Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling With the Truth: Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

Some relationships seem to be doomed from the get-go. Take these fraternal twin brothers, Jacob and Esau—sons of Isaac, grandsons of Abraham. As we stumble upon this scene from their drama, Jacob and his entire household—wives, servants, children, livestock—are on the run from the brother who is bearing down upon him with an army of four hundred men. Jacob has already divided his retinue, figuring, well, if Esau catches up with us, he can wipe out half, and the other half will be left alive—a strategic move made only by one who is certain disaster is approaching. He has sent a portion of his wealth ahead as a gift —hundreds of goats and rams and camels and cattle. Well, really, it’s a bribe. A bribe whose message to his brother reads, “Please don’t kill me.” Finally, Jacob has decided the only way he can protect his family is to send them to the other side of the river, and face whatever is coming—whatever he has coming to him—alone. This is where our reading begins.

How did things get this bad between these two who share much of the same DNA? How did a bond so often used as a metaphor to indicate connection manage to sink to this dreadful nadir for Jacob and Esau? This moment in which one of them is essentially waiting to be killed by the other? One answer is, it seems to have been their destiny. They are already wrestling with one another in the womb, to such an extent that their mother Rebekah utters a prayer that could be summed up, “Kill me now.” She asks God for illumination about these prenatal warriors, and is told, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided…” (Genesis 25:23). And thus they are born, fighting even as they first see the light of day—first Esau, hairy and red, and then Jacob, holding on tight to his brother’s heel, unwilling to give up the fight, just one minute old.

Things don’t improve. Next comes a scene from their adolescence, when the characters of the young men are being established. Enter Esau, the hunter, the outdoorsman, the eldest with all the rights and privileges associated with that. Those privileges include the right to inherit double the amount of any other siblings. But Jacob, evidently a decent cook and more of a homebody, has his own talents, which include an unerring sense of when the time is right to make a bargain. Esau comes in after a day in the field, and he is famished. Jacob has made some lentil stew. Esau asks for a bowl. Jacob agrees, but the price is this: he wants Esau’s birthright. Esau, not the pointiest arrow in the quiver, agrees without hesitation. What a steal!

Fast-forward to young adulthood. Isaac, recognizing that his life is drawing to a close, asks for a gift of a special meal, hunted by the eldest, Esau, Isaac’s favorite. But Rebekah has her own favorite, Jacob, and she recognizes the significance of the moment: Isaac is preparing to bestow his fatherly blessing on his firstborn, a once-in-a-lifetime gift, which can be given only to one person. With Rebekah’s help, Jacob disguises himself as his brother and steals the blessing. Esau’s cries of despair and rage when he learns what his brother has done make for chilling reading. Immediately, Jacob hightails it out of town.

Which brings us to today’s scene. Jacob is on the run. He has recently been on the run from his father-in-law—another totally dysfunctional family relationship, which has come to an uneasy truce. But now Jacob must come face to face with the brother from who he stole, well, just about everything. He is alone, his family removed to a somewhat safer position across the river, and night is falling.

Genesis tells us the eerie, otherworldly tale in just a few short verses. “A man,” it says, “wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” The story continues,

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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” ~ Genesis 32:25-26

Jacob is not willing to let go. Whoever this is, this mysterious opponent, Jacob and the man are a pretty even match, an all-night-long-no-one-cries “uncle” match. They are well-matched for physical strength, but there’s more—they are well-matched for tenacity, for stubbornness, for unwillingness to let go, for single-minded determination to see this thing through, whatever it is. The man even manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip, with Jacob still hanging on for dear life.

I love to think of this tale being told around the campfire thousands of years ago, before anybody wrote anything down on papyrus. I imagine the storyteller painting the mysterious scene, and each person around the fire summoning up their own explanation for the otherworldly event, recognizing that, of course, there is no dearth of wrestling partners for Jacob. God, an angel, Esau himself, Jacob’s father-in-law—any one of these could have decided Jacob needed a good throw-down in view of the course his life was taking. And, in truth, I think Jacob is wrestling with all of these. I think Jacob is finally wrestling with the truth.

