July 31, 2011
David A. Davis
At lunch the other day with a few of my presbytery colleagues, a pastor was sharing a conversation she had on a plane not too long ago. It was one of those conversations that started innocently enough, and then took a turn after the fellow traveler asked her what she did for a living. Turns out the man next to the pastor was born and raised Presbyterian; raised his children in the church; was a deacon and his wife was an elder. But then he said they weren’t very active anymore. The kids were grown, had children of their own and lived a few hundred miles away. He and wife were still working; life was a busy as ever and on weekends they enjoyed gardening, traveling, tennis. The man sighed and turned to my pastor friend, and as if the airplane seats were arranged for confession he said, “I have to be honest, I haven’t been to church in years!” The pastor, who thinks like most pastors; assumed that meant something was wrong with the congregation, something bad had happened, feelings were hurt, someone was mad, this issue or that, denominational politics, bad preaching, a falling out with the pastor, it must have been something, “No, no” her traveling companion tried to reassure her “it was nothing like that.” “Do you miss it all” she asked. “No, not at all.” And then after some silence, he said, “I guess the church just stopped being relevant in my life.”
One can add that to the list of what folks say about the church, about this congregation, or that congregation. The things people say about churches, on the plus side and on the minus side. Not relevant. Full of hypocrites. Great outreach.Wonderful music. Beautiful building. Not enough young people. Very conservative. Very liberal. A strong youth program. The best Vacation Bible School. A fine choir. Too much like a club. Too much talk about money. Too much politics. Not enough politics. Really good preaching. Boring worship. Not enough families. No diversity. Too many songs I don’t know. My 12 year old hates it. Wonderfully welcoming. Too overbearing. And on and on and on the list goes.
Here’s one more to add to the list. I’ve never heard it, but I think we should add it to the list. That church, that congregation, those people in that church; they’re just limping along. Just limping along. Add that to the list…just limping along. Add it the list because of Jacob.
There’s way not enough time to tell you the whole story of Jacob this morning. But the scripture lesson you are about to here from Genesis 32 has everything to do with Jacob and his brother Esau. Jacob and Esau were twins. When it came time for their mother Rebekah to deliver, Esau was born first. He was according to the bible, red and hairy. Jacob was born holding on to his older brother’s heel. The name Jacob means: heel, or deceiver, or one who supplants. Esau was the hunter; a man of the field. Jacob, it says, “was a quiet man, living in tents.” Their father Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game. Their mother Rebekah loved Jacob.
One day Jacob had made some stew and Esau came in from the field famished. “Let me eat some of that red stuff, Jacob.” Jacob told Esau he would only give him some stew if Esau sold him his birthright. Esau was so hungry, birthright was the last thing on his mind. “I’m dying here of hunger, and you’re worried about a birthright?” Stew? Birthright? Stew? Birthright? Esau went for the red stuff.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim, he called to his elder son and explained that he was dying and that his wish was that the Esau would go out and hunt his father a delicious meal. “Bring it to me to eat so that I may bless you before I die.” You remember this part, don’t you? Rebekah, who loved Jacob more, she conspired with the younger son to trick the old man into the blessing. With food made my mom, and an animal skin worn like a costume to feel like all Esau’s hair, Jacob went to visit his father pretending to be his brother. Sure enough, Jacob flat out lied to his father and received a blessing. Jacob lifted both the birthright and the blessing from his brother. Esau could only cry out with “an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” Right there in scripture it says Esau hated Jacob and he was planning to kill him.
Years later (twenty years, two wives, and eleven children later) Jacob got wind that Esau was coming to find him along with four hundred men. Jacob was frightened and assumed Esau was coming back for revenge. So he devised a plan to offer a bunch of his animals to his brother as a gift; a peace offering of sorts. Jacob thought it was the only way he could see Esau face to face; the only way Esau might accept him after the deception. So Jacob sent the company presents on up ahead; so Esau could see them first. Jacob himself spent the night in camp.
