Wrestling with Angels, Biblical Style
Here is a biblical tale on a biblical scale of the Lord God Almighty trying to get his people’s attention.
Sometimes God whispers with that “still small voice” and sometimes God uses a megaphone. Jeremiah, the 7th century B.C. “weeping prophet” was definitely one of these. His book is one of “the most stark and pessimistic in all of biblical literature. And it was aimed as a rebuke to those who had fallen into idolatry.”
He lived in a time of great upheaval, at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem — with his people banished and sent into exile. (In pandemic times, away from our church, does this sound a little familiar? We, too, may feel as if we have been sent into exile.)
A little idolatry was almost to be expected.
But Jeremiah was not having any of it. With Babylon breathing down his people’s back, a very frustrated prophet puts these words in the mouth of God.
“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good“
Yes, he really says “stupid children.” Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.
The 14th Psalm echoes the same.
“The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.“
Yes, there is “none that does any good”; the writer writes twice for good measure.
So, in the words of the prophet, in the words of the psalm, it would seem we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable.
Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. A kind of radical grace that makes religious authorities squirm in their seats.
And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers. In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.
But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).
But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul. A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.
“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.“
His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.
And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.
And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.
Fast, fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West. With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.
One revolutionary development– that may not seem so revolutionary — was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! “Please be seated,” had never been heard in church before! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th Century version of a Sunday morning forum.
And we Anglicans, practitioners of the “middle way” are inheritors of the English Reformation. We are both catholic and protestant, at the same time.
The root of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.
When I was in high school, I got in trouble for asking questions. Sister Mary Clare took me aside to let me know in no uncertain terms that I was confusing the other girls and that that I should STOP!
These questions led me away from my childhood faith. But they also got me into Catholic U — where I studied philosophy.
And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.
Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.
(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)
A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?”
“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”
“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”
“Alright.” I reluctantly replied.
So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class. It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Leobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.
But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.
I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.
Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit. In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.
And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!
How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church?
Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down. A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher. A nextdoor neighbor. A camp counselor. A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.
Though Emmanuel’s brick building is closed, the building up of the the people of God goes on.
And in the midst of a once in a millennium pandemic, in the midst of a racial upheaval and unrest, in the midst of isolation and displacement and confusion — God’s people have a whole lot of questions. There is a whole lot of “wrestling with angels” we are itching to do.
So, just how do we go about that locked down by Covid-19? Well, thank you God for the gift of technology — especially Zoom.
Tuesdays at noon, the Bible Study group, ponders the Word of God, using the readings from the Sunday lectionary.
I offer “Rabbi via Zoom” – one on one conversations where together we plumb the traditions of our faith — in any way that works best for you. And for however many rabbinical hourly sessions make sense for you.
And if you read this in time, Sunday June 14th Chuck, along with the Adult Spiritual Formation Committee, using “The Wired Word” will lead a faith-based conversation to explore the reckoning with racial injustice going on in our nation right now. (Check Emmanuel’s Thursday e-news for details.)
And stay tuned, Adult Spiritual Formation is in the process of organizing other ways to engage this critical issue through films, books, and more.
Lots of opportunities for “wrestling with angels, biblical style” are coming your way.
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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog
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