Carla J. Bailey, August 6, 2017
Scripture Genesis 32:22–31
The demands of prophetic, faithful ministry in these difficult, hate-filled days in our nation have caused me to look back and ponder how my faith was shaped, in an effort, however inadequate, to dust off and sharpen the tools that brought me to this place and time. There were family influences, of course—politically and theologically progressive parents. There was early exposure to the disgraces of racism, and then a deep, oxygen-depriving dive into the opaque, frigid waters of sexism. There have been progressive clergy friends who were courageous in their public witness against war, environmental degradation and the ravages of poverty. There was a fine seminary education. And there was an intuitive love for the stories found in Scripture, along with the freedom to interpret them metaphorically.
If I had to choose just 10 or 12 Scripture passages that were most influential in shaping my current worldview, this strange snippet of a story from Genesis—in which Jacob and God wrestle overnight, God wounds Jacob, and Jacob still manages to wrest a blessing from God—would be on the list. It’s a powerful, rich and dramatic little story tucked into the saga of Jacob and his complicated family. It’s not given very much explanation, but you can sense from both its content and style that the story, while it appears to be about Jacob and his family, is really about Israel and Israel’s singularly fraught relationship with God. But even more than that, difficult as it is, the story tells us some things about the complicated nature of a deeply tethered relationship with God that many of us endure. This story, which one simply must understand as metaphorical, illustrates how difficult it can be to remain faithful to God—how wounding and how exhausting. Not all of you here this morning have experienced a long night like Jacob’s—a night of agonizing struggle with your conscience and trust in God’s counterintuitive will—but if you ever have experienced such a night, this may just be a story for you, and for me, and for any of us who are tempted into thinking that if we just do the right thing, the good thing, the faithful thing, the transparent thing, even the Christian thing, God will smile upon us and all will be as lovely as the end of a Disney movie.
Jacob and his already large family were on their way to reconcile with Jacob’s estranged brother Esau. When they came to a river, Jacob sent his family on and he stayed behind. As Jacob was on his way to finally doing the long-past-due right thing, one would think God would have done everything possible to make it easier for him, to help him toward reconciliation with his brother. But the story tells us that at night, alone beside the river, Jacob was attacked by a mysterious “man,” and they wrestled for hours, all night long. Finally, just as dawn was about to break, the man struck Jacob in the socket of his hip, wounding him deeply.
If we were hearing this story for the very first time, we might get caught up in the image of a lonely tent pitched by a river in the evening with a campfire and roasting marshmallows. We might wonder why Jacob sent his family on ahead of him, as if knowing something ominous was about to happen. We might listen to the storyteller make the sounds of a physical fight—grunts and straining, panting and silence. We would wonder when that fight would ever come to an end—the two battlers exhausted and bloody. Finally, our storyteller would reveal that Jacob’s sparring partner, this stranger at the river, was in fact God, and we would be shocked. As it is, reading it as the metaphor it was intended to be, knowing it is about a fight between Jacob and God makes the struggle even more strange and troubling. Why on earth would God attack Jacob, especially when he was on his way to doing the right thing? And, even more disturbing, when God could see that Jacob was an equal match and that day was about to break, why would God wound Jacob in such a physically vulnerable place? And why wound him in such a way that Jacob would carry the pain and limp from that fight for the rest of his life?
The storyteller continues. Even though he was in pain, Jacob would not release his mysterious assailant. By this time, the story implies, Jacob knew the identity of his opponent. His attacker—God—asked to be released but Jacob would not let go until the mysterious stranger blessed him. Finally, the strange God asked Jacob to say his own name out loud: “Who are you?” Jacob declared his name, his identity, his true self. God then blessed Jacob and disappeared.
That’s the story. Isn’t it strange? What on earth does it mean? What is it teaching us about God, who we so gently identify as “Holy One”? Who is that God? We are left with so many questions. Since we are obtuse, the storyteller tells us it is a story about Israel, about how Israel’s relationship with God changed from the days of Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam, how God and Israel fought and how Israel physically forced a blessing from God—and that is a topic that would take a hundred sermons to explore, particularly in these days of violence, bloodshed, belligerent aggression, occupation and an ever-elusive cease-fire. It is also a story about a complicated family with a bitter history of betrayal, heartbreak and reconciliation. And you know, because you all have your own family histories, that families are complicated.
But neither of those meanings—that it is about Israel’s relationship to God or about what is needed for reconciliation within families—make this story stick in my head. No, I include it on my list of most personally theologically shaping stories from Scripture because it tells us something about God that just overturns our overly simplistic, culturally reinforced assumptions that God is kind and gracious, gentle, tender, not terribly demanding, and that our every genuine encounter with God will bring us peace, serenity and clarity of purpose. That has not actually been my experience in my relationship with the Almighty, so I’m a little relieved to find a story so full of the kind of struggle, though unlike in its particulars, with which I am intimately familiar. I know this struggle in its emotional breadth and depth. Some of my wrestling with God and, in particular, with God’s will, is difficult and long and exhausting—and it wounds, deeply. Perhaps you, too, know this struggle. Some exchanges with God last all night and feel as if we are fighting a powerful enemy rather than receiving the care of the comforting and gentle shepherd we would rather know. Some of life’s experiences, especially the ones that are leading us the way we need to go, rather than the way we would prefer to go, will hurt us deeply, and we will carry the scars of the battle for the rest of our lives. Sometimes—actually often times—the right thing, the faithful thing, the thing that leads to a blessing is the hardest thing, and we are not sure we’re going to survive the pain or the weariness of the long, long night.
This past week, some of you gathered to discuss the book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, from which I read the closing prayer earlier in today’s service. I was not able to join you Wednesday evening, but I read the book and it left a bruise on my heart. As I read Dyson’s hard words, I thought of someone very dear to me who is dark-skinned and filled with rage against white America, which includes her white parents. I thought of just a few of the times when I have assumed a level of safety that other loved ones cannot assume, including my son. I thought of the Procter and Gamble ad campaign called “The Talk,” in which parents of color talk to their children about the diminishment they will experience because they are brown and the safety measures they need to take when they drive anywhere. I thought of the 85 gun deaths—homicides and suicides—that have occurred in the United States since yesterday. I thought of the bomb that was thrown through a window of an imam’s office in a mosque in Bloomington yesterday morning. I thought of the times I have not been believed or have not had my opinion taken seriously because I am a woman. I thought of the physical sense of powerlessness I felt, as if I was restrained against my will, when a life decision was made for me in which I had no say. And I could feel exhaustion of an all-night wrestle and the lifelong pain of the wound inflicted by the very One I thought I could trust. Oh yes, I too would fight until morning. I would hang on and not release my grip against that powerful force until I too could say my own name, declare my identity and wrest a blessing out of that struggle!
Jacob survived the night-long battle with God, the stranger who fought with him. And he continued on his journey toward doing the right thing. But it hurt him—it did. Doing the right thing usually does. That does not make it less right. It just means it will make us limp. So here is, to use a phrase currently in vogue, the takeaway: it is true that avoiding the struggle altogether may save you from needing hip replacement surgery one day, because you won’t have sustained an injury. That is a less painful way to live, no doubt. But you won’t get a blessing from God by avoiding the struggle. No, you get the blessing when you’re already tired, worn-down, wounded and nearly defeated but still determined to struggle for what is good and true and just. You’re going to limp when you’re done. A fully engaged, passionate life of faith will hurt, but then, at dawn, comes the blessing, and you’re still alive. You’re still alive. Amen.