Wrestling Match – Br. Mark Brown

Wisdom 2:23-3:9/Psalm 34:15-22/Luke 17:7-10

“So you, also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.’”

Some of you may have your own version of the Jefferson Bible.  Thomas Jefferson, you’ll remember, made up his own edition of the Bible that literally cut out the parts he didn’t like.  Reaching for the scissors—at least metaphorically–may be tempting at times. But we have other options.

There’s a provocative little story in Genesis 32 about a wrestling match. Jacob is alone by the Jabbok Creek and is visited by a man. Or an angel? God? The text is ambiguous. Whoever it is, they wrestle—all night.  Jacob hangs on and refuses to let go until he blesses him.  Finally, at dawn, the divine messenger does bless him and the match is over.

“So you, also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.’”

We could reach for the scissors.  Or, we could wrestle this text to the ground and demand a blessing.  I don’t think we’ll need until dawn.  About ten minutes should do it.

To begin with, a parable like this is a good reminder that the Bible is a product of another time, another place, other social realities. Jesus is using an everyday reality of his time and place to make a point. By the way, we see this social reality beginning to shift even in the Bible.  In Revelation 18 trafficking in slaves is the commerce of the Whore of Babylon, who is doomed to destruction.

Our Scriptural texts are grounded in social realities which themselves are fluid and shifting.  So, we cannot avoid the responsibility of using our God-given intelligence to appropriate these texts in a life-giving, life-enhancing way.  The Word of God in Scripture is to be a Word of blessing—and we, with Jacob, are right to demand it.

The Word of God, of course, offers a wide range of images to us to help us understand our identity before God. A delicious example, those extraordinary words from Wisdom we heard earlier: “…God made us in the image of his own eternity.”  Made in the image of God’s own eternity.  Wow. Words of blessing, indeed! Nothing made in the image of God’s own eternity can rightly be a slave and nothing made in the image of God’s own eternity can be worthless.

The gist of the parable seems to be that our service to God and to others puts no claim on God.  Service to God and others is simply our duty.  God commands it, and it is our duty. God commands; we obey. This is a little more palatable, but, where is the blessing in this?

I have to speak out of my own experience—and this may or may not be yours.  But, I do not experience God as one who commands. Maybe my ears are plugged, but I don’t experience God as one who commands.  I do experience God as one who invites. I read in Scripture about a God who commands, but the God I experience is a God who invites. More the God of the Song of Songs, less the God of Mount Sinai.  More the God of mutual delight and desire; less the God who thunders from the mountain top.  The God of my experience is one who invites me to share his own life, invites me to share his own love, to share his own creative work in the world.

If there is a slave in the Christian’s relationship with God, the slave is God, according to the Bible.  “…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7).  And, elsewhere, “…the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…” (Mat. 20:28). And we see him on his knees doing slave’s work at the Last Supper, washing the feet of the disciples.

“So you, also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.’”

Where is the blessing? Jacob demanded a blessing. Perhaps we can hear the text saying that we should not seek recognition or applause or even gratitude for our service to others. We render service to God and others not for external reward, but because it is our rightful duty. This begins to be more palatable. But I’m still wrestling. Where is the blessing?

I think it is in this.  The reason we should not seek external reward for service to God and to others is that we could easily be distracted from the true reward. The true reward for service to others is not applause or approval or recognition.  The greater satisfaction, the greater gratification, the greater reward is God himself.  He promised to be with us always; he said he would abide in us as we abide in him. Our service to others, our generosity and graciousness are nothing less than the embodiment of the Divine Life active within us.  We incarnate, we put flesh and blood on the impulse of the Spirit of Christ active within us.  We are temples of his Spirit and agents of his generosity and service in the world.

Knowing Christ to be present and active within us is the true reward.  Our service to others, our generosity, are the manifestation of the life of God, the love of God, the generosity of God active within us. What could be a better reward than God within us?

If we have life within us, we have the Source of Life, because he is Life.  If we have love within us, we have the Source of Love, because he is Love.  If we have generosity within us, we have the Source of Generosity, because he is Generosity.  If we have the image of eternity within us, we have Eternity, because he is eternity.

Eternity of Life, eternity of Love, eternity of Generosity.  Christ invites us into these eternities and invites us to manifest them in our lives. Christ invites us to know him personally, that is, present in our person and manifest in our lives. Lives enriched by acts of service and generosity to others.

We should never cease expressing our gratitude to others for their generosity to us. And it is only natural to be encouraged by the gratitude of others—and disappointing when gratitude is withheld. But what I am speaking of is our primary motivation as God’s people in the world. God’s very presence in our hearts, inspiring us to generosity and service to others, is the true reward.

If we know this, we have been blessed.  And we can let go and call it a match.

