What’s Your Selma?

A sermon given on The Confession of St. Peter and based on Mark 8:27-35

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

The film Selma is a poignant portrayal of the machinations behind the passage of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965. To bring about this landmark legislation, lives were lost and reputations soiled.  There was every indication that Dr. Martin Luther King should not have pushed President Johnson on federal legislation that would alter the political culture of the South.  First and foremost, King had no support from Johnson. Secondly, a putative march through rural Alabama to pressure the political establishment was a grave risk in view of the inflammatory speech of George Wallace, governor of the state of Alabama. And finally, King’s family tugged at his heartstrings: he was exposing them to terror and death.

At the conclusion of his iconic I Have a Dream speech in Washington in 1963, King was arguably the most admired man in America.  In 1964 he was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize and thereby received international acclaim for himself and the movement of which he was the titular head.  After those two great honors, King could have rested on his laurels.  He could have parlayed his reputation into a pastorate of a college town where he could have taught occasionally and published books.

Yet, there was another destiny driving him, an inexorable destiny from which he could not deviate. That destiny drove King to make the great confession to America from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.  He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context.

That larger American context was the abuse of power.

 Photo courtesy of www.cnn.com

“He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context…” Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com

Powerful monied interests in the South foisted a wedge between blacks and whites. Monied interests promoted competition between the two groups to keep wages low. King proclaimed that it was monied interests that destroyed the Populist Movement after the Civil War, a movement that held up the hope for a better life for blacks and poor whites.  According to King, monied interests took the world from black folks and gave them Jesus.  They took the world from poor white folks and gave them Jim Crow laws that made them feel good about being white, though they were as poor as church mice.

Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

“King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma…” Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma to march and expose this abuse of power, which was foundational to slavery and crippling racism since the Reconstruction.  How else does one explain that only 7% of whites owned slaves in the South; and, yet, this 7% had a strangle hold on the federal government since its founding.  Powerful monied interests created a caste system in the South that endured into the 1960’s.  They gave whites a convenient scapegoat for their bad feelings about their economic misery.

King’s Selma speech was one that he had to make. The calling on his life conspired to put him in that place and time to call out the economic interest at the root of racism and discrimination.  King’s Selma speech is arguably his greatest speech because of its hard-hitting social and economic commentary on America.

It was a speech that King had to give; it was a confession that he had to make.

What’s your Selma? 

Selma is a metaphor for something that you are compelled to do.  Your calling in life has placed you on a trajectory from which you cannot deviate.  You feel compelled to act, to speak, to respond. You know that if you do not grab hold of your Selma moment, you will be less a person; you will have missed out on real transformation.  St. Peter had a Selma moment. His Selma moment was to make a confession like King.  Peter was inspired to reveal the real identity of Christ, that he was not merely a man, a prophet, or a rabbi, but the Son of God.

In the text under consideration (Mark 8:27-35), Jesus and his disciples were walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi.  No mention of a name in the Bible is ever superfluous.  Every city name associated with the ministry of Jesus has meaning. It is profoundly significant where Peter is compelled by the Spirit to make the great confession of Jesus’ identity.

Just as Selma was the right place and the right time for Dr. Martin Luther King to make his confession, making it in the heartland of racial bigotry and hatred, so Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God is in the headquarters of Roman power in Palestine.

Caesarea Philippi was the provincial capital of Palestine.  It was where Pontius Pilate, the governor, ruled mercilessly, garnering a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical ruler.  Caesarea Philippi was the seat of Roman power, a visible reminder to Jews that they were a subjugated people.  In the horizon of Rome’s power in Palestine, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  He got various answers: “You are Elijah”; “You are one of the prophets.”  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “You are the Christ!”  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “You are the Messiah!”

In making that statement, Peter is risking his life. It was a capital crime punishable by death to claim that someone other than Herod the Great or one of his heirs was the Messiah. To name someone else as the Messiah was to create disorder.  Romans abhorred disorder.  Later Jesus would be charged with fomenting disorder.  The Romans discouraged disorder with violent forms of torture and execution like crucifixion.  Nevertheless, in the presence of Roman power and defiance of it, the Holy Spirit empowers Peter to call Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

In Peter’s confession, we see the nature of a calling from God. A calling is not to be denied.  It is not to be intimidated; it is inexorable.  A calling from God will use whatever unlikely people and circumstances to express itself, to reveal its truths to humanity.  It especially works in the people who are open to receive it and view life and the world from another perspective to remake it according to God’s values of love, justice and mercy.  Such people are courageous.  Even the Romans have to admire the courage of such people who speak and act in support of ideas for which they were willing to die. A church father noted that the church is built on the blood of the martyrs. The martyrs were people like Peter inspired by the Spirit to declare Jesus as the Christ, to declare that he is a better way to live.  He is the source of the abundant life.  Martyrs have the courage to stand in the corridors of power and declare that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus as the Christ proffers a different understanding of power. After Peter is empowered to make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus begins to teach what kind of messiah he would be.  He would be a different messiah than the one generally understood by the people in his day.  He would be a different messiah because he would use power differently.  He would not exploit people to bolster an earthly kingdom, which always ensues from a bloodily use of power.  Rome uses power to dehumanize people and enslave them.  Rome uses power to steal wealth and human potential from vulnerable people. This is what empires do. The Assyrians, the first empire of the ancient Near East, toppled Israel in 722 B.C.E. with their scorched-earth policy.  After the Assyrians, the Babylonians carted off with the talent and wealth of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E.

The Persians became ascendant and displaced the Babylonians as the next imperial power. They allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Some returned; most stayed in Babylon, however. The ones who returned to Judah rebuilt the temple with Iranian money. The Persian policy of funding subjugated peoples to build up their religious institutions was not done out of the goodness of the Persians’ heart. This was part and parcel of an ideology that proved more effective and less costly at controlling subjugated peoples than with troops.

The Greeks toppled the Persians and became the imperial world power. Under Antiochus IV in the second century B.C.E. the Greeks sponsored state terrorism, whose intent was to totally destroy the Jewish people.  The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was the latest avatar of abusive power that dehumanized Jewish people, long familiar with the feeling of being in the crosshairs of abusive power.  Jesus as messiah stands against this use of power. He teaches his disciples that potentates of the world lord over others with power. The disciples of Jesus were not to mimic such abuse of power. Jesus’ disciples were to use power to serve people, to thereby empower others to reach their potential as humans.  On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives a telling example of his understanding of power when he washes his disciples’ feet. So, they were to use their power to serve and empower others. In the process of serving, you transform others and yourself.  Your Selma moment is when you are impelled to serve, to use power in a transformative way like Jesus. In so doing, you are invited to transform and be transformed.

There is nothing more offensive than when religious people use power to hurt and to maim.  When Dr. King called for religious leaders to come to Selma in support of voters’ rights legislation, he touched their consciences. Many responded, because they knew the sins of the church. They knew historically how power was used to dehumanize and the church was witting or unwitting accomplices in support of a dehumanizing status quo.

Many understood that King confronted them with their own Selma moment, a call to go speak, transform and be transformed as a way to redeem the sins of the past.

Yet, there were many religious leaders who could not see God’s hand in the Civil Rights Movement. For them, Selma was not a transformative moment. They were quite content with the status quo, because they and their people were not being hurt. So, some took refuge in a two-kingdom theology that proved merely to be a hovel of the cowardly. They thought that by ignoring Selma they were being faithful to their theological values and commitments expressed in their presumed two-kingdom theory when it was really their cultural isolation and separatism that informed their failure to respond to Selma.

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

I shall never forget that on the weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, my beloved pastor who confirmed me at the age 14 never mentioned the death of King. There was no prayer offered up in behalf of the civil rights leader.  It was as though that tragic event never happened and had no relevance whatsoever for his congregation.

