Parting Thoughts

Genesis 32:22-31; Colossians 1:15-20; Mark 4:35-41

I’m not going to tell you anything new this morning.  Everything I’ll say today you’ve heard me say before in some venue or another, and likely more than once.  I don’t want to leave the Cathedral on some new note.  I want to depart this wonderful parish family having re-emphasized what I believe to be the most true, what I believe to be—literally—Gospel, and what I believe Christianity unfortunately often neglects.  Today’s message is merely another attempt to articulate what I’ve striven to say for ten years, and for ten more before that in the prior parishes I have served.

Students of the lectionary will have noticed that the readings today are not the propers appointed for this Sunday.  Instead, I’ve taken the liberty to select my “canon within the canon,” those passages that I believe to be most emblematic of the intent and meaning of the whole sweep of Holy Scripture, the “map keys” to all the rest.  We each have a canon within the canon.  Everyone who has ever read the Bible privileges some passages over others.  Indeed, those who claim to believe in biblical literalism really mean that they believe literally in the parts they prefer, whatever those are.  Every reading of scripture entails interpretive choices, and admittedly these are mine.

The first passage today, from Genesis, is an account from the story of Jacob.  After a lifetime of ingenious but conniving living, Jacob finds himself in a fix.  He is fleeing from his uncle, who may want to kill him.  And Jacob is running headlong toward his brother, who he knows wants to kill him.  Jacob sends his family away so that, as night falls, he is starkly all alone.  For the first time in his life, he recognizes that he has nowhere to run, no avenue of escape.  He cannot flee; he cannot rationalize his way out of his predicament; he can no longer convincingly tell himself that he is someone other than he is.  Jacob has a new and potent awareness that he has created the conditions of his own peril.  And in the midst of that lonely realization, from the inky wilderness God jumps out and tackles him.  Jacob wrestles with God all night.  In the end, just before daybreak, God blesses Jacob.  The blessing is two-fold: God injures Jacob’s hip, causing him ever after to limp.  And God renames Jacob, “Israel,” which means “wrestles with God.”  From this moment on, Jacob is different.  Yes, he limps, but he also ceases to flee, prevaricate, or seek to fool either himself or others.

When I was newly ordained almost twenty years ago, and the Episcopal Church was in the throes of its pitched battles over human sexuality, a disgruntled priest said to me, “Barkley, I’m a simple man who prefers a simple faith.”  I was perplexed by the statement then, and I am perplexed by it now.  Our faith is not simple, just as life is not simple.  If anyone ever tells you otherwise, they are as delusional as Jacob was prior to meeting God at the Jabbok.  Life is infinitely complex and responding faithfully is no simpler.  In the Genesis story, God not only encourages us to wrestle with God, God actually names God’s people—defines their identity as—“wrestles with God.”  Questions of faith, questions of purpose, questions of meaning, questions of how to live in an upside-down world—where God is to be found and what God would have us be and do—these are never simple things.  They require time, attention, commitment, and a dogged desire to wrestle with God.  And, the result will not leave us, any more than it left Jacob, unscathed.  Too many people walk away from the Church, and even faith, because something offends them, or disappoints them, or gives them the apprehension that they might have to redefine their lives.  If the Church—and faith—doesn’t do all of these things, then it is nothing more than an opiate.  Faith will wound us, and we will carry the scars, and the key is to recognize that the limp is part of the blessing.  It is the evidence that we have wrestled with the Creator and the creation.

The Gospel passage today is from Mark 4.  I wrote about it in a message to the parish in late June, after the third of my recent back surgeries.  I offer again now what I offered then.  In this passage, Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?”

Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t allow our boat to capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world—the world in which being faithful is like a constant wrestling match—and Jesus knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms drown us, God is with us. There is no fathom deeper than the presence of the God who creates us in love.  God abides with us when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow.  That is how Jesus can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.

And that brings us to the most difficult passage of the three: Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.  For me, this passage is the centerpiece of the whole Bible.  Whereas Genesis 17 is mythical, and Mark 4 is gritty, Colossians 1 is cosmic.  It reveals to us that the Christ, even prior to the Incarnation in the historical person of Jesus, is the cosmic God Incarnate in all things.  The cosmic Christ is the scaffolding of creation, the is-ness of all that is.  Thus, when I look at you and say that I see the Christ in you, I am not speaking metaphorically.  Just as God was fully embodied in Jesus, God is fully embodied in the whole of God’s universe.  There is no such thing as inert, dead matter.  There is no such thing as the God-less.  As Colossians will say two chapters later, “Christ is all and in all.” 

Colossians also tells us that the cosmos is created “for Christ.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean what our Evangelical sisters and brothers contend?  I don’t think so.  It means that this creation, which emanates from Christ and through which Christ pervades, also flows toward Christ.  In other words, we are exhaled by God in love and then inhaled—or in-spired—back into God.  That is our purpose and our destiny: To be made in love, to live in love, and ultimately to return to love. 

This is why, dear friends, we can, should, must wrestle with our faith.  We must always and ever ask, What does it look like to be creatures of love?  What does it look like to live in love and only for love, to seek peace, and empathy, and justice in the world as the manifestations of love?  What does it look like to ready ourselves to return to God’s love after our note is sung?  The struggle, including the scars, will indeed bless us and bless the world.

This is why, dear friends, we can travel through storm without fear, because God is not someone “up there” or “out there.”  Rather, God—the Christ—is the song of which we are the notes.  God is the air in which we move and breath.  God is before us, and in us, and beyond us as the horizon toward which we move.         

It is Christ through whom and for whom all things are made, including you and me.  So it was in the beginning, and forever shall be, world without end.  That is the Truth.  Never forget it.  And thank God for it.