This is the first in an occasional sermon series entitled “How to Survive a Pandemic.”
Genesis 32: 22-31
Imagine, if you will, that when you were in your early 20s, you and your mother devised a plot to cheat your twin out a portion of his inheritance. You’ve never really gotten along with this twin sibling. You’re very different. He’s a person of action, a hunter; he likes to be out and about, having his adventures. You prefer to stay at home, hanging out with your Mom. You’re her favorite. And, let’s face it, you’re a bit smarter than your sibling. You’ve actually tricked him out of some of his inheritance before. It was pretty easy to do. But you know that your sibling is your father’s favorite — and your father is the one who will decide who gets the rest of the inheritance. So, you and your Mom cook up this scheme to defraud your twin — and it works.
But when your twin finds out, not surprisingly, he is steaming mad and threatens to kill you. Your mother tells you to run away to her brother’s home, who lives far away. Maybe you can come home in a few weeks after your sibling cools down. But, you fall in love soon after arriving at your uncle’s home. You decide to stay, and you eventually settle down and get married there. Twice, actually, to siblings. But that’s a whole other story.
Now, it’s 20 years later. You left home an impetuous and rather deceitful 20something, owning nothing but what you could carry there. Now, you’re returning home, with your large family, a prosperous and slightly more humble middle-aged person. You miss home. You want to see the land of your ancestors. You want to see your family again. You’re weary of living with this alienation from your twin. You’re ready to face your past, face the consequences of what you did 20 years before. But you haven’t talked to your twin this entire time you’ve been gone. Is he still mad at you? Is it possible that he still wants to harm you? You’ve heard rumors to suggest this is the case.
And now, after a long trip home with your big family and your big moving truck, you have reached the last night of your journey. The next day, you’re going to see your brother, and something is going to happen. You just don’t know what. You go out, by yourself, to take a walk, to get some fresh air. To prepare yourself.
This is the situation Jacob is in at the beginning of our story from today, as he paces alone in his campsite beside the Yabbok River. Jacob is coming home to face his past, to face his brother, to face the consequences of his deceit 20 years ago. He is understandably anxious.
As Jacob finally settles down to sleep, he feels himself gripped by muscular arms. Someone is trying to pin him to the ground! Who is this person? It’s so dark, he can’t tell. The assailant is strong, but so is Jacob. In fact, they are almost equally matched. Twins, you might say. All night, the fight goes back and forth. First, Jacob seems to be winning, then his assailant seems to be getting the upper hand. At one point late in the fight, the assailant strikes Jacob on his hip and dislocates it. The pain is searing. But still, Jacob fights on. He’s so weary he doesn’t know how he can keep going, but he has no choice. He has to. Finally, dawn breaks. The long night is over. Jacob’s assailant says, “The day is coming. Let go of me and I’ll leave.” Jacob has endured. You can’t really say he won the fight. But he endured it, and, finally, it ended.
In 1988, I made what felt like a risky decision to go to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I left a full ride scholarship at a really good journalism school in Missouri to go to an Episcopal seminary for a degree in feminist liberation theology. I had no idea what I would do with such a degree. I just knew I needed to do it. It was a spiritual quest for me. To finance this degree, for which I received no scholarship, I needed to take out lots of loans and work. I found a half-time job as an officer manager for a professor at one of Boston’s august educational institutions. The place was unionized, so the pay was great, and I had wonderful benefits — full medical plus tuition reimbursement for a portion of my seminary tuition. I hoped the job would be relatively easy and stress-free so I could concentrate on my academic work.
The job was easy, but it wasn’t stress free. My boss was hard and demanding. I felt like she saw me as an underling there to do a task, and if I didn’t do the task correctly, I was reprimanded. One time I read the postage chart wrong and put a 40-cent stamp on an international letter instead of a 45-cent one. The letter came back, of course, and she was cross with me when I came in the next day. She couldn’t believe I didn’t know that international letters needed a 45-cent stamp. Had I never sent one before? No. I hadn’t. I think she couldn’t fathom someone not having the sort of international connections that she had. I was already becoming aware, attending this Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, which was quite WASPy and upper middle class, that I came from much more of a working-class background. And this particular reprimand exacerbated that feeling of being an unsophisticated peasant from a small Midwestern farming community. It felt like a class put-down. I started to dread going to work. It kept me up at nights, sometimes. But I kept going. I needed the money, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to find and get trained in another job.