I suspect that that quietism over King’s assassination was duplicated many times over throughout the church body to which I belong. God, however, is never left without a witness…

For the many quietistic pastors who saw the Civil Rights Movement merely as a political phenomenon, there were many others who saw more.  My childhood Episcopalian priest, Father Nale, had the eyes to see more in the Civil Rights Movement than what was apparent on the surface.  He heard King’s call to religious leaders to come to Selma and march. Father Nale left his parish in the heart of South Central Los Angeles to heed King’s call.  He marched with King.  It was his Selma moment to transform and to be transformed through a bold confession that power can be used to serve and heal.  Our Selma moments arise when we come to the realization that our own power can be used to transform others and ourselves in service to them; this is a use of power in service of redemptive love.

Where power serves redemptive love, profound reversals of the status quo occur.  The preeminent reversal of the status quo is that of the sinner to saint in the experience of the forgiveness of sins.

A reversal occurs when we pray for our enemies and those who spitefully abuse us.

A reversal of the status quo occurs when we choose to forgive others.

Our hearts get freed of bitterness and rancor.

Finding Your Selma

A profound reversal of your personal status quo occurs when you practice contemplation. Contemplation makes you adept at not tying yourself to the ideologies of this world, as you learn to let go of all thoughts and feelings and thereby refuse to give them more value than they ought to have.

Thoughts generated by mindlessness should never be given value.

Most thoughts have their nativity in mindlessness, when we are not focused. Redemptive love that serves is never mindless. For, redemptive love is an exertion of your conscious self to express such love, as it is not natural to love in this way. To love redemptively demands your attention, your mindfulness.  The ego has another way to love that is turned inward to serve itself.

Contrary to the ego’s love, you consciously exert your will to choose to love redemptively as Jesus teaches.  It takes courage and volitional power to demonstrate redemptive love that reverses your limited worldview, your personal status quo, which is the home of the ego. Contemplation is the daily practice of expanding that status quo, pushing it out beyond the parameters of its theological justifications and rationalizations.

Theology can serve the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The key issue is whether theology serves redemptive love.

Your Selma moment is the invitation to go beyond the power games of the ego to a redemptive love that elicits you to serve and thereby experience transformation.

Your Selma compels you to use power to serve and to love in a redemptive way.

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com

B.C. or A.D.?

My sermon for Sunday, December 29, 2013

Based on Matthew 2:13-23

The Escape to Egypt: 

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

 The Return to Nazareth:

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Yeah, why indeed…
In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that God really cries about. He cries about the slaughter of innocent boys in Herod’s attempt to track down the Christ Child.  By extension, God cries for all the innocent victims of this dark world.  God cries for the innocent child shot to death in a drive-by shooting.  God cries for the innocent victims of political repression.  God cries for the people gunned down in the religious wars.

Is it enough to know that God cries for the innocents of violence in the world?  How can we square the all-powerful God with the crying God?  The power of God means that God is big enough to take in the world’s pain, onto himself, and be moved to do something about it.

"In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that Jesus really cries about." Photo courtesy of http://theresurgence.com/

“In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that Jesus really cries about.”
Photo courtesy of http://theresurgence.com/

The pain that God felt over sin in the world is what led God to become a man in Christ Jesus, to live among us, to die among us, in order to heal and forgive us, to break down the dividing wall, so that God can be one with us.  This is what we celebrate every Christmas and indeed everyday through an act of repentance. Repentance is Christmas, for it enables us to experience the birth of Christ in our hearts at any moment.

As renewed children of God, we have to live in a world dictated by the mighty and powerful like Herod until such time that God decides to end it.  The joy and beauty of Christmas devolves to this ugly story of Herod’s killing of the innocent boys in his pursuit of Jesus, his perceived competition.  It is not beyond the pale to see Herod killing young babies in Bethlehem.  He killed his own sons because of suspicion over their political alliances with their Hasmonean relatives.  He killed his Hasmonean wife.  He was religiously repressive. From the perspective of the pious, he did horrible things that offended the practice of their faith.  They knew that he came to power because of Roman money and power.  He was a usurper.  He was not Jewish.  He was a pretender on the Jewish throne; his presence there was assured by the Romans.

