposed and called upon with more meaningful work to do?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when tears popped out as we sang a hymn that seemed tuned to our lives? when we saw tables full of food for ECHO where days before they had been bare? When a Godly Play child told us some truth about God that seemed given from above?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when our child was baptized, when the prayer seemed to be speaking directly to us, when someone showed up at the hospital to visit us just when loneliness was seeping up our limbs?

God is present to us still, feeds us still, startles us with purpose still, so our main job is to walk this path together, this messy sloppy trail of life together, and pay attention to the ones walking beside us, because they just might be the way resurrection is made known to us today.

Amen.

 

 

 

Community Table ~ Mesa Comunitaria

Free dinner, all are welcome!  Cena gratis, todos son bienvenidos!

Tuesday, August 9 ~ 9 de Agosto

Doors open at 5:30 ~ Apertura de puertas a las 5:30pm

Dinner served at 6:00pm ~ Cena servida a las 6:00pm

Encounter: Hold Nothing Back

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 24, 2022

John 1:35-42

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Let us pray: Lord, we want to see you. Amen.

 

The first words from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of John are: “What are you looking for?” After the beautiful cosmic beginning of John, “in the beginning was the word, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” the text cuts to Jesus walking by on a normal afternoon. He asks the disciples who are standing there, “What are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?” It’s a beautiful question Jesus asks, free of judgment and assumptions. Genuine curiosity on the soul level rather than a set of pre-packaged answers on a pamphlet. This seems to be how Jesus operated. He asked 307 questions in the Bible, from “Why do you worry?” to “Who do you say that I am?” to “Do you want to be made well?” to perhaps our favorite, “Do you have anything to eat?”

Sometimes when people engage me in conversations about faith, often on the sidelines of a soccer game, or when people say they want more information about the church after a quick visit, or when someone on a plane starts to treat me like a church suggestion box, I have made it a practice to ask this same question: “What are you looking for?”

This would be a good question to ask in our country, where the fastest growing religious categories are the ‘nones and dones,’ the 29% of Americans who describe their religion as “none” and those who are exiting faith communities, mostly Christianity. “Done” with the church. I’ve just learned about others who might constitute a new category. One magazine cleverly calls them the “Umms” – those whose relationship with God is, umm… complicated. Those who long for spiritual belonging and at the same time, feel disillusioned by the behavior of the church and disembodied from community of kindred spirits and discouraged by the hard news of the world. What might they be looking for?

Well, that afternoon at least, the disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question. Who knows why. They could have said “We are searching for closeness with God.” Or, “we want out of this backwater fishing town.” Or, “we want a decent dinner, but it’s just 4 pm.” But I suspect that they didn’t simply know the answer to his question. There wasn’t a fully baked answer in them as to what they sought. It was more of a restlessness, a yearning that bounced around from inspiration to frustration and back again on any given day, an itch that a lot of us feel inside a lot of the time, a stirring of the spirit. A stirring deep within them, as my wise friend Rev. Andrew Connors describes as, to know something or feel something or be something that is beyond what they can know or feel or do on their own. Something, someone, somewhere, somehow worthy of this cathedral of devotion inside them and also capable of steering it in the right direction.

“What are you looking for?” In response, they muttered, lamb of God, rabbi, teacher, messiah, anointed one, so many names from their different angles, but all words pointed to that same stirring, same yearning, same ineffable hope.

The church could learn from what Jesus does here, his appreciative inquiry. Sometimes we the church set ourselves up to be the answer to all the questions. To deliver the answers ourselves rather than to equip people to look for God in the afternoons of their own lives. To imagine the church as the destination itself rather than a mighty ship rigged for discovery of God’s future. To treat the scriptures, hymns and confessions as an old treasure chest that we control rather than powerful navigational tools and guides from other theological wayfarers to take people farther on their journey than we have been. To tell people the questions they should be asking rather than listen to them describe the grief, the call, the beauty and pain that has broken them open to search in the first place. Sometimes the church sits people down in a pew rather than hike with them as a community up to the holy ground places even beyond their initial questions.