And then, after about a year, things changed. My boss softened and became more kind. She actually complimented me once. I didn’t dread going into work anymore. I had no idea why things had changed, but they had. The fight, such as it was, was over.
I was telling this story to my academic mentor, Dr. Katie Cannon, during a check-in with her soon after things started changing at my job. I can still remember how she looked at me and said, with gravity in her voice, “You endured.” Tears welled up in my eyes. She had named what I had been through so precisely. I had endured. I hadn’t “won” — that is, I hadn’t done anything to heroically change the situation. I hadn’t confronted my boss about her bad behavior; I hadn’t worked to find another job with a nicer supervisor and had the pleasure of telling my mean boss that I was leaving. I had just born the anxiety and dread and mild humiliation of that job long enough that things changed.
Jacob had also been struggling a long time, and now his enemy just wanted to be let go… but Jacob doesn’t release him. He holds his enemy close, with the strength he has left. Why not just end it? Jacob says, “I will not let go until you bless me.” I don’t always like Jacob; he’s deceitful and too clever by half. But I love this aspect of him — his tenacity. He’s in utter pain. He’s exhausted. But he’s not going to let go of his enemy, he’s not going to let go of this struggle until he gets a blessing out of it. Jacob doesn’t just want to try to forget and move on as soon as possible. He needs to wrestle meaning from this struggle. He needs to extract the blessing from it.
Eventually, his enemy relents and blesses Jacob by giving him a new name — a new identity. No longer Jacob, which means something like “heel grabber.” He got that name by being the second twin to be born, already competing with his brother Esau in the womb by grasping his heel on the way out as if to say, “I’m not going to let you be first!” Now, Jacob’s name is Israel — one who struggles with God. In the process of bestowing this blessing, Jacob’s opponent is revealed to be divine — an angel or maybe even God. The night’s struggle has not only yielded its blessing; it has become sacred, the place where Jacob sees the face of God.
My academic mentor, Katie Cannon, had grown up African American in the segregated South. It was against the law for her to go the public library when she was young. She couldn’t swing on the swings. As a girl she worked alongside an aunt cleaning and cooking in a white family’s home, the best job people said she or her aunt could hope for at the time. (These details come from her obituary in the New York Times.) But she proved everyone wrong and became the first Black woman to enroll in a Masters of Divinity degree at the seminary she attended and the first Black woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church. She eventually got her Ph.D. and started a whole new field in theology called womanist ethics, ethics from the perspective of Black women.
So, this was a person who knew about endurance. She knew about getting up every day and doing the thing you don’t want to do and doing it under adverse circumstances. She knew that a lot of the times you can’t go around it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you just have to go through it. By naming what I had gone through as a feat of endurance — surely a very small feat compared to what she had been through — Katie helped me see myself differently, as a young, 20something adult. She helped me see that I was strong, that I could bear up under things. I had a tenacity, a hardness in me, that I didn’t know before. She blessed me with that naming and gave my struggle meaning. She made it sacred for me. Now, when I look back on that year, I don’t focus mainly on the meanness of my boss; I think about the fact that I was strong.
With what are you struggling? What is waking you up in the middle of the night? A broken relationship? Creeping fascism? Economic worries? Climate change or COVID? Worries about your children? I think we know that, no matter our personal situation, there’s going to be a lot to struggle in the coming years. There’s a lot of night work ahead. It’s not just the pandemic. We are living in chaotic, destabilizing times. The future of humanity and certainly of this country is unknown. Will we choose the path that leads to life or the path that leads to death? Do we even know which path leads where? We are going to need a lot of endurance for the journey ahead. It is a spiritual muscle that we will need to develop.
Because sometimes, we can change those parts of our lives that cause us pain. We can find a solution, a way out. We can win! We can fix the pain. But sometimes, we just need to endure until the dawn. We need to bear up under the struggle until it passes. From the struggle that lasts all night, from the struggle from which we can’t flee or use our cleverness to finagle a way out — from that struggle, we may emerge with a blessing — a new name, a new identity, a new world. In the struggle that lasts all night, we may even come to see the face of God. Amen.
I am indebted to Rachel Naomi Remen’s telling of the story of Jacob for some of the insights in this sermon. That story is found in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging.