Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Resurrection and the Struggle

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-          Gen. 32:22-32

Resurrection happens when you least expect it, where you’re least likely to look, to the person you’re most likely to ignore.

Like when everybody’s gone away, and the sun is setting on the banks of the River Jabbok, to that exile, that wanderer, that trickster, that heel of a person we know as Jacob. Really—that’s what his means.

Jacob isn’t somebody I want to like. He was never the once and future quarterback of the championship football team; that’s his brother Esau. Jacob gets what he wants through trickery, through withholding food to the hungry, through dressing up as someone else and fooling an old, blind man. And then when his sins catch up with him, he runs away.

Jacob’s trickster nature follows him in exile. He manages to seduce Rachel, Laban’s daughter, but then somehow ends up marrying both of Laban’s daughters. And then he has sex with not only both of them, but also several of his maids. That’s not even why Laban eventually evicts Jacob. That happens because Jacob has been tampering with his father-in-law’s herds of cattle. And then Jacob runs away again.

That’s when Jacob gets word that his estranged brother, whose last words directed to Jacob were “I’m gonna kill him first chance I get!”, is looking for him. With 400 other guys whom Jacob assumes want nothing more than to take turns hitting something.

And what does Jacob do? He sends all of his family to the other side of the River Jabbok where Esau and his bloodthirsty band of brass knuckles are waiting for him. Like I said—I don’t want to like Jacob.

Maybe I don’t want to like Jacob because his story reminds me of my own character defects. Jacob’s story reminds me of all the times that I have struggled—struggled with my own identity and purpose, struggled with my relationships with other people, and struggled with God.

So where is the resurrection in this story? Well, let’s have a look at Jacob when the sun comes up. Jacob is visibly limping. He answers to a new name. And he confronts the demons of his past with the confidence of someone who has experienced true, life-altering blessing.

Jacob had experienced resurrection, resurrection through struggling with God.

Funerals are another place where we don’t expect resurrection.  Loved ones gather to share in their grief and their loss, to give their last good-byes to a corpse that is as empty as a deflated balloon.

And yet we often call funerals services of death and resurrection. We often refer to John chapter 11 where Jesus declares that he is the resurrection and the life. And then we pray “Requiem aerternum dona eis Domine”—“Grant them eternal rest, Lord our God.”

But rest isn’t the intention of resurrection. The purpose of resurrection is life, yes, even life abundant! And what is life but struggle—struggle with the world, struggle with all the wicked and wonderful people that inhabit it, struggle with God, great God Almighty, Dominus Deus Sabaoth!

God is the resurrection and the life. God is the resurrection and the struggle.

The struggle! Yes, sisters and brothers, God is the struggle, or as our Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers call it, la lucha. I’ve heard my Spanish-speaking sisters and brother talk a lot about la lucha since I decided to join them in solidarity with la lucha. “¡Viva la lucha!” they shout at rallies, and I’ve gotta tell you, sisters and brothers, Anglos like me should listen to them. White folks like me should listen to our sisters and brother from the global South because they know an awful lot about la lucha and resurrection.

My Metodistas de BsAs
I learned about la lucha and resurrection when I had the blessing to study in Argentina while I was an undergrad. I’m tempted to say that it was another one of those unlikely times and places where resurrection occurred. Some young people in the little Methodist church in downtown Buenos Aires graciously accepted me into their clique, and then began educating me in the ways of the la lucha. My friends invited me to march with them in the Veinti-cuatro de Marzo parade, that is the twenty-fourth of March, which marks the anniversary of the last coup-d’état in that country. See, during the military dictatorship that began on March 24, 1976, some 50,000 political dissidents were “disappeared”, many of them young people who were learning to struggle, to be in la lucha, against injustice.

The day ended with a concert by León Gieco, the Bob Dylan figure of Argentina, at the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada—the Naval Mechanics School—which had served as a center for detention, torture, and execution during the dictatorship. Shortly before the concert began, a branch of the Peronista party, which had been viciously persecuted during the dictatorship, began a rally to remember their fallen comrades. I can still see the flags, banners, and posters lifted high into the air. I can still feel the exuberant bodies of the crowd around me. I can still hear their chants of liberation. The leader would read a name of a disappeared person, and the crowd would shout back, “¡Presente!” As León Gieco sang his most famous song, Solo le Pido a Dios—I Only Ask God—and everyone sang with him, I could feel resurrection around me. And la lucha—the struggle—continued.

A classmate of mine at seminary, Tito, had some thoughts about resurrection during our first semester of classes together. While we were struggling with the concepts of early Christian theology, Tito shared that resurrection was very important for him and his comrades in Latin America, particularly in El Salvador where he had served the victims of the civil war there. He said that resurrection was important because no right-wing death squad, even when armed with best weapons the American government could sell them, could stop a revolution based on resurrection. Such resurrection-minded revolutionaries could cry out like St. Paul, “O death, Where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” La lucha—the struggle—continues and you, O Death, can’t stop it. You, O Death, can’t beat it. You, O Death, are overcome by the power of the resurrection and the struggle!

Dear friends, witness the power of the God of resurrection! Let the power of resurrection blow apart all of your expectations! Let the power of resurrection touch you and change you forever! Let us say yes to the God of the resurrection! Let us say yes to the God of life! Let us say yes to the God of the struggle! ¡Que viva la lucha! ¡Amén!

[Sermon was preached at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on April 23, 2014.]