Sunday, August 03, 2014

Pentecost 8A

Jacob was on his way home. He simply wanted to make things right. Guilt-ridden over the way he treated his twin brother Esau for stealing his birthright and snatching the blessing from their father Isaac, Jacob just wanted to say sorry for everything he had done to them.

He wanted to apologize for betraying his brother and humiliating his father. He wanted to apologize knowingly hurting those closest to him. He wanted to apologize for destroying the family.

God had asked him to return home and ask forgiveness from everyone he had harmed. While it wasn’t his idea, Jacob knew it was the right thing to do.

And he was going to do it himself. He didn’t ask God to solve his problems for him. Nor did he ask God to protect him against his brother Esau. Nor does he devise yet another clever trick to fool his brother into forgiving him.

Jacob merely prays for the strength to do the right thing. He prays for the courage to reconcile with his brother. He prays that he will have what it takes to set things right between him and Esau. Jacob simply prays that Esau will find it within himself to forgive his brother.

And it is at that moment, that moment in prayer, that Jacob is attacked. It’s night, the stars are hidden behind the clouds, and so Jacob can’t see his attacker. He has no idea who just jumped him. All he can feel is a sharp jab to his hip, knocking it out of its socket. They fight all night and Jacob could barely stand the pain.

Then the attacker says, “Let me go, the sun is coming up.”

But Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Interesting request.

Does this mean that Jacob knew his attacker? From whom is he looking for a blessing?

It’s hard to say. No one really knows who this attacker is. Some say it’s an angel. Perhaps even Esau’s guardian angel. Others say it’s a demon out to prevent Jacob from reconciling with his brother. Still others see him as the personification of the dangers lurking in the darkness. And yet others say it’s God.

But I like what Rabbi Harold Kushner says. Rabbi Kushner notes that Jacob is alone. And that the attacker is exactly as strong as Jacob. No stronger, but no weaker. Which is why they can’t beat each other and they last all night.

The rabbi says, “The attacker, the angel, is Jacob’s conscience, the part of him that summons him to rise above his bad impulses. The struggle is between the part of him that wins by cleverness and fraud, and the part of him that feels summoned by God to climb a ladder to heaven, to become someone exemplary.” (Kushner, Living a Life That Matters p. 26)

In other words, Jacob is at war with himself. Yes, he is clever and gets what he wants through craftiness and deceit. He’s smart. Perhaps too smart. And he’s proud of his abilities because they have given him the life he’d been looking for, and helped him walk the path that God put in front of him.

But he also knows the cost his cleverness and deceit took on his relationships with others. Especially with his brother Esau and his dad Isaac. He regrets what he’s done to them. He feels cut off from his family. Estranged from his past. He’s lost. Without a history. Without a home.

So Jacob finds himself wrestling in the dark with an adversary that is his equal, because that adversary is himself.

“Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So the man said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 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.’

This fight was with himself. This battle was between his past and his future. This adversary was the competing impulses that turned every decision into a war.

What Rabbi Kushner doesn’t notice, however, is that it was God who put Jacob in all those impossible situations, knowing that the only way out of them was deceit and cunning, because those were the tools that Jacob was born with, those were the skills that God had given him..

Jacob clearly was the right person to receive the birthright, the inheritance of land and leadership, from their father Isaac, but Esau was the first born, and not up to the task. And since the birthright went to the oldest son, Jacob had to manufacture a way to obtain what was legally his brother’s, but divinely appointed to Jacob.

And Jacob, with his mother Rebekah as an accomplice, needed to receive the blessing from his blind father Isaac, so they schemed to steal the blessing away from Esau, the official passing of the reigns of authority, to Jacob and not Esau. So Jacob tricked a blind old man into giving to him something meant for someone else. This was the only way he could do the work that God had given him to do.

So, Jacob had been wrestling with God long before the midnight encounter at Jabbok. He’d been wrestling with God since before he was born. God wasn’t making it easy for Jacob to receive his destiny as the one to be called “Israel.” Jacob was always at war with himself, and with God.

“You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” And he could also add, with striven with yourself and you have won. 

