...had the church where I was preaching actually used the lesson from Genesis as their Old Testament lectionary reading, rather than the Isaiah option. Oh my. I will tell you about the sermon I actually did preach...tomorrow, probably. Talk about having your worst fear realized!
Ironically, this is the one time in weeks I've actually fully written out my sermon. I thought I was so prepared! God was definitely messing with me, big time.
At any rate, here's the sermon:
Conan O’Brien gave the commencement address at Dartmouth this year. It was, as you might imagine, very funny. It was also, in some ways, a very typical commencement address. But it was also amazingly personal. And at the heart of it was a simple message. After he spoke about his disappointment of not getting the Tonight Show job and being cast out of NBC and the misery of that experience, he said this:
There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.
For O’Brien, that experience led him to try new things in what became “the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life.” And he told the graduates that the cliché “follow your dreams” is true—with the caveat that your dreams are going to change, and you aren’t going to have the same dreams at 42 that you have at 21.
It was a great commencement speech, and I love a great commencement speech. But here’s the thing: when you’re 21 can you really hear that? Hear that and understand it in your bones? And this is not about callow youth. This is just to say that understanding failure and struggle and renewal may be one of those things you can’t learn about second-hand. You can only get to it alone.
The thing this story of Jacob struggling with the man gives us is the realization that we are not the first people to go through this kind of struggle.
[Context of story here]
A couple of comments about this story:
First of all, it takes place at night, when “the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over.” If we are going through some existential struggle about who we are and what we should be in this world, it’s easy enough to keep ourselves occupied and distracted during the day, but at night…not so easy. This struggle, and this man Jacob struggles with, seems to come out of nowhere. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve had the experience where as far as I knew things were fine, but when night came on, I found myself in struggle I didn’t know I had.
Secondly, it’s a wrestling match. Jacob has always been a schemer and a swindler with an eye for the main chance. He’s never been a physical fighter. He tricks people out of stuff and then runs away when they want to kill him. Here, his usual methods do not work. All he has is himself, and it is to his great credit that instead of running away, he holds on and struggles.
Third, it is not without pain. Jacob has his hip put out of joint. Ow. Big ow. I wish I had a great deal more time to talk about this because what I do not want is, if you are in pain, for you to leave here thinking somehow pain is always good and you should live with it. At the same time, I disagree with the message we get that when we have painful experiences that is in itself a sign that we have done something wrong or gone against God’s will. All I can say in this short time is that sometimes the things that bless us also pain us.
Finally, it may take a long struggle to receive a blessing. Longer that you would like it to be, and not without pain. I think a lot of is have been taught that if you’re blessed that means things are easy for you. One thing the story of Jacob makes clear is that receiving this blessing ain’t always easy.
Maybe this means nothing to you. Maybe you have never struggled in the night, wrestled through the pain. This sermon may wash right over you, and that’s all right. Because Jacob and his many, many children who have been through this same struggle will be there when you need him.
Or maybe you’re in the middle of the wrestling match, sitting there wondering when on earth you are going to receive any blessing at all. To you I hope this story will be of some comfort, to know you are not the first, you are not alone. I don’t know how it will turn out for you. But I hope you will know that to struggle is no sign of God’s disfavor.
And to you who have been through it and come out on the other side: I hope you will find ways to support those who are in the midst of the struggle, by sharing your story of your fight through the night.
Hold on to God fiercely and be blessed. Amen.