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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 29, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 20, 2013

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 119; Luke 18:1-8

‘Like fighting in a dream’

Our reading from Genesis is something of a classic. It is part of the Jacob/Israel saga the story of a trickster, a deceiver who steals a blessing, who leaves home wrestles with his conscience, his God and himself who is deceived, who loves, who returns home who is forgiven, who undergoes conversion, limping, learning. It is the story of Jacob/Yaakov, at the Yabbok, at the crossroads (Yaabok means “to wrestle or struggle”). It is the story of Israel it is the story of the Gentile community, the people of God grafted into the story of Israel. God be with you

Penny is colouring four scenes from the life of Jacob: Jacob tricks his father Isaac (Genesis 27:1-45); Jacob has a dream (Genesis 27:41-45; 28:10-22); Jacob goes home (Genesis 31:133:20); and Esau (Jacob’s twin brother) forgives Jacob (Genesis 32:3-21; 33:1-11). Our text comes just before the text about Esau forgiving Jacob.

It is such a dense/richly woven text it’s hard to know where to start reading. Taking a cue from the Gospel for today, which is about “praying always and not losing heart”, my eyes are drawn to the prayer of Jacob in the early part of chapter 32. A reunion with his wronged brother Esau is imminent, and Jacob is afraid.

Jacob then prayed, “O God of my ancestors Sarah and Abraham, the God of Rebecca my mother and Isaac my father, the God who reminded me, ‘Go back to your homeland and to your kin, and I will bless you’ I am unworthy of the smallest part of your constant love and the faithfulness you showed to me. When I originally crossed the Jordan, I had only my walking stick. Now I have grown to two caravans. Please deliver me from my brother, from the clutches of Esau. For I fear that Esau is coming to attack me, and my children and their mothers as well. Yet you said, ‘I will make you prosper greatly, and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of its numbers.”

I can relate to this prayerful Jacob. The one who knows keenly his dependence on others, the one who knows keenly his own failings. The one who knows failure and success, who fears failure vulnerable to the light of justice yet not without hope of real mercy, real prosperity, real blessing.

Carl Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian writer and theologian from New York City. Buechner’s version of Genesis 32:22-31 is worth retelling it picks up the wordplay in the Hebrew whereby Jacob wrestles with a “someone”, literally “a mortal” a mysterious figure variously interpreted as his own mirror image, his twin Esau; as a stranger, an angel; as a god; as God. Jacob is struck at the socket of the hip, literally the “hollow”, figuratively the power or essence, the seat of one’s being. His new name, Israel, may mean “Overcomer of God”, “God Wrestles”, “God Rules”, “Dominion-Getter”, or “One Who Sees God”.

Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. It was a man. I could not see his face. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river. My flocks had fouled him and my children pissed on him. He would not let me cross without a battle. I got my elbow into the pit of his throat and forced him off. I threw him over onto his back. His breath was hot in my face as I straddled him. My breath came in gasps. Quick as a serpent he twisted loose, and I was caught between his thighs. The grip was so tight I could not move. He had both hands pressed to my cheek. He was pushing my face into the mud, grunting with the effort. Then he got me on my belly with his knee in the small of my back. He was tugging my head up toward him. He was breaking my neck.

He was not the god of the river. He was Esau. He had slain all my sons. He had forded the river to slay me. Just as my neck was about to snap, I butted my head upward with the last of my strength and caught him square. For an instant his grip loosened and I was free. Over and over we rolled together into the reeds at the water’s edge. We struggled in each other’s arms. He was on top. Then I was on top. I knew that they were not Esau’s arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was. I knew only my terror and that it was dark as death. I knew only that what the stranger wanted was my life.

For the rest of the night we battled in the reeds with the Yabbok roaring down through the gorge above us. Each time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow. There were moments when we lay exhausted in each other’s arms. There were moments when I seemed to be prevailing. It was as if he was letting me prevail. Then he was at me with new fury. But he did not prevail. For hours it went on that way. Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, “Let me go.”

The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.

He said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.

I said, “I will not let you go.”

I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.

I said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.

Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

He said, “Who are you?”

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.

My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”

It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with mortals. You have prevailed”

I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. He was too close to me to see. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.

I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it.

Why do you ask me my name?”

We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-coloured sky.

I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.

What has Jacob learned? What learning is offered to us? Amen.