Welcoming Steve Rothwell at St James, Wulfstan Way, Cambridge – and learning to wrestle too

This service of licensing and installation marks the beginning of a new phase of ministry for the Revd Steve Rothwell and St James’, Cambridge, say the people of St James’.”It is one to which we all come with a high sense of anticipation of God’s blessing on the years ahead, and it is right that we mark this beginning by a special service both of celebration and of dignity.”

Asked for a few words of introduction Steve said, “I have been the Rector of Gamlingay, Hatley and Everton for the past 10 years and previously served my curacy at the Church of the Good Shepherd, in Arbury and Kings Hedges, Cambridge. Before training for ordination at Westcott House, I worked in a chaplaincy in a college in Lancaster. I grew up in London where I lived, worked and studied for 30 years. I am married to Emma, who is ordained, and we have 2 children, Isaac and Leo, and a dog, Spot. I am really looking forward to moving back to Cambridge and engaging with the people at St James’ and the local community.”

Please remember Steve, Emma, Isaac and Leo in your prayers as Steve begins his ministry at St James’.

Steve picked the story of Jacob and the Angel from Genesis 32:22-32 for the service, and my sermon follows below in which I use Jaconb Epstein’s famous sculpture of the encounter to explore its meaning for us.

Jacob Wrestles at Peniel

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27 So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28 Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29 Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Thank you Steve, Emma and all the family for answering the call to come St James: we’re grateful and we’re thrilled. And thank you too to everyone here who has done and is doing so much to grow the mission and ministry of this church. And who will be doing even though the interregnum or vacancy is coming to end, because there certainly hasn’t been a vacancy of ministry here over the last few months, and we stopped thinking of clergy as monarchs some time ago.

I asked you Steve to choose the bible reading for tonight, and you’ve intrigued by going for an unusual one, the story of Jacob and the Angel as it is usually called, from Genesis 32. It’s a rich and multi-layered narrative, one of the most commented on in the Old Testament, with roots deep in the folklore history of Israel and explanations of why things got the names the did – not least the nation of Israel itself – or developed as practices as they did – like the kosher custom of not eating the sinew or nerve in the hip, the sciatic as I think we would call it today.

The context of the story,must to remind you, is that Jacob, having tricked Esau out of his birthright and headed off into a foreign country to marry and make his fortune – and keep out of Esau’s way – is now heading home, with a massive caravan of wives, children, servants, sheep, goats and all the rest. He is, to put it mildly, just a bit anxious. Jacob had made a fortune as a farmer, but Esau was a man of war. So as Esau comes out to meet him, Jacob sends his family and goods over the river to safety and starts to pray hard. It’s a matter of life and death, and he wrestles with … well a man, and the rabbis took it to be Esau in some sort of way, or an angel, or God, since Jacob says he has seen God’s face and lived – or, what? A modern psychologist would certainly see an inner struggle too, as the real heart of the matter. It is an existential moment: will he survive what the dawn brings? What will be his future identity? What about the promises God made to his grandfather about founding a nation? You can see how the themes of the story are also the themes of his own crisis.

I love the history, but my job tonight is not just to explore it as a sort of archaeological site, but to wonder how we can read it and it can read us today, as individuals and as a church. So I am going to pair it with a famous sculpture of the scene, now in the Tate, by Jacob Epstein. Now those lovely people at the Tate wanted a fee if I was to reproduce it for you now, so let me try a word picture instead.

If you know it you’ll remember that it’s huge, carved out of a single big block of alabaster, and one showing the creamy and browny patterning and also the flaws that such blocks have. Epstein wanted to work with with the stone as it was, honestly he would have seen it, and carved it direct, without using a model to guide him, so that he could go with the grain.

Two monolithic nude figures face each other, primitive in their body form, pressed hard against each other as they wrestle, limbs interlocked, the angel figure having board-like wings behind him. Although no private parts are visible, it caused a sensation, actually being bought by a showman and exhibited with a money-back guarantee if it wasn’t the most shocking thing his visitors had seen.

But for those who took the trouble to look properly it should have started to say some important things about them and to them. And with the Bible passage itself it can help us discover something about going deeper with God, something about how we can grow as ourselves, and something about how we can engage transformatively with the world around us. The references to our diocesan strategy are of course completely deliberate.

Let’s start with God. In the bible story the man Jacob is wrestling is most profoundly, I think, understood as the Almighty, who is not safely to be seen – especially his face, which was denied even to Elijah, and that is why the coming of the dawn matters: it is not the strange being that is at risk like one of Tolkein’s trolls, it is Jacob himself. But the one who is so strange and other and dangerous is in fact both touched and seen, and as Christian readers we will naturally read this God who has taken human form and who shows us God’s face as a type or precursor of Christ. In Epstein’s sculpture both figures are carved from one stone: he shares our embodiment. And it is in the encounter with God in Christ, that is the repeated activity of this church and of our Christian lives, we both find the one who is like us, who shares our predicament, and the one who is other than us, who questions us even as we question him.

