Sunday, October 17, 2010

Persistence In Being Remade

If Hollywood did a movie on the life of Jacob, the opening song might appropriately be Your Cheatin’ Heart, sung by the great Hank Williams! In Hebrew Jacob means heel grabber/catcher, supplanter. The Genesis writer (32:3-8; 22-30) depicts him as the consummate cheat, a sort of biblical con man. Son of Isaac and Rebekah, and brother of Esau, Jacob was the father of Dinah and of 12 sons whose names are those of the tribes of Israel. Jacob, who lived between the 20th and 16th centuries B.C., embodies and represents not only the nation of Israel, but, on the darker side, a trickster, and on the positive side, the settler-farmer, reverent worshipper of God, man of gallantry, successful emigré and herder, penitent brother, and benevolent father.

It’s pretty bad when your own mother warns you, as Rebekah did Jacob, that “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.” The twins, Esau and Jacob, from the beginning, had, according to Genesis, “struggled together within” Rebekah’s womb, and God even confirms it by saying: “...the two peoples born of you shall be divided...the elder shall serve the younger.” Esau, all red and hairy, emerged first, with Jacob firmly gripping his heel. When they were grown, Esau, the hunter, coming in from the field one day tired and famished, bargains with Jacob for “some of that red stuff”, as the NRSV puts it: lentil stew and bread. Jacob drives a hard bargain, the price being Esau’s birthright as firstborn. Esau poo-poos the birthright’s value to him, in the moment, because he’s “about to die” of starvation. Had he only known!

Later, when Isaac was old and going blind, the favored boy, Jacob, with Rebekah’s deliberate connivance, posing as Esau, flat-out lies and tricks his blind father, Isaac, and boldly steals Isaac’s blessing, while utilizing the ole “savory food” trick once again. By the time Esau and Isaac become aware of how Jacob had cheated them, it was too late.

Esau is anything now but a “happy camper”! Rebekah warns Jacob, and Jacob hightails it to his Uncle Laban’s in Haran. Coincidentally, Laban has two daughters, Rachel (meaning, ewe), who was a “knockout”, and the other, Leah (meaning cow) who was, well…”weak-eyed”...not so attractive. Long story short: Jacob satisfies Laban’s demand to labor seven years, wooing and winning Rachel. Then Laban pulls a switcheroo on their wedding night, and surprise, surprise!: the veil comes off, and there’s Leah! Laban justifies this by reminding Jacob that local custom provides for giving the firstborn daughter first, and only then the other. He strong-arms Jacob into finishing the week of festivity, then gives Rachel as Jacob’s wife...with one little catch: Jacob has to work another seven years for her!

Jacob agrees, and sets to work hard on breeding flocks of goats and calves, using ingenious, but somewhat shady, procedures, setting his stronger animals apart from Laban’s weaker ones. Soon, as the Genesis writer says, “the man grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys.” It didn’t take long for Laban’s sons to figure out what was going on, and they were angry. Jacob, after deceiving Laban, suddenly disappears, taking his flocks, property, and possessions, and even Laban’s household gods, which Rachel stole and hid, and leaves, without even a “Goodbye”. Laban pursues him, but God appears to Laban in a dream and tells him to take it easy on Jacob, which he does, even though Rachel lies and deceives her own father, by sitting on his household idols, as he looks for them. Eventually, he and Jacob strike a mutual covenant, draw up firm boundaries, and go their separate ways.

Jacob sends messengers to “test” the waters by alerting Esau that he’s coming home, and, out of guilt, promises Esau a substantial gift from his flocks. The messengers return with news that Esau is personally coming to meet Jacob...with 400 men...not exactly your typical welcoming home party! Jacob now becomes fearful and desperate, and arranges to protect his wives, children, and possessions, taking them across the ford of the Jabbok river.

Genesis then starkly reports what happened next. Jacob “was left” at the river: alone, worried, fearful. People in his time believed a river ford to be a dangerous place, often guarded by evil spirits, or sprites, who sought to hinder passage across their territory. Scripture simply says: “A man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.

Genesis doesn’t give any details, but whatever happened, Jacob proved to be such a strong opponent that, as the passage says, “the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob.” As daylight approached, marking the time when the river sprite had to be gone, somewhat like vampires (!), the man asks to be released. But Jacob isn’t about to let go without some reward for this night’s troubles. “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” says Jacob. The man asks, “What is your name?” “Jacob = heel grabber, supplanter, cheat,” Jacob replies. The man then says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel = he strives with El/God. But in the midst of all this, as if to leave Jacob with a permanent reminder, Genesis says that the man “struck him on the hip socket”, so that ever after Jacob walked with a limp.