There is something in us that when we harken back to the past, we tend to idealize it.  We forget the painful experiences; they get softened.  Lest we forget how ugly these times were, Matthew relates to the church this story of the slaughter of the innocents.  Jesus was born into a dark and ugly world.  This is the stuff that God cries about.

In light of real suffering and pain in the world, debates over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” fade into the background of a rich society that has the luxury to navel gaze.  We should not allow ourselves to get sucked into such minutiae.  When we are pulled into that debate, let us think of the Christians who are being slaughtered in the Sudan.  Let us think of the Christians who are persecuted for their faith because of the present-day Herods.  We should not expend energy over such debates when there are souls that are shrouded in darkness and in need of the liberating Gospel with which we have been entrusted.

The Gospel belongs to those sitting in darkness.  On those sitting darkness, a light has shined in Christ Jesus.

Let us not forget that Christmas was not generally celebrated in America before the 19th century.  The colonies founded by the Puritans and Quakers banned the celebration of Christmas altogether.  The New England states and Pennsylvania had no Christmas holiday because of Catholic bias.  In America in the 18th century, the South was the only place where Christmas was observed.  Christmas did not become universally celebrated until after the Civil War.  Before that it took mass immigration on the part of the Germans and Irish to change the perception in America about the celebration of Christmas.  It was seen as a fun thing to do; so, Protestant America became more open to the celebration of Christmas.  I say all that to say that the celebration of Christmas in America has always been an ambivalent thing and a source of constant and needless debate.  There is no golden past to which to return where everything relative to Christmas was done right.

"...we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord. " Photo courtesy of www.timeanddate.com

“…we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord. “
Photo courtesy of http://www.timeanddate.com

Even in ancient history, Christmas did not become universally celebrated until the 5th century.  The church focused on the Epiphany of our Lord, the continuing presence of our Lord in his Word and Sacrament to heal and forgive, to give light to those sitting in this dark world.  It is indeed proper to celebrate Christmas.  But, we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord.  In fact, in the Church Year, Easter is the preeminent festival.  Yet, Easter, Pentecost and Christmas need each other to round out for us the history of our Lord.  We have put so much emphasis on Christmas that Pentecost has gotten short shrift.

This morning’s gospel lifts the veil and causes us to face reality: the reality that we live in a world where the innocents get slaughtered and where evil seems to prosper.

“Things are not always what they seem.”  God controls the world.  God is on the throne and it is still God’s universe. Martin Luther King said it best at the height of the Civil Rights Movement: the universe is a moral arch that bends toward justice.  That seems imperceptible to us.  Yet, as we look back over time, God’s way of justice always wins out.   There is no church founded on Herod.  The church roams freely in the city of the Caesars where Christians were fed to the lions.  Every Good Friday, the Coliseum, where Christians were summarily killed, is a place of prayer and meditation on the passion and death of our Lord.  Herod and the Caesars’ way of violence has proven to beget more violence and we see the clear evidence of that.  Jesus’ way of nonviolence and love continue to be the force that lifts oppressed peoples to change their destiny.

Truth be told, we do not know when Jesus came into the world through the Virgin Mary.  The designation for time B.C. and A.D. imply that he was born in year one.  Most think that year one of our era was the year in which Jesus was born.  And, everything that happened before year one is designated B.C., “Before Christ.”  Everything that occurred subsequent to year one is designated A.D., the abbreviation for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, “In the Year of the Lord.”  Jesus could not have been born in year one, because Herod died in 4 B.C.  He died a horrible death.  He desperately sought healing at the healing springs of Callirhoe in the Judean desert.  He did not find healing like Naaman in Elisha’s day.  That means Jesus had to have been born before the death of Herod in 4 B.C.  That would put the birth of Jesus between 6 and 4 B.C.

