Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. George, thank you so much for posting this! I was going to write to you to ask for a copy to share with friends, and here it is! Thank you! Yours is an important voice in our community. Sarah J.

  2. I always thought, maybe it’s just a romantic misconception, that in the old days the king/government got their tithe for streets, defense & such; that the church got their tithe to help with the charity; and the family lived on the 80% left which included looking after their extended family in their old age.

    Nowadays, most of the extended families I see are recent immigrants, and broken families are more the norm. The government wants much more than a tithe. They claim to do all the above but it appears they don’t do it very well. They spend from the public coffers to meddle in everything from who can get married to what our credit card bills look like. And, of course, become embroiled in several undeclared wars with the resultant human suffering and staggering debt.

    I wish I knew a way out, as this doesn’t seem much like progress. I guess that gives us something to pray for.

  3. being captured is beside the point,
    the point is not to surrender.

    It is perhaps a reflection of my own wrestling that I share a poem. A poem that challenges, taunts, and comforts me simultaneously. I surrender far too often; too seldom risk delight.

    A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE
    BY JACK GILBERT

    Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
    are not starving someplace, they are starving
    somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
    But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
    Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
    be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
    be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
    at the fountain are laughing together between
    the suffering they have known and the awfulness
    in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
    in the village is very sick. There is laughter
    every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
    and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
    If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
    we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
    We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
    but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
    the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
    furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
    measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
    If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
    we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
    We must admit there will be music despite everything.
    We stand at the prow again of a small ship
    anchored late at night in the tiny port
    looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
    is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
    To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
    comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
    all the years of sorrow that are to come.

    When I am ‘run down’ I try to remember this. For those who choose to work in the light of that furnace, who willingly walk in each day, we must remember delight, joy, gratitude, and beauty. (And music, George, of course). I do struggle. I am no longer young and hopeful, but I am beginning to understand that despair and the death of hope is perhaps the Devil’s call after all. And if there is sin in my life, it is the surrender of hope and connection that at times looks so appealing. Politics is never divorced from power; as such, is it not a rather temporal and slender reed in the storm? But oh, what is it we all look to if this even marginally true? Surely, we would have to find the Christ within us all, a more splendid surrender……
    George, I have never blogged before in my life!! See you at South after the vacation days are past…blessings to all, Laurie


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