Face to Face, An Attitude?

Posted: July 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Genesis 32:22-31 

Face to Face, An Attitude?

As I searched for inspiration and topic for this week’s sermon, I began to focus on want people have been saying over the Covid-19 period of time in the life of this planet. On-line conference video meetings have sprung up and services have been put up on You tube and people have been gathering in this way to maintain continuity of community and ‘keep in touch’. One of the common comments is that people who are church attenders like the people contact and miss the face to face gathering. On-line just doesn’t seem to cut it completely. It seems that even the ability to see each other is not enough, we need the touchy-feely possibility even though just shaking hands is often felt to be a step too far by some, or is this just a culture thing? Are young people better able to make real connections on-line than the older generations? I wonder if it is an attitude thing? And by attitude, I mean ‘A position of the body indicating a particular mental state’. Maybe an online gathering of church goers is people gathering in an attitude of loss of physical presence of others and thus always going to feel the gathering to be short lived, temporary and not quite the real thing?

In approaching the texts for today I began to wonder if this thing about attitude might be worth thinking about. What if when reading a familiar text one needs to be aware of an attitude awareness because whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to dread the feeling of boredom with “that same old story,” or of frustration at trying to say something new or different about it.

Our particular narrative from Genesis might also provoke confusion about what a passage filled with so much ambiguity really means, and perhaps even a measure of discomfort with the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, employed by the author. And then there’s that problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. One part of us may be repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, but another part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.

The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger—be it God or an angel, –on that riverbank long ago has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in “Angels in America”), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.”

Psychologists, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. One might suggest that this so-called “modern” approach, is inadequate for the text before us. But an important challenge for lectionary preachers is putting this text in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life. Preaching and Bible study differ in some ways, but as ‘Progressive thinkers bible study is no longer an alternative to preaching both in sketching out that larger picture, and linking this story and its echoes to the stories before and after it. One has to study the text to ensure the attitude adjustment required to use the text in its fullest sense and avoid what is known as eisegesis, ‘the importation of ones own subjective interpretation’. An attitude adjustment is important here and spending time with the whole story Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, and 35:1-15 of Jacob’s late-night struggle on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that he hoped still lay ahead:. can surprise us.

For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may ‘as we discovered last week’, think of him as cunning and sly, Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first returns home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath.

Here, almost home with the use of quite poignant words, he being so full of longing, offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a).

It has been noted by some scholars that this prayer of Jacob’s is the longest prayer in Genesis. Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first. Nice move for a chauvinist perhaps.

Earlier in the story we read another familiar excerpt from the passages, about the night Jacob was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, when he had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always.

Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty.”  It was an “awesome” experience.

There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would promise to keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace. Sounds like an exchange value world there too doesn’t it. Or contract verses covenant world perhaps. Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the lists unspoken beneath our own prayer words at times.

Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience.

In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we hear several reminders that this had been where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name.

We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. This act of naming or attitude to a place makes me think of what John D Caputo says about names and why they are important as event. His explanation of naming or at least my interpretation of what he says is that ‘Names’ contain events and give them a kind of temporary shelter by housing them within a relatively stable nominal unity. Events, on the other hand, are uncontainable, and they make names restless with promise and the future, with memory and the past, with the result that names contain what they cannot contain. Names belong to natural languages and are historically constituted or constructed, whereas events are a little unnatural, eerie, ghostly thing that haunt names and see to it that they never rest in peace. Names can accumulate historical power a worldly prestige and have very powerful institutions erected in or under their name, getting themselves carved in stone, whereas the voice of events is ever soft and low and is liable to be dismissed, distorted, or ignored. Although a name contains an event, an event cannot in principle be contained by a name, proper or common. In short, the name God contains the event we know as the sacred which is always dynamic and emerging and evolving or as Caputo might say, insisting rather than existing.

This I think can be applied to the naming of Bethel as the place of God. This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on-the-edge, just on the outside, a bit like ‘Almost’. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well.

Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle, Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots. He is alone, in the deep of the night. He has sent ahead herds and herds of gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work. Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.

But then a disturbing encounter. Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We assume that stranger was God, or at least an angel of God, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being. Ambiguity enters the scene.

Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.” It could also be that of a non-event or a non-naming, a God caught between existing and not existing.

The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have a kind of power, as does Caputo’s explanation, and in those days when words meant even more, Tucker says that knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name “was to obtain a measure of control over it.” Something we do with the naming of ‘God’, we seek to control our God in the world of our thinking.

Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife. Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

“Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all. Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go.

Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Seeing God, face to face is an event, or an awesome moment of extraordinary power. And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing. Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed.

In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents Israel’s eastern neighbour, Edom, and that the two nations had a testy relationship after Edom helped Babylon conquer Judah (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.

Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.” Fretheim also suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.”

Jacob responds well, Fretheim notes, and he receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well” (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Obviously, we too struggle with God, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of  the terrible suffering of the slaves who were carried off, sold, and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion and focus instead on their own power and preservation.

We struggle in our own personal lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. In times fraught with poisonous political divisions globally and a raging pandemic that is exacting an enormous physical and economic toll, we have our communal questions for God as well.

Indeed, we witness the suffering and deaths of people most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which disproportionately ravages communities of people of colour, the elderly, the poor. We watch, helpless ourselves (it seems), as those most vulnerable in our midst suffer needlessly. Observers note soberly, and perhaps ironically, that the powerful, wealthy countries are brought to its knees by this disease.

Of course, the “same old” problems persist as well: racism and hatred, violence and injustice, prejudice and the abuse of power, militaristic posturing and environmental destruction (some of these all swirled together in a toxic brew) churn through our shared lives and shape them in ways we deplore.

We hear, for example, of the distress of families torn apart by the deportation of a desperate parent who saw a country as their best hope for a decent life. We are dismayed by the way our political life has been torn apart, often splitting people into two opposing camps and increasing the numbers who have no voice, and making the solutions to our problems seem more far away than ever.

Each day the split grows ever wider and uglier, and we are perplexed by how we will ever address the challenges with which we must struggle, including the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.

Beyond the suffering caused by human action, accident, and neglect, we are aware of the suffering of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters–and the compounding of that anguish by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines. Questions of blame and mismanagement of resources become prevalent and we have to ask; are we better now?

We are encouraged by our faith “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God” and we do so not with detached consideration but up close, face to face, with deep consternation. When we think about the call to preach, we are reminded that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” It is an authentic faith and not a fairytale that understands the pain of God’s children and that God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God.

Richard Pervo asks “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need” A God that is not perfect, not complete, not super-naturalized but rather a God that lives our life.

Indeed, Jacob’s larger story, not just this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen one from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it.

James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully in his commentary on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.”

Jacob then sees the face of God, again, this time, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4).

Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come: “As Jacob had seen the face of God in the struggle and reconciliation with the wrestler,” Olson writes, “so Jacob sees the face of God in the face of his reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us–to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way. Here we have what I name ‘Almost’.

Taylor describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully when she writes “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Awesome, indeed. Amen.

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