For those of you who drove to church this morning, how many of you had to maneuver around areas of road construction or repair? All summer long Mark and I have had to take varying routes to and from downtown, working to avoid Shaker Blvd, Richmond Rd. and now, of course, the dreaded Fairmount/Cedar Center area.
Most of those areas are doing some serious road repair this year: total resurfacing, not just tossing some asphalt into the obvious potholes. And all of us are living with the difficulty of the time and effort it takes for that process to go forward. Yet compared to some Cleveland neighborhoods that are getting no road repairs, I’ll take the inconvenience. Orange barrel or pothole? An easy decision.
If you and I are honest, however, we know that potholes don’t occur only in roads. Holes beginning on “the surface” and gradually getting bigger often indicate something going on underneath, especially when we don’t take care of the hole in the first place. Those kind of “potholes” are found in all kinds of situations, both personally and corporately.
Though I have been ordained over 34 years, and preached in over a dozen churches in this Presbytery alone, it has been over six years since I have stood in a pulpit – and never here at Forest Hill! So, if I pause, or tear up, I would like you to know why, because I think it may apply this morning.
The last sermon I gave was to the church of which I was a pastor in October 2011, as I was leaving to go on disability. Some encouraged me not to tell them why I was leaving. The reason? Because I was and am dealing with my own personal pothole: clinical depression – and we know how our culture views mental illness.
They were afraid that if I “went public” that I would “never work again.” Well, let’s be real. I’m 62. The issues surrounding my depression were significant enough that it was unlikely I would ever seek another pastorate anyway, even if I was able to return to work, which I am not.
And would I choose to hide that information if I did? I chose then, as I choose now, to be open with that information, and let the chips fall where they may. I have learned, often the hard way, that depression is a disease understood by too few, even the well-meaning, including others who may struggle with it, because it is experienced in such an individual manner. So, when I’m in a good place, I seek to educate. And when I’m not, I just try to protect myself. I’m guessing more than a few of you here can relate.
A little over a month ago, this congregation fell into its own pothole. And I suggest this morning, that we, the people of Forest Hill Church, need to decide what we want to do about it. At the congregational meeting in June, when we discussed the position and person we would seek for our next pastoral staff addition, divisions were clearly seen and felt.
As a clergy member of Presbytery I was present as an observer, with neither voice nor vote. I could feel the angst, the anger, the pain, the frustration, the sadness, the sheer intense level of emotion that was present as members spoke – and even as they didn’t. It was palpable even after the tally was announced, and no decision was reached at that time.
I am aware, as you should be, that the Session (your governing body) later voted to go ahead with the motion to seek a co-pastor, with the intent that this person will be an African American woman. I am also aware that they were open to and presumably did meet with those individuals who had strong feelings and views on the opposing side.
But the question remains: is the road resurfaced, or does the pothole remain?
The pothole that was exposed that morning could been seen and heard in how different people viewed the very same meeting. Black members and others heard language in some comments that to them sounded “coded,” that is, racist in an indirect manner. Others walked away from the meeting without hearing any hint of prejudice or racism in the very same statements.
In challenging conversations, the message one person wishes to communicate may not have the intended impact, or the desired effect on the listener. But the root cause of this pothole is deeper than this. This is what I believe to be true: at the congregational meeting at the end of June, we came face to face with the reality of an institutional problem that exists throughout our society, and, unfortunately, even as in the best churches, also exists here.
It goes by many names, none of them pleasant to our ears: white privilege, unconscious bias, institutional racism. And those will not simply dissipate when we install a new clergywoman.
This isn’t because Forest Hill is some awful congregation. Quite the opposite. We were on the forefront of working for fair housing and fighting redlining in the 60s, and our Race Core team has been a model to the Presbytery. But we are a predominantly white congregation, and that impacts who we are. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t see what we don’t see. We don’t hear what we don’t hear. Forgive me if I offend, by presuming to say something about which I know so little. At this point, I simply want to acknowledge the pothole that needs attention.
As I sat brooding on these matters (and that really is the operative word), the Hebrew Scripture reading for this morning started to get things moving for me – and I hope it will for you as well.
Those of you who were here last week may recall this isn’t the first time we’ve heard from Jacob. He’s a patriarch who scarcely qualifies for sainthood – not someone we would hold up as one to emulate. He took his brother’s birthright because his mother told him he was entitled to it. He did work 7 years for his wife – but then was given the wrong one by his father-in-law. After working 7 more years for the sister he really wants, he feels as though it’s his right to set off with a whole lot of Laban’s livestock, since he’s the one who was tricked this time.
So Jacob makes the long trek from Haran, knowing that his brother Esau is waiting for him, along with 400 men. Jacob decides to send some gifts to Esau – to “soften him up,” and is strategic in the placement of his own soldiers. Jacob, in other words, is taking no chances. He’s scared. Esau, after all, has justifiably threatened his life.
Jacob’s complete entourage head out: 2 wives, maids, 11 children and all the noise they make, along with Laban’s livestock. They journey until they come to an abrupt end at the ford of the Jabok, where they cross over.
