It is Maundy Thursday, the night of all nights, the night of betrayal, of pain, of wondering why. Of Gethsemane. It is Maundy Thursday and I have been to church twice today, heard two excellent sermons, one of which you can read here, and the other of which was about wrestling with God. As we do every year, we read from the Great Litany and sang "Worthy is the Lamb" and walked off into the night to think about betrayal.
The story of Jacob wrestling with a strange man who won't identify himself is the story in the Bible that haunts me the most. I cannot say it is my favorite, because the word "favorite" implies a positive feeling of reassurance that just doesn't come from this story. I can't say I love the story, because it contains so many ambiguities and paradoxes that don't match up with the way God is supposed to be. God cheats, which I guess is supposed to show that God is more powerful than us, but how does that work since Jacob wrestles with God and prevails? And Jacob is Not a Nice Guy. Quite the contrary. He's a lying, cheating - ahem. What kind of boy steals an inheritance from his brother? What kind of man robs his father-in-law? What kind of man goes off and marries two sisters? Not the kind who deserves to prevail in a fight against the God of the universe, that's for sure.
It's a messy story, and it cycles into and out of my life every few years, and it means everything, for it is the only story that never makes any sense and yet somehow always makes sense. We all wrestle with God, with our notions of what God is supposed to be like and what we'd like God to be like, and how imperfect is our knowledge of what God is actually like.
Tonight's sermon was about that, and more. The preacher pointed out Jacob's flaws and the paradoxical nature of it all. And he talked about how wrestling and love look so much alike, and how Jacob learned this when he left his wrestling match with God ready to go fight his brother, but instead of greeting him with a headlock, Esau embraces his twin with love.
I kept this poster on my wall for years. It is from the film The Tango Lesson. It depicts two people dancing underneath a painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The people look for all the world like they are fighting - which, in the film, they are, fighting to learn a difficult dance and fighting to avoid falling in love with one another. In both the Biblical account and the film, it's a question of surrender.
And yet Jacob prevails. God cheats, Jacob keeps fighting all night long, then refuses to give God his name unless God blesses him. And God does. Jacob, newly Christened as Israel, prevails.
I don't get it.
The pastor went on to point out that Jesus doesn't fight what happened on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Silent Saturday and Easter Morning. He surrendered himself completely, giving everything, without counting the cost.
I don't get that either. I'm thankful for it, but I don't understand it.
Something else happened during the sermon, something I would have thought unthinkable up to now: Texas in Africa (the blog) was mentioned in the sermon. The pastor said some very kind words about enjoying reading about Africa here.
That got me thinking about how tied up my faith journey is with the notion of wrestling with Africa. The people I have met and the things I have seen there changed my faith from an immature acceptance of what I'd been told to think into an ownership of an adult faith that accepts that there are sometimes more questions than answers. When I stand face-to-face with a six-year-old who has contracted HIV after being gang-raped by soldiers, or when I sit beside a mother whose home has been destroyed by a looting militia or an erupting volcano, simple answers don't work anymore. Saying that "God will take care of you" is too trite, too impossible to believe for someone who, for all appearances to a reasonable adult, has been abandoned by God.
And yet I can't believe that to be true. Part of me continues to hope that God will take care of her. That God will hear her cry. Someday. Somehow.
And so, like Jacob, I wrestle. With Africa, with faith, with myself. On and on and on, all through the night, hoping for morning. I betray my friends, I cheat those who are starving out of what is theirs. I wrestle with the notion that anyone created in the image of God could commit such crimes. I wrestle with the indifference of my people, who are content to live in a world full of stuff we don't need while others don't have enough to survive. I wrestle with my own complicity on those matters. I wrestle with a God who lets these horrific things happen. To innocent children, to loving parents, to me. To Jesus.
"Love is stronger than death," said Paul Tillich. That is the lesson of Easter Sunday. But tonight it is Maundy Thursday. And we are left to wrestle, to wonder, to betray, to doubt, to question, to beg God for mercy, to sleep when we should be watching, to wait for the morning.