With Divine & Human Beings

Kyle and I have had the deep honor of being part of the Wesleyan Chapel United Methodist family for the last six years, and today was our last Sunday leading worship with them before moving to the Triangle to be closer to family and to start a new chapter at a new church. Below is the homily I shared this morning (and here’s the service link if you want to see one of us cry a bunch). WCUMC, we love you so much and we’re so thankful to have spent these years with you. And we’ll see you soon!

Genesis 32:22-31
New Revised Standard Version
Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This is one of my favorite Bible stories. It’s such a great combination of very clear metaphor and “wait, but what’s happening?”, where practical application meets the mystery of faith, which is my Biblical sweet spot.

Many Bible translations subtitle this “Jacob wrestles an angel,” and that’s also the phrasing Switchfoot uses to allude to this story in their classic song, “24.” But in the text, we read that Jacob wrestles “a man.” Some of the footnotes here: “Jacob” means “the one who strives with God.” However, another translation of “for you have striven with God and with humans” is “for you have striven with divine and human beings.” So … who exactly is Jacob wrestling with? Also, as always, are we meant to believe this was a literal physical struggle that lasted overnight, or is it a metaphor from the jump?

I think all of this is worth thinking about (and/or learning the actual answers to; I’m only one week into theology school). But none of it is the “main” part of this story for me. The thing that brings me back is the idea of Jacob striving with divine and human beings until he receives a blessing. Jacob not letting go until he gets something to show for it. This is how the spiritual life feels to me. Very occasionally I’m beside still waters. But usually I feel like I’m wrestling with something—some concept, some truth, some circumstance—and telling God, I’m not ready to be done here until you bless me. Until you tell me your name. Until I leave here limping, changed from who I was when I entered this fight.

It’s interesting to me that Jacob sends everyone away before he can get into it. That’s not usually how it works for me. To be fair, I’m also not fleeing from my brother who’s out for my blood because I stole his inheritance, and I’m not traveling with the person I wanted to marry and also her sister I got tricked into also marrying. That’s a lot, so I do get why Jacob needs to remove himself from all of it. But for me, as one of my spiritual mentors put it, I need to bring people into the wrestling with me. That’s why I’m such a believer in small groups, and it’s what pushed me to finally apply for theology school this year.

Speaking of, I also want to read you these couple of sentences from the essay that got me accepted to Drew University:
In 2015, in a moment of what I believe was divine intervention, my husband happened to see a job posting for a contemporary worship leader at a local United Methodist church. He got the job and we found the church home we’d worried might not be out there for us.

Kyle and I first moved to Wilmington in 2010 to attend UNCW. Before that, we were in Boone, and we were both Good Church Kids. Lifelong Good Church Kids. (I know: What happened?) More than I wanted to find a home at UNCW, I wanted to find another church home.

And we didn’t. We entered instead what Sarah Bessey and other Christian writers call “the wilderness,” where the faith we grew up with didn’t quite fit the people we were becoming, but we weren’t sure what that meant or where to land as we figured it out. We bounced around from church to church, some connected with college ministries we fell into, some recommended to us by a friend of a friend. Good churches with good people. I believe God was there. But they were the wrong churches for us, for various reasons. I wrote in a journal at one point that I felt that going to church was harming my faith instead of helping it.

And then we found you. Or Wesleyan Chapel found us. That story is more Kyle’s to tell. But here’s the truth for me: I was ready to tap out. I was exhausted. I couldn’t see a reason to keep striving—for what? What blessing? Is there even anyone else here or am I just hitting myself in the face? Much has been said about my generation’s tendency to “leave the church,” and I can only speak for this one millennial, but I get it. It’s an easy thing to stop wrestling. I wanted to. And the reason I didn’t is because, at a crucial time, you entered into the wrestling with me. You ministered to us with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Being here with you in the last six years, I’ve come face to face with God, over and over.

Sometimes that looked like grappling with big questions in small groups, book studies, and Sunday schools. Sometimes it looked like entirely too much bacon at breakfast or pulled pork for dinner later. Sometimes it was joining the choir for cantatas, or sending articles and books and memes, or dreaming about possibilities over a beer or a brownie. Often—twice a week for more than 300 weeks, if my math is right—it was standing on holy ground in this room with Brian and Conrad and Patrick, and Jamie and Kristy and Emily Rose and Levi and Robbie and Sara and Charles and Jim.

Our time at Wesleyan Chapel has blessed me deeply, and I am so grateful to be leaving this place with a hard-earned limp. I hope the blessing has been mutual. And I know that this place is special and that you will continue to pull each other into some divine wrestling and show each other the face of God. And I do not intend to miss it; we’re leaving but you’ll never really get rid of us. 

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