But that win came with a cost. Jacob was left with a limp that would remain with him for the rest of his life, reminding him of that night, reminding him of the battle between his worst instincts and his best self. Reminding him of his shameful past, which prepared him for his future. But also reminding him that he can be hurt by life and he can survive.

His limp, which would follow him for the rest of his life, was why he was now “Israel,” meaning “one who has striven with God” would be a constant reminder of the cost of being chosen by God.

This is a new day for Jacob, now called “Israel.” With a new name comes a new life, a new identity, a new way of seeing the world and his place in it. It was an affirmation of the victory of his better self over his worst impulses.

God had given him the name Israel, perhaps in admiration, and maybe even as a reward. Because in losing that battle, Jacob had won the war against himself.

I think that’s a war that we all fight. We all live in constant struggle, battling between our worst impulses and our best selves.  Sometimes, like Jacob, we can’t tell the difference between the two. Sometimes, like Jacob, we wrestle with God’s call on our lives.

We wrestle with our past. We wrestle with lost dreams and blurred visions. We wrestle with disappointment and discouragement. We wrestles with circumstances not of our own making but beyond our control, circumstances that take us down a path wouldn’t have travelled if it were up to us.

We wrestle with an accident or an illness. A downturn in the economy. The collapse of a marriage. A surprise trip to the doctor’s. Or an unwelcome visit with the funeral director. And you can feel the pain run down your leg from your hip socket, and you know that it won’t go away. It will always be with you. You will walk with a limp for the rest of your life.

So you find yourself wishing, wishing you could go back and make better decisions. You wish you would have taken a different road. You wish you had more courage, and less regret. You wish you could re-live those life-altering moments so you could create a better outcome. You wish you could stop the pain before it started.

I think we all make those wishes. Especially when we throw God into the mix.

We wish that being a person of faith were easier. We wish faith was something we could simply get up and do, much like brushing our teeth or eating breakfast. We wish we could see God’s plan for us and lives so clearly that we could follow it and never doubt nor stray from that path.

We wish that our best selves drove our lives and our choices all the time. But we know that we are - at best - a muddle of mixed motivations. And we trust that God works within us and through us, as our lives go in directions we don’t expect. But have outcomes we would never had anticipated.

My divorce is something that neither I, nor Rebekah, nor God intended when we got married. But the divorce experience has taught Rebekah and I the power of a reconciliation that allows us to part ways blessing each other’s future.

A friend’s cancer came as a shock. While it was a treatable form of melanoma, he said it helped him to see the world with new eyes. The disease opened to him the generous preciousness of life. He actually calls his cancer “the gift” because, he says, because of his cancer, he’s become more loving, and can live in joyful gratitude for whatever time he has on this planet.

The marriage and sexuality debate in our ELCIC has created division and acrimony. But it also gave us the opportunity to learn how to disagree as Christians, and to show the world a different way of disagreeing, a way of disagreeing that is marked by compassion, grace, and healing.

I’m sure you all have your own stories. Stories of victory from failure, and life from pain. Stories of survival.

Maybe you’re still waiting for the victory, maybe you’re still wrestling. Maybe, for you, it’s still midnight at Jabbok. But that means that you’re still fighting, and that means that you haven’t given up. The sun will rise and a blessing will be given.

This is why you can be called “Israel,” you - ALL of you - you who have striven with God and with others and you have prevailed.

This is why you can be proud of your struggles. This is why you can be proud of the journey your life has taken. This is why you can be proud of your bruised and battered heart. Because you have striven with God and with life, and you have survived. You have prevailed.

I know that you have prevailed because you are here. You are still walking the path that God put in front of you. You are still following the voice that calls your name. You are still communing with God among fellow survivors.

Like Jacob, you may walk with a limp, but that pain is a constant reminder of your victory, that you haven’t given up. That pain is a constant reminder that God can create something new and beautiful out of the ugliest circumstances. That pain is a constant reminder that you are stronger and better because of your battles. 

You may walk with a limp that life gives you, but that limp is a constant reminder of your strength, a constant reminder that God will raise you up from any defeat, and at the end, God will give you - and all of us - the final blessing.

And may this be so among us. Amen.

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