As the morning dawned, Jacob saw Esau and the 400 hundred men coming. This time, he put all the women and children behind him and he approached his brother bowing to the ground in humility. Esau, when he saw Jacob, he ran to meet him, and in prodigal son kind of foreshadowing, Esau embraced Jacob, fell on his neck and kissed him, and together they wept. Through all the tears, Jacob said to Esau, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
It reads like a novel, the story of Jacob. All the complexity of a family. All the twists and turns of real life. Sibling rivalry. Broken Relationship. Deception and trickery. Threats. Parents with favorites. And I only told you part of the story. Jacob, Esau, Isaac, Rebekah; it all sounds so…human. Not so far fetched. “Real families of history”, perhaps. So normal, or typical, or relatable; except for the wrestling, except for the part in the text I read to you, except for Jacob wresting with an angel. That’s so “biblely”, so out there, so strange old world of the bible-like Jacob wrestling with the angel.
Of course the story only describes the wrestler as a man. No mention of an angel. Only a man, a man who when he realized he couldn’t win the match, he struck Jacob with a lasting blow to the hip. “Jacob wrestling with God” it could be called. Because his opponent renames him “Israel”. The man said, “you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Wrestling with an angle. Wrestling with God. Jacob holding on for dear life demanding yet another blessing for himself; a blessing not by deceit but by pure struggle. “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” Whatever it was, whoever it was, whatever happened that night on the eve of a twenty year reconciliation, and the transformation of a forgiven deceiver, whatever it was that night, Jacob’s dark night of the soul, when the morning came, Jacob picked himself up, dusted himself off and limped into a new day. “I have seen the face of God and yet my life is preserved.”
Some ten years ago I was leading a bible study on this text when a long time Nassau member now gone on to glory, was trying to wrap his mind around Jacob’s struggle. He said to me and to the whole group, “maybe Jacob just ate some bad fish.” The questions about the text don’t just come from the skeptics. If it was God there on the mat, of course God would prevail! The Moses narratives in Exodus make it pretty clear no one can see the face of God. A name was never given. The term angel doesn’t appear. But certainly Jacob knew this to be a divine encounter, and with the language of blessing and the references to God, and the naming, and the transformation. All the mystery and the question and the never ending conversation for students of scripture reading Genesis, this Jacob wrestling with God text, dropped into what seemed like such utterly understandable, human, timeless, life-like, ordinary, everyday relationships.
And then there’s the limping. It’s almost like the only part of this text that doesn’t raise more questions is the limping. Jacob limping along. Limping with hip pain. It’s easy to forget his limping. You don’t have to explain or describe a limp. Folks like us are trying to figure out what on earth, what in heaven happened that night and Jacob is limping away into the arms of his brother. Limping along; after an all night struggle with God that defies crisp definition. Limping along; in the aftermath of an indescribable blend of blessing and battle; going to the mat with God and yet rising to a new day, a fresh promise, a new name. Limping along; after baring the soul, and facing the truth (My name is Jacob; the heel, the deceiver, the supplanter) and yet holding on for dear life demanding, crying out for, expecting nothing less than the blessing that comes from the faithfulness of God. Limping along; with the marks that come as you try to make some sense of the world’s complexity and your own brokenness, wondering out loud, maybe all night long, what in God’s name is going on here. Still limping along; the struggles always fresh, yet picking yourself up, dusting off, and rising to feel the very mercy and grace of God shining fresh as the morning sun.
That conversation at lunch the other day, after my colleague shared the comment about the church not being relevant anymore, our table talk too quickly turned to what we as pastors need to do to make the church more relevant, completely missing the poor travelers attempt to reassure his confessor that it wasn’t about the church, or what the church did or didn’t do. I’ll tell you what I said at lunch….I gave up on the guilt thing and worship attendance a long time ago. In the milk section at the grocery store, at a high school concert, at a restaurant, at a neighborhood party, when folks see me, I wish I could reassure I am not taking roll. I’m not the truant officer. But neither am I taking the blame for every decision a person makes about the church and its relevance to their life.
All this is, all we are, we are a gathering of the people of God just limping along. It’s not perfect. We could always do better. It’s not pleasing to everybody. We live in Princeton. It’s not having all the answers. People who think they have all the answers don’t limp. But a body of the followers of Jesus Christ who believe in and give witness to and struggle to understand the presence of God in our utterly understandable, human, timeless, life-like, ordinary, everyday relationships. Wrestling with and being blessed by the presence of God in our lives and in the world, and together limping along with the radiance of God’s grace every day. Every day.
That church, that congregation, those people in that church; Nassau Church. Nassau Presbyterian Church. The body of Christ at 61 Nassau Street. they’re just limping along. Just limping along.
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