Hold On!

Rev. Lowell E. Grisham
St. Paul’s, Fayetteville, Ark.
July 31, 2011
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13, Year A

Genesis 32:22-31 The same night Jacob 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.

***

There’s an old Atlantic Monthly story that has been popularized by the noted author and preacher John Killinger, a story about the days of cattle ranching in the West. “A little burro sometimes would be harnessed to a wild steed. Bucking and raging, convulsing like drunken sailors, the two would be turned loose like Laurel and Hardy to proceed out onto the desert range. They could be seen disappearing over the horizon, the great steed dragging that little burro along and throwing him about like a bag of cream puffs. They might be gone for days, but eventually they would come back. The little burro would be seen first, trotting back across the horizon, leading the submissive steed in tow. Somewhere out there on the rim of the world, that steed would become exhausted from trying to get rid of the burro, and in that moment, the burro would take mastery and become the leader.”

I’d like to think of that little burro as an image of God. Last week we heard Jesus use images like a mustard seed and yeast as metaphors for God’s divine presence. It does seem that God has attached the Divine Self to us and will not release us, no matter how hard we may buck and rage, convulse and wrestle.

***

We’ve been following the story of Jacob for a while. Three weeks ago we read the story of Jacob’s manipulating Esau’s birthright from him for a bowl of soup. Maybe you also remember the story of Jacob dressing in Esau’s clothing and fooling their blind father Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the firstborn which had been intended for Esau. After their father’s death, Jacob had to flee Esau’s deadly intention for revenge.

Last week we read that incredible story of Biblical family values as Jacob’s cousin Laban tricked Jacob into working for him another seven years by swapping his eldest daughter Leah for Rachel after the wedding.

Since last week, as the story proceeds, Jacob has turned the tables on his father-in-law, manipulating the breeding of his cattle so that Laban’s flocks diminished while Jacob’s thrived and multiplied. The situation reached a breaking point. So while Laban was off shearing sheep, Jacob stole away, taking his wives and flocks and servants. When Laban learned of it, he gathered his armed men to chase Jacob down. Had Laban not been warned in a dream, he probably would have killed Jacob. Instead, they formed an uneasy truce and went their separate ways.

***

Now Jacob is returning home, to the scene of his former perfidy. Presumably his brother Esau is still angry, and it is reported that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, bringing four hundred men with him. Jacob divides his families and flocks strategically into two parties, hoping that one might escape, and he sends a series of gifts ahead, trying to appease his brother.

That night, Jacob sends his family across the Jabbok River, and returns alone to the other side. It is an ominous night. Tomorrow he will confront his brother for the first time since he fled for his life twenty years ago. It is a sleepless night. Jacob wrestles in the dark with a mysterious foe. The Hebrew word ish denotes an individual in relationship – perhaps man, angel or God. Indeed Jacob and this ish are in a relationship, harnessed together, bucking and raging, convulsing like fighting sailors. Jacob cannot throw it off. They struggle together in the dark.

As the sun is about to rise, it is unclear who has whom. Jacob has refused to quit; refused to let go. Almost without effort, the ish touches Jacob’s thigh and throws it out of joint. Jacob faces his vulnerability, his mortality. It could end here, but he does not let go. Weakened, wounded, yet he holds on.

The ish says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob will not go through all of this without getting something out of it. “I will not let go unless you bless me.” The ish asks him, “What is your name?” Years ago his father asked Jacob that same question, and he lied to steal his brother’s blessing. Now he tells the truth. He speaks his true name, “Jacob,” a name that means “the Supplanter.” “You shall no longer be called Jacob (the Supplanter), but Israel (“the one who strives with God”), for you have striven with God and with humans.”

***

God has seen Jacob for all that he is, seen him at his worst, and God has redefined him as his best. God says to him, you are no longer a supplanter, you are a striver. You are no longer a cheater; you are creative. You are no longer one who flees; you are one who holds on through the dark of night. You are no longer a liar; you are truthful. You have fought, and you have prevailed. The heel grabbing, birthright usurping, blessing stealing saboteur has been lassoed and roped, ridden to exhaustion, touched and wounded – transformed and blessed. Jacob called that place Penuel, “the face of God.” And Jacob limped away to meet his brother.

The next day, upon seeing Jacob, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau had already forgiven Jacob. Jacob is amazed. He looks at his brother and says to Esau, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He knows what the face of God looks like, for he has striven with God. He has been grabbed by God, and Jacob has held on, holding on for dear life to the mysterious and wounding power, until he has known himself to be blessed – forgiven and blessed.

Harriet Beecher Stowe once said, “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems you cannot hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.”

***

In a Baccalaureate address at Wake Forest, Bill Leonard said, “Sooner or later every one of us wrestles with the Eternal Stranger who will not let us go. We wind up feeling all alone in some God-forsaken wilderness with destiny and danger all around, when the things we thought would hold forever fall apart. We never know when things will take a turn and suddenly we’ll be face to face with our deepest fears and darkest doubts. At such moments we need to know how to struggle until morning, how to hold on to grace.

There are the little wildernesses of simply trying to do what we have to do day by day when it feels like we are dry and exhausted in a thirsty desert. Keep on keeping on, day by day.

And there are the big God-forsaken wildernesses where the darkness threatens to overwhelm and destroy all we love. Hold on. Do not let go. There is a divine rope and the small burro will not release us to the wild. We may be wounded, thrown out of joint, hurt and limping. We may not be able to fight any longer, but we can hold on. Hold on a little longer. The dawn will come. God will know us at our worst and will redefine us as our best.

Somewhere out there on the rim of the world, the burro will take mastery, and we will be blessed and led.

Amen.