Wrestling a Blessing from Tragedy

Wrestling a Blessing from Tragedy

by the Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson


Green 8 September 23, 2001

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-19, Excerpt from the Qu'ran, Matthew 5: 3-11

Do you remember that dramatic Hebrew story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being? In this story Jacob is a little too clever for his own good. He gets himself into trouble by stealing both the birthright and the family blessing from his older brother Esau. Afraid of Esau's wrath, Jacob flees to a foreign land. There the tables are turned on him by someone even more clever than he is. Jacob is tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loves and then into working seven extra years to marry his true beloved. After all of this, Jacob starts toward home, only to discover that his brother Esau is waiting with four hundred men to settle the score. Anxious and afraid, Jacob comes to the River Jabbok and stops there a while, knowing full well that Esau is on the other side. Here is the important part of the story. Unable to sleep, Jacob finds himself wrestling with a man who comes to him out of the night. Eventually, Jacob realizes that this is no ordinary being. It is God with whom he is wrestling. Determined to extract a blessing from this God, Jacob struggles all the harder. Jacob is injured, yet still holds on for dear life, demanding, "I will not let you go until you first bless me." In the end, not only does the divine being bless Jacob, it also gives him a new name.

As a people of faith, even in the midst of the events of September 11, we hold on to the hope that there is a blessing to be found in this tragedy. We hold on to the faith that there is no death from which life cannot emerge. These promises feel so abstract and distant in the middle of the present suffering in New York and Washington. Maybe it is too soon to look for a silver lining. Our tears are not all cried out. Whatever that blessing is, it may have to be wrestled out of this tragedy as fiercely as Jacob had to wrestle for his blessing. Already we find ourselves injured.

For the first week, television talked about nothing other than this crisis. When newscasters ran out of news, they brought on one talking head after another to give an "in depth" analysis. Most of what was said is now a blur for me, except for the response of the Rev. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York, to a question Bill Moyers posed: "What is the good that can come out of this disaster?" Forbes said, "I am not sure how good it will ever feel, but crises of this magnitude have the ability to take us to the depth of our souls, where we can find out who we really are." He continued, "This is the place where we are forced to choose life or choose death". When I heard this, one of my favorite passages from Deuteronomy came to mind: "So I set before you today life and death, blessings and curse. Choose life."

This past week and a half, we have already seen choices being made of life and death, blessing and curse. We have seen people choose life as they rush into harms way to save others at the cost of their own lives. We have seen rescue workers persist until they drop in pure exhaustion, searching for life in that rubble. We have seen a massive outpouring of generosity: blood, money, food, clothes, and medicines. We have seen a common bond form between people who were suspicious of each other just twelve days earlier. White-Americans, African-Americans, educated-Americans, working class-Americans, straight-Americans, and gay-Americans instantly have all become "wounded-Americans," with the wounds deeper than their divisions. How long this will last, no one knows. But, today, we are one in this nation. Clearly, what we see is people choosing life.

At the same time as we are seeing the best in America, we see its worst, with some people choosing death. In Mesa, Arizona, a man from India, who had moved to this country ten years ago, is shot because he looks suspicious. When apprehended, the murder says, "I'm an American. You arrest me and let those terrorists go." For some people, their present anger is a blanket permission to hate anyone who is different from them. In Dallas a Pakistani grocer is killed. Mosques are shot up all over the nation. A University of Texas student comes up to a professor of Middle Eastern languages and spits in his face. Jerry Falwell announces that he is certain that the reason the terrorists struck is because it is God's judgment on a nation that supports homosexuals, women seeking abortions, and the ACLU. So, during these past days, some have chosen life and others have chosen death.

It is so easy to stereotype Islam as a fanatical religion whose blind followers willingly blow themselves up at the whim of a Saudi millionaire living in Afghanistan. In today's reading from the Qu'ran, you hear of an Islam that tells its followers "to stand out firmly for justice and let not the hatred of others make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice." It is so easy to see Arab terrorists as sub-human and barbaric animals, a kind of people unheard of in the West. So quickly we lose sight of the Irish terrorists who blow up a market full of women and children, or terrorists in the Basque region of Spain, or fundamentalist Christian terrorists who shoot abortion doctors. Of course, there is the all-American Timothy McVey, who, when blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma, also blew up the day care center full of children that was housed in that building. The Arabs have no monopoly on hatred.