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  1. Jim on October 11, 2017 at 10:17

    Sigh. I wish my experience were more like Brother Mark’s — and more like my intellectual conception of God’s love. I UNDERSTAND God to be the God of delight, desire and invitation. but I EXPERIENCE Him more as the God of commandment, judgment, and “thou shalt not.” I KNOW God loves me, but I FEEL that he demands, judges, and finds me lacking.

  2. Marta Engdahl on October 11, 2017 at 08:35

    What a wonderful thing to be invited by Godde (thanks to Beryl)!
    Recently, I have become attached to a Centering Prayer group. We are reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s “The Heart of Centering Prayer” as an adjunct and support to a 20 minute period of group prayer. My experience has been a long period of “trying” until just recently when I was in a situation of family tension. Suddenly, like a flash, I felt the flood of warmth from Godde flow through me. She is here, always present and always waiting for us to turn.

  3. ginger on January 22, 2016 at 06:51

    Yes, I think God is inviting me to share life with Him…….He in me and I in Him. Am I so arrogant that I could think that God Himself would live in me? Maybe, but I really think that God invites me to live in Him and He will live in me…..I want to remember that Presence all the time……but alas I can get too wound up in what “I” think I am doing that I forget “who” is with me, moving me along. I don’t need to try to think of all the answers: I need to let go and listen…….God is with me and is guiding…….help me to listen God……..You are so good to me. thank You.

  4. Margaret Dungan on May 27, 2014 at 23:55

    Dear Br. Mark, Thank you for this great exploration and I have to say that I think it was God who created the idea of twitting and he does it so well.


  5. Anders on May 27, 2014 at 12:37

    Thank you for making a connection between generosity, compassion and inspiration. It is in our compassion and generosity that the spirit of God resides, where we can be moved in and through the process, letting go of the results.

  6. Beryl Cox on May 27, 2014 at 09:03

    In response to Brother Mark Brown’s word “Reward” posted 5/27/14, it jars me so to hear Godde spoken of as exclusively masculine. The posting reads “…the greater reward is God himself.” I know this issue has been much discussed, but it still grates and jars the heart. Why not “Godde herself?”

  7. Bob on November 9, 2013 at 17:22

    Thank you Br.Mark you put the cultural and historic aspects of scripture very well. We all may know it but you say it very well. I am borrowing bits of it for my Sunday sermon about the many brother and one wife! Thank you. Margo.

    • Margo on May 27, 2014 at 06:30

      Reading this again today, I am struck by how gracious and ‘in- my- own- time- Lord I -will- respond’ attitude behind the invitational response there is. I think there is an urgency to God’s invitation to be co-creators with Him of our world that a great number of us who are not immediately effected do have our ears plugged to. Margo

  8. Christina on November 9, 2013 at 10:22

    Dear Brother Mark: One of the problems of aging is short-term memory loss. I recalled having read today’s sermon, but I didn’t remember having responded to it.
    But, as I read it today, the exact same sentiments bubbled to the surface. The same that I had written back in Februray. My God is a loving God and one who draws me closer, and I am drawing closer to that Eternal Spirit all the time. I am constantly amazed by what our relationship does in my life. It is not a question of winning the lottery, etc. but the gifts of greater compassion, patience ,and others. That doesn’t mean that I live these gifts all the time. I fall off the ladder all the time.
    Blessings to you and all the Brothers, and to all who read these wonderful daily words. Christina

  9. Jeffrey Morgan on November 8, 2013 at 21:21

    I experience the invitation going both ways. God is intimately interested in my life and therefore the experience I am having. When I invite God into my life, God experiences God’s great creation through my eyes, my ears, my hands, and my sensations. This delights God.

  10. Pam on November 8, 2013 at 08:35

    Yes, the experience of God’s presence with us, in our hearts, is always enough. It is what prompts me to be filled with joy (no matter what the circumstances), and that feeling is always accompanied by tears–tears of gladness, love, and overwhelming gratefulness.

  11. Sister Carin Bridgit Delfs, SSG on February 7, 2013 at 10:41

    I serve as both a Sister and a Priest. I have recently come through a period of wrestling with God. I have been depressed and unable to see or feel the Blessing.I know is freely offered. Thanks you for your inspiring and encouraging words.

  12. George E. Hilty on February 7, 2013 at 08:59

    Beautifully expressed. In terse form. “What God does for us, He does in us.” C.S. Lewis.

  13. Christina on February 7, 2013 at 08:50

    Thank you, Mark. As I read about the commanding God, in my mind I was thinking. I don’t think so. Then I read on to the the next paragraph and there I found my God: AN INVITATIONAL GOD. My experience is that I receive invitations to follow a certain path – sometimes I have followed, and sometimes I have not. Over time I am learning to recognise the invitation and understand its significance. Blessings, Christina

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