Sermon for Baccalaureate Service by Michael Redding

  October 12, 2004

Sermon for
Baccalaureate Service
May 16, 2004 
Wabash College Chapel
Rev. Michael A. Reding ’86 

Wrestling with the Angels
(Genesis 32:22-31)

When Bill Placher wrote to me a year and a half ago to ask if I would agree to preach at this service, the answer was easy: Of course I would! I couldn’t imagine a greater honor.

You see, for me, Wabash changed my life. I came here as an 18 year-old kid from a small town in Minnesota. I was the youngest of seven children. No one in my family had a college degree – not my parents, not my siblings. We were simple people. Wabash changed my life.

It introduced me to a life of the mind – a life where great ideas mattered because they formed great men. It introduced me to a life of culture – culture that could be encountered here in Crawfordsville through books and lectures and media, and culture that could only be encountered through experience abroad. It introduced me to the world of Wabash men – men who lived and struggled together in community on this campus and men whose attachments to that community didn’t end when they walked away with their sheepskin in hand. 

Wabash was the place where I indeed wrestled with the angels, and I think I prevailed. And when the battle was over, I may have limped a bit, but I left with a blessing. And I left with a new identity. When Caleb Mill’s bell rang me out of this place, I was not the same person who had been greeted by that bell four years earlier. Jacob had become Israel.

This story of Jacob wrestling with the angel speaks to Wabash men, I think, not because “Victory is Sweat,” but because we are encouraged – we are compelled – to wrestle with the angels – and with the demons – both here, and in the world beyond.

Those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of taking a class on the Hebrew Bible may want a quick synopsis of the Jacob story.

Jacob was the son of the Isaac, who, of course, was the son of Abraham. Jacob had a twin brother named Esau, and because Esau was born first, he was supposed to inherit his father’s blessing and a greater share of the estate. But right from the start, Jacob was hot in pursuit: even as he emerged from the womb, he was gripping Esau’s heel.

Before long, he had tricked Esau into giving up his birthright – the privilege and property entitled to him as the first-born. But that wasn’t enough. As their father lay dying, Jacob tricked him as well – convincing Isaac to grant him the blessing that was intended for Esau. 

As you can imagine, things were not exactly friendly between the two brothers. Jacob goes off to the east to live with his uncle Laban and to marry his daughters Leah and Rachel. But things don’t go exactly as planned. Both Jacob and Laban turn out to be connivers – each of them trying to take advantage of the other.

In the end, Jacob leaves with two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, and a very large number of herds and flocks that he’s taken from his uncle. He’s on his way back to the land of Canaan when this story we just heard takes place. He’s on his way back to reconcile with his brother Esau.

He sends his wives and children and property on ahead of him. They cross the river Jabbok, and Jacob remains alone. And it’s then that he does battle with the angel, although most scholars agree that in an earlier form, this was most certainly a story of wrestling with someone other than an angel – perhaps a demon? – a river creature? – a Canaanite god? The later development of Israel’s monotheism led them to identify this sparring partner as an angel of God. Either way, it makes a great story, because we’ve all wrestled with both angels and demons. Sometimes we wrestle them alone. Sometimes… we wrestle them together.

When I was at Wabash 20 years ago (Man! That seems like a long time – 20 years ago!), perhaps my most difficult wrestling match occurred in my freshman year.

Some guys in my fraternity house had gotten involved in some sexual behavior that was clearly out of bounds. The police began investigating; the college expressed its concern, and it was clear among our brothers that something needed to be done.

Now these were the fabled days of Dean Norman Moore, whose policy was generally to wait and see how the boys dealt with it themselves before he stepped in. I have to confess that our initial response was inadequate. In wrestling with the angel, we wimped out.

Our graduate brothers stepped in at that point and fortified us for the match. Unfortunately, in the process, they uncovered more issues to wrestle with, including hazing that had gotten out of control.

We were outwardly successful – leading the campus in scholarship and IM’s, all three captains of the Wabash football team, an amazing social life, but inwardly, we had issues to wrestle with. Our national fraternity placed us on probation. We needed to get our house in order. We needed to find out who we were.

I remember becoming overwhelmed by it all at one point, and thinking maybe I couldn’t return to Wabash in the fall, if I didn’t have a fraternity to come back to. I decided that over spring break, I should go look at another college and think about transferring.

And so I appeared one March morning in the door of John Fischer’s office – in those days in Baxter Hall – to tell him that I was thinking about leaving. His response was, “Well, it’s about time!” I said, “No, I’m serious.” He said, “Of course you are. I’m surprised it’s taken you this long.” And then he offered the typical John Fischer solution: “Come over for dinner tonight.”