Part of the grieving process for all of us is that we find a way to express our anger, in this case, our rage. But how we deal with this anger and rage, both on a personal and national level, will determine who we really are as a people, will determine the degree to which we choose life or death, and will determine how we name ourselves for years to come.

I listen to the familiar Beatitudes in a whole new way today: "Blessed are those who mourn." Every time I have heard these words in the past, they were always about someone else. But we are the ones who are mourning, this morning! What does it mean to be blessed? "Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and tell all kind of evil lies against you." What is this blessing? It is a blessing we are going to have to wrestle from this situation. It may take a long time.

Maybe, just maybe, one of the blessings that we will wrestle from this crisis is a deeper understanding of the "peace" for which we pray. The peace I speak of is more than the embrace of people close to us. It is more than an absence of conflict. It is more even than the elimination of all terrorists throughout the world. The "peace" I speak of is the same as "shalom" in the Hebrew tradition and "salaam" in Islam. More than about the absence of conflict, this peace is the presence of wholeness, justice, and inclusivity. It is a wholeness that comes from connection with, rather than isolation from, the various peoples around the world. It is a justice that takes seriously the distribution of wealth and resources throughout the world. It advocates the inclusion of all people as one family and making this more than a cliché. Maybe the blessing we must wrestle from tragedy will be a rediscovery of shalom, of salaam.

Two huge oceans have protected us from armed battle on our home soil, up to this point. Super power status has given us the confidence to call the shots in world history, up to this point. The world's largest economy has fed our assumption that comfort and luxury are our birthright, up to this point. Up to this point, we have felt that, as a nation, we had the option to distance ourselves from peace efforts in the Balkans and in the Middle East. We don't have to be involved. Up to this point, we have felt we had the option to decline involvement in a worldwide commitment to save the environment and to end racism. Up to this point, we have felt we had the option to refuse to pay our dues to the United Nations, to understand issues important to other countries around the world, or to even pronounce their names properly. Up to this point, we have been able to ignore the full implications of peace as shalom, as salaam, implications of connection, implications of justice and of inclusivity.

A monk once said to devoted follows who professed their strong love for him, "You cannot love me until you know me. And you cannot know me until you know where I hurt." Maybe it is time that we start learning where the people around the world are hurting. When hurting people go unnoticed, they become hopeless. Once they become hopeless, they become the prey of fanatic leaders who will murder any number of people for the righteousness of their truth, whether it be fighting for control in Northern Ireland, stopping abortions in America, or ridding Islam of Western corruption. Maybe, as the leading world power, we no longer have the option of not knowing where people hurt.

Crises of this magnitude have the ability to take us to the depth of our souls, where we can find out who we really are. We will indeed find out who we are as we rev up in the weeks and months ahead for a war on terrorism. Yes, we must protect ourselves from such heinous acts of evil as those done in New York and Washington. Yes, we must meet terror face to face and destroy it. But, at the same time, we must hold on to the truth that every Arab is as much a child of God as any of us. At the same time as we do battle with terrorism, we must recommit ourselves to a peace that is shalom, that is salaam: a sense of wholeness among all the people of the earth, of commitment to justice and inclusivity as one family. How we proceed in the weeks and months ahead will determine who we are as a people. Such is one of the gifts of any crisis.

"Blessed are those who mourn." It is a blessing that we will have to wrestle from the rubble, even as we continue to bury our dead, to ache in our hearts, to cry out in rage, and to make the choice of life and death every day. It is a blessing that may be as simple as the rediscovery of peace as shalom, as salaam. The old America is dead. We are in the process of creating a new one. What we do and how we do it will tell us and the world who we really are for years to come. Amen

Processional Hymn for September 23, 2001


When sudden terror tears apart the world we thought was ours, we find how fragile strength can be, how limited our powers.

As tower and fortress fall, we watch with disbelieving stare and numbly hear the anguished cries that pierce the ash-filled air.

Yet most of all we are aware of emptiness and void: of lives cut short, of structures razed, of confidence destroyed.

From this abyss of doubt and fear we grope for words to pray, and hear our stammering tongues embrace a timeless Kyrie.

Have mercy, God, give strength and peace, and make our courage great; restrain our urge to seek revenge, to turn our hurt to hate.

Help us to know your steadfast love, your presence near as breath; rekindle in our hearts the hope of life that conquers death.

--Carl P. Daw, Jr. Tune: St. Anne CM
© 2001 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream IL 60188 All rights reserved. Used by permission.


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