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“No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle.
That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”
-David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 20th century
The whole story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is rife with ambiguous language and images, leaving the possibilities quite open for interpretation. Except for one spot…the interpretive sweet spot, one might say. Jacob’s hip. The language is very clear that this wrestling match – or as we say ’round here, this wrasslin’ match – leaves Jacob permanently scarred. Here Jacob will be renamed, his name changed to “Israel” by the angel…a name that means, “The one who strives with God.”
There is a lot of concern and fear frontloaded into this story. You can’t read this portion without understanding that Jacob has just been told that his big brother, Esau, is on his way to “greet” him, along with 400 men. This is the same Esau, the same big brother, that Jacob swindled…tricked out of his inheritance. This is the same Esau who Jacob took advantage of and I don’t know about your siblings but with mine? Forgiveness and mercy do not come easily. So, Jacob is scared, as evidenced by his decision to send his family and possessions over the river ahead of him, out of his watchful eye for he is clearly thinks it’s gonna be worse on his side of the river than it is over there.
Then the story gets weird. Jacob is “left alone” and some guy shows up, kinda out of nowhere, and starts wrestling him and the story doesn’t even act like this is strange…like of course if you are left alone on the side of a river a wrestling match is going to happen. The match seems to be a draw – only it’s not a draw. The angel, or God, the “divine being” that we first thought was just a man out of nowhere, strikes Jacob on the hip, leaving him with a mark, a scar, a permanent limp. Here is the man who a nation will rise up from, whose name is “Israel”, and he limps through the rest of his life.
I can’t help but tie the spiritual awareness this story brings to the recent scientific “breakthrough” that happened at the Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland, a place I was just across the river from not a month ago, where an international team of scientists reports they have, for the first time, figured out a way to successfully edit the DNA in human embryos — without introducing the harmful mutations that were a problem in previous attempts elsewhere. And that leads me to thinking about “designer babies” and elimination of all disease and population explosion and, perhaps most worrisome, who might actually have access to such “godlike” power? It’s the beginnings of a great ethical dilemma, for it seems that whether in science, technology, advertising or the economy, our limitations are things to be corrected, our scars masked with makeup or clothing, our imperfections always promised to be “fixed” by the latest cream or pill or surgery or diet. But in this story, Jacob is only Jacob until he gains the limp. Only then, only in the struggle, only after the wrestling does he become something else. Would he ever, the question could be asked, have become “Israel” without the injury, without the imperfection?
We often think that our task is to fix the problem, to heal every wound, when the blessing can be found in those imperfections. Of course our call as followers of Jesus is to justice, to balance the scales and to seek fairness and righteousness. And yet God still works when the scales are out of balance…God’s mysterious, grace-filled creativity still resides in the dark corners and the broken places, redeeming and liberating and affirming that life will go on, even from the places we think are tombs…if we will wrestle long enough to find that blessing.
Today, as we witness the anguish of those fleeing violence and terrorism in Syria, or facing death by starvation and/or cholera in Yemen; the chaos and suffering in Venezuela, we hear of the distress of families torn apart by the deportation of a parent who was just working for a decent life. There is the scourge of cancer and disease of all kinds, and the suffering of the earth itself. And there is our social disease, which leaves us dismayed by the way our political life has been torn apart, dividing us into multiple camps, inflicting violence upon one another, in uniform and out, 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.
There are no simple solutions. There may not even be solutions at all to some of our most entrenched issues. I could say, “Love your neighbor”, but to stand here and tell you that we ought to love one another is no easy fix, either. Sometimes it is very hard to know just what is the loving action. And God, just as Jacob discovers, is often elusive…more of a wrestling partner than a companion. In our search for certainty, for logical consistency, for a neatly ordered God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, we instead encounter the God presented to us in the Bible – a God who isn’t consistently “omni-anything” — but a God who is always a place of hope, a sign of life and a bearer of creation.
This is the God who comes to Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, a river that is a play on words in Hebrew with Jacob’s name, as if God is visiting Jacob in a place where there is nothing but Jacob…no one else to blame, no where else to turn, just God and Jacob. And there, when the night seems darkest, and Jacob has sent away all who he loves, to prepare for what he thinks is the end, his total focus on the brother whose blessing he stole, Jacob finally asks for his own blessing…one that comes only with this struggle, only with the injury, the mark, the permanent reminder of his struggle.
Jacob does not become the struggle. He leaves a marker by the side of the river, but he doesn’t stay there. The struggle shapes him, it even marks him permanently, but it isn’t him. Here at a time in which many of us are evoking the term “resist”, it becomes very important to emphasize that we should take care not to become the resistance, to expect that it will change us, even scar us, but that it is not all we are. Resistance, in this way, becomes a way of life. For God is always creating, never pronouncing anything completed, but instead reaching and growing – all within the struggle.
We don’t hear the Jacob story much anymore. Now, we speak of it this way. We come to the table, to communion, where all are welcome and the divisions we place in front of one another in the world vanish, replaced by the voice of the God of hope and liberation, setting us free from those burdens, but not without injury. For while we are filled with a meal of love without exceptions, we still have to go out onto the world, where such love will be seen as an injury, a wound, a limp…not as power, but as weakness. We are scarred by this table, if we take the struggle it presents with us. For it asks us to stand in the darkness and wrestle with Love…to take those moments when we want to flee or ignore or withdraw and instead to struggle with the claim that God’s blessing places on our lives.
The point of this story…this table…is not to resolve all problems, nor to make of God a superhero, come to save the day, nor to suggest that God is found in our purity, our perfection. It is to make us resilient, hopeful, to be a candle in the deep of the night, doing what we can, where we are, with what we have….not to shy away from the things that might hurt, or the risk that could break our hearts, for that injury, the way that our hearts might be broken open to welcome an even greater love than we had imagined…that is not what comes despite the blessing. It is the blessing.
Thanks be to God.