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All Alone, He Wrestled ’til Daybreak: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 20, 2019:
Genesis 32:22-31
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

One of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century was Henri Nouwen. Author of 39 books, translated into 30 languages, he taught at Yale, Notre Dame, and Harvard, but found the greatest satisfaction being a part of the L’Arche community in Richmond Hill, living alongside people with intellectual disabilities. He found many corners of the academic world to be unhealthily competitive, and lacking real community. He was depressed; he had doubts about his gifts, and his relationships with others. And even during his time with L’Arche, he would write about periods of inner turmoil. Toward the end of his life he realized that he had never fully come to integrate his sexuality — as a person, and as a gay man. He was more comfortable conceiving of his identity as being covered up by his religious vocation, rather than his vocation embracing who he really was. He would eventually come to understand that our experience of human love is a symbol of God’s love for us, but for most of his life, while writing spiritual classics that helped people open their hearts to God, Henri wrestled with a personal sense of disconnect between his own heart and the God about whom he wrote so eloquently.

(And in a surreal turn of events he was saved by a travelling circus. Transfixed by the trapeze artists — so in touch with their own bodies, and so trusting in those around them — Henri came to more deeply appreciate the graces of physical life, and life lived with others, through his contact with The Flying Rodleighs.)

A figure important to Nouwen, and to me personally, was Thomas Merton, someone I’ve mentioned before. Merton proudly ‘left the world’ to join a silent, religious community in rural Kentucky. Immediately the leadership there encouraged him to use his natural talents as a writer, so rather than disappear from the world, he ended up writing a bestselling memoir, becoming something of a celebrity. And after this taste of fame, he struggled, he wrestled with his vocation. As part of a silent, walled religious community, having made a vow to stability to that community and that place, he had a spirit of restlessness. Asking his superior: ‘can I go and meet with this person; can I go and study in that place; maybe I should go and live in that tool shed on the far end of the property; maybe I should spend a sabbatical living in another part of the world; maybe Bob Dylan will want to set one of my poems to music.’ While writing books that reflected a wise, old human soul, he acted with the enthusiasm and rebelliousness of a teenager.

And even more famously was Mother Teresa. Ministering to and with the poor in Calcutta, her determined ethic of Christ-like compassion was a model for the world. It is just in the last few years that we learned from her letters and diaries that as far back as the late ‘50s, the time of the start of her ministry in Calcutta, that she wrestled with a painful and constant aching feeling of God’s absence, returning to words like “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “torture.”

“The place of God in my soul is blank” she would write. “There is no God in me.”“Where is my faith? – Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness…. It pains without ceasing. — I have no faith.”

But in the midst of this inner nighttime struggle she clung to faith: “If this brings You glory… here I am Lord, with joy I accept all to the end of life – & I will smile at your Hidden Face.” []

These three modern day heroes of the Christian faith all wrestled with God. And wrestled as an ongoing part of their lives, rather than just an occasional, annoying interruption. Jacob, too, from our first reading was someone who wrestled: wrestled with his brother, even in the womb. Wrestled with him later on, in competition for his father’s blessing. Wrestled for and in his marriages. And today, we hear, of his wrestling with God, or an angel, or as the text initially puts it: someone who just appears.

The scene is set this way: Jacob is about to meet up with his brother Esau, and he assumes it’s going to be an unhappy reunion, what with their history of familial struggle. He’s heard that Esau has hundreds of people backing him up, so this could be the makings of a battle. So Jacob sends his family, his household, his animals, and his possessions across the river. He was left, we’re told, all alone. And this is when “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Is it possible that the author or narrator is making a point of how the biggest battles we fight in our lives tend to be with none other but ourselves? How Jacob has made a life for himself marked by repeated wrestling with others, and here, all alone, he has to wrestle with himself, and this inner dysfunction. In this dark night he’s finally facing this part of himself. And out of this struggle Jacob is changed. He’s injured; it’s not a fairytale ending. But out of this he grows, he matures; he’s the better for it. And he’s given a new name. He’s come to a deeper understanding of who he really is.

He’ll become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. And his new name, the story says, has something to do with being one who struggles with people, and with God, and finds life through this. This wrestling can take many forms. For Nouwen it was depression and loneliness; for Merton it was ambition and restlessness; for Teresa it was a spiritual emptiness or dryness. But this ancient story from Genesis tells us that this wrestling, whatever that might look like for us, is part of life, and part of the spiritual life. Wrestling and struggle is part of the journey of being in relationship with others, and part of being in relationship with God.

Notice how it’s at the end of the story, after the ordeal, that Jacob looks back on what’s happened and says “I have seen God face to face.” He comes to this realization reflecting back on what’s happened. Maybe that’s what it’s like for us, too: when we’re in the midst of our wrestling, with ourselves, or others, or with an illness, or with our faith, it can feel like utter darkness and despair. But sometimes it’s just when we look back on things that we see and appreciate how we’ve grown, or how others provided support, or how God was present in moments of grace in the midst of the struggle.

And sometimes in the heat of the struggle we feel like the widow in the parable, appealing to an uncaring judge. But Jesus’s point seems to be that if even an apathetic judge can eventually bring about justice, how much more will a caring God listen to those whom God loves?

And Jesus, at the very end, actually turns everything around, takes the spotlight off of the judge, and off of God, and turns to us, and says: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find people with hearts for prayer? People with hearts for justice. People struggling to peel back the unhealthy or unintegrated parts of themselves, and get to the core of who we are, as children of God.

In all of this we’re reminded that we exist in relationship with God. Our prayer might be “hallowed by thy name” or it might be “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But these are all signs and marks of relationship, and pathways of a journey. And sometimes when we feel —like Jacob — most alone, we might actually be closest to the part of ourself that needs addressing, and closest to God whose intention is to bring a Kingdom of peace and justice to our souls, and to our world. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter