“Why do you think you have a vocation to be a priest?” I was asked that many times, by bishops examiners, and ordination panels. I would usually talk about my attraction to the work and ministry of a priest, and my sense that this is what God wanted me to do with my life. I didn’t often describe what really prompted me to seek ordination. I was reticent and a bit shy about describing that night, when I was in college. It sounded just too dramatic and mystical – a bit embarrassing. But that night I’ll never forget, I had a powerful experience of God calling me. I was awake all night, struggling, saying – no, that’s not what I had in mind for my life. At times I felt appalled, at other times unbelievably excited – this is the real thing: me and God. By the morning I had said yes – and I got up, and went to tell my college chaplain that I wanted to be ordained. I remember his words: “This made my day.”The theme of today’s worship is “Vocation to Love.” I my experience vocation is mostly about struggle. And that the love of God is experienced less as something warm and cozy, but more often as a kind of wound. “A sword will pierce your own soul.” (LK 2:35)
That night, when I heard God calling me, was one I will never forget, and I have perhaps never felt so clearly and powerfully the love of God. It was exhilarating, but not comforting. The Psalmist comes closest to describing it for me when in Psalm 64 he writes, “The human mind and heart are a mystery. But God will loose an arrow at them, and suddenly they will be wounded.”
Our vocation is not something that God just drops down from heaven and lands on us. Our vocation, our truest selves, our new identity, becomes real to us as we struggle to make sense of our own lives. The revelation comes through the struggle. It seems that God likes to struggle with us, and it is often through the struggle to become who we most truly are, that we come to know God and recognize that God’s name is Love.
Scripture is shot through with stories of struggle – men and women called by God, who struggle and complain, and run away, and try to hide. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job – I’m too young, I’m no good at speaking, I’m getting on a ship and sail as far away as possible. Poor Jeremiah – “Lord, you have wounded me, overpowered me, and you have prevailed…. If I say I will not mention him, or speak anymore in his name, then within me there’s something like a burning fire.” (Jer. 20:7-9)
Most famously, in the New Testament, Saul, struggling against God, finally gives in. On the road to Damascus he falls to the ground and hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, it hurts you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14) But it was through that kicking and struggling and wrestling with God that he came to know Christ, and came to know his truest identity. As a sign of this, the Lord gave him a new name – Paul. But he was wounded in the encounter. He was knocked to the ground and blinded. “God will loose an arrow, and suddenly you will be wounded.”
But of all the stories of struggle in the Bible, the one which I find most haunting, mysterious and compelling, is the story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious man in Genesis, Chapter 32. He wrestles all night, and the darkness hides so much – who is this mysterious man? Could it be God? In verses 26-29 there is a remarkable dialogue. After the wrestlers are exhausted in conflict, breathlessly they speak to each other. There are three exchanges. First, the mysterious man says, “Let me go!” But Jacob says, “Not unless you bless me.”
Then, secondly, the man says, “What’s your name?” “Jacob!” The man replies, “Your name will no longer be Jacob – but Israel, because you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob had asked for a blessing, and like Paul, he receives a new name, a new identity, because he wrestled with God. But then, in the third exchange, Jacob speaks with incredible boldness. He wants to know God’s name. But that he will not reveal. God remains God, his hiddenness intact.
Jacob has wrestled with God, and God has blessed him through the struggle, and revealed his vocation to him, symbolized by a new name – Israel. And yet, he wounds him. Just as Paul is blinded and suffers from his thorn in the flesh, so Israel’s hip bone is put out of joint, and he walks through the light of dawn with a limp.
So what can these stories of wrestling with God, and being wounded by God, tell us about our own vocations, our own walk with God? So many of us – certainly I was – are brought up to believe that when we pray we should be polite. But I don’t think God wants us to be polite – but to be real. God likes us to struggle with him, wrestle with him, in order to become who we most truly are. I think God is challenging us in these stories to tell him what you really feel – your grievances, your sorrows, your anger, your frustrations, your annoyances. Lay it out before God. Be honest. God can take it. God is not conflict-adverse!
Jesus himself is our model. In that garden of Gethsemane he was totally open and honest with his father. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” And he prays it again and again. In his anguish, according to Luke, as he prayed his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” That’s wrestling with God.
As we approach Holy Week God is perhaps inviting you to a new identity in prayer. What are you wrestling with right now? What do you really want to say to God? Say it! Don’t let God go until he answers you! Don’t let God go till he blesses you!
But – the blessing may well be experienced as a wound. And here we draw very close to the Cross – the heart of our faith. When God blesses us and calls us by name, we receive a new identity. We are called to follow our wounded self-sacrificial Savior. We are now to trust no longer in our own strength, but in God’s. To live in the knowledge that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. That when I am weak, then I am strong.
The wound comes in many guises. It may be the wound of knowledge – knowing things about other’s lives, their pain and suffering, as we minister to them. Things which wound us. Or the wound of compassion. When God blesses us we become more sensitive to injustice in the world and we cannot rest in our comfort and security. God’s arrow loosed at our heart compels me to stand up and be counted – to speak out, like poor Jeremiah. It is then that we hear most clearly our own true name – the one known to God. We learn our true vocation.
But it is also then that we receive that most wonderful blessing which was not granted to Jacob. When we say yes to a new relationship with God through our crucified and wounded Lord, we come to know God’s name for ourselves.
As Charles Wesley put it so beautifully, “Tis Love! Tis Love! Thou diest for me! The morning breaks, the shadows flee. Pure Universal Love thou art. Thy Name is Love.”
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