When I opened Saints Alive! last month and saw that four senior preachers, George Regas, Leonard Beerman, Scott Richardson and I, were being billed here at All Saints as “The Boys of Summer”, I actually laughed out loud. I’ll bet that only a few of you here this morning remember Don Henley’s 1984 song by that title, and perhaps only Scott, I, and George Regas are old enough to remember where Henley got that phrase: from Roger Kahn’s 1972 baseball memoir, The Boys of Summer, about growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Calling us “the boys of summer” is certainly flattering, but not exactly accurate.
A week ago, my wife Kathy and I returned from a weeklong backpacking trip in the John Muir Wilderness of the Eastern Sierras. Seven nights without news was a real withdrawal for me, and as I got closer to the end of the trail out I actually hallucinated that the first headline I might see could feature the outlines the Debt Ceiling deal arranged by President Obama and Speaker Boehner. You can imagine how surprised I was to see this mid summer government reality show still to be ongoing. Unlike the Real Housewives of New York or Orange County or Jersey Shore, though, this spectacle is entertaining without being amusing. It’s not even unintentionally amusing. It’s actually kind of scary.
I don’t want to get All Saints in any more trouble with the IRS, so I will refrain from sharing my thoughts about the various personalities playing out this strange governmental mixture of Project Runway and The Gong Show. But I will use it as a shameless, preacherly segue into what’s going on in our reading from Genesis this morning. For weeks, we all have been living with both dread and expectation—dread that something terrible will happen if there is no deal, expectation that our two political parties might actually be able to work together to solve a problem. This expectant, dreadful, tension that we’ve lived with for weeks is very much like the trauma that our hero Jacob has lived under his whole life.
If you remember the Jacob story, he is the second son of Isaac and Rebecca. He has an older brother, Esau, with whom he struggled in the womb. In his ongoing tussle with his older brother, Jacob manages over time to trick Esau both out of his birthright and his blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob is a kind of a wily trickster, and as the second son he manages, through his maneuverings, always to come out on top. But when he and Esau separate, they do so with enmity. Jacob goes his way and Esau his. But Jacob lives his subsequent years always looking over his shoulder, constantly worried about what will happen when the two brothers meet again. He knows he has defrauded Esau, and he has reason to believe that Esau will exact revenge.
In today’s portion of the Jacob story, we hear about Jacob wrestling with God. We only really understand this text when we hear it in the context of Jacob’s anxiety. Jacob wrestles with God on the night before he expects to meet up with his long estranged brother Esau. He knows that tomorrow he will see again, for the first time in years, the brother he has cheated of both birthright and blessing. He has been living for at least a decade under the constant tension of the knowledge that he has bettered himself at someone else’s expense. And he has projected all his fear and guilt onto the coming meeting with someone who has a real reason to wish him ill. It’s in all this dramatic and emotional mix that Jacob spends the night wrestling with God.
In the course of this encounter, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel—the one who struggles with God and prevails. By making that change, God appears to hold Jacob up as an example of what it means to be a person in relationship with God. One of the reasons for the Hebrew Bible’s persistent spiritual relevance for us is that it is brutally honest about what it means to know and follow God. You and I live in a culture that is sentimental about everything, that pictures God as a big, gooey, greeting card illustration, a collage of roses, clouds, puppies, and fudge. As a priest colleague of mine at Christ Church Cranbrook says, in the church we routinely mistake warmth for depth. When we talk about prayer in our culture, we say things like, “Jesus is my best friend.” I went to a retreat once where the leader said, “Imagine walking on the beach with Jesus.”
It’s not exactly wrong to think about Jesus or God as your best friend. It’s incomplete. God may be my best friend, but, as the Jews knew, God is also my adversary. Jacob wrestles with God, and that wrestling gets at the inherent inequality in the terms on which we encounter each other. God has resources that I don’t have. I’m finite and limited. God is, well, God! In today’s story, God strikes Jacob in the hip socket, putting his leg entirely out of joint. In other words, God hits Jacob below the belt. God does not play fair.
The reason it’s important to see God not only as your friend but also as your adversary is that it helps to acknowledge that God sometimes has different priorities than you do. God loves you and cares for you. But we experience the distance between our vision and God’s as pain. God sees the big picture; you and I see things more partially. I want what I want for myself, my friends, my family, my world. What I want and what God intends may not be the same thing. My wants and hopes sometimes come into conflict with God’s plans. Even though God has my best interests at heart, God’s processes may run me over in the short term. So in a real sense, I experience God as someone who is sometimes working against me. When God and I come into conflict, it’s important that I be willing to go to the mat with God.
