The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
August 3, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
Several years before the events of this story take place, our hero, Jacob, had a fight with his brother Esau. It was so bad that Esau wanted to kill him, so Jacob fled for his life. Now, Jacob is on his way to see his estranged brother and beg his forgiveness. To prepare him for how difficult this reunion will be, a mysterious stranger arrives to test Jacob’s resolve.
I’ll spare you the suspense—Jacob emerges victorious, but his close encounter with the stranger nearly destroys him.
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I was wearing my best secondhand suit, and the glove compartment of my car was well-stocked with beef-jerky. I broke the speed limit on the Massachusetts turnpike with Japanese pop music thundering out of the open windows, one man against the world, determined to prove that I wasn’t insane.
Frankly, I was a little worried.
I had an appointment in the outskirts of Boston with a psychologist I’d never met. He was going to analyze me, force his way into the depths of my mind, and file a report with the Church regarding my psychological fitness for Christian ministry. My future rested on his conclusion. It’s a difficult thing, to place oneself at the mercy of a stranger. I felt vulnerable, like a rotisserie chicken in the hands of a well-regarded restaurant critic, staring into the gaping mouth of an uncertain future.
I made a mental note to avoid saying that sort of thing during my psychological examination.
“You seem nervous,” he announced about twenty minutes into the interview. I told him that I was, and that his powers of observation were very keen. Then, leaning forward in his chair, he asked me, “Do I frighten you?” I told him that he did, maybe just a little, since my career depended on his opinion of me.
“You’re awfully worried about what people think about you,” he replied with a hint of concern. “That must make it difficult to get close to people. I imagine that intimate relationships are a real problem for you.” I started to protest, but I didn’t get far before he interrupted me with a startling inquiry.
“Have you ever bloodied another man’s nose?”
I asked him to repeat the question.
“Have you ever punched another man in the face? Have you ever stood above the quivering remains of a humiliated foe, and laughed at his pleas for mercy?” I didn’t like where this conversation was going, but I told him that I had not.
“There is no greater intimacy,” he declared, “than that which exists between two men in battle. But you fear confrontation. You fear conflict. Why do you think that is?” he asked me. I was speechless, but he answered his own question. “It’s because you’re afraid of intimacy. You’re afraid of getting too close, and you’re afraid of getting hurt. I think you’re afraid of hurting other people, too,” he added.
After that, well, I guess I got a bit defensive. I took his statement as an accusation of cowardice, a threat to my manhood. In a desperate attempt to sound macho, I tried to tell him about the beef jerky in my glove compartment, hoping that he would associate it with Macho Man, Randy Savage, the pro-wrestler who advertised the stuff on TV. He wasn’t impressed.
“There’s only one cure for what ails you,” he stated plainly. “You must fight another man, and win.”
I found it strange, that the Committee on Ministry had sent me to be analyzed by a man who sounded more like Genghis Kahn than Sigmund Freud. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was afraid of the pain of true intimacy.
In his book The Stranger, Albert Camus paints a portrait of a man who fears intimacy like the plague. He maintains the obligatory relationships with his neighbors and coworkers, and even engages in a romantic affair with a woman at his office. He doesn’t really care about them. He doesn’t care about anything. When his mother dies, he finds himself unable to cry. Later in the novel, he shoots a man dead without emotion or regret. Even as the authorities haul him off to the gallows for his crime, he remains unaffected.
The Book of Genesis depicts a very different kind of stranger.
This stranger doesn’t have a name, but he engages the world with every fiber of his being. The text never introduces him. All we’re told is that Jacob is stranded for the night on the banks of the river Jabbok, and that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Whereas Camus’ stranger holds back, building an invisible wall between himself and the world, the stranger in Genesis immediately engages Jacob—not just in conversation, but in combat.
In spite of the stranger’s refusal to tell Jacob his name, this is an extraordinarily intimate encounter. These two people are locked to one another for hours, each of them trying to gain mastery over the other in this strange and epic struggle. In the end, two things happen. The stranger breaks Jacob’s leg, and then the stranger blesses him with a new name—Israel.