Gary Haugen is the CEO of International Justice Mission, a non-profit that works to combat trafficking and poverty around the world. A few years ago, he spoke to a group of Presbyterians about how safe the church has become, to its own detriment. He said, we speak of things that are so safe that in general they could be handled without involving God at all. But, what people are really longing for is something deeply meaningful and dangerously adventurous because it risks changing the world around us and within us. Then, he shared the story of when he was 10 years old, visiting Mount Rainier with his father. There they were at the visitor’s center at the bottom of Mount Rainier, looking up at all these trails winding their way up into the cloud cover, a patch of bright red warning signs from lawyers at the trailhead telling of potential hazards for travelers.

At ten years old, Gary told his father, “You know, I think I’ll just go back down to the visitors’ center.”  His father tried to persuade him, “I know it will be hard, but I think you’ll be glad you came.”  “No, no,” insisted Gary “I’d really rather spend the day at the visitors’ center.”  And he went back down.  He spent hours in the visitors’ center watching films about other people hiking the mountain loop again and again.  He began to feel sleepy, bored and small, no more so than when his family returned red-faced, clear-eyed and smiling. Haugen asked, “What if the church decided to no longer be simply people who come to the visitors center to hear about other people going off to do interesting, adventurous, and important things in pursuit of God’s vision? What if the church were those who dared to go up that mountain?”

As the disciples let Jesus’ big question marinate for a minute, they asked him a soft ball one. “Where are you staying?” Were they really wondering about his accommodations or buying time to think? Was it like, “Before I speak to the animating purpose of my life, let me say that the Holiday Inn Express is really nice.” Was it like, “Regarding the horizon of my deepest hopes, I wonder if you have checked the reviews of that establishment yet.”  Or was it more like the first bid of those who are gathering their courage? Was it a wild guess that where this man puts his body and where he spends his time might tell them more about the living God than anything else – the time he spends healing the sick, crossing boundaries to welcome the outcasts, retreating from the constant claims upon his time to make space for silence and prayer, entering conflict without fear, giving his life for the sake of the world.  Where Jesus locates himself teaches us more than words about him.

And that is where their journey begins. Jesus responds: “Come and see.” Over and over again in the Book of John, Jesus responds this way, “Come and see,” unwilling to give them the brochure or let them watch the film. He invites them to get involved. To hold nothing back.

C. S. Lewis said it this way, “”It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

An inner city pastor friend of mine told me a story about a woman who set up a meeting with him. Her son Oscar continued to ask to go to church. It all started when they were on a trip to Italy and toured an old cathedral. Oscar had gone all the way to the front where the candles flickered red. He was drawn to the kneelers, and then he said, “Mom, teach me to pray.” She was not a church person. This was way out of her comfort zone and kind of freaked her out, but nevertheless, she knelt next to him and whispered, “God, thank you for Oscar and this beautiful church and for our family and … amen.” She told my friend that one thing led to another, and even though I told him we weren’t church goers and he’d probably find church boring, he insisted. We wound up here on Sundays and now he comes up for the children’s message. I am a secularist. I don’t know what’s going on.” My friend smiled, “It sounds like Jesus is messing with you.”

But then she asked him this beautiful question. “I don’t really know what I am searching for here, sorry, this is awkward, but what does it mean to have Jesus in your life?” Then my friend thought about it and responded, “Sometimes it is hard. Jesus has a way of making you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – like forgiving some of the biggest jerks in your life, or associating with outcasts and folks who stand for everything you disagree with. But it is exhilarating. Sometimes,” he said, “It is the only thing that gives me courage.” He told stories of how even though people had shouted in his face, he had seen the city change, really change. New housing. Kinder laws. People who had been on the streets now serving as deacons. He told stories of how even when he felt lame as a father or terrified of disappointing people at work or thoroughly burned out, a prayer like the one Oscar had prayed in the cathedral could still fill him with hope again for no rational reason.  “Jesus helps me realize the way to do what Arundati Roy wrote a few years ago – ‘to live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.’” And even then, he’s not afraid of death because of this stubborn resurrection hope that promises the best is yet to come. But eventually he said to her, “You really shouldn’t take my word for it. You’ll have to see for yourself.” (With gratitude to Rev. Andrew Connors for his brilliant Well (lectionary preaching group) paper on this text.)

Maybe for you that means going along with these folks whose eyes sparkle when they talk about Kibwezi. Maybe for you that means taking a risky step to visit a person in a hospital or in hospice or in prison even though you have to check your pre-printed responses at the door.  Maybe you help with this brave project called Community Table, where BPC is really trying to share a meal with our neighbors even though we have no idea who will come. Maybe for you it means kneeling in the silence of prayer for six minutes when yesterday you could only tolerate four.