B.C. or A.D.?  It does not make a difference when the Son of God took on flesh and lived among us.  The reality is that he came and did so.  He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary.  He lived, died, and was raised among us.  He is seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Jesus in on the throne and the universe is bending in his direction, that God may all in all.  He fills all time and space, so that those who

" He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary.  He lived, died, and was raised among us." Photo courtesy of sammylopez.wordpress.com

” He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary. He lived, died, and was raised among us.”
Photo courtesy of sammylopez.wordpress.com

believe in him might have eternal life: from righteous Enoch, Abraham and Moses to you and me.  It is indeed right and salutary to set aside a day to celebrate his birth.  Christmas is most appropriate.  Some say that the celebration of Christmas at this time is pagan.  Indeed the Romans celebrated Saturnalia during this time of the year.  For those who worship the sun, this is a meaningful time of the year.  Just as the Coliseum is a place of prayer, so Christ has taken over other aspects of the culture and now determines it, filling it with new meaning.  Jesus is Lord!  The poor one from Nazareth has outlasted the riches of Herod and the Caesars.  God has always worked this way.  He chose a nobody people with whom to establish covenant  and use their historical experiences as the setting for the birth of the Christ Child.  God did not choose the Egyptians through whom to reveal himself. There were other nations that were far in advance of the lowly, Hebrew slaves.  Yet, God chose them because they were nothing.

God chose a fumbling Jacob to be the Father of Israel.  Esau was a better choice according to the ways of the world.  Esau was strong and virile.  Esau was Isaac’s choice.  But, he was not God’s choice.  “Things are not always what they seem to be.”  Finally, God chose a simple, Jewish girl of 12 to 16 years old.  She was a nobody.  Yet, ever since her act of faithfulness, all nations have called her blessed.  It is appropriate to pray in the Coliseum where Christians were martyred, because they were proven right: Jesus is Lord!  It is right and appropriate to worship atop Vatican hill, where Nero had his circuses and killed thousands of Christians for sport, including Peter and Paul.  Jesus has outpaced Nero’s evil.  Nero meant his persecution for evil.  God turned it into the good.  By the same token, it is good and appropriate to celebrate the birth of our Lord at this time of the year because the book of Revelation has been proven right: “Jesus is Lord!”  Jesus is Lord, not Herod, not Augustus Caesar, but Jesus, born of Nazareth.  What good can come from Nazareth?  “Things are not what they always seem.”

B.C. or A.D., Jesus is Lord and in him even the innocents will find justice in his kingdom.  In his kingdom the tears of those who mourn will be wiped away.  In his kingdom the hungry will be fed and the thirsty will be satisfied.

Photo courtesy of johnkrohn.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of johnkrohn.blogspot.com

A Prayer Away

My sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013

A woman sat on a park bench observing the people around her.  She felt the pain of a child who had fallen down off his bicycle.   She felt the tiredness of an old man who was slowly making his way home.  She felt the joy of the children playing together on the jungle gym.  She saw the happiness of a couple walking hand in hand.

"Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought." Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

“Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting. They never, however, gave her a thought.”
Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

People glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought.  No one noticed the unshed tears in her eyes as she sat there watching and feeling. “So much pain in the world.  So much happiness and so much loneliness,” she thought as she reflected to herself. 

As she continued to watch, the woman’s mind drifted to another place, another time.  It was a time when she was like the people that she observed—all wrapped up in their own misery and joy.  Sometimes she wished that she could return to those days, and yet.

Her attention lingered on the image of her face that was reflecting in the pond.  She hadn’t seen that face in a long time.  It was a face that reflected contentment, joy, peace and love.  Wiping away the remnants of tears, she stood up and headed toward the fallen child.  She helped him up.  She wiped his tears.  She smiled at the child.  She offered to help the old man home with his shopping. 