And so we shopped, and we talked, and we cooked, and we talked, and we drank, and we talked, and we ate, and we talked. And the angel (or the demon) was wrestled with. The world didn’t end. I returned to Wabash and my fraternity the following fall, a stronger and wiser man for the battle. My brothers and I worked through our problems, and although, like Jacob, we may have limped a bit as we walked away from that wrestling match, we had also received a blessing.

I couldn’t help but think about that whole episode again as I read Jim Amidon’s story of Dustin DeNeal in the last issue of Wabash Magazine. The police coming to investigate. A brother bringing disgrace and danger to the fraternity. The painful process of disciplining a brother by disaffiliation. The internal turmoil that all creates for a group of young men still figuring out where their greatest loyalties should lie. What is their responsibility to hold one another accountable? What is their obligation to forgive?

Jim’s story also talked about that difficult decision that Dustin and his brothers had to make to turn over the collection of house bills to the college. And I remembered again how we’d wrestled with that same angel (or demon) in my senior year when my fraternity ended up asking the college to collect money from guys before they could graduate. It wasn’t a happy time. It left a bitter taste in my mouth that remains ‘til this day. A limp that won’t go away.

Wabash was my Jabbok. The Hebrew translates literally as “he wrestled.” And indeed I did. I wrestled here with angels and with demons.

I remember in my freshman year, John Fischer, who was my advisor, encouraging me to take “Religions of China and Japan.” And it seemed to me – this kid just six months out of high school – it seemed to me like the most absurd idea in the world. It couldn’t imagine what I would do with such knowledge. How could I tell my parents I was going to take a whole college course about the religions of China and Japan?

I was intending to go into business, and education was supposed to be a practical thing. But that was an angel I wrestled with, and an angel that left me with a blessing: an appreciation for other faiths, and a love of knowledge for its own sake. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what it meant to be a liberally educated man.

In my junior year, Wabash made it possible for me to study abroad for the whole year. I enrolled at the University of Durham in northern England – a program that had me living and studying not with Americans, but with British university students. I was a member of a residential college, I took their classes, ate their meals, joined their clubs, but it took a long time for me to find true and lasting friendships among the Brits. 

I remember after I’d been there for about a month, I was walking home one night from a rowing practice. It was dark. I’d never felt so alone in all my life. I stopped in a wooded area alongside the road and wept in the dark. It was a new angel for me to wrestle with – the angel of loneliness.

Coming from a family of seven children, surrounded by wonderful friends in high school, swept up into the immediate social support system of the fraternities at Wabash, I’d gotten to be 20 years old without ever knowing what it was like to be alone.

I wrestled with that angel for some time – and I can say “angel” today rather “demon,” because I can see now the blessing that I received. It was in those days that the seeds were sown that would later ripen into a vocation to celibacy. Although I couldn’t possibly see it at the time, a new identity was given to me – a new name.

I came back to Wabash for my senior year. Three years earlier, when I’d arrived here, I was hell-bent for business. My major was economics; my area concentration was business. It was all about getting the right job and making lots of money. By the time my senior year began, my major was political science; my minor was religion. I’d been wrestling with the angels, and some of them had given me new identities – with blessings attached.

The wrestling doesn’t stop when you cross that stage this afternoon. I spent six years in business – good years – years for which I have no regrets. I found that I could do it. I could make good money at it. I even had some fun with it. But it’s not who I am. It wasn’t the right identity for me. The greatest wrestling match – wrestling with my vocation – was still to come, and yet in many ways, it was the easiest one of all.

All the previous battles had prepared me. The hours of philosophy and religion, the struggles with meaning and purpose. The value of life in a community of mutual support and challenge. The joy of being part of a tradition that transcends this time and this place. The hard-learned conclusion that true happiness – deep fulfillment – will not be found for me by seeking material goods or worldly prestige, but by serving God by serving others.

I left business and entered the seminary. I was ordained a priest five years later.

My story is not unique among Wabash men. One after another of us has ended up in places we never expected because we wrestled with the angels. And because the education we received here, although it trained us for absolutely nothing, it educated us for anything.

You’ve spent the last four years wrestling. Wrestling with the mysteries of the universe, the mechanics of the Krebs cycle, the plot of the double-helix. You’ve wrestled with the great ideas of the millennia, the eternal struggles for truth and beauty, nobility and purpose. You’ve wrestled with the human hunger for community and order, for wealth and security.

C & T discussions at their best may have resembled a wrestling ring. I remember when I was a senior, we used to call the “Colloquium on Important Books” “C & T All-Stars,” as we would wrestle each week to arrive at a shared understanding or least a respectful way to disagree.

