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Help Us to See
The Reverend Karen Greif
August 2, 2020
Genesis 32: 22-32
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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.” So he 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.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 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.
Our Genesis sermon series continues with stories of families; their dynamics, disfunctions and delights. They are sacred stories, contained in the foundational texts of three world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories mine the depths of what it means to be mortal. They record God’s word to flawed human beings like Jacob, and like us.
God first spoke to Jacob as a young man on the run. He dreams of a stairway to heaven and God speaks. “This land I will give to you and your offspring.” Twenty years later, God speaks to Jacob again. “Return to the land of your ancestors and know I will be with you.” With an entourage of family and a fortune in livestock, Jacob heads for home.
The plot thickens as he approaches the land ruled by this brother. Still wary of Esau’s revenge, Jacob prays: “O Lord, deliver me for I am afraid for my life and all my family.” His foreboding increases. His trust in God fades. Always the schemer, Jacob decides bribery is his best bet. He sends messengers with gifts, “To Esau, from your servant, Jacob.” Word returns to Jacob. Your brother is coming to meet you, but with an army of 400 men. In full-blown panic, Jacob divides his family into two camps, hoping someway, somehow, one will survive. In Genesis 32, verse 22, Jacob’s story continues. I invite you to listen to the word of God.
(Sermon text for today is read)
This text is strange and mysterious. Within it we witness an encounter with God, observe human wrath and fear, and catch a midwife’s glimpse of the birth of Israel. Debate about its meaning has surpassed 2000 years. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Its rich expository possibility is based, on part, by its lack of clarity,” a truth that dates back to the original text.
My most in-depth Hebrew encounter with this text was at an inter-seminary retreat. Twelve denominations of Christians joined our Reformed Jewish counterparts for a peer study of Genesis. We brought Bibles. They brought the Torah. From the get-go, their knowledge of Hebrew scripture blew us away. The notion of a peer study flew out the window. We asked them to be our mentors. Reading directly from the Torah, they shared word plays, name origins and nuances lost in translation. In English, Jabbok is just the name of a river. But in Hebrew it means “wrestling” a foretelling with a neon sign. Regarding the “who” wrestling Jacob, they shared with us, “Who knows?” Rabbinical opinions range from Esau, Esau’s guardian angel, a heavenly angel, to The Lord God Almighty. Or is it Jacob wrestling with himself, his past, or his history of betrayal? I loved that all rabbinical opinions are honored, a sign of respect that all reflect facets of truth.
Our mentors were keen to note how the blessing is given. Not on a silver platter to a trust fund heir. Only after an all-night ruckus with a final knockout punch to the hip. In the wounding, something within Jacob shifts. Now he clings to his attacker and refuses to let him go. When asked, “What is your name?“ This time, Jacob tells the truth. With the giving of the blessing, Jacob is transformed. “You shall no longer be Jacob. You shall be called Israel.” The noun “el,” refers to God. It’s the verb that’s tricky, with several options of meaning. The most common is “prevail.” But “prevail” is paired with which noun? Who prevails? Did Jacob struggle with God and prevail? Or struggle with God, who prevails? Or in their struggle, did both prevail? Our mentors pointed out, it could mean all three. What is certain is the centrality of this text to Jewish identity. They are now Israel, a peoples and a nation called by God. In blessing Jacob and his offspring, God’s promise passes to all generations, including ours.
This story reminds us God’s blessing is not a free pass to live as one pleases without problems or cares. It does not bypass our mortality, for the breath of life ceases in all living things. But it is a blueprint for facing our mortality and for embracing the gift of life while it is ours. Even in times of utter despair, like Jacob was then, and our world is now.
How eerily Jacob’s plight mirrors our human condition today. It’s not an army that we fear. It’s something we cannot even see. A virus capable of ending our lives and all those we love. The same prayer arises from our lips, “O Lord, deliver us, for we are afraid for our lives and our families.” We’re also dividing into camps with the hope that some way, somehow, we will survive. Our fear seems more real than God’s whispered promises. Caught in the confines of COVID, we are wrestling with the same double-edged sword of God’s mystery.