She thought, “No, I don’t want to return to the old daysthose were days when loneliness was unbearable.” Though she is still lonely for human company, she has love in her heart because comfort was just a prayer away.

Indeed comfort is always only a prayer away because the person to whom we pray is a God of comfort.  God’s love is what informs God’s work of comfort.  Being blessed with the comfort of God in Christ Jesus, we are empowered to look beyond our own pain and help others in theirs.  Therein is our comfort.

God has great pain when God looks over the good creation that God framed.  Sin damaged it.  Sin brought corruption.  Sin brought tragedy of one kind and another.  The ultimate tragedy that sin brought was death.  Might God have remained in pain, ignoring humanity’s pain on earth?  God could not do that; God’s heart is too big. It is in comforting others in Christ Jesus that God’s pain is comforted. There was great pain in the Father’s heart.  How could the Father cast humanity into oblivion? 

God had an undying love for humanity, proven poignantly when God created humanity from the dust of ground.  God took a handful of dirt and breathed into it God’s Spirit.  God gave God’s very self in the Spirit.  There is no demonstration of love greater than that.  Even Steven Spielberg could not dramatize a greater love than that of God breathing into mud-people God’s Spirit.  That is an undying love. A person who loves that way cannot remain content while others suffer.  Such a person will indeed reach out to comfort.  Such a person will reach out to comfort because that person feels deeply the other’s pain. 

Jesus so felt other people’s pain that he made it his own.  Whenever Jesus sighs deeply, he breathes in other people’s pain.  He makes it his own.  That drives him to heal, to love and to forgive.  Jesus cannot help but sympathize and empathize.  He cannot help but comfort, for that is what his Father does.  Like Father—like Son.

It would only follow that any words addressed to Jesus and his father will be taken seriously.  Any words generated from pain God will hear and address.

God not only hears words; God especially hears the heart that prays them.

God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays.

God strives with the heart that prays.

God lives with the heart that prays.

God accompanies you as you travel through the shadows of death, and the Light of Life is always with you.

God is always in you, by you, above and around you.

God is closer to you than you are to yourself.. 

"God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays." Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

“God sees the heart that prays. God communes with the heart that prays.”
Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

That is not just any God.  That is the Father of Jesus, who is a God of comfort in this vale of darkness and tears called life.

In the Old Testament, God was with Jacob in his moment of crisis.  Unfinished business was lurking at the door of Jacob’s heart.  No matter how hard he tried to forget how he had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he could not.  No matter how hard he tried to ignore all the pain that he brought to his family because of his selfishness, he could not.  He was severed from his family in a distant land far from his beloved mother and father.  You don’t appreciate your family until you have lost them.  With every waking moment, Jacob thought about his beloved home.  His ambition could not give him the joy that he got at home with his parents.  The memories caused his heart to ache.  Those memories never go away.  They remind you that experiences count, especially experiences that stretch your soul to such capacity that you can experience even more, the even-more of eternity. You will die with the memories of your life, your parents, your friends, and your children, for they make up who you are.

Jacob had to meet his brother Esau.  He fretted over that impending confrontation.  His mind had engaged in splitting—it went to the worse case scenario as he thought about meeting Esau.  He was told that Esau was on his way to meet him and he had amassed four hundred men in preparation for that confrontation.  Overly dramatic, Jacob’s mind knew no rest about what that impending meeting would entail.  He thought that he would die.  He thought that his children and wives would be cut up by the sword.

Jacob had every reason to be frightened.  He had every reason to be troubled in heart, mind and body.  After organizing his families and giving them instructions in how to meet his brother, he spent time alone with God.  He cried.  He expressed anxious thoughts of the ghoulish images he foresaw, the torture and death of his children and wives.

We’ve all been there: Jacob’s mind went to the worse case scenario. It is the frame of mind of which ulcers are made.  It is the frame of mind that causes the body to close up on itself.  The mind entertains the ultimate escape: relief in death.  Death seems better than continued living.  You have been there.  You know what that means.  If you do not know what that means personally, then you know people who have gone through such dark nights of the soul where death is preferable to life; death seems like a pleasant escape. 