And that’s where Jacob’s willingness to wrestle with God shows up our polite, sentimental, greeting cards ideas about prayer. I’m not always walking on the beach with Jesus—sometimes I’m playing a game where God holds all the cards, where the deck appears to be stacked, where the odds are clearly in favor of the house. Sentimental piety would say that we should just give up and reconcile ourselves to the way things are—“not my will but thy will”, and so forth. Job’s three pious friends tell him there’s something wrong with his faith. When people pray for things and don’t get them, I’ve heard their pious friends tell them that their faith simply isn’t deep enough. The Bible knows these pious responses to be bogus. Even though the cards are marked, the deck is stacked, the dice are loaded, Jacob still goes into the encounter, ready to play. He wrestles with God. And even though God wounds him illegally, Jacob still will not let him go until he gets the blessing. He not only gets that blessing; he gets a new name and a new identity. He is now the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed. He has seen God face to face, and he’s still walking around to talk about it, albeit with a limp.
I have long felt that Jacob is the Bible’s most accessible and exemplary hero for all of us who live our lives in what W.H. Auden called “the Age of Anxiety”. Just as you and I still don’t know how the Debt Ceiling Standoff will end, Jacob lived his life constantly under the anxious pressure of the contingent and unresolved. Will he get the blessing or not? Will his estranged brother kill him or not? Jacob’s life was not unlike life in contemporary America. He’s like a person on the Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, always wondering whether he will get there in time. His life is one big projected Carmageddon.
As George Regas would say, “I know that man!” And here are two things I now know that I take away from the story and example of Jacob, things that I believe will help us all live joyous, free, abundant lives even under and in the midst of real tension and anxiety.
Thing one: Jacob’s willingness to go to the mat with God gives hope to you and me when we are similarly up against it. Prayer is a dialogical relationship, not a one-way Maoist re-education program. There’s a reason that over half of the Psalms are what we call Laments, complaints to God about the way things are. Real prayer starts where we are, not where we think we ought to be. What God wants from you is not dressed up, falsely cheerful obedience. What God wants from you is the full reality of who you are. And, if you’re like me, who you are is probably most of the time someone with a grievance or a grudge or a loss or a complaint. Thing one tells us this: come to God as you are, where you are, with what you actually have. Do not be afraid to address God from the depths of your anger, outrage, and pain. Be ready to receive some divine blowback. In the tussling you may get wounded in the hip, but like Jacob you will limp away into the sunrise with the blessing and the promise.
That’s thing one. Here’s thing two. Jacob does, in fact, limp away, and it’s into the sunrise. After his encounter with God, Jacob faces a new day. It’s the dawn of the feared meeting with his estranged brother. In his night with God, Jacob has engaged all his own fears and guilts and hopes and longings. God has brought Jacob to some kind of account, and even though Jacob is wounded, he is now newly ready to go forward.
Jacob arises and goes to meet Esau. He makes provision for the safety of his family. And then the brothers meet, and the meeting is, of course, nothing like what Jacob had expected or feared. In the words of Genesis [33.4}, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Thing two tells us this: the things we fear are usually the projections of our own inner life, grotesque fantasies not grounded in reality. Jacob had built up an image of his brother’s anger that was nothing more than his own internalized guilt projected outward. When he finally came face to face with the reality of who his brother Esau was, what he found instead of revenge was reconciliation, instead of blows a kiss, instead of anger, tears. And together they could live into a new way of being with each other, forging a new community (again in the words of Auden) based on trust instead of threats. Remember: Carmageddon work out as we all feared it might.
I don’t know what will happen with the debt ceiling drama, but I do know that it is possible for a divided nation to find a new way to live just as a broken family can. Jacob and Esau might be models for us as citizens. Ancient Israel saw itself in Jacob: a people constantly living under tension, engaged in complicated dealing with an inscrutable God, going forward to face adversaries who often turned out to be allies. And so it is for you and me: whatever burden you carry, whatever fear, whatever sorrow or guilt, whatever pain felt by someone else you care about: the way forward is neither to bury your feelings nor to demonize your adversary. The way forward is, as Jacob did, to get real, to face into your anxiety and dread and empathy, and to carry them straight to God as you are who you are where you are. Go forward into the sunrise, even if it means you do it in a newly wounded way. And then be ready for what God will give you as you greet that new day. As it was for Jacob, so it will be for you. “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Amen.