Theologian Rudolph Otto, coined a phrase to describe our human response to encounters with the divine. I can hear my Latin teacher, Mrs. Barker, pronouncing it now: Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. It is a mystery both fearful and fascinating, evoking two opposite responses: A pushing away and a beckoning call. A flight response to fear and a magnetic attraction to the sublime.
In his book, The Power of Paradox, Father Richard Rohr argues that a” true experience of the Holy” must honor both attributes. He writes, “To experience only fear is to be overwhelmed with a sense of separation…with faith reduced to sin management.” But if drawn only to the shimmering allure, “without a deep reverence” for the wholly otherness of God, “faith becomes sentimental, a mixture of sweetness and light.” Jacob’s story embraces both. In the shift, Jacob’s illusion of control falls away and he sees himself anew. Nicholas of Cusa describes this radical shift. Suddenly, “we see God seeing us.” And what we discern is “God’s vision of us.” Our old mirror cracks, and we see who God intends us to be. Aligned with God’s purpose, fulfilling our calling as covenant partners.
In a personal health crisis years ago, the insight of a French Jesuit priest helped me to see myself anew. “We are not human beings in search of a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.” This shift gave me courage, strength, and hope. I was no longer having to figure out how to be spiritual, just how to be human. In her book, Close to the Bone, Dr. Jean Bolen expands on this insight. “If this is so,… it is only within this human experience that we are given the capacity to touch, to love, to dance, to sing, to climb a mountain, or give birth to a child.” Faith is forged in the fire of struggle and takes its form in its longing for union with God. Through faith, we see a grander design, knowing that sorrow, though it cuts like a knife, is not all life holds. As Thomas Long observes, “We discover what is most important in our lives springs not from within ourselves, but from God who created and calls us.
The story of Jacob gives us permission to kick up dirt with God, and there is much to kick up in this time of pandemic: fear, anger, isolation, loss, sadness, uncertainty. In the dark, Jacob could not identify his attacker. Likewise, we struggle to name the forces that have dropped us to our knees. They are legion: physical, psychological, spiritual, existential. Forged in fire of our mysterium tremendum, we long to know when and where transformation can be found. I can offer a response that was shared with me.
During our retreat, we forged bonds of trust that enabled us to ask the deepest theological questions burning in our hearts. Our Jewish friends asked us about the Trinity. How is it that the One God be three? Our question to them was how they endured the centuries of persecution that their faith has suffered. Their answer came in two differing rabbinical point of views.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a proponent of the first: living the radical promise of covenant blessing. Giving thanks for life each day. Praising God for our window into the infinite, where we behold beauty, the elegant harmony of creation, and our individual part as the wonder unfolds. Heschel writes: “The goal is to live in radical amazement. ….to look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. To never look at life causally. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
The other is by living as God’s covenantal partners in a very broken world. As defined by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “Faith is living in the presence of the Redeemer and knowing we are called into the struggle for the world’s redemption.”
Seventeenth century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav envisioned life’s journey “as a narrow bridge.” Imagine a rope bridge over a scenic gorge, sturdy, but swinging back and forth, with plenty of air and plenty of light, and precious little to hang onto except God’s covenant promise that faith will get us across, that the bridge will bear our weight and will carry us safely to the other side. Faith is believing in the bridge, more than the gorge.
As expressed in our opening hymn, O Lord, help us to see all of life in radical amazement. And when we cannot, help us to believe in the bridge, more than the gorge. This we ask in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation. Philadelphia, John Know Press, 1982, p.266.
 Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John Harvey, Oxford University Press, London, 1950, p. 12.
 From The Reasons of the Heart by John S. Dunne, quoted in A Guide to Prayer, The Upper Room, 1983, p. 176.
 Attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin by Stephen Covey, Living the 7 Habits, Free Press, Cambridge, 2000, p. 47.
 Jean Shinoda Bolen, Close to the Bone, Red Wheel/Weiser, San Francisco, 2007, p. 71.
 Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1989, p. 14.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man?, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1965, p. 56.
 Michael Oppenheim, “Irving Greenberg and a Jewish Dialectic of Hope.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, vol. 49, no. 2, 2000, p. 189.
 Baruch Chait: Broadening the Narrow Bridge, Haaretz.com, 6 September 2010