Either way, you wind up red-faced and smiling as if you’ve seen the face of God, because … you have.

Annie Dillard, “I cannot cause light –  the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

Encounter: Collateral Beauty

By Rebecca Messman

July 17, 2022

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

 

Exodus 33:18-23

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord,’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us pray. Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

I think I would love stargazing more if it didn’t happen so late at night. I am better at star grazing or star lazing, which is the rigorous practice of seeing a few stars just before dozing off. Despite my “morning” orientation, several years ago, our family visited Joshua Tree National Park because it has some of the best stargazing in the country. And the whole place was breathtaking. Giant yucca plants with arms outstretched in praise stand stunned on sandy plains, adorned with granite monoliths and yellow rock piles. People and lizards climb all over the rocks that are set up like a life-sized Godly play scene. The sun rolls over the rocks by day heating the surface to 180 degrees at times, a punishing fireball, and by night, you can actually see clouds from the Milky Way. Dave and the kids scaled massive rocks and waved down at me, safe on the sand, like a shrub, taking pictures of their daring. I call myself the Momarazzi.

One morning, we went into the park extremely early, and from the cleft of a rock, we saw the stars fade and the sun rise, and we just sat there in awe as if God were passing by in the flaming royal procession of dawn. We probably would have stayed there for hours teary at the beauty of it, maybe saying quite Biblical things like “Who are humans that you are mindful of them?” or singing with voices echoing off the rocks, but that was not possible. Tears would soon become sweat and that safe rock, a pizza oven.

I think of that morning when I imagine Moses in today’s text. Moses wants to see God, face to face. He wants some proof, some certainty, that God is there. “Please show me your glory,” he begs. He is pretty desperate at this moment. His people had just melted all their jewelry into a golden calf, and in this usually overlooked conversation in Exodus, Moses wants something tangible of his own from God. We probably recognize his plea. He’s lonely and disappointed in other people. He’s tired after a journey that went on way longer than he thought it would. He’s doubting himself at this point, that he has enough charisma or vision to lead the people anymore. He’s doubting humanity in general, that his community would talk so much about freedom and faith and then as soon as they were free, they resumed their complaining and found some new shiny version of God to follow. And with all those clouds of doubt rolling in, the gleaming faith he once had started to fade too.

So, from the cleft of the rock, he said something like, Lord, show me some kind of sign that this is all going somewhere. Give me something undeniable, something certifiable, something tangible so I don’t have to rely on hope or faith anymore.

As a pastor, I have heard this plea more times than I can count. The person with cancer who says, “I just wish I had more faith, maybe then I wouldn’t feel so scared or angry or disappointed.” The Mom whose beloved son is somewhere in Florida on a bender again, probably safer in jail than wherever he is, who says: “I just wish he knew how loved he is. I wish God would scare some sense into him so he might have a chance at living his life.” And, I have probably said a version of Moses’ plea myself, “Show us your glory, God. Show us your realness. Everyone is upset. One on extreme, people are making craven images as if you are an American God of war. On the other extreme, people mock the idea of you completely, as if you are a security blanket of weak-minded people. Show yourself.”

Have you ever been in the cleft of a rock like that? Longing for a nod from God, a bowl of certainty in the morning so that the hunger of doubt goes away?

God tells Moses it would actually be impossible to see God face to face. So here in Exodus we get this image of God placing Moses in the cleft of a rock, shielding him from all that he could never comprehend and survive, then blasting Moses with the infernal beauty of God’s back. As ancient as this story is, some 4,000 years old, I find this remarkable. It reminds me that God gives us something better than bite-sized certainty and tiny trinkets of temptation. It promises me that in the wake of every place God has been, which is every place, there is ineffable astounding beauty. And it invites me to consider that, like Moses, we are often shielded from what we simply cannot take in.

I was a doozy of a kid in Presbyterian Churches. I was that dreaded hand that went up during the children’s message asking, “So how do you know that?” The one who made the minister clear his throat. My confirmation mentor was a man named Bob Knowles. Bob was an ordained pastor whose ministry was serving the poorest of the poor in Danville, and it was clear he was not daunted by my questions. One church night supper, I was absolutely grilling him on God and Jesus and the sticky societal problems I knew about in 1990 over a plate of turkey, green beans a perfect scoop of mashed potatoes, and he finally said, “You’re trying to see God through the windshield. But I have to say – I see God clearest through the rearview mirror.” I’ll never forget that.

Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard said it this way, “Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.”

The poet Emily Dickinson said it this way, “Tell the truth but tell it slant. The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”

I think this is different than saying everything in life will make sense. Different than saying we’ve seen the spreadsheets, and the Year To Date accounting of God’s receipts is to our liking. Different than answers to our pleas for signs and certainties. It is more like taking a break from control for a minute to gaze at the collateral beauty in the rearview mirror. It’s like watching a sunset so red on the clouds that it hushes your frantic questions and gives you whole new ones.

My friend Janet had been a widow for 2 years when we started going to breakfast. Then one day, over grits, I asked a newbie question, “Do you ever get over it? Grief, I mean.”  She said, “Believe me, I don’t plan to get over George. But there was a day when dinner rolled around, and I realized had been too busy that day to be sad. I’d played cards, gone to lunch, and worked in the garden. All these little shoots of life sprouted up without my knowing it and I said, “well, would you look at that?” I tell people, God’s healing sneaks up on you like that.”

The term collateral beauty was a gift from a woman from my former church. Her beautiful, creative, deeply attentive son struggled so much. She wished he felt the warm wash of welcome that other kids did but as a gay kid, some of his light was on a spectrum that other people couldn’t see, including himself. But, over 15 years, she would send me these beautiful text messages, like snapshots from the cleft in the rock where God had brushed past. Something their family built together. #collateral beauty. His beautiful faith statement in confirmation that brought everyone to tears. #collateral beauty. A note from one of her ESL students saying “You helped me get better and in other classes I did not get better. You made me feel welcome. I hope God blesses you.” #Collateral beauty. Those texts were her view from the cleft of the rock where she couldn’t see everything but saw enough to know beauty was there and beauty is God’s handwriting.

Today’s Gospel reading wonders if maybe the reason we don’t experience God’s beauty is not doubt actually, but distraction and worry. There is Martha, upset at those who seem to be enjoying life rather than trying to fix it. She works so hard because she truly wants the itinerary of God on her clipboard to work out. Truth be told, I am firmly in her camp most of the time. So are most Presbyterians. We would like for God to stand at a certain point in the bulletin, and ideally, notify us of any holy plans a few weeks in advance. And we exhaust ourselves doing so. New York times writer Tim Krieder calls this the “Busy Trap,” where “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness” (https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/)

And then there is Mary, Martha’s sister, just sitting there at Jesus’ feet. She is not building an institution. She is not answering to the crowds. She is just experiencing a kind of incarnate grace that for a moment is in her living room. And, in the kindest way possible, Jesus says Mary is on the right path. Mary is experiencing God in the here and now rather than bookkeeping for the past or the future. Mary, like Moses long before her, sat in the cleft of the rock with the light of the world. She couldn’t control it anyway so she let herself enjoy it.

When I saw the images from the James Webb telescope this week, it took my breath away. There it was: the red tail of an expanding universe captured on film. The glory of God shown to us, on the front of the Washington Post. The reminder of how much is there that we cannot see, yet it is as true as anything, and beautiful as a billion sunsets. It is infrared so our eyes can’t register it. It travels over billenia and our bodies are briefer than that. But nevertheless, it is undeniable. Certifiable. Tangible. Granted, seeing those images didn’t make my day all of a sudden easier. I still had to make lunch and drive a child to camp and take out the trash. I still experienced waves of grief for the dying stars in my own life. I still had to bring this little light of mine to bear on the issues facing the here and now. But I let myself sit in the cleft of the rock and enjoy the beauty, a universe 13+ billion years old and somehow still benevolently bringing forth tomatoes in the neighbor’s yard. The Mary part of me quieted the Martha part of me, and I delighted in the eternal and ever new light of God right there in my living room.

Maybe there are some here today who feel anxious, who have been making urgent and reasonable pleas for God to show up, who feel tired and distracted. Today invites you to look with intention to the rearview mirror of your life for collateral beauty. Share it. Let it fuel your hope as you serve in the here and now. Today invites you to trust that the light of Christ is with you even if it is at a register your eyes can’t receive yet. Trust that it might just sneak up on you. And finally, if that kind of joy is in your living room, for heaven sake, don’t rush it away.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it this way, “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God but only the one who sees takes off their shoes.”