There is a message here for us. We look to the church and faith to give us answers for the questions life raises, and can finds much help. But a healthy church and a healthy faith give us space to work things through, even wrestle with God, and not take short cuts which be damaging in the long run. Here is a space where we can not be shy to acknowledge the givenness of God and celebrate the wonders of his gifts to us, but also where we can acknowledge our unknowing too, our anxiety and our pain. And in the Jewish tradition, we can even argue with the God who challenged Job to, “Stand up like a man and answer me.”

But when we do, it is not just the overwhelming magnificence of the creator that confronts us, it is the face of Christ. And you declare yourselves to be a community where questions can be raised, doubts expressed, and where everyone is respected. You want to go deep with God and have a church that exudes prayer. You are on the way.

And as we go deep, we grow up, finding out new things about our identity and our purpose, Christ’s close-up face reflected in ours as we grow in his image and likeness, each uniquely gifted as his brother, sister, disciple.

Jacob’s given name, which his antagonist forces him to acknowledge, owning his identity has far, meant deceiver, twister, supplanter. What a name to have, but one that fitted his story fully, as he deceived his father, supplanted his brother, and dealt and double-dealt with his in-laws. Perhaps it is a classic younger sibling thing. He needs to come to terms with being small, as his big brother approaches, armed as we can imagine to the teeth. This time a trick is not going to be enough. In fact, the feeling of being unqualified and unprepared, the odd one out and out of our depth, is common to us all, as our dreams quickly show. Even bishops have nightmares about finding themselves leading a service in their pyjamas, with all their notes gone AWOL.

Epstein’s sculpture shows us very graphically what the lesson was that Jacob had to learn. If you get the chance to see it, look carefully and you’ll be discover that Jacob, the one is supposed to be prevailing, is actually totally exhausted and being held up, supported by the Angel, whom he is supposed to have bested. In God’s economy Jacob’s winning,min the one hand, involves him in coming to terms with his powerlessness (he will never be able to out-Esau Esau), while on the other hand God in giving Jacob his future is by no means the loser by doing so. He wins his people Israel. Interestingly, this sort of interpretation is also to be found in the more mystical Jewish thinking of the Zohar, where Jacob is not so much wrestling with Esau as the shadow side of himself, with such he needs to come to terms. Only when he has done this does he receive his new name and take up his founder role of the people of God.

The lesson I draw for us is that growing as individual disciples and as churches is going to involve us in some serious work in acknowledging both the sort of people that we actually are, and in engaging in the sort of life together with each other and God that will see us develop and grow in a transformative way. Since I take very seriously the message of Paul in Colossians that the church is purposed by God to be the mystery of a new sort of community that models to the world a new sort of kingdom, this transformation really matters, and if we as a group of disciples are de facto indistinguishable in the way we live from the other groups around us, then something has gone wrong. We’re the C of E so we’ll give the public penance a miss for the moment, but if the cap of say grumpiness, cattiness, wrong relationships or dodgy dealings fits for you, you know what to do.

There is a natural progression going on here, from serious encounter with God, to serious attention to ourselves as disciples, to our third and last topic, serious engagement with the world, as co-workers with God to help his good kingdom come.

There is a curious moment in our story when Jacob is wounded in the thigh or groin, and this is used to explain why that part of the body is not kosher to eat. What’s going on? The rabbis explained that the nerve of the thigh was the transmitter of sexual desire, to be avoided at all costs as uncontrollable by our will. In Epstein’s sculpture Jacob’s exhausted posture speaks of the exhaustion of his desire, which must now be purified. Did you notice his “please” to God as he asked his name? He has already sent prodigious gifts ahead. And soon with a combination of his natural cunning and new humility he will bow before Esau and grace will abound, albeit a guarded one.

What will be the marks of our behaviour towards the wider community around us? In an anxious age of institutional uncertainty it is all too easy to think of that community as antagonist, to let our consciousness of our own needs swamp our concern for theirs. We need perhaps to purify our desires, to let our weakness make us more aware of theirs not less, more trusting of them and more willing to bless and serve them. And I am hopeful for you. This I think is indeed your desire. You see yourselves as a local Parish Church seeking to serve all in your community, and you are listening to God for how to reach out to it. You want your new priest to lead you so you can grow in doing it better.

So Steve, get your wrestling boots out and go deep with God; keep your big boots, if you have any, in the cupboard, and lead God’s people as they grow in grace; and then lace up your walking boots and set out with them into that dangerous land called outside the church, where the kingdom can come.