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Wrestling with Weakness

A sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 and Genesis 32:22-31

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash]

Over a lifetime of interest in psychology, and a good number of leadership-development programs, I have taken my share of personality-assessment inventories.

Some have been modestly illuminating. Some have been confusing, or hard to apply. But one has genuinely helped to shape my self-understanding and the way that I seek to live out my faith in the world: The Enneagram.

The Enneagram draws its roots from ancient spiritual traditions, including the teachings of the 4th Century Christian desert elders. As a spiritual resource, rather than a psychological one, its primary purpose is spiritual growth. Specifically, that means helping people recognize the “shadow side” of our personality patterns: the ways that our particular way of interpreting and engaging with the world can set us up for problems if we don’t take our spiritual growth seriously.

As an Enneagram 3 (also known as the Achiever) my challenge is the drive to meet expectations. (I don’t imagine many of you who know me will be surprised to learn that when I am presented with a need or a challenge I jump into problem-solving mode!) There are good things about this personality pattern, and American culture tends to reward it, but there are also potential pitfalls: Like, what happens when the challenge is beyond my capacity?

For me, and for most people who feel driven to prove themselves by what they can achieve, there are usually two ways to go. As it happens, these two responses are reflected in today’s readings.

The first path is the one the disciples want to take in today’s gospel story: declining to try.

They are in a remote location, late in the day, with a hungry crowd of thousands. And they barely have enough food for their small group. Even a perpetual high-achiever would quail at this challenge. There’s no way to shine here. Far better to deflect from the very beginning. Don’t try. Don’t claim any responsibility for this problem. Engaging will only lead to failure, so don’t. Instead, send them away.

Of course, it’s pretty unlikely that any local town will have sufficient food available to feed so many people, even if they have the money to buy it, which is questionable, but let that be someone else’s problem. If we say from the beginning that this is a problem we can’t fix, we can wash our hands of it, and then enjoy our modest meal in peace.

That’s the default option when we know we can’t succeed. But there are other times when we are less aware of our own limits. That’s where Jacob’s story comes in.

Jacob spends all night literally wrestling with God! This is not a contest Jacob could ever win, but he doesn’t know that. Jacob has spent his whole life as the underdog who figures out a devious way to come out on top.

He’s the younger brother who schemed his way into inheriting his brother’s blessing.

He’s the duped suitor who ends up with 4 wives and thirteen children as a result of his father-in-law’s deception.

He’s the herdsman who makes a deal for the less desirable animals, but ends up with the stronger flock.

Jacob is nothing if not confident in his ability to twist challenging circumstances into a win. And because of that, he refuses to let go of a challenge, even if it hurts him. Even when he can never “win” he won’t let go.

Two seemingly impossible tasks. Two very different responses. But the same God. A God who challenges BOTH responses, because they both reflect a fundamental error: they are based on an assumption of independence.

The disciples want to send the crowds away because they know they can’t feed the multitude.

Jacob grapples through the night with God because he trusts his own strength and scheming.

Neither recognize that their strength, their capacity are not the determining factor. The challenge before them is not about what they can achieve. It’s about understanding that they CAN’T do it on their own.

In other words, the real challenge is to recognize that they need God.

It’s one of the simplest affirmations of faith: we need God. And yet, when we are faced by overwhelming, frightening, impossible challenges, it’s the hardest thing that faith demands of us: the willingness to confess our need, to say “I can’t fix this on my own, but I can’t walk away either. I am vulnerable. I am out of my depth. I need.”

It’s a confession that is hard for achiever-types, but also for Americans in general, with our cult of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps independence. We admire the strong, and the self-assured. The people who say “I’m not intimidated. I can handle it.” Whether what we are facing is a global pandemic, or a frightening diagnosis; a pattern of systemic racism, or a personal relationship crisis, we cringe back from the evidence of our own weakness. The recognition that we don’t have the answers is almost worse than the crisis itself.

It’s worse because of how it makes us act.

It makes us turn our back on need… to not even try to be part of the solution because it seems too hopeless.

Or else it makes us cling irrationally to whatever response makes us feel strong, even if it’s hurting us. Even if we’ll spend the rest of our lives limping as a result.

Thankfully, God is not as appalled by our weakness as we tend to be. God sees our limits perfectly clearly, but God also delights to give us a role to play all the same. When the disciples say “we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” God says “look what I can do with your meager offering.” And then God calls them to take part in distributing the blessing, and in gathering up the left-overs. And in that gathering, the disciples learned what abundance can be found in broken pieces.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine God taking what little you have to offer in response to overwhelming problems – and blessing it, and breaking it, and turning it into more than enough? We can’t create the miracles, but God doesn’t expect us to. God just asks us what we have to offer? We are not expected to offer any more than we actually have, but God does expect an honest answer.

That’s the challenge when we are used to bluffing our way through, like Jacob. Before God will bless him, God asks Jacob a question, a question Jacob has answered before: “What is your name?”

Twenty years earlier Jacob’s father had asked him that question, and he had lied. Jacob had gone to his blind and dying father to collect the blessing that was the birth right of his older brother, Esau. And, when Isaac asked to confirm which son he was blessing, Jacob claimed his brother’s name.

So, when God asks the same question, Jacob knows what it means to answer honestly. It means confessing who he is, who he has been: a liar, a schemer, a trickster.[1] In order to give an honest answer and get this blessing, Jacob has to let go of his fierce grip on the path of deception and manipulation. He has to know himself and be known. He has to admit that he cannot wrestle a self-satisfied victory out of this fight, he can only ask for an underserved blessing.

And that’s what he gets, because God gives him a new name. He is the trickster no longer. Now he is the one who wrestles with God… and who has the limp to prove it.

It’s a messier story than the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but I appreciate that. Because it makes us wrestle with how challenging it really is to let go of achievement and put our trust in whatever blessing God wants to grant.

Sometimes the blessing looks like the chance to be part of a miracle – to know that what we have to give is inadequate and then to see God transform it into a gift that blesses us and everyone around us.

But sometimes God’s blessing is a limp. Something that slows us down and forces us to confront our own weakness and need. Sometimes it’s a shift in our identity that replaces our self-satisfaction with hands that grip tight onto God because we know our need.

It seems counter intuitive that the path of spiritual growth would lead us dependence, but that is what the Enneagram – and more importantly God’s Spirit – has taught me. The culture around me tells me to achieve, and when I can’t to disengage. But God calls me to lean in. To lean into needs even when I can’t fix them. And to lean into God even when I don’t want to need to.

When I do, I let go of my own achievement, but I learn God’s capacity to bless me and to bless those around me. Thanks be to God.

[1] I am grateful to commentator Debie Thomas for her reading of this story that reveals this power element of the question of Jacob’s name.

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