 

 

Encounter: The Struggle is Real

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 10, 2022

 

Genesis 32:23-32

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Let us pray. O Lord, like all Israel, we wrestle with you. By sunrise, we come away with a blessing not of the triumphant fist pumpers, but of those who are limping and beloved. Open our hearts to where this story writhes in our lives. Amen.

 

Do you know this story? In the dead of night, by the Jabbok River, a cheek to jowl struggle rages between Jacob and this unknown other. The wrangling battle only ends when Jacob chokes out a blessing from the stranger just before daybreak. Jacob limps away, forever changed right down to his name. Israel, which translates to the God-wrestler.

This story is ‘epic’ – a word that is pretty overused these days. A hamburger or a playing Minecraft could be really great, but not really epic. An epic is the hero’s journey. And kind of like hero movies in our cynical age and the Marvel universe, the Jacob hero has major flaws that are the main things getting in his way.

This story was already old by the time of Abraham, some 4,000 years ago, and may be as old as humanity itself. If you don’t know this version in particular, I suspect you know a very personal version of it. The night you barely slept at all and confronted what might have been your biggest fear. How all your classic moves were bested, and all that remained was your white-knuckling need and a kind of muscular hope that you clung to like a drowning person. Struggle is too generic a word for this kind of wrestling match. It goes way beyond “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Maybe it’s more like what Kate Bowler said with a chuckle after many cancer treatments, “What doesn’t kill you diminishes you significantly.”

To understand the brilliant depth of this story, we have to know what led up to it. We have to go way upstream from the Jabbok, I guess, to when it was Jacob and Esau and a sibling rivalry for the ages. Jacob, the famous second born, was apparently grabbing on to his brother’s heel from birth trying to get ahead. The name, Jacob, actually means heel-grabber. Which is hilarious, until you think about the power of names, of reputations, how being labeled in your family affects you long term.

Regardless, we are to know that from the first, Jacob was a go-getter. The Bible said he life was in tents, meaning he literally stayed in the tent while his brother, Esau, who was outdoorsy, impulsive, and always sort of red, spent his days in the fields hunting. Esau’s name, get this, meant hairy. Esau was once was so hungry he traded his birthright for red lentil soup. Here are the mental images of opposites. I picture Jacob listening to indie rock and having strong opinions about coffee. I picture Esau with Cabela stickers on his truck and wearing camo. Can you see them? Are you one of them?

Their father, Isaac, had them when he was older. And one day, when Isaac’s skin was paper thin and his eyes were milky blind with cataracts, there was something important he couldn’t put off any longer. We might call it talking through the will, or handing over the family business, but in those days, that transaction required a special blessing. Once it was given, it couldn’t be undone. It was no secret that Isaac loved his big burly son, Esau, more, which always makes me sad to know, and probably Jacob too, but feelings aside, the time came to make things official. And Jacob sensed that moment coming before his brother did.

Jacob wasn’t a liar, per se. An opportunist? Probably. He was someone who had done the moral acrobatics and probably convinced himself that Esau wasn’t up to the responsibility of leadership, such a simpleton, so reckless. And his mother, Rebecca, agreed with him. That might have been rationale enough for him to do what he did, to answer to a name that wasn’t his. What harm was there in that? he wondered. Granted, donning fake arm hair, like he did, to make sure his blind father couldn’t tell the difference was completely shady, but it was strategic. It worked.

And somewhere in a hot tent that smelled of stew, Isaac passed along the blessing to the wrong son, to the trickster, the heel, the go-getter. There are no elevating, obvious and boring morals to be found here. Only two parents who don’t seem nearly as upset about this as their oldest son, Esau, was, who becomes murderously angry when he found out what has happened. I imagine barstools knocked over and the yell of someone who felt both hurt and foolish. And, that’s what led Jacob’s mom to tell him to go hide out for a while until Esau cooled off.

At this point, those who expect the Bible to be just a nice boring fable, assume Jacob will get what’s coming to him. Maybe Esau knocks his lights out or maybe someone in the hill country robs him blind. But no, that was when Jacob dreamt of the famous ladder stretching all the way to heaven, with angels descending. And rather than bellow down a warning, God offered another blessing. “I will be with you.” Up to this point, we see in Jacob a man who is type A, a cool-headed competitor in a cynical world who nevertheless wins. The one who has all the resources and quietly assumes he deserves them. The entitled one who starts to confuse wealth for wisdom. The one who mostly believes God’s presence with him is intended to bring him material and existential comfort.

