Sunday, July 31, 2011


“Good, but not safe”

Genesis 32:22-33:11


10 Jacob said, “No, I pray you, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me. Genesis 33:10 (RSV)



The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says that this story from Genesis 32 is about the formation of the people Israel, ‘nothing more, nothing less.’  If Brueggeman is right, then God’s people have been formed by an assault by God.


Let me being by telling you that I think it is important to know where you come from.  At the beginning of worship this morning I used an ancient call to worship, first uttered by Moses on Mount Sinai, to those gathered.  It is called the Shema: shema yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad!  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one; and you shall love the lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your strength.”  This is the word that God’s people gather around, and it is the very beginning of the Covenant between God and God’s people…”I will be your God and you will be my people.”


The fact that the Biblical covenant was established with a particular community, sharing a common ancestry and history, thus comes across as a perfectly natural phenomenon. In a country that is terrified by the prospects of regionalism and fragmentation, we might derive some consolation from the recognition that humans have a natural predilection for identifying with others who are like us, who share some common genetic material, traditions, it seems natural to us.  No one said it was easy.


So it is good to remember where you come from.  Out on the sign, the old redstone sign at the entrance to the lower parking lot here, it says: “St. John’s Hain’s Reformed Church” and only below that does it say, “The United Church of Christ”  I think it is fair to say that my predecessors here in this pulpit made every effort to keep us in line with this reformed lineage.  Our ancestors, were not of the congregational line of genetics in this big UCC family, they were Reformed.  So, then and now, there are certain tenets of faith that we hold onto tighter than others.  One of which is that we are reconciled to God by grace.


And, to be fair, let’s recognize that if we trace our family back far enough (we weren’t created out of nothing), we would have to trace this lineage back through the churches in Germany and Switzerland during the reformation, and prior to that through priests in the Roman church who were uncomfortable with the home office.  Farther than that we would see the faces of the early church mothers and fathers, huddled in small gatherings in the desert of the Middle East, and even further back we would find ourselves camped along a river called “Jabbok,” or literally “Wrestle,”  facing another member of the family who was quite angry with us because to ‘get ahead’ our ancestor was willing to sell out on those closest to him.


I also think it is important, from time to time, to remember how you got to where you are today.


It is great to remember our roots.  If we did not see ourselves as standing in a long line of faithful witnesses, the bible itself would not have much meaning for us.  Oh, it would be interesting!  Especially juicy stories of family drama like this one:  Parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, trickery, theft even.  It would be interesting, but not have much to say to us.


But because it is our family story, it has much more meaning. 


I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say this, with deep regret, “I wish that I had recorded, or at least written down, those old family tales Maw-maw Smith used to tell.  I had to go digging around to learn that my mother’s maiden name, Smith, was first Schmidt, born by a Prussian Physician in service to the crown during the revolutionary war.  When the war went south for the British, he went north, to a grant of land on Prince Edward Island, and through a variety of bad decisions and bad behavior this tract was lost and the family made their way west, across Canada, and finally down into Michigan.  When I pieced together this story, it was easier to remember that I didn’t just land in my hometown in 1958, as if I was plucked out of the cosmos and replanted, no connection to anyone or anywhere.  I had, I have, a story.


That story isn’t unlike the story I read this morning.  It remembers a journey.  It is a family story.


Jacob has swindled and tricked his way into wealth.  His livestock is numerous; his wives have borne him children, most notably, a son named Joseph.  He is returning home now, but to do so he must face his brother Esau and 400 men camped along the river.  He wrestles in the night with someone, something, hidden by the darkness. If I were Jacob, I would believe that I have achieved all this under my own power.  After all, no one handed over to me these blessings.  It was my own skill that delivered these things to me.


The wrestling match seems evenly matched, at least from Jacob’s perspective.  But at the last minute, as if to say ‘I could have beaten you at any moment,’ the stranger “…touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him…”  He recognizes this restless night as an encounter with God, he really didn’t need to know the name of the opponent, he knew.


In a strange turn of events, it may be this injury that awakens Jacob to the presence of God all along.  It is strange that people, when injured, when hurt, when facing their fears are more aware of God’s presence than when everything is progressing as we believe we have planned.  On this night, if not before, Jacob realizes that the God of his ancestors, as he claims a few verses earlier[1], is a God whose promises are dependable, even in the most uncertain conditions.  Finally, he crosses the river, and bows to his brother.


This is also story about transformation and reconciliation.  Sure, it is about Jacob and Esau, but like every biblical story, it is about more than that.  It is our story, it tells about every time we go off on our own, using whatever means we have at hand to achieve whatever goal we have at the moment.  It is the story of our own family and some of the ridiculous (and serious) things that tend to divide us.  This story also recounts our story, when things go awry, and our prayers consist mostly of requests for self-preservation.  This story then points to our own wounds, reminding us that every so-called victory comes with some cost, even some forgiveness. 


I am not sure what causes the transformation in Israel, once Jacob.  Late in chapter 33, Jacob names the place he camps ‘El-Elohe-Israel,’ meaning “God, the God of Israel.”  Finally, the God of Abraham and Isaac is now the God of Jacob.  I suspect that it isn’t the wrestling match, but a brother who has every reason to seek revenge but instead offers grace, just like God.  See, it’s our own sense of gratitude that has the greatest power to change us.  It is in gratitude, even limping gratitude, that we remember who we are and whose we are.   We belong to a good God, a God who desires the best for us, but if we must wrestle, remember, we are not safe.


[1] Genesis 32:9; Jacob prays, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my Father Isaac, O Lord who didst say to me, return to your country and to  your kindred, and I will do you good.”