The Dark Night of Becoming
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
This sermon was delivered on August 2, 2020 At Old First Reformed Church In Brooklyn, New York. Text: Genesis 32:22-31
If you ask my partner, he’ll say that I watch a lot of TV, which may or may not be true. What is true for me, though, is that I am not an avid reality TV watcher. No judgment to those who are. Yet, the week before quarantine hit, a friend invited us over to watch the season premiere of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I said, “Sure.” It would be fun, there would be food, friends, and laughter. And it’s a celebration of queer culture. Can’t hurt, right? I had seen a few episodes but I had never committed to the journey of a whole season.
This year was different, though. This year, I decided to commit. I was all in to see who would be America’s next drag race winner and I will say it did not disappoint. One of my favorite moments of the show is at the lip sync elimination battle at the end of each episode. Prior to that point, the drag queens have participated in multiple challenges and now two of the queens are up for elimination. One will stay. One will go home.
Ru Paul is a bit over the top as he looks at the two queens and says, “It’s time to lip-sync for your life.” The phrase reverberates through your television set and your adrenaline is pumping. Will it be your favorite queen going home tonight?
And of course, just as the music ques for the lip-sync, there are clips of an interview with each of the queens trying to talk themselves up for this moment. It’s an important moment of wrestling for them. This is their dark night of becoming. The moment when they have to decide who they are and who they are becoming as they wrestle with the voices of fear, doubt, and anxiety in their head. Nevertheless, someone must go home and once Ru Paul decides who it is, he always leaves the losing queen with an encouraging word about her capacity for greatness.
The queens who don’t win realize that they have gained something else, something equally precious in the struggle to become America’s next drag race winner.
The struggle to become is a story that we all participate in. And it is a story that our Hebrew Patriarch, Jacob, embodies. We all go through moments of wrestling with who we have been, who we are, and who we can become. To know that we are capable and enough. To know that we can step into the fullness of ourselves.
This journey of becoming is often most present to us in the midst of conflict and peaks in the moments when we feel most alone—what some may call a dark night of the soul.
Our passage today centers on Jacob’s dark night of the soul, which ultimately shapes who he becomes.
Prior to our passage, we learn of Jacob’s preparation to meet his estranged brother, Esau. The last time that they were together, Esau made clear that he wanted to kill Jacob who had stolen Esau’s birthright blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob deals with this sibling rivalry by going to stay with his Uncle Laban. While there, he gets married to Leah and Rachel, has 11 kids, and is now on his way back to his homeland after all this time.
Naturally, Jacob is feeling some trepidation that his first encounter with Esau after all this time is not going to go so well. Unresolved tension and trauma is difficult to carry for all of us.
At the beginning of our particular passage in Genesis 32, as Jacob journeys towards his brother with fear and anxiety, he sends his family across the stream. Only hours away from an uncertain encounter, he spends the night alone without the distractions or comfort of his family and possessions.
It’s in this place of isolation that we learn that Jacob is not truly alone for it is in his isolation that he wrestles with a man of the darkness.
I want to pause here for a moment to invite us all into this experience with Jacob.
When was the last time that you found yourself feeling isolated and afraid?
What words help you describe that time?
What kinds of thoughts did you have? What feelings did you have?
Fear combined with isolation and silence can lead us to incredibly dark places, because it’s then that we have to hear all of the voices in our head. We realize then that we are wrestling someone or something.
Oftentimes in the midst of this psychological and spiritual struggle, we find ourselves so wrapped up in anxiety that we cannot discern the path forward. Like Jacob, we know that if we are to survive, if we are to get the blessing from this struggle, we have to find a way to persevere even when the struggle leaves us with a limp.
The blessing available to us in these challenging moments is the potential for our own becoming.
This is what Jacob found when the man asks him for his name. Jacob believes that he is the name that he has always known. The person that others have always mirrored for him. If we were to translate his Hebrew name, Ya’akov, into English, it could be connected to the Hebrew verb that means to supplant, overreach, assail. This has been Jacob’s story. He has taken what is not his in his family. And now, he finds himself afraid of the consequences he is about to face.
This struggle Jacob is having begs the question, “Is this who I am?’’
Through the struggle, he receives an answer that speaks to his becoming. “You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the man of the darkness says, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
A shift happens for Jacob. His identity as someone who supplants and overreaches is called into question as he realizes that he is someone who wrestles and prevails. It is in Jacob’s dark night of becoming that he realizes that God is inviting him to see himself in a new way.
And Jacob names the place, “Peniel,” which means “face of God,” because Jacob realizes that God is in the struggle of becoming.
That struggle to become is a challenge for all of us as individuals and systems and it does not end. Many of us grow up being told who we are and as a result, we become impermeable identities. We may even go many decades without questioning who we’ve been told to be.
And then we encounter a dark night of isolation and deafening silence. When we are alone with our thoughts, our fears, our anxieties for long enough, it does feel like a struggle. For many of us, we may feel that we don’t have the tools to do this alone.
The good news for us today is that God is in the midst of the struggle of becoming. For centuries, Christians have used the spiritual practices of contemplative prayer and meditation to practice the art and science of becoming. These practices equip us to go beyond the voices of doubt, shame, and fear and hear the voice of hope, love, and courage. When we can allow ourselves to use these practices to find God’s voice, we find ourselves in new ways.
Friends, we are all invited to practice becoming through listening for God’s Spirit. We do this by listening as individuals for that divine voice that invites you into greater becoming, listening as a community to the divine voice calling you to be a church that might be different than you anticipated. We also listen as a nation as we come to terms with the way that we have reached for what was not ours and we listen as a global community as we learn to allow the earth to become who she longs to be with us and for us.
Friends, as you listen, may you see the face of God in yourself and others as you continue this struggle to become all that you are and all that you can be.
Now, Unto the one that loved us, And washed us from our sins in his own blood, And has made us rulers and priests unto his God and father-mother, Unto him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.