Genesis 32:3-8, 13-18, 21, 24-31
The story of Jacob wrestling with an angel is, of all biblical narratives, most appropriate for confirmation Sunday – and for this time in our lives, as well.
We’ve all been wrestling in one way or another this past year – trying to find our way through the web of challenges in which we have been caught. Asking when and if things will get better. Seeking some light at the end of the various tunnels in which we find ourselves. Wondering where God is in all of this. Wrestling with our faith.
The difference is that the confirmation students had to write a statement of faith about it. They’re posted in the Westminster Commons outside the sanctuary, and I encourage you to read them. Confirmation in the Time of Covid. We start by acknowledging how hard that must have been, and that you students bravely stayed with it this past year.
“Presbyterians hold the belief that everyone is a child of God,” one student says. “No matter how different…we were all put on Earth to work together. Especially during these times, I believe this to be very true,” the student continued. “In order for us as a community to improve, we need to work together and listen to each other.”
Wise words in these troubled times.
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel comes at a pivotal moment in his life. Many years earlier he had deceived Isaac, his father, when Isaac, who was near death and could not see, had asked if the son he was about to bless were Esau, his first-born.
Jacob, disguised as his older brother, lied, and said, “Yes.”
Old Isaac, fooled by the ruse, blessed Jacob instead of Esau, giving to the younger son all the substantial rights that accrued in that time to the oldest son. When Esau found out, he was furious and planned to kill his younger brother Jacob.
Jacob was a rather unsavory character. Having cheated his brother and angered him, he knew he was in danger and fled. Jacob left home for another land.
When people talk about “biblical family values,” ask them to which biblical family they’re referring. From the first chapter in Genesis on, families in scripture are full of real human beings, like us, who sometimes make mistakes and harbor jealousies, or lie, or give in to temptation. Families in the Bible resemble families in every age in their capacity for brokenness – and for redemption, which is where we enter the story of Jacob and Esau this morning.
From the moment in which he leaves his family, Jacob is not sure who he is. He’s a man without a home. He has not rootedness. He assumes he would not be welcomed back by his brother. Jacob becomes a wanderer who will one day come limping back, seeking forgiveness for what he has done. He goes to another land and marries his cousin, and then marries another cousin, and has children from the two wives – more of those biblical family values.
This is no mere, incidental story. The story of Jacob is at the heart of Judaism. Jacob’s dozen sons will become the twelve tribes of Israel.
But Jacob, whose names means “supplanter,” never settles the question of his identity, of who he truly is. Finally, he decides to head back home, seek reconciliation, and start over. That’s when he gets into the wrestling match, after which he is re-named Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God.” How familiar does that sound to us?
The confirmation students rightly understand that grappling with faith has to do with finding one’s identity.
“During the beginning of my faith exploration,” one student says, “Everything seemed very clear… I didn’t have any doubts…about my religion. However, as I…learned more about myself and my identity, doubts and questions began to emerge.”
That almost sounds like Jacob, so sure of things early in his life, but later becoming unsettled. Jacob doesn’t know what to expect from his brother Esau. He fears what will happen when they meet again. As he gets close to home, afraid of his brother’s anger after all these years – these family issues linger – he sends the women and children and servants ahead with droves of animals as a gift for his brother.
He tells them Esau will ask a simple question when he sees them: “To whom do you belong?”
They are to answer that they’re Jacob’s people. But given what he’s struggling with, that’s the question Jacob should be asking himself: to whom do I belong?
It’s a question each of us should be asking ourselves, as well. To whom do we belong, especially in this time of stark division in our communities and nation, where we are broken into separate factions, each with its own set of truths. If we don’t come to understand that we belong to each other, we stand little chance of developing the kind of social cohesion on which healthy communities and democratic nations depend.
The confirmation students sense that Christianity begins with knowing we belong – not to ourselves, but to God and neighbor.
“I think church is belonging,” one student writes. “Church is a place where I pray, sing, and worship. I believe church is a community. The church helps me know my Christian faith by serving others.”
Belonging in the community, and through that belonging, reaching out to help others. That’s a clear theme in this confirmation class in the Time of Covid.
“Church is a community I have,” another student writes, “That allows me to be myself, follow what I believe in, and ask…questions…to further my knowledge in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I am so thankful to have this community around me and although confirmation has come to an end, my journey with faith has not.”
