22 Pentecost C—10/16/16
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Pr. Scott Kramer
A couple of days ago I went to the gym and jumped on the treadmill. To me, the treadmill is frankly boring! However, there are TV screens with football games and other sports events, news programs and talk shows to watch. Sometimes I have an audiobook loaded on my phone and I’ll listen to that. All of these things make the time pass more quickly and the treadmill a little less boring.
Imagine walking into a health club but instead of exercising, you sit down on a couch, eat snacks and watch TV while everyone else around you is working out. What would be the point?
In today’s great story from Genesis nobody is sitting down and watching TV. There are no spectators, no couch potatoes! Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, Chosen of God, is on the road with all his family and all his possessions, smack dab in the middle of the action. The next day he would encounter his brother Esau, whom he assumed would want to kill him because Jacob had tricked his father into giving him and not Esau the family inheritance. Along the way Jacob and his family approach a stream. He sends his family on ahead, while he is left alone. There he encounters not his twin brother Esau but a stranger, and we’re told that this stranger wrestled with Jacob all night, until daybreak.
Seems like Jacob could get no relief. A lot of the problems in his life he brought on himself, but here he is on a dangerous journey in the desert, responsible for all his extended family, facing the possibility of a murderous brother, and he spends all night in a wrestling match with a stranger! No rest—just one long, non-stop workout!
Funny, though, that Jacob doesn’t run from the challenge. In fact, we might say he jumps “out of the couch and into the ring!” He stays engaged with the stranger–even gets hurt in the process. It’s the stranger who wants to quit! But Jacob says, I will not let you go, unless you bless me.
Now, this is a strange thing. By cunning and deceit, Jacob had earlier extracted his father’s blessing. We know from the story that Jacob had a large family and a lot of property. And that represents what we usually think of as blessing: family, possessions—whatever we enjoy or what seems to serve our own personal self-interest. And yet, here Jacob is, almost desperately clinging to a stranger (of all people!) and demanding yet another blessing. Is Jacob just greedy? Probably! But I wonder if there’s more to it than that.
My wife and I just returned from a road-trip to the California redwoods, and that’s a lot of driving! When we’re in the car for a long time we like to listen to audiobooks. One of the books we listened to this trip was by Ronald Rohlheiser, called The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness.
The loneliness that Rohlheiser speaks of is not what we might think, being in some unfamiliar place with people we don’t know. Instead, he speaks of a loneliness that happens right in the middle of the place we know, among people we know and love. This loneliness is the deep experience of sensing that even what is most loved and most familiar can never satisfy us. Even so, our human nature drives us again and again to what is familiar, expecting relief.
This restlessness of the heart may be what Jacob faced, and he found himself at a crossroads. On the one hand, he had everything. So, either he could stick with what he knew and loved (his family and possessions), or, he could do the hard work of taking a more risky and unpleasant route. Against all odds Jacob, the self-serving trickster, takes the more risky and unpleasant route. He wrestles…with a stranger…in the wilderness…by himself…all night. Sitting at home watching a game with friends and family and eating snacks would have been a whole lot easier! But because he decided to jump into the ring and risk being part of the action he got hurt.
AND…he received a blessing. From the stranger he received a blessing!
What was this blessing? Well, it’s not all that clear. The story forces us to puzzle it out. We get at least three clues. One is when Jacob says, I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved. Jacob recognizes God in the stranger! And he is surprised that what is different doesn’t kill him.
What a blessing! And, how different from what we typically believe! We believe that God is to be found in what is familiar: my people, my race, my values, my country, my life, my experience. What is different we fear and distrust. We believe that what is not “mine” is second-rate and probably dangerous. This, in fact, might describe the time we live in: We Americans are not at all like strangers wrestling each other—more like enemies at war with one another. How could there ever be God’s blessing in that?
By paying attention to and struggling with the stranger throughout the night, Jacob eventually saw in the stranger the very face of God. This new wisdom unexpectedly had a ripple effect into his own family, and here’s the second blessing that he receives: Jacob’s ability to see God in the stranger led him to see the face of God even in his twin brother with whom he had been estranged.
What a blessing! But human nature drives us to hunker down and—especially when we’re afraid–to take refuge in what we think we know. But you and I know that what is familiar and close to home sometimes has its own ugliness, brokenness and pain. Demonizing what is different can be a way of avoiding the deeper pain at home. The restlessness remains. Opening oneself to and learning from what is different can unexpectedly lead to the very healing we long for in that which is familiar.
There’s one more blessing Jacob received: a new identity, starting with a new name. You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. A new name and a new identity is public confirmation that Jacob is not the person he once was, but has been transformed by his openness to the stranger.
Salvation is the word we use to describe the process and the experience of being transformed by God’s love into something new. Today’s second reading speaks of finding salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The final word in today’s gospel story is the question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Faith, dear friends in Christ, is what it’s all about. Faith, as our scriptures remind us, is by definition not about trust in what we know or in what is familiar. Faith is the “conviction of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). What is strange and different is often where Christ is found! Getting off the couch and into the ring, wrestling with the stranger, could be a key to satisfying your and my restless human hearts.