At face value, this is a bizarre and violent story. It is also an extraordinary metaphor for both the risk and the reward of intimate relationships. When we get close to people, like Jacob and the stranger did, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Somewhere in the raw chaos of human emotion and interaction, parts of us get broken—usually not our legs, but our hearts. That’s what happens when two people who love each other are honest about the things that they don’t love about each other. I’m not just talking about husbands and wives, but also sisters and brothers, parents and children, friends. Sometimes, intimacy can be an unpleasant business.
As this story demonstrates, our willingness to engage in the pain of relationships, to be more than just a passing stranger to those around us, also leaves us vulnerable to the blessing of communion with another human heart.
That vulnerability can bring us closer to God, too. The Hebrew names used in this story are significant. Israel means “the one who wrestles with God.” Peniel, the name that Jacob gives the battleground, means “face to face with God.” And Jabbok, the name of the river where this all takes place, literally means “pouring out,” as in the pouring out of one’s innermost self. All of these names revolve around a common theme—intimate relationships—not just with other people, but with our Creator. It’s no coincidence that the stranger in this tale turns out to be God.
Indeed, it can sometimes feel like God is the greatest stranger of all.
Two months after my surreal interview with the psychologist, an opportunity to take his advice presented itself. It was a sunny day in September, high noon, when I caught a man trying to steal my car. He’d already smashed the passenger side window, stolen my stereo, and was in the process of removing my ignition when I happened to arrive on the scene. We stared at one another for a long minute, each of us sizing up the other, each of us wondering if we should be afraid.
“Give me your money,” he said quietly, shattering the silence. It probably took me longer than it should have to realize I was being mugged, long enough that my assailant was forced to repeat himself. “Give me your money.”
When I realized what was happening, a sickly blend of fear and hostility swept over me like a hot wind. The words of the psychologist echoed in my ears.
“You must fight another man, and win.”
I clenched my fists and prepared for the inevitable outcome. I knew what I had to do.
I gave him the money.
I was angry for awhile after that. I was angry at myself for giving in, and I was angry at the stranger who had smashed my windshield and my pride. Five years later, my only regret is that I never got to know him. What would it have been like, I wonder, if we’d had two cups of coffee and a few hours to kill? Maybe I would have learned about his dreams for a better life. Maybe I could have learned his name—maybe he would have thrown the hot coffee in my face and taken my wallet. Who knows? Life is full of risks.
One minute you’re minding your own business, whistling a catchy tune, and the next thing you know, you’re being mugged. Sometimes we blame God when bad things like that happen—when we’re diagnosed with a horrible disease, when our loved ones die in unlikely accidents, and when misfortune lies in wait for us like a trap, ready to spring. Then we get angry.
Last August, a man in Florida drove his pick-up truck into the St. Anastasia Catholic Church. According to police reports, he wasn’t trying to get a better seat for Mass. Rather, he told officers on the scene that he was angry with God. I don’t think he handled it very well, but at least he didn’t take the passive-aggressive approach.
If we bottle it up, our frustration with God—and other people—can drive a wedge between us the size of a pick-up truck. Even the ones we hold most dear can become strangers to us. Our anger can also bring us into a deeper and more intimate relationship, if we’re honest about it. Our emotions can break us, or bless us. Again, look at the name that the angel gives Jacob—Israel. Not the one who loves God, or the one who worships God, but the one who wrestles with God, one who engages God face to face and survives.
I’m reminded of a line from a kung-fu movie I once saw: “You cannot really know someone, until you fight them.” I think there’s some truth to that.
That means being honest, with God and with the people around us. It means pouring ourselves out like water, in spite of the risks. If we’re angry, it means telling God that we’re angry. If we’re happy, we need to share that, too. When we learn how to love, how to hate, how to forgive, and love again, we learn how to be God’s children. If our relationship with God consists of little more than polite conversation and awkward silence, then God might seem more like a distant cousin, the kind who doesn’t even come home for Christmas.
As Jacob parted ways with the God who broke his leg, he limped towards a reunion with his long-lost brother. Broken but not dead, Jacob was ready to meet Esau face to face. If nothing else, the long night had taught him that it wouldn’t be easy. When they finally did meet again after so many years, they didn’t shake hands or make small talk. They didn’t stand around awkwardly or discuss politics. They embraced one another and they wept.
Nothing that had happened between them was forgotten; but all was forgiven.
The world is full of strangers—but there is no room for strangers at this table. Come forward, one and all, for here we are friends. Here we are sisters and brothers. Here we meet God—and one another—face to face.