Jacob is in such mental anguish that he wrestles with God.  After the battle, God changes his name.  No longer will be called Jacob, the one who deceives.  He will now be called Israel. The etymology of the name Israel is uncertain.  It has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years.  In its purest meaning, Israel means God conquers; God wins.  Jacob is given that name.  Why?  He had to learn that God conquers.  God will have God’s way. 

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner
Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob’s deceiving ways have gotten him into so much trouble since the day that he reached out of his mother’s womb to try and overtake his brother Esau.  His lying and deceptions have brought nothing but grief.  By changing Jacob’s name, God is giving Jacob a new operating system.  No longer will he strive against men and God.  He will let God win; he will let God have the right of way.  

Jacob finally surrenders to God.  His prayer fundamentally changed how he was to act in the world.  He was to put away the insecurity that caused him to rely on his own devices to get what he wanted. 

Jacob will let God win and conquer.  He will learn to pray.

Prayer is letting God win.  It is surrendering.  In prayer, the troubling circumstances of life lead you to surrender, to put away your attempts at figuring things out.  You come to realize that you cannot figure things out.  You learn to surrender amid all the ambivalence that spawns insecurity and all the wrong ways we try to address our essential insecurity about what is always just around the corner.

We learn what Jacob learned: God is just a prayer away and God is always there. God desires to comfort. What is winning to God other than comforting you through love, for God lives with you; strives with you; in God you live, move and have your being. 

Prayer is a confession that God has a better way to face the “Esaus” of your life, especially the self-inflicted Esaus that come back to haunt you, causing your stomach to churn and keeping you up late at night in your own battle with yourself and God.  The only way to face all such Esaus is through surrender.

Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy to to remain fully engaged in the Word of God, the scriptures, for they can make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  What does it mean to be made wise for salvation? It means to live a life of wisdom that will usher forth in salvation.  God is not only concerned with saving our souls.  God is also concerned with how we live in this life.  Sacred scriptures, inspired as a gift of the Spirit, can lead us in such wisdom.  In the Bible you have the collective wisdom of the ages.  You have a record of people’s dealing with God.  You have God’s laws and strictures on how to live a godly life.  Everything in the Bible can build you up in wisdom and preserve you until God calls you out of this life. With such wisdom you become competent and you don’t have to rely on the kind of struggles that you see in Jacob.  Jacob was not wise.  He was smart and clever, but he was not wise.  His lack of wisdom got him into one trouble after another.

"Each of us has all of God." Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

“Each of us has all of God.”
Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

God does not want to be a mere rescuer.  Let us not make our lack of planning and unwise decisions constitute a crisis for God.  At the core of a wise life is a prayerful life, especially a prayerful life informed by the word of God.  The prayer that is most informed by the word of God is worship.  Worship is through and through the word of God: we sing the word in the hymns and liturgy; we hear the word in the readings; we hear the word in the sermon; we pray the word in the prayers; we eat the word in the Eucharist; and we finally apply the word to our bodies in the benediction as we go out into the world.

Each of us has all of God.  Each of us has all of God’s attention, because God is already moving and breathing as you traverse this life.  That’s an even greater motivation to take all your needs to God, to a God who is only a prayer away.

Some of you still labor under the misconception that God does not care a whit about you. If that is your idea of God, then you have to change it.  It is wrong.

God became a man in Christ Jesus to die for your sins and to be the true Israel, the one who conquers, the one who wins, Cristus Victor over sin, death and the devil.  In him you have eternal life.  In him you have the Holy Spirit who preserves you in wisdom until the end of your life.

This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.

This is the God to whom you pray, for this God is only a prayer away.  Forgiveness is a prayer away.  Joy is a prayer away.  Love is a prayer away.  Comfort is only a prayer away.

"This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way." Photo courtesy of www.saintbonaventureparish.org

“This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.saintbonaventureparish.org