When Elizabeth Takla, our Office Manager, began working at Westminster she quickly noted a trend among Betty, Chris, Heather, and myself – many of our receipts were for books. She would laugh at the sometimes absurd amount of texts delivered by Amazon and at the glee we’d express when a new volume arrived. We do consume a great deal of books – just look at our offices. All four of us have books piled on our desks, our floors, our shelves. We’ve each had to find additional shelving since starting here to keep up with our growing collection. Oh, but what a delicious problem to have. We each have the privilege to spend part of our work days reading – studying, digging into the most delectable of feasts – God’s word and God’s word embodied in history and homiletics, poetry and prose, commentary and cultural references. I love reading so much that I have a special chair in my office dedicated to this spiritual practice – it sits in the corner, with a soft light overhead, the walls decorated with a painting done by Holly Lockhead when she was in middle school and a photograph of the stained glass window from my home church. It is there that I feel drawn into a well-worn practice of pilgrimage – of walking the road trod by saints before me and forged by Christ who invites us each into following the Word made flesh.
Some of you might not be as perpetually hungry for study or for the written word. I admit that my appetite wanes depending on my stress level or the time of year. Some of you likely prefer to visually engage in ideas through movies or art. Some of you study by sound; music and words are what speak to you best. Some of you learn by doing, your hands become the ways you interpret and learn the world. And some of you could not wait until any form of schooling and study was over.
For me, it isn’t simply the study of God’s word. It is the wrestling with it – the parsing out each word, the act of picking up the text and looking behind it, around it, through it to catch a glimpse of our Triune God. It is asking questions of the text and demanding an answer. It is leaving the unanswerable out there in the open, waiting for the Spirit to illumine me in ways unknown. If it was just studying, I’d be long out of the practice of ministry. That just sounds boring. I want a life that struggles with the Word, trusting that as steady as the new dawn, the Spirit will shed a light in the shadows of my mind, leaving me transformed.
Learning, studying, wrestling with a text or a concept is a foundational element of our Reformed heritage. The Reformation ushered in unencumbered access to Scripture, making it available in the vernacular and in print so that all people might be able to taste and see the goodness of God’s word. No longer for the elite alone, copies of the Bible, printed by the newest invention of the printing press, entered into the houses of the curious and the faithful. Literacy spread through the land and churches took note. To learn and receive and contend with God’s word was so imperative to the early Reformed church that pastors and parents alike made sure study wasn’t just for those "of age" but for children, too. All the young churchgoers were instructed to sit in the pews closest to the pulpit, so that God’s Word would be breathed on them first and their hunger for inspiration would be born.
So, to study – to be a sojourner in the faith; to seek God and God’s wisdom in what was written long before you were born; to wrestle with Scripture and place all your hope in what is to come – to do so, is part of being a person of faith. And while we come to know this spiritual practice most acutely through our Presbyterian heritage, it was woven inside of us since the earliest of believers.
Remember with me our story from this morning. Jacob has come to point in his journey that leaves him limping. You may recall that Jacob had been limping in his heart and mind since birth. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, tricked his dying and blind father Isaac to receive the blessing reserved for Esau, and upon hearing Esau’s rage and threat against his life, Jacob escaped with the help of his mother Rebecca, leaving his homeland and forging a life on his own. We meet Jacob decades later. He is married, has children and livestock and a life. But that limping inside of him – his brokenness and sin that has crippled him for so long – began to take a toll. He is on this journey because he wants something different, wants to begin again with his brother Esau. So he takes his whole lot with him and journeys to find Esau. He’s almost there and senses it. He sends his people and animals ahead of him, deciding to rest through the night.
Sleep does not come, however, for an angel of God arrives and wrestles with him until daybreak. When the man – or when God – sees that Jacob will not give up, he strikes his hip. The man says, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." The angel renames Jacob, calling him Israel, a name that literally means "to struggle with God" (saw-rah is to struggle; El is God). Jacob is blessed and decides to claim and call the place of his conversion Peniel. Peniel in Hebrew means the face of God (panim is face; El is God). Jacob declares, "I have seen God face to face and yet – and yet – my life is preserved."
Jacob, in a moment of dual strength and vulnerability, decided that to struggle was to be faithful, to take a risk that God was in the midst of strife. Coming out on the other side, Jacob was a new creation, blessed by the wrestling with God and sent on his way to a path made known by truth and reconciliation. Jacob had seen God face-to-face – met God – came to know God in a way far more intimately than had Jacob given up at the hint of a struggle.
There are few texts for me in Scripture that articulate the gift of study – the gift of struggling with the story and prevailing – as well as this story of Jacob. It reminds me of God’s deep desire for us: to stick with God through the pain, through the struggle, trusting that a new life waits on the other side. There are innumerable times in my life when I wanted to give up – and have – only to never know what might have been. Those times that I prevailed, however, those times that I stayed up burning the midnight oil and scoured the ancient words and prayed and listened, listened, listened to God’s Word for me, those are times that shaped my faith.
Those times that are surely marked by the cloud of witnesses who taught me and gave me space upon gracious space to wrestle.
Those times that I unrelentingly asked my 5th grade Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Marianne Humphries, over and over again, "But why?" Why did God do that? Why did Jesus say that? Why did the disciples not listen? Why, why? Or that time I walked across the hall of my freshman dorm to the Orthodox Jewish kid from California only to meet who would become my best friend and my own on-call rabbi, Aaron who would let me ask him but what about the handwashing? Why the hair covering of women? Why is Passover so long? And most recently, what’s the root for word for "Israel" because I can’t find it and I’m preaching Sunday. It has been as much about the wrestling with faith as it has been about the people who showed me how, who gave me freedom to do so, who taught me that to wrestle with the Word is to be a follower of our mysterious God.
My mom likes to recall a particular time that shaped her understanding of a life of faithful study, a time when she witnessed something that made her realize she came by and taught her children by a way of life that was far more innate than she knew. She visited my grandparent’s Present Word class at the little church my great-grandfather founded. The class was all octogenarians and older, the women and men who raised her and taught her what faith looked and tasted like. The story of the day was one of the most frequented in Sunday School and popular culture: The Prodigal Son. She sat there shocked as each person around the table asked question after question about the text: Well what do you think the responsible brother felt inside? Why do you think the father ran to his son? What do you think the servants thought of their master’s decision? What else was said that we don’t read here? How is it, she thought, that these people who are the most faithful people I know, are still wondering about this story? Their curiosity and hunger for more of Christ’s Good News filled the room, she noted, and she walked away with a hope that she could be so feisty and faithful at age 83, too.
Today, we give thanks for our teachers of Westminster not only because they give of their time and their hearts so that we might be shaped and formed but also because they faithfully set the table for us to feast on the Word week after week. Our teachers invite us into safe spaces to ask questions, to lay out our doubts without judgement, to study and struggle with ancient stories, and to seek out the ways Christ is leading us in the here and now. Our teachers are a gift from God for through them and by them, we are given the tools and the spaces to see God face-to-face. I know no more fruitful calling.
In the name of the Word made flesh, Amen.