A reflection on Proper 13A Genesis 32:22-31 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
Twenty years ago this September I experienced a loss of identity. Our daughter was a newborn and I had quit my job to be home with her. I remember speaking to someone on the phone, maybe the pediatrician’s office, and the person asked, “And what do you do?” I had to pause. And for a brief moment everything I ever thought I was flew through my mind: I was Paul and Joani’s child, I had been a student at this or that university, I had been a Lighting Designer and Technical Director for dance theater, I had been a sales person, and until a few weeks before this incident, I had been an interior designer. Now who was I? I was Dan’s wife and I was Jessica’s mother, true enough. But that did not completely answer who I was. My identity was shifting and I had no automatic instant answer. Eventually I guess I said I was a stay at home mom, and I loved that, but it was definitely a big shift within me.
Murray Stein, a prominent Jungian writer and analyst, wrote a book called, “Transformation: Emergence of the Self.” In it he speaks of a very profound transition that human beings go through somewhere in the early years of middle age, also known as “The Mid-life Crisis.” He describes it as a process that takes about a decade to complete. He uses the life stories of Carl Jung, Rembrandt, Rilke, and Picasso to underscore the struggle of this process and the creative result. Stein begins his book with one of his clients, a thirty five year old woman who had a recurring dream about being a caterpillar that turns into a cocoon and emerges as a butterfly. This is the transformative process he unpacks in the book, developed from Chrysalis, the means by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Essentially what Stein describes is the struggle human beings go through to become fully who we are intended to be. Each of us he argues goes through this at some point in time. The process begins with a sense of being unsettled in life, something is amiss. We then face long dark years of doubt and fear, where everything we thought we knew and understood about ourselves, or our hopes and dreams, our expectations, our life goals, even our faith, comes into question. We reassess everything, perhaps we wonder who God is and how we know God in our lives, sometimes we change careers or going back to school, get a divorce, or move far away.
This is the place where we find Jacob this morning. We have moved through the Genesis story from Abraham and Sarah, who are Jacob’s grandparents. We’ve heard their story of struggle and transformation. We have moved through the story of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob’s parents. And we have heard most of the story of Jacob himself – how he tricked his brother into giving him the birthright of inheritance, how he had to flee his homeland to escape the wrath of his brother, how he worked for 14 years to win the hand of Rachel from her father Laban. And now our reading today points us to a place late in Jacob’s life, a time when he has become successful and wealthy. He has a large family, 12 sons, and many possessions, he ought to feel settled. But despite all of his success he still struggles with what he did to his brother all those years before. And so he sets out with his family to see his brother and ask his forgiveness. He is quite terrified of this. He heard his brother knows of his coming and is on his way to meet him. His brother is also successful and wealthy and comes with many people. Jacob wonders if perhaps his brother is bringing an army. His brother Esau may choose to kill him out of anger.
As he nears the end of his journey to meet his brother Jacob pauses for some time of sleep, prayer, contemplation. He sends his family on ahead, to a place of safety, while he prepares. It is in this night of preparation that Jacob has an amazing dream. He is wrestling with none other than God! All night long he wrestles, getting no sleep, and ending up wounded.
This story of Jacob wrestling with God invites us to look at the ways we too wrestle with God. Each one of us have had some time, or are having a time, in which we argue, debate, struggle with God. It is part of the process of faith. It is part of the process of becoming fully who we are called to be.
Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian, in his book, “The Shaking of the Foundations” describes this faith building process of struggle, grace, and transformation. He says, “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of meaninglessness and empty life. It strikes us when we feel our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘ You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you…”
Tillich continues, “If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we many not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before….(but nonetheless) everything is transformed….(and yet) nothing is demanded of this experience except acceptance.”
Jacob wrestles with God. In the process each has such a hold on the other that they cannot let go. God tells Jacob to release him, but Jacob says he cannot until God gives him a blessing. The blessing is granted and with it Jacob is changed. His name is changed from Jacob to Israel. In addition, the strain of the wrestle has wounded Jacob; from now on he will walk with a limp. Wrestling with God leaves its mark on Jacob, inside and out. But from these marks, these scars, these wounds, also comes grace and transformation. Jacob knows who he is. Jacob knows that God accepts him as he is. In all of his imperfections, flaws, deceits, in all of his faithfulness and love of God, he is God’s servant. He is Israel, and his children become the twelve tribes of Israel – metaphorically speaking, his children become all the nations of the world.
So, what does this mean for us? Today the word Israel is very complex. It not only describes the ancient people of God but it also means a nation made up of ethnic and religious Jews. Israel can mean a people, a land, a nation, the whole people of God. Christians have adopted Israel and its promises of God. But Christians have also used
Israel in anti-semitic ways. Israel can mean many things and as Christians we must always be mindful in our use and understanding of this word.
Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist, was once commissioned to paint the artwork for the baptistery in the church in Assay, France. He painted the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The journey through water, whether it is the Red Sea or the waters of baptism, is a metaphor for becoming the people of God. Chagall took the profound image of Jewish tradition, the journey through the Red Sea, the calling of the people of God and connected it to the Christian understanding of Israel, called through water to become the people of God. Two different understandings of water, journey, struggle, transformation, each leading to the same end result. A people of God. Israel.
As a people of God our identity is as community, not individuals. Jacob points us to this when he loses his identity as an individual, as Jacob, and becomes community, Israel. Our identity, rooted in Judaism and in the tradition of Christinity, is found in community.
Jesus, in the Gospel reading points us this way as well. Jesus goes off to pray, just as Jacob did. Which affirms the idea that we all need moments alone, in solitude with God for rest and renewal. But those moments alone may not be what we anticipate. Moments alone with God may speak to us individually by defining who we are as members of a community. As a result we may wrestle with God instead of finding rest. We may be lead in a new direction, one in which we go energized and inspired or we may go kicking and screaming, resisting God the entire way.
Last May the vestry went on retreat. It was a time for us to have some rest and renewal but also a time for us to think intentionally about who we are as community. Our facilitator led us in some reflections on this theme and in the process we had an epiphany, a whole new sense of God and who we are as God’s people. We were discussion the theme of hoarding and abundance. We realized that we have a tendency here at St. Francis to think of ourselves as poor, as never having enough. But in this discussion we came to the realization that we are not poor, rather we are abundantly blessed by God and by the people of this church. We realized that we have resources at our disposal that are unheard of in many other church communities today. It was a moment of profound grace.
In our Gospel reading this morning we hear the disciples tell Jesus that they don’t have enough food and drink to offer all the people who have gathered around. We are living like the disciples, under that notion that we don’t have enough. Jesus reminds the disciples that with God there is always enough. This summer we have reflected a great deal on the generosity of God. God’s generosity with Abraham and Sarah, God’s generosity with Isaac and Rebecca, God’s generosity with Jacob and Rachel, God’s generosity when we nurture our faith, expecting one thing to arise and find that tulips come up instead! God’s generosity when we think we have little and find out that we have an abundance. Scripture reminds us that when people are motivated to act through the same kind of generosity that God offers, then people are generous as well, and everything can change.
The vestry is now heading into a time of reflection and prayer. We are following the example of Jacob and Jesus. I fully anticipate that we will wrestle with God a bit and wrestle with our selves too. But in the end I think we will have a new understanding of how God is calling us into community. I am certain that God will bless this process even as God continues to accept us for who we are. I am sure we will continue to some degree to impose limits on ourselves and God. But I am also sure that God will continue to send us moments of grace and blessing. Eventually I think we will come out knowing ourselves in a new way, like Jacob, like the disciples. Perhaps we will even rename ourselves as Abundantly Generous.