When people throughout the centuries talk about the “God of Jacob,” we have to wonder… is that what they assume too? God as mascot of the winning team? Or even God as the trophy, hoisted by those who are doing great, and a big vacant place on the shelf when you lose. Many people passively believe this.

Well, wait for it. Many years passed, and life eventually did swindle the swindler, but that was not the interesting part. The interesting part was that eventually this cynical dog-eat-dog world forced Jacob to go back home. To face Esau. A kind of prodigal son 1.0, Jacob was forced live up to these blessings he had taken for granted and cross rivers now without the bridges he burned. And that was when this wrestling match happens. At the ford of the Jabbok river. After he had sent everyone else across, when there were no credit cards or higher ups around to vouch for him.

The questions that pound in Jacob’s brain on a dreamless night are the same big questions we all have: Can this old fight raging in every heart, every family, every country, every faith ever be fixed? If so, how? With an inspiring speech or lots of money? Will it come down intellectual maneuvering that Jacob would probably win or physical violence that he wouldn’t? And the answer is as surprising to Israel as it still is to us. The answer springs out in a dirt and sweat, dead of night, cheek-to-jowl battle. At first, the adversary lets Jacob think he is going to win this, lets him spend all his energy, lets him believe his own press, and then, with a touch to his hip, renders Jacob powerless in the dust, clinging to the adversary like a life preserver in the waves, demanding to know who this is, demanding a blessing because that’s all Jacob knows to do.

And of course, Jacob thinks he is going to see the face of someone awful, the punisher, some sweaty angry retaliator that he can loathe, but instead he sees the face not of death but of love, clear-eyed and fierce, scarred and yet slightly smiling, and it humbled him like love always does. And as he spit the dirt out of his mouth and wiped his lip, a blessing came that could not be grabbed by cunning nor wrenched by force but could only be received as a gift. It was the gift of a new name, a new identity, a new start. It was the evaporation of this big lie at the root of all his struggles, the idea that we could ever find peace through intellectual maneuvering or violence or money or pretending to be someone we’re not or hustling for our worth or blaming our enemies or blaming our past… A muscular kind of love squeezed him out of a breakdown and handed him a breakthrough.

Just before daybreak, the man said, “You are no longer the heel grabber. You are Israel, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.”

The God we encounter here is not boring or moralistic or interested in doling out rewards on one tribe. The God we encounter here is clear-eyed and fierce, older than the rivers and yet with us as we really are right now. God meets us in the struggle, pries open our hands, and gives us all these good things that never come through cunning or force… things like peace, joy, and love. And we greet the dawn limping and winded and yet grateful somehow.

It reminds me of something the poet Mary Oliver said, “Someone I once loved gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to realize that this too was a gift.”

This story pounces on me so often. When I realize I’m up to my old tricks again, Jacobing my way through the week, this story asks if I would even know what grace is if it grabbed me by the shoulders. When I see the hot conflict on the news, this story asks if perhaps we – our church, our country, our world – might be at a moment of a new identity, something more mature than the entitled lonely path we have been on for a long time. When I hear about someone I love who is really struggling, in dreamless nights of thudding disappointment and anxiety, this story stubbornly insists that God is there, real and loving whether we can choke out some creed or not.

The last we see of Jacob, now Israel, he is limping home against the red sunrise. It reminds me of Jesus who staggered out of the tomb, on broken feet[1] and wounded hip, toward Easter morning, with hard-won love on his face and resurrection coursing through his veins. They lost and yet they won…. and that blessing has made its way all the way to us. Not a trophy for the shelf, but love itself that will not let us go.

Amen.

 

[1] The frame of this sermon is deeply influenced by a sermon written by Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, May 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Magnificent-Defeat-Frederick-Buechner/dp/006061174X

 

July Sermon Series

Our July sermon series is called “Encounter: Surprising Ways God Meets Us.” Here’s a preview: July 10 – God meets us in struggle; July 17 – God meets us in beauty; July 24 – God meets us in purpose; July 31 – God meets us where we are.