Face to Face

Sunday, August 2, 2020
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 13)

Focus Theme:
Face to Face

Focus Prayer:
God beyond all seeing and knowing, we meet you in the night of change and crisis, and wrestle with you in the darkness of doubt. Give us the will and spirit to live faithfully and love as we are loved. Amen.

Focus Reading:
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.

All readings for the week: Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Focus Questions:

1. What kind of God do you need: a consoling God, or one who struggles with you?

2. What are your most pressing questions for God?

3. Who is the “Esau” in your life?

4. How does the character of Jacob strike you?

5. What unexpected places of holiness have you encountered?

by Kate Matthews

For so many reasons, I began working on this reflection in need of an attitude adjustment. Whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to dread the feeling of boredom with “that same old story,” or of frustration at trying to say something new or different about it.

This particular narrative might also provoke confusion about what a passage filled with so much ambiguity really means, and perhaps even a measure of discomfort with the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, employed by the author.

And then there’s that problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. One part of us may be repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, but another part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.

Struggle on the riverbank

The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger–God or an angel, we usually say–on that riverbank long ago has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in “Angels in America”), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.” (My first time to use Wikipedia for Weekly Seeds, but I couldn’t resist.)

Psychologists, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. So “modern” that approach, and so inadequate for the text before us.

The story in its larger context

The challenge for us is to hear this little story in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s even greater story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life.

We can hear in this story the echoes of stories before and after it, so spending time with passages like Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, and 35:1-15 was the best attitude adjustment I could ask for, as I considered Jacob’s late-night struggle there, on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that (he hoped) still lay ahead.

Jacob can surprise us

For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may think of him as cunning and sly (and I don’t mean that in a good way), Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first returns home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath.

Here, almost home (such poignant words, so full of longing), Jacob offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a).

Dennis Olson notes that this prayer of Jacob is the longest prayer in Genesis. Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first. Nice move, Jacob.

The memory of a dream

Two weeks ago, we read another familiar excerpt from the above passages, about the night Jacob was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, when he had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always.

Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty.”

An “awesome” experience

There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would promise to keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace. (Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the “etc., etc.” of our own prayers).

Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience.

In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we will read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we’ll hear several reminders that this had been where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name.

Repetition to remind us

We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. Some repetition in an oral culture is necessary for the memory of the storyteller, and some repetition is also just plain good for us, who need to be reminded of God’s steadfast love. (“In an oral world,” according to Walter Ong, “you must think memorable thoughts.”)

This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on-the-edge, just on the outside. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well.

Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle (it must run in the family), Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots.

Alone, in the deep of the night

He has sent ahead herds and herds of gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work. Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had.” Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.

A disturbing encounter

Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We assume that stranger was God, or at least an angel of God, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being.

Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.”

The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have a kind of power, and in those days when words meant even more, Tucker says that knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name “was to obtain a measure of control over it.”

“An ancient, jagged story”

Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife….Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification.”

“Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all.

Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go. Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face.

Seeing God, face to face

And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing.

Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed. In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw.”

Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed.”

Nations and brothers

However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents Israel’s eastern neighbor, Edom, and that the two nations had a testy relationship after Edom helped Babylon conquer Judah.

We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.

Several themes emerge

Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.”

Fretheim also suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.”

Jacob responds well, Fretheim notes, and he receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well.”

Anguished questions for God

Obviously, we too struggle with God, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of Elie Wiesel and the anguished and angry questions he had for God about the terrible suffering of his people; the slaves who were carried off, sold, and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion and focus instead on their own power and preservation.

We struggle in our own personal lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. In times like these, fraught with poisonous political divisions and a raging pandemic that is exacting an enormous physical and economic toll, we have our communal questions for God.

Struggles and anguish and questions for God

Indeed, we witness the suffering and deaths of people most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which disproportionately ravages communities of people of color, the elderly, the poor. We watch, helpless ourselves (it seems), as those most vulnerable in our midst suffer needlessly. Observers note soberly, and perhaps ironically, that the most powerful, the wealthiest country on earth is brought to its knees by this disease.

Of course, the “same old” problems persist as well: racism and hatred, violence and injustice, prejudice and the abuse of power, militaristic posturing (now adding “secret police” in our cities) and environmental destruction (some of these all swirled together in a toxic brew) churn through our shared lives and shape them in ways we deplore.

Questions and struggles and problems

We hear, for example, of the distress of families torn apart by the deportation of a desperate parent who saw our country as their best hope for a decent life. We are dismayed by the way our political life has been torn apart, splitting us into two camps (in addition to those who have detached or have no voice), and making the solutions to our problems seem more far away than ever.

Each day the split grows ever wider and uglier, and we are perplexed by how we will ever address the challenges with which we must struggle, including the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.

Moving on from the suffering of others

Beyond the suffering caused by human sin, accident, and neglect, we are aware of the suffering of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters–and the compounding of that anguish by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines.

I just heard a newscaster recalling the suffering of the people of Puerto Rico, which kept our attention for a while several years ago–but we have moved on to other matters, while the people of that island continue to deal with the effects of a terrible hurricane. Who has been held responsible for that mismanagement of resources in our response? Are we better now?

Hank J. Langknecht encourages preachers on this text (and undoubtedly others) “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God,” and we do so not with detached consideration but up close, face to face, with deep consternation.

Allowing suffering to be heard

When I think about the call to preach, I remember once hearing a commentator on television (I wish I could remember who) remind us that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” Often, the pain of God’s children and God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God.

Richard Pervo asks an important question about that struggle, and provides a good answer as well: “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need.” What kind of God do you need? What kind of God does your congregation need?

The persistence of blessing

Indeed, Jacob’s larger story, not just this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen one from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it.

James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God.”

Struggle and reconciliation

And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully in his commentary on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.”

Jacob then sees the face of God, again, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4).

Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come: “As Jacob had seen the face of God in the struggle and reconciliation with the wrestler,” Olson writes, “so Jacob sees the face of God in the face of his reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life.”

Setting things in motion

Two sermons on this text by great preachers will provide more ideas and approaches for exploring this powerful story, one by Frederick Buechner and the other by Barbara Brown Taylor. Buechner’s words about the theft of Isaac’s blessing that set these events in motion are exquisite and help us to understand Esau’s anger, for “we also know that words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.”

Buechner also wonders about Jacob’s ability to get away with things, to succeed through the “kind of dishonesty, which is also apt to be your kind and mine,” the kind “good” people often use to get, at any cost, what they want and may even believe they deserve.

He touches on the heart of Jacob’s desperate need by describing that last moment, clinging to the stranger: “what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death–the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me!'”

Preoccupied with a comforting faith?

Barbara Brown Taylor provides another much-needed attitude adjustment when she notes our preoccupation with a comforting faith in a God who will take care of the chaos in our lives, since “it is God’s job to make it stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again,” even though the Bible, she cautions us, will not support this belief.

In working with this text, then, we can’t skip over the wrestling, even though “[w]e want to be saved, only gently, please, by gradual degrees, so that we can see where we are going and say, ‘Yes, this suits me fine.'”

We are a lot like Jacob

Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us–to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way.

She describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully of all the commentaries: “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go.” Awesome, indeed.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Shannon L. Alder, 21st century
“You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your biggest miracle.”

Mary Balogh, 21st century
“Was memory always as much of a burden as it could sometimes be a blessing?”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
“Calvin: ‘There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”

Franz Kafka, 20th century
“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 20th century
“No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 20th century
“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 20th century
“Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering.”

Ravi Zacharias, Recapture the Wonder, 20th century
“The world is larger and more beautiful than my little struggle.” ———————————————————————————————————
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