Over the past year, I have become deeply acquainted with the commute between Milwaukee and Chicago. I’ve seen I-94 through various stages of construction, but only recently, have I started to notice the signs that read “Stay In Your Lane.”
Stay in your lane. More than a construction zone sign, it strikes me as the same message that those of us who grew up in more conservative churches have heard time and again: Stay in your lane. Don’t ask questions. Don’t make trouble. Don’t wrestle. Or as it’s often been summarized: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Even across Christian traditions, we’ve been led to believe that doubt and questioning and troublemaking are somehow inherently unfaithful.
And yet, today we encounter the story of Jacob, who wrestles. Jacob, who by the end of the story becomes “Israel,” the father of the twelve tribes of a great nation, hardly seems to be the pinnacle model of faithfulness. Jacob, whose birth name means “heel-grabber,” hearkens as far back as his birth and not long after to the story where he schemes with his mother to steal his older brother’s birthright, and then flees out of fear of retribution. After many years of estrangement, Jacob is, understandably, deathly afraid of what Esau – and his army of 400 men – will do to him. He sends gifts and even his own family ahead of him in an attempt to soften and appease Esau – and that’s where we find him at the start of this bizarre story. Alone, afraid, anxious…when out of nowhere, an unnamed assailant appears who wrestles with him.
The identity of Jacob’s wrestling partner remains a mystery. Is it God, as we often assume (even though the text never says that)? Is it one of Esau’s men, spying on enemy camp? Is it Jacob’s conscience, his own inner “demons” catching up with him?
Or maybe, the obscurity is intentional…inviting us to put ourselves in Jacob’s place…we who wrestle with so many things. Scripture and faith, certainly. Our own identities. Our families and clashes over differences in politics or beliefs. Even preserving our own institutions and denominational survival.
Then there’s the widow from Jesus’s parable – often labeled in study bibles and commentaries as “persistent,” which strikes me as far too tame. This widow is downright angry, as she wrestles against an unjust economic system and stubborn, callous leaders. In our own context, we might see her as the single parent who works multiple minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet, only one emergency away from financial collapse. Or as the teachers who picket, not because they don’t care about their students, but because they care maybe too much to let them go without basic resources, like a school library, special education teachers, or counseling services. We don’t need to look very far to know what it means to wrestle.
In her recent book One Coin Found, Pastor Emmy Kegler writes about her own wrestling, as she struggled to reconcile her Lutheran faith with her queer sexuality. In the story of Jacob wrestling, she finds a way of encountering Scripture that acknowledges both the harm some have used it to inflict on LGBTQIA+ folks and, somehow, the balm it still offers us. With Jacob, she refused to give up. “There was a blessing in the story,” she writes, “and if I had to pin it down and sit on it until it cried uncle, I would do it. I would wait for the dawn, for Scripture to look me in the eye and say: You are not what everyone else says about you.”
This year at Churchwide Assembly, we commemorated the anniversaries of the ordinations of the first women and women of color, and the anniversary of the removal of barriers to the ordination of LGBTQIA+ ministers. Theirs is a story of wrestling…and it’s a wrestling match we know is far from over, as we continue to struggle against sexism and homophobia, even in the church. I know far too many people who have been caught up in the broken system we call candidacy and first call and told to “trust the process,” feeling as though they have to settle for calls that don’t completely fit because they’re afraid it will be another six months (or more) before they get another congregational profile, or worse, that no one else will take them.
But this church is so much better with those who have had to wrestle for a place at the table. Even in what feels like a broken church sometimes, we can perceive some beautiful moments. Attending the installation of the ELCA’s second openly gay bishop just weeks ago, I couldn’t help but cry tears of joy and hope…seeing someone like me up there. This church is so much better for the witness and ministry of those who have had to wrestle. The church is better for those who doubt and question and wrestle and refuse to accept the status quo. This church is so much better for those who stir things up for the sake of wider inclusion.
Today, Jacob’s story gives us permission to wrestle. With Israel, we are encouraged to wrestle…with our faith, with our identities, with our broken yet beautiful church and what it means to be the ELCA in this time and place, when both church and society seem to be changing at a pace we struggle to keep up with.
I don’t know what this church will look like in 30 years, but I do know this: The people of God know what it means to wrestle. Our very identities and institutions are the product of a history of wrestling…of asking questions, of pushing back against the status quo, of stirring things up in the pursuit of what is just and right, of always being made new. We are a wrestling people. We are the church of the reformation. We are a people who refuse to stay in our lane.
And maybe Jacob-Israel is, somehow, actually a good model for the life of faith. He doesn’t have all the answers, and he’s certainly not someone who always gets it right. And yet he wrestles. And the mysterious stranger with whom he wrestles blesses him because of it. That blessing doesn’t equal perfection, but results in a physical limp – a reminder of Jacob’s imperfection. Both blessed and bruised, very good and imperfect, saint and sinner.
With Jacob, we are invited and called to wrestle with the systems that would hold us back from God’s vision for this world. We are invited to wrestle and claim the blessing that is ours in the waters of baptism…to receive the blessing that God gives for us in this meal of bread and wine. With the angry widow, we are called to keep persisting, until all God’s people receive those words of blessing…the blessing of a God who refuses to let us go, whose persistent embrace calls us their own and blesses us, even and especially in our wrestling.