Here is what I said in church on August 5th.
In 30 plus years of singing in choirs, even when only a small percentage of that time has been in churches, you learn a lot of scripture. One of the things I love most is singing in Latin. I took Latin in high school, and I have always loved it. An appreciation of the Latin Mass is one of very few things that Pope Benedict and I agree on.
I’ve sung numerous masses and lots of other sacred texts. Every one of them has been different, and everyone has been beautiful, and they are often hard. Grappling with the music, really wrestling with it always rewards me with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the words themselves and how they speak to our deepest hopes and fears.
A few years ago, we were singing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a piece that is not for the faint- hearted. We were all working really hard on it, getting together outside of rehearsal, listening to recordings, studying at home on the piano. But it was just hard. The harmony is very unusual, so until everyone in the group knows their parts really well, it sounds just as weird when it is right as it does when it is wrong!
One day after we had been hammering on it in rehearsal, I was talking with some of the other singers, and we were sort of commiserating over how hard the piece was, and how discouraged we were, and I heard myself saying, “But, we’re wrestling with the angel!”
I’m not sure the other folks had any idea what I was talking about. But I knew exactly what I meant. We were wrestling with the angel, and when we were done, the angel would bless us. And that is exactly what happened. After all our hard work, we had the wonderful experience of seeing the strange wonderful structure of this music fit together perfectly. We did wrestle the angel, and it did bless us.
Gail read you the heart of Jacob’s story just now, and I’d like to tell you a little more about what was going on.
Jacob has an older twin brother named Esau. There is a prophecy that they will both sire nations, and that the nation of the older brother will be mighty and will be served by the nation of the younger brother. This sounds pretty darn good for Esau, the older brother, and pretty crummy for Jacob. So, Jacob tricks their father into giving him the blessing that should have been his brother’s. When Esau finds out, he is so furious that Jacob fears for his life and has to leave home.
Jacob is gone for twenty years, and he is finally coming home with his family and all his possessions. But he is afraid that Esau may still want to kill him and his family. As he gets nearer, he finds out that Esau is headed his way, and he has 400 men with him.
Jacob is terrified. He sends his family and servants on ahead, and he waits behind and prays.
This is probably the most frightening night of Jacob’s life. He is all alone. Esau may kill him tomorrow. Esau may kill his entire family. He may lose everything he has the next day.
That night, in the darkness, out of nowhere, a man attacks Jacob. The man jumps him and they wrestle all night long. As the morning approaches, the man realizes that he cannot overpower Jacob, and he wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket. But Jacob still won’t let go; he keeps wrestling. His attacker gets desperate and says, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” By now, Jacob has realized that this is not an ordinary man, but an angel, and he answers him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The angel blesses him and tells him that his name is now Israel because he has struggled with god and with men and has overcome.
Jacob is reassured that God has heard his prayers, so when morning comes, he runs out ahead of his family to Esau, and bows very low and humbly to him. And Esau, the brother Jacob cheated twenty years ago, the man Jacob has feared all these years, this fierce man with four hundred soldiers at his command, Esau embraces Jacob and welcomes him home and back to his family.
Now, fortunately, I have never been jumped by a stranger and I have never been forced to wrestle till dawn.
But, nonetheless, I believe in wrestling with angels.
Every morning Gail and I battle to get ourselves out of bed so we can take our puppies for a walk. (you didn’t think that I would give this whole little talk without mentioning the puppies, did you?). And trust me, it is a battle every morning. But when we manage to get ourselves up and out, when we wrestle with that angel, that relatively small and innocuous angel, we are nonetheless blessed with calmer, quieter puppies, and we have such a good time with them. Our whole day is better when we manage to get ourselves up, when we wrestle with the angel of our own sleepy inertia.
Now there are lots of way bigger angels in the world who have jumped all of us in the dark of the night, and who wrestle with us when we are alone and terrified.
Gail and I, especially Gail, are wrestling with her kidney failure and her being on dialysis. Like Jacob, we are scared, we are tired, we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.
We wrestle with this angel every day and every night, every time she checks her blood sugar, every time I drive her to dialysis, and every time we go to sleep waiting for the transplant center to call, and every morning we wake up knowing that we have another day to get through.
But, I believe that if we keep wrestling, we will be ready when the phone finally does ring, and she gets her transplant.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I am all Pollyanna about this. The angel left his mark on Jacob when he wrenched his hip, and just like Jacob, we won’t get out of this wrestling match unscathed. This kidney thing has changed both of us forever. And rumor has it that getting a double organ transplant is no walk in the park.
We are all wrestling our own angels, big ones and small ones. Some of us are sick, and some of us love someone who is sick. Some of us are facing the challenges of a new job or a new school. Some of us are fighting poverty by working with COPA or visiting people in jail.
It can be tempting to give up in these battles, to surrender to our hopelessness or fear, to just turn over and go back to sleep instead of taking the pups for a walk. But the story of Jacob teaches us that if we wrestle with the angel, if we persevere, if we hang on through that long dark night, then we will be blessed. The story also teaches us that we won’t be alone forever. In the morning, like Jacob, we return to our lives, to our families and our communities, to the life that a loving God has given us.
My hope for all of you here today is that you will fight the good fight, that you will engage fully in your lives, that you will grapple with your challenges and stay the course.
May God give each of you everything you need to wrestle with your own angels, and may God bless you all.