What is truth? Pilate famously asked the question, and then didn’t bother to wait around for Jesus to answer. It’s not hard to notice that this question is sort of obsessing us as a society right now—and, of course, as you might predict, there are always multiple versions of it floating around. There’s the Republican truth, and the Democrat truth, and now, the Tea Partier truth. There’s the pro-natural gas drilling truth and the “no hydrofracking” truth. There’s the person of faith’s truth and the atheist truth and the agnostic truth. Now, in many of these instances, each one of us may privately be pretty sure which one is the real deal, the real truth, but… it’s not always easy.

Take Jacob and Esau, these men whose conflict seems to have been predestined. Here’s Esau’s truth: his younger brother violated both social norms and his (Esau’s) property rights, leaving him both economically and spiritually impoverished. Here’s Jacob’s truth: God chose him to be the father of a great nation, and everything he did served that end. I can’t help feeling this: throughout that long night, as Jacob wrestled with the elusive, mysterious man, and the sweat poured off both of them, and time was suspended as the stars wheeled slowly across the heavens, I can’t help feeling that Jacob wrestled with the knowledge that he had caused his brother pain, and that he had taken something from his brother that could not be restored, not even with a nifty cattle bribe.

Jacob leaves the wrestling match with his hip out of joint—an injury that will remind him of this night for the rest of his days. He also walks away with a new name, Israel, which is sometimes translated as “he wrestles with God,” but which may also mean, “God wrestles.” And as important as that name is, and historic, and central to the faith that you and I profess, my favorite part of the story was left out of our passage this morning. My favorite part of the story is the moment when the two men are, at last, face to face, and Jacob is waiting for either the arrow to pierce his heart or the sword to lop off his head. And instead, his big brother runs to him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and the two men weep.

What is truth? The truth, here, turns out to be grace: pure, unexpected, undeserved forgiveness. It’s not about who’s right. It’s not about who wins. It’s not about bribes or superior forces or anything other than the turning of a heart from anger to love, from a desire for vengeance to a desire for union. Or, in this case, reunion.

As Presbyterian Christians, this goes right to the heart of our faith. Forgiveness, as Jesus so annoyingly said, seven times a day for that person who has harmed us seven times in that day. Forgiveness, as in God looking at each one of us and seeing only a beloved child, rather than the wavering, wandering, recalcitrant beings we so often know ourselves to be. Forgiveness, as in a brother looking at another brother and saying “All that is behind us now. Let’s not talk about it any more.” Grace. None of us earns it. Someone gives it. And the whole world is changed in an instant. Instead of a bloody battle, we have a family reunion, and Jacob’s next project when they finally pitch camp again: building an altar to the God Who Wrestles.

This morning we have embarked on a particular season in the life of the church, the season of Stewardship. Our theme this year is “The Giving Spirit,” and it’s evocative of so many aspects of our lives together. I believe a giving spirit is usually also a forgiving spirit, because forgiveness requires a certain generosity of heart, whether we are forgiving a debt or forgiving a hurt. For today, I’ll just say this: with a giving and forgiving spirit, all kinds of things are possible and all kinds of transformations really happen.

All kinds of things are possible—even for relationships that seem doomed from the get-go. All kinds of transformations really happen—even in places where the anger runs deep, and the hurt is old. All kinds of possibilities open up—even, or especially, in places we never expected. We live in grace. That’s our truth. And it’s at the heart of the faith we profess. Thanks be to our wholly gracious God. Amen.


Robin said...

You know, Mags, I have begun to think about how to articulate the answers to certain questions likely to arise at a Presbytery meeting that, depending on the mail in the next week, might be sooner rather than later. Thank you for the leap forward!

Magdalene6127 said...

Robin, I'm honored to think anything I've written might be in some small way helpful. Love to you, and praying for the right letter in that envelope!

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

Lovely, Mags, as always.

You probably know *Wrestling with God and Man,* the very powerful autobiography/exegetical/halakhic work by the first out Orthodox rabbi...It came to mind when I saw this text and art.

Re: Rebekah...I always like to emphasize that Rebekah, too, was acting at her understanding of God's direction about which son was chosen, based on the oracle during her pregnancy. The story is almost always presented, in my experience, as her just being a favoritist, spoil the younger son, trickster--even when Jacob's sense of call is mentioned.