Sermon: Sunday 20 October 2013
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Wrestling with God: Gen 32:22-31
“If that is, there is a God. There may well not be. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you and neither does Richard Bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier than thou sense either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered about but still trying sense…… Far more can be mended than you know…”
So ends Francis Spufford’s very popular recent book ‘Unapologetic’.
I love that phrase – “battered about but still trying sense” – because it seems a good description of most people I have shared my life with within the church. Most of us are here because we have come to see that we have wounds that need healing, wounds which have the potential to reveal very important things to us about ourselves and wounds which at best create a point of connection with others. As Jesus says in Mark 2:17 –“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” This line of thought is traceable back to today’s Old Testament Reading from Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure and goes away wounded but the wounding is a kind of healing because he ends up with a new name and a new destiny.
A number of artists have tried to present us with a vision of this story and I’ve included on the cover of today’s sheet one of the most famous versions which you can see free of charge in Tate Britain. It is made by the Jewish sculpture Sir Jacob Epstein. He spent a long time working out how to portray Jacob wrestling with the angel. In the end he opted for a monumental approach – he is being deliberately provocative carving angel’s wings as that great block of stone. And yet because it is carved in alabaster there is an oily sense of wrestling male bodies with a sense of dynamism and energy. Epstein shows Jacob who has become Israel in a kind of passivity as the weight of his arm falls on the angel tired and limp and as the buttock betrays its gash which will mean a limp forever.
Like much good art this piece seems to be autobiographical. The artist wrestles with his own name – it is Jacob and in the story it becomes the gateway to the future of the Jewish people as it changes to Israel. Jacob sometimes is translated as Trickster. Its roots are in the idea that he follows on from his brother Esau as the second of the twins born to Sarah. Then he becomes Israel – the one who prevails with God. Epstein struggles with his Jewish identity as fascism is taking hold in 1940 when the sculpture is completed. Will he and his nation prevail? Perhaps he reacts to make it possible by creating a memorial sculpture that would be hard to destroy.
Epstein’s work is as Spufford said – this is ‘battered about but still trying sense.’ Genesis 32 tells us that the story begins in the darkness and indeed as the light of the new day shines so the wrestling must come to an end. There appears to be work that can only be done in the darkness. We too speak about the dark night of the soul and most of us know something of depression for ourselves or others. I notice in pastoral conversations that there is often liberation in simply being able to name and notice the darkness as a real part of life. We don’t have to pretend to be happy all the while. Churches can sometimes collude with a need to make things ok because after all faith is meant to help. One of the ways faith can help most is by freeing us to notice that the darkness is real, that wrestling is exhausting and potentially bruising.
The story goes further to suggest that there is a blessing given in the encounter and that with it comes the realisation that this entire struggle was sacred, that this was holy ground and as such it had to be named by the word Israel. The Genesis story and Epstein’s work is at least a meditation on human suffering and the struggle to attempt to name it, to give it meaning and to recognise that it is experienced in relation to the power which the angel signifies. Even as we are wounded so such an angel supports us, transforms us and gives us life. The image of Epstein in the arms of the angel stands for us too.
I wasn’t familiar with leprosy before my visit to Gujarat in North India earlier this year before I became Dean. From the bible I had a sense of the social effects of such a contagious disease. It was very distressing to meet people in India still without fingers and toes and limbs. There are still phobias and fantasies about such people and so the compassionate work of the church to provide care, schooling and housing is still transformative. You can see how some blessings emerge out of the darkness and people who have been invisible come to have a beloved name marked by God’s grace.
Yet the medical research into leprosy now shows that many of the signs of the disease such as loss of limbs are not actually intrinsic to it. Rather they are the consequence of the progressive devastation of infection and injury which occurred because the patient was unable to feel pain. In other words people hurt and knock themselves about badly because they can’t feel the pain. Paul Brand grew up in Tamil Nadu where he saw plenty of leprosy but went on to be one of the leading medics working in the field. He famously said, “If I had one gift which I could give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain”. Without such awareness we become deeply prone to destructiveness. Without such awareness we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us and why.
Our public work and private lives are marked by wounds related to struggles of all kinds. When I look at Epstein’s version of the story, I find myself wondering if we too might need to be carried. Might we need to not let go of our lives into the hands of another, making ourselves vulnerable to hurt till we receive a blessing? Might we need to feel the dislocation or to see the wounds to begin to imagine and perceive the healing and the markings of life with God?
Henri Nouwen, a French priest who had worked in L’Arche communities, communities of adults with significant learning disabilities, wrote a book about his learning called ‘The Wounded Healer’. He wrote about discovering his own wounds, of recognising the wrestling and of recognising the blessing. He said, “The person who articulates the movements of their inner life, who can give names to their varied experiences, need no longer be a victim, but is able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering. They are able to create space for Him whose heart is greater than his, whose eyes see more than his, and whose hands can heal more than his.”
We come to communion with hands reaching out in emptiness to receive and as you do that I am always reminded of the hands of Jesus as his broken body rests on your hands. There is brokenness resting on brokenness in solidarity for healing. It is St Thomas who especially tells us that to see God is to see broken hands and side. Reflecting on Thomas and his encounter with the wounds of Jesus, Walter Brueggeman comments that this is the moment the church learns that if it is to be Christian truth then it is to be scarred yet on the journey to healing.
And then like Jacob we find a wound, we hear a name and we are given a blessing.
© The Very Revd David Monteith