And if Wabash today is the same as the Wabash I knew, those wrestling matches are not confined to the classroom. Late night discussions at the Snacker or at Tommy’s could yield brilliant insights, and informal discussions with faculty can be as insightful as any classroom lecture. Adam Berry got it right when he said in his article in the last issue of The Bachelor, “I won’t miss being in school here, but I will miss being able to go in and b.s. with some of the brightest minds in the world.”

You’ve wrestled with one another in your fraternities and your dormitories as you’ve rubbed up against each other and had to figure out what does it mean to live as a “gentleman and responsible citizen”? What does that require of me? What can I expect of others? What do I need to accept in others, and when do I need to surrender my own expectations? 

For most of you, sports and other extra-curricular activities became another forum for these wrestling matches. Learning the value of teamwork along with individual responsibility. Taking ownership of a project or an activity in a way that is impossible at I.U. or Purdue, but is expected at Wabash. Willing to risk and to fail and to rise again, limping maybe, but carrying with you a blessing and perhaps even a new identity. 

When you walk across that stage this afternoon, you enter a new arena, but the wrestling doesn’t stop.

I know that every one of you is going to continue to wrestle with questions of vocation and relationships and identity. What will give you the deepest joy – the deepest satisfaction?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her consideration of the Jacob story, says this. She’s talking about the status of Jacob after all his years with Laban increasing his flocks and herds, amassing significant personal wealth and a large family, and now going back to face his brother Esau. Zornberg says this:

 “Jacob has expanded his personal power, his control over things and people who are in significant relationship to him. But, in doing this, he has incurred all the dangers and jealousies attendant on success. He is the first ‘self-made man’ in the Bible. [He says,] “With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps” (32:11).  Solitary and poor, thin as a stick, he began his journey. Dense and complex, his identity is spelled out in wives, children, sheep, and cattle, when he returns. But before he confronts Esau, he strips himself: all that belongs to him he places at the other side of the river. In an act of evacuation, he “crosses them over,” a displacement, as though to make room for something else. “And Jacob was left alone,” (32:24-25) [it says].  He now has room for his loneliness; gently, he has removed all that he has attached to himself. After such a night [stripped of possessions and relationships, wrestling with an angel], he can [then] say to Esau, “I have everything.”

I hope you can say the same – at least for this moment. And as your life continues, I hope that you’ll continue to wrestle with the angels so that you can continue to make that claim.

When you look about our world today – executives at Enron and Worldcom who made false idols of wealth at all costs, you can see that in wrestling with the demons they have not prevailed.

When you look about our world today – cardinals and bishops in the Catholic church who made false idols of the institution and their own power and prestige, you can see that in wrestling with the demons they have not prevailed.

When you look about our world today – American officers and soldiers responsible for atrocities in Iraqi prisons, you can see that in wrestling with the demons they have not prevailed.

“Wabash College educates men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely” in a difficult world. In other words, Wabash helps prepare men to wrestle with the angels and the demons.

In his column in the last issue of The Bachelor, Troy Stemen got it right. He said that he came to Wabash to become a man. He said, “I’m here to say that I have yet to meet an 18 year-old male that is a man – we all come here as boys but are turned into men over four years of hard work. Wabash turns boys into men by forcing you to learn personal responsibility for your actions… 

“Even though we enter the college as boys, we are always expected to act as mature adults. Sometimes (actually a lot of the time), we violate this rule, but its moral force isn’t compromised unless our freedom is taken away.”

These last four years, you’ve been given a degree of freedom that is unusual among American colleges and universities. Hopefully, it’s forced you to wrestle with a number of real issues, and strengthened you for the matches that lie ahead. Hopefully, as you continue to wrestle, you’ll always “think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.” Hopefully you’ll always live “as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.”

At the end of the Jacob’s night with the angel, he’s changed in three ways. One, he now has a limp. He hasn’t escaped the battle without a scar. Battles worth fighting often leave us wounded. Two, he has, as a result of the battle, received a blessing. He’s a richer man for having fought; he’s grown. And three, he has a new identity. He is not just Jacob “the heel-grabber” or the “usurper”, he is now Israel “one who has striven with God” or “may God rule.”

Our most significant battles leave us with a new identity. Troy Stemen says you have become men. I say more than that. You have become Wabash men. Your identity is forever changed because of your experience here – because of the wrestling you’ve done here.

But it’s interesting to note that in the story of Jacob, although he’s given a new name, he never loses his old one. When Abram becomes Abraham, you never hear of Abram again in the Bible. But with Jacob, he continues to be Jacob while at the same time, becoming Israel. It’s the same for you.

You have become Wabash men. As you continue to wrestle in life, you will take on new identities: husband, father, lover. Executive, teacher, counselor, doctor, servant, professional.

My prayer for you today is that as you continue to wrestle with the angels, the blessings may outnumber the wounds, and the new identities may never usurp, but will always build on what is best in your identity as a Wabash man.