This experience must’ve sent chills up Jacob’s spine, for he now realized that his opponent had been Godself, with whom he’d wrestled for his own future. Jacob had been remade into a new person, into Israel, but it had come at the cost of anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and fierce struggle, and even physical battle scars. Jacob, sitting alone again at the river ford, in the quiet of the fresh dawn, realized that he’d done more than make passage over a river. He’d come to a new identity by struggling with the Mighty God, whom to see was to die, in common belief of that time. Yet he didn’t die; he’d even been blessed, reassured about his future. Yet he walks away, limping: the price of encountering the God who is Lord of life and can be known only by faith. It reminds us of St. Paul who had was given a thorn in his flesh, lest he be too overconfident of God’s blessings. Once again strength is made perfect in weakness, and Jacob the Cheat doesn’t limp off bragging. His faith and persistence allowed him to not let go of God, but, in the end, God had the last word.

God’s blessings come to you and me, not because of, but despite what we deserve. And as with Jacob, our struggle with God is often concealed in situations which we think we’ve recognized. Only later do we realize that God is the one with whom we’re really struggling. God doesn’t usually show Godself to us in some dramatic, apparent, and unambiguous way, but rather in circumstances which we seemingly can explain in other terms. Without persistence, such as Jacob’s, we might abandon the struggle for faith because it doesn’t appear to be faith as we’ve envisioned it. God demands that we work to be remade, even when it appears that our faith is getting us nowhere, or that obstacles in our way keep multiplying. In our struggles it’s always the Mighty God who is with us, unbeknownst, and by our persisting in faith, who brings us, sometimes even kicking and screaming, into new life and a new future.

One key section of Jacob’s story is often overlooked, and has to do with what came after his dramatic experience at Peniel. The morning after, Jacob looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men approaching. Jacob literally gets out in front of the situation by walking ahead, carefully bowing seven times. Surprisingly, “Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, and...kissed him, and they wept.” Esau is amazed at Jacob’s family and entourage. Jacob tries to make Esau accept his generous gift of many animals, but Esau assures him that he, too, has already been blessed with enough. Jacob, very movingly, insists: “if I find favor with you...accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God -- since you have received me with such favor.” The Genesis writer simply says: “...and he [Esau] took it.

Not only has Jacob been remade by his persistent struggle of faith with God, remade sufficiently that he can now see God’s face in Esau’s, but Esau, too, has been given the gift of forgiving his brother, thus fulfilling the secondary blessing which Isaac had given to Esau after Jacob had stolen the original birthright. At that time Esau, weeping, had begged at least some kind of blessing from his father, and Isaac had responded: “...when you break loose, you shall break his [Jacob’s] yoke from your neck.
In forgiving Jacob, Esau, has broken through and finds release from all his animosity and anger. He and his brother, through God’s blessing, are now reconciled with one another. Our striving with God in faith, too, brings blessings, not only to us, but to others in our lives, often beyond our wildest imaginings.

What happens to an individual, like Jacob, can also happen to a congregation. Congregations, too, strive with God, seek to be renewed and remade. For a congregation the struggle can be as mundane a thing as figuring out how to raise the money to pay the monthly bills, or to fittingly repay staff for the work assigned to them. Or it can be as profound as struggling to mend the divisions and differences which often mar parish life; or discerning what the congregation’s mission is to the local community, the Diocese, and the Church; or pursuing a vision which can enable children and younger parish members have what’s needed to grow and mature in God’s love; or, finally, finding the wherewithal to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the physically or mentally ill, aid the handicapped, be present for those who are alone or written off by others.

Whether our remaking by God, as individuals or as a parish, has taken place, is still in progress, or is yet to come, Jesus in today’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) reminds us of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart”. He uses a story, a parable, to compare the justice of God against the justice of a perfunctory judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people”. The judge summarily dismissed those who came before him, until he came up against this relentlessly pushy and persistent widow, who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. The judge blatantly admits that his only reason for finally giving her what was due is because, as he says, “this widow keeps bothering me”, and so “that she may not wear me out by continually coming”. Jesus contrasts this with the Loving God’s justice which is “quick”, immediate, for anyone who cries out to God day or night. The passage ends with Jesus posing a curious, almost melancholy, question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?” It’s almost as if Jesus is saying: “The ball is now in your court. What are you going to do about it?

Do you believe what was celebrated in your Baptism: that you’re truly part of the body of Christ, the communion of saints, and that the Holy Spirit continuously empowers you and me to live “in Christ”? Can you accept St. Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 4:16ff.: “So we do not lose heart...For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden...He who prepared us for God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee...for we walk by faith, not by sight...For the love of Christ urges us on...So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ…

Recently a dear lady gave me a framed wall hanging which is most applicable to the Scriptures’ message today. It says:
The will of God
Will never lead you,
Where the Grace of God
Cannot keep you.

Do we have faith enough to believe it?

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