Another student echoes those thoughts:
“I don’t think I would be at this point in my faith journey,” they say, “without the amazing community of Westminster. I know Westminster will always be a part of me, and my identity.”
They’re not alone in linking their faith to a community. This past week I spoke with someone who joined Westminster in her confirmation class in 1952. She now lives 45 miles away from Minneapolis, but still makes it to church as often as she can, because this is where she belongs. Her story is not uncommon.
German pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer said Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship, a relationship with a God who is love incarnate in Jesus Christ, and who is known through the love within a community.
“The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ,” he said, “But it is Christ himself who has taken form among people.”
I used to be concerned about people expressing devotion to Westminster but not talking much about Jesus. I’ve come to realize they’re merely saying they know God’s love here. They share God’s love through the people where they belong and in the place those people call home. It’s an incarnational faith, not an abstract, disconnected way of believing.
The risk in building a community based on belonging, however, is that the circle will be closed. Belonging can be an excuse for excluding, especially those who are “not like us.”
Jacob himself experienced that kind of shunning, even if he brought it on himself. That’s why when Jacob finally owns his complicity – and there should be more of this in families – in breaking with his family, he decides to take responsibility. He turns toward home, wanting to go where he hopes he still belongs.
The church must always ask itself if it can be a place and a people reflecting the love and justice of Jesus, where all can discover they belong. If it cannot, it may soon no longer be the church.
To whom do we belong, if not to Jesus, and through him, to others, especially those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history and those with their own experience of painful or hurtful realities, whether personal or social.
In their faith statements, the confirmation students are more interested in exploring belonging than believing. We can learn from them.
“For the moment,” one student says with candor, “I don’t know what I believe about God and religion. What I do believe in is the love I have for my family and friends and, in turn, the love they have for me. What I do believe in is the beauty I find every day, whether it’s a handful of wild strawberries, receiving or giving a compliment, my friends and I laughing until we can’t breathe, the perfect sunset, or the smell of flowers every spring. What I do know is that I have the rest of my life to figure it out, and being confirmed seems like the next step to getting there.”
The statements the students wrote don’t read like carefully crafted documents of ecclesiastical authority. They are, instead, affirmations of the importance of belonging to a beloved community as way to know God.
“I believe Jesus is both man and God,” one student says.
“However, I don’t really know what being both man and God looks like. My mind can’t really comprehend that…It is more important to look at and follow Jesus’ teachings…than argue…theological nuances concerning Jesus.”
Amen to that.
The students instinctively know God will be encountered in the other, especially one unlike us, perhaps outside our circles.
One morning several months ago I visited with a young man who had been sleeping outside the church. We try to speak with our unhoused neighbors, not because we think we can solve all their problems. There are agencies better equipped to help them, and we let the street social worker know the needs we see. Mostly, we simply want to affirm their humanity. We learn their names and visit with them regularly.
The young man with whom I spoke that morning, I’m sorry to say, died of a heroin overdose that evening. When his family and friends gathered a few days later in our lower plaza for a memorial barbeque, I went, to express our sorrow and support. It’s how we love one another – strangers belonging, in our common humanity.
Believing a particular creed seems immaterial in those moments. Our faith resides not in the tenets the church passes down in its doctrine, but in the experience of God’s love – most often in times of pain. Believing is not the same as belonging. Jesus went to the cross not to convince us of some particular way of believing, but in order to enter into the pain of human life, so we would know we will find love there.
“Each person on this earth God created is different and unique,” one of the confirmation students says, “God is seen in every one of us…I see God everywhere…in my friends…at school, and around the city…in everyone… despite… who they are…or how they look.”
Jacob found God’s love in the greeting he received from his estranged brother Esau, who welcomed him with open arms when they met. It was like the prodigal returning home. Their reconciliation was complete, the family together once more. Jacob now knew he belonged.
The confirmation students know they, too, are loved – and that they belong to God, and to this particular community.
One of them wrote a poem as their faith statement, titled Water.
God is water
Water is life
Water is a liquid, fluid,
Takes the shape of its container
I see God in all of us, taking many shapes, faces,
in everyone and everything around us
Water is beginnings, baptisms, and
Water is endings too
Washing everything away
In Westminster, I see the holy spirit
In Westminster, water is everywhere
God is water
Water is life and death and everything in between
In a moment we will go to the water in the font, and there we will remember that we belong to God.
Thanks be to God.