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October 17, 2004

"Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community" - October 17, 2004

Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
October 17, 2004; Proper 24, Year C

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8a

October has been an eventful month for me. Most of the last two days have been occupied with intense interviews for the ordination process – and I mean they were INTENSE. They asked really challenging questions, and here was the most challenging one I got:

“What question could we ask about your family life that would be most difficult for you, that would really get your heart rate up?”

I had to think about that one for a while, but then I had to say that they should probably ask me about my trip to California a couple of weeks ago for my grandmother’s funeral.

That trip brought up all kinds of complicated feelings, as my grandmother and I had a fairly complicated relationship.

It was in many ways a contentious relationship. Grandma believed that the Bible should be read ONLY in the King James version or a paraphrase of it. When I started studying Greek and Hebrew, she was deeply grieved, and she said so – often. It was a caring impulse – she wanted to make sure my salvation wasn’t in danger – but her deep disappointment, palpable in each of her frequent letters, was hard to take. She didn’t mind arguing her point, either. Even her grace at the Thanksgiving table would often contain some pointed requests for God to bring me back to God’s Word, and away from the “traditions of men.”

For that reason, it felt a little odd when I was asked to give her eulogy. But upon reflection, I knew just what I could say. I talked about her profound and lifelong love of Scripture. It was a love totally apparent in nearly everything she said, and it became even more apparent later that week, as I helped to sort through her things. The bookshelf nearest her bed must have had at least fifteen Bibles, each one peppered generously, in every book from Genesis through Revelation, with her notes. And by her bed were dozens of sheets of paper, marked over her last days with dozens of Bible verses she knew by heart and had written to strengthen herself as she was dying.

We contended often, and I think that was because we both cared so much about the same thing – about Scripture, the love of which came to me in large part through her. I think that’s why, after all our contending, I inherited what I think might have been her most prized possession – the huge family Bible, purchased within a generation after the family’s arrival at Ellis Island. That Bible is and always will be a sign to me that relationships that are contentious can also be deeply loving.

And many of us have a fairly contentious relationship with the Bible. Today’s epistle says that "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.

And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.

In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10, in which the author counsels us to learn not only from Scripture, but from Paul’s life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. If we want to know how Paul read the Scriptures, we should look at how he responded to God’s call in his life, and specifically his life in community.

When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.

It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.

Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.

As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.

When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.

Desmond Tutu and the widow alike contended for justice unyieldingly, but in a way that left open the possibility for reconciliation. They contended in the tradition of Jacob, now called Israel, the one who wrestles with God and men. And Israel, the ones who contend, is from then on the name given to God’s people. It’s our name, as God calls us not to easy answers, but to wrestling, to contention.

Tomorrow, the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations – recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. They won't be. They won’t be not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel. That's also true because God’s call to us is still to wrestle – with God, with Scripture, and even with one another. And there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for martyrs who put their lives on the line every day for human rights, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. There are too many of God’s people who won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice. And then there is God – our loving, gracious God who will contend with us, and who won’t let go until each of us have received the new name and the blessing God promises.

Thanks be to God!

October 17, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink


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I'm never disappointed when visiting your blog - true stuff, the story of christ and israel has a kind of mass; a weight - experienced intimitely and deeply (tho often i feel like being dragged thru a hedge backwards) through the changing complex of one's particular unfolding surprising time/history and embedded at the depths of a particular land - with all its jaggedness shot through with promise - this comes through... cheers! for wrestling and not running away!

Posted by: paulT | Mar 2, 2005 5:31:00 PM

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