After the others have gone ahead and night has come, Jacob has a most interesting wrestling match. Artists have most commonly shown an angel as his opponent. Yet the commentators disagree on the translation of the word for Jacob’s wrestling partner, most choosing “man,” while a few go with “God.” So is he wrestling with Laban whom he has already bested, by stealing his livestock; Esau, whom he has faced and will face again soon; an angel; or himself? Or is it God?
There are times when the ambiguity of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the freedom to “run with it,” to let it speak to us where we are at a particular moment. For today, I think Jacob looks in the mirror and sees something of God in himself, so he indeed wrestles with God – someone beyond himself, and yet also known to him.
But he’s not quite there yet. And this is a critical point for us. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jacob anticipating Esau’s anger and says “[Jacob] had changed, but he could not imagine that Esau had.” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine) What if Jacob had begun to understand that Esau had every right to be angry, even now? After all, Jacob had literally taken everything from him.
The match is a draw. No clear winner. But Jacob demands a blessing. It turns out, to get it, he has to is give his name. And that means owning up to who he is. The name Jacob means “grabber”, “supplanter,” or “trickster.” So speaking his name is an act of confession. He has just come face to face with that truth, as he wrestled throughout the night. Wonderfully, by saying his name, he is free to become someone new, someone else. To let go of his cheating ways. His new name: Israel.
But my friends, take note: it is costly to engage in such a wrestling match. Jacob leaves with a permanent limp.
Here’s what happens after the portion of the story that we heard this morning. Jacob looks up and sees his brother coming toward him. So Jacob falls on his face to honor his brother. Seeing this, Esau runs up and embraces him, falls on his neck and kisses him and they weep. And we are told that “Jacob saw the face of God” in his brother.” He saw the face of God in his brother.
Can you imagine what that could do to a relationship? How it might change it? One commentator has suggested that it was only when Jacob saw Esau did he truly see God. It wasn’t because of Jacob’s great struggle, but because of the unexpected grace and love of Esau.
So where are the connections between Jacob wrestling through the night and our pothole problem? I’m sure you could point out all kinds of connections. It’s a powerful passage. But the biggest connection for me is that is that this story of Jacob wrestling through the night warns us against some easy, feel-good faith. When you’ve had a bad week, when our country or our world seem to be spinning out of control, I am sure that most of us, myself included, come to church for a “pick me up,” wanting something to reassure us. We want God to make us comfortable again. But too often comfortable means keeping the status quo. And guess what? If we want that, biblically-based faith isn’t the place to go. The Bible, as it turns out, is a fairly radical book.
This passage will not let us skip over the wrestling, the kind of wrestling that is costly, that leaves you limping away. I don’t know about you, but I hate tension, arguments, disagreements of any kind. I would rather that not talk about hard topics, or deal with things that threaten discord. But I learned the hard way, the very hard way, what happens when you avoid things that need to be addressed. The bottom falls out. The pothole caves in. If all we want is a comforting faith, to maintain the status quo, we aren’t looking to the future of the church. We are looking for its burial.
“Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23)
I think this passage calls us to start wrestling and be willing to have our eyes opened. If you’re like me, you might be asking, “Great, but how?”
Friends, the pothole problem at Forest Hill Church is only symptomatic of our broader society. So, if you are a visitor, I invite you to think about where you might apply this in your life.
Last Sunday, about 20 of us gathered to discuss the book, Waking up White, by Debby Irving. It was far more than a book discussion. It was an honest dialogue about white privilege and how it impacts both African Americans and Whites. It was respectful and open. But it was only a start.
The plan is for another group to gather again this fall to discuss it. Whether or not you end up in a discussion group – and I hope you do – I encourage you to read the book, whatever your race, especially if you didn’t perceive racial tension at the congregational meeting.
It’s an easy read, though the questions at the end of each chapter can be challenging. And it is a great conversation starter. It has certainly opened my eyes, and led me to reassess a lot of things I thought I already knew.
If this is the kind of thing you ordinarily wouldn’t do, then I ESPECIALLY encourage you to do it. Please. Consider it your gift to your church.
I’m going to risk being very straightforward again. If the pothole we are addressing is racism, then the ball is primarily in the court of those of us who are white. You may want me to say that it is a two-way street, that Esau ran out to meet his brother and forgave him and hugged him. But that didn’t happen overnight. Irving writes in Waking up White, “How can racism possibly be dismantled until white people, lots and lots of white people, understand it as an unfair system, get in touch with the subtle stories and stereotypes that play in their heads and see themselves not as good or bad but as players in the system?”
If you’re white, you may be afraid you will say the wrong thing. Here’s news: You will. You probably already have. I have. Let me count the ways. Here’s the very first thing we need to invest in: one-on-one relationships. Because here is the thing: when we are in a relationship of trust, we can say the wrong thing and we will probably be forgiven, and hopefully gently corrected so we won’t say that stupid thing again.
My friends, we don’t want to ignore this pothole, or drive around it. We don’t want to find another way to get where we are going. We want to deal with it. And we do that by wrestling with it, with ourselves, with each other, face to face, openly, and honestly. When we do, I truly believe, we will see the face of God.
May it be so.