Searching for Names/Grasping for Blessings

August 2, 2020

Series: August 2020

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31

22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

“Searching for Names/Grasping for Blessings”

The staff put together a devotional and we titled it “Weirdest Summer Ever.” That’s certainly one way to describe it. It’s hard to name what it is we are living through right now. We have a need to name things.

Did you notice that when Jacob wrestles with his mysterious foe for the night, one of the things he asks about is a name?  We want to know who or what we’re facing so we know how to proceed.  When we are in the midst of things, it can be difficult to quite understand what we’re facing, how long it will go on, what the outcome will be and thus how to move through it. Sometimes, it’s only in looking back that we gain recognition.  I wonder how young John Lewis would have named his first walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge compared to what that event has come to mean in our collective story? 

How we name things affects how we act in response.  “That’s an act of war!” or “You attacked me!” are not just descriptive phrases; they’re determinative.  They shape the way we respond.  The better we are at naming, the better we are at navigating the world, the better we are at living.

There’s a powerful little book about naming, little only in size.  It’s by Matthew Fox, mystic, spiritual rebel, and purveyor of a theology of blessing.  It’s called Naming the Unnameable, and it’s about the most unnameable subject of all, God.  Fox includes 89 names for God.  Some are familiar to our tradition, “God is Love,” which is found in our Scriptures and likely the preference of many at a church such as ours.  Others you may not have head at church, “God is Reality.”  Remember when Moses meets God in the bush, he asks God what God’s name is, and the reply is “I Am.”  However, it really is the past, present, and future form of the verb “to be.”  God is, in effect, what was, what is and what will be, ultimate reality.

Some of Fox’s names point to a spiritual underpinning of all things, “God is the Cosmic Christ or Buddha Nature,” a transcendent divine presence.  Fox includes a whole section of feminine names for God, such as the Jewish “Shekinah,” the glory of the divine presence.  Some names Fox offers may surprise you, “God is Chaos.”  The point is not to say God inflicts chaos upon us, rather that, as Fox puts it, “Chaos seems part of all creative processes.”  This name, which is one of the feminine names, honors that times of chaos have the potential to be times of birth, the birth of new life and ways of being and being together.  Even before the pandemic, I turned to this name for God as a source of hope when considering the ecological chaos we are bringing upon our world, hoping we take this opportunity to give birth to new, more harmonious, ways of living, a holier way of being.

One name I’ve grown increasingly fond of is “God is mystery.”  There’s a skill of living with mystery.  It’s harder than living with certainty; it’s also more expansive.

Fox even includes “God is the Planetary Mind Field.”  There is truly something for everyone in it. 

Fox refers to this as his most radical book—and that’s saying something for someone the Vatican tried to silence.  In it, Fox moves us beyond the accepted names for God in Christianity, which are far fewer than Judaism or Islam, not to mention Hinduism or many indigenous traditions.  Even more, in doing so, he invites us to follow suit.  He deems it radical because it threatens the exclusive naming rights of God of the institutional church.  It doesn’t do away with the need for institutions, but it shifts their purpose.  They become more focused on being centers that bring people together for community, shared practice, the teaching of deep wisdom, and the engaging in social action.  Fox wants to restore trust in the human experience of God, which is the mystical path.  I plan to teach a series on the practice of the naming God for our Wednesday series later in the year and I hope you can participate.

In his experience and encounter with God, Jacob acquires a couple of important things.  First, Jacob, perhaps like many of us, lives in search of blessing.  In a memorable moment, he steals the birthright of his brother Esau.  Here, Jacob demands a blessing from this experience of struggle.  There’s a lesson in that for us.  Jacob refuses to stop wrestling until he finds something he can take from the experience.  He does not emerge remain unscathed.  Jacob walks away blessed but also with a limp.  It’s a reminder that our growth sometimes comes with scars.  Our growth rarely comes without discomfort.  In fact, if you want to hear a sermon in one sentence, it’s this:  people rarely change when they’re comfortable. Why would they?

As a result of his grappling, Jacob also acquires a new name, Israel, a new identity or understanding of who he is.  His name Israel means the one who wrestled with God, who wrestled with reality, and thus was blessed.  Isn’t that a calling for us now, not to retreat back into comfort, but to stay engaged, to keep wrestling until we can wrestle some blessing out of this?

To bring us full circle, living into this powerful name also blesses us with the wisdom and ability to rename, reframe, the realities, the present struggles facing us.  In our own transformation, we can transform them.  Think about how this time could be renamed if we hang in there with it. 

What if these were not just looked back upon as times of division, but times of growth, when we struggled to redress old wrongs, and dress old wounds?

What if these times became known not just for the vast inequalities exposed, but for the way we addressed them?  Think of what families across the country are facing now, the question of schooling for their children.  We already see some families coming together and hiring private tutors or teachers for their children, and who could blame them for giving the best for their kids?  But, what about all those for whom this is not an option.  What if this was the time that we said this was not acceptable for the richest country in the land?

What if these were times marked a return to unity through the coming together to face a common threat?      

What if these were times when we remembered the potential of science to support human life, and recommitted ourselves to its respect and pursuit?

What if these were times when we relearned the value of sacrifice for the good of neighbor?

            Times we discovered inner strength we didn’t know we had?

            Times we forged new bonds across old borders and boundaries?

            Times our faith grew up, took root, and bore new fruit?

            How would you like this time in your life, in our life to be named? 

What blessings could we grab hold of? 

Come to the table, be fed, then go forth and find out.  Amen.