On the Far Side of Jabbok

Rev. Tom Baker
St Stephen’s, Horseshoe Bend, Ark.
July 31, 2011
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 13
Genesis 32:22-31

From 1993 until 2002 I ministered as a hospice chaplain working with the dying and their families. All through those years when ever I would go to a party I would remind myself not to talk too much about hospice. I learned first hand that nothing would stop the flow of a good party faster than someone who talks about death and dying. After all, we don’t do well with pain, suffering, dying, and death. They’re way too scary subjects to wrestle with and so we avoid thinking and talking about them. After all, denial is not only a river in Egypt. We side step painful subjects not only because they frighten us but mostly because, deep down, we know we can’t control pain, sickness, and death. Often all we can do is stand silently and pray we can get through it and that’s often more than hard enough.

Sometimes we stand and wrestle with God but that’s almost easier than standing on the other side of the river watching. If we stand with Jacob we have more control. But on the far side of the river, we can’t see, we can’t feel, we can’t fight, all we can do is stand there and pray and hope.

Before today’s first reading, Laban had just deceived Jacob into marrying his daughter’s Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves. As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau said to him was that Esau intended to kill him for taking his birthright. Jacob sends word to his brother that he is quite wealthy now and can he buy his way out? The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. It is with very real fear that Esau will kill him that we encounter Jacob in today’s Genesis reading. He does not know if Esau has accepted his money and does not know if his servants are even still alive. Yet he sends his wives and children right into the path of Esau and his riders—without him. Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. It’s then that a person he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. I often wondered as Jacob wrestled if Rachel and Leah weren’t pretty angry standing on the far side of the river because the outcome of the battle not only affected Jacob’s life but their whole life as well.

A month ago I worked with the wife and family of a man whose heart attack stopped the flow of blood to his head causing serve brain damage. For weeks his wife and two sons stood by his bedside. Day in and day out they camped in the hospital hoping he would awaken. They tried talking to him, even pleading with him to wake up. Every time they held his hand they swore he squeezed their hand back despite the doctor’s grim prognosis. They wept, they waited, they prayed, they’re felt powerless. They grew angry, tired and questioned where was God. In the end all they could do was wait and pray as they stood by his bedside.

As a chaplain in these situations I, of course, want to be a supportive presence to a family that is hurting so much. Sometimes I will say something like, “It’s never easy to stand at this side of the bed; you can feel helpless.” I’ve noticed that when I say this families can get somewhat angry and say, “Things are worse” for the patient. They are right of course but also they are expressing their anger over all the losses they’re feeling. When someone is very sick we can lose a great deal of ourselves. Think about it, we get a great deal of our meaning, purpose and identity from our relationships. In many ways the people in our lives make us who we are.

When my father died years ago, my mother looked at me and said, “Am I still Mrs. Baker?” Rachel and Leah, despite their differences with one another, knew they belonged to Jacob. They knew Jacob had been promised to be the father of a nation that they would help found. But now all that was in question. They stood on the far side of the river, in the dark, knowing Jacob was fighting for his life. They couldn’t help; they couldn’t even be close to him. All they could do was stand by the river and wait.

Sometimes wrestling with God is almost easier than standing on the other side of the river watching. If we stand with Jacob we have more control. But on the far side of the river, we can’t see, we can’t feel, we can’t fight, all we can do is stand there and pray and hope. At the end of his wrestling match Jacob is not the only one who receives a blessing. Rachel, Leah, and his whole family receive God’s blessing as well. Jacob’s families are now members of Israel; one’s who have struggled with God and humans.

As a hospice chaplain I met a 46-year-old woman dying of breast cancer. She owned a very successful clothing store, she was a member of the chamber of commerce, she had many friends, a loving husband, and two children. Her disease slowly took away all her relationships. She couldn’t work, she couldn’t be involved in her community, she couldn’t be a wife or a mother to her children. She often would ask, “Who am I?” As he wrestled with this question she told me of a dream she had where a person she didn’t know came to her and said, “Don’t ask ‘who you are’; remember ‘whose you are.’ ”

Our ancestors knew that faith is not about only doing the right thing nor is faith all about having all the right answers. It’s about remaining faithful in the midst of all our struggles. It’s about remembering whose we are. We belong to God and God chooses us. Faith is about remaining close with God even when we find ourselves wrestling with our relationship with God and humans. It is in their struggle that Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and the whole family are blessed by God. In her struggle the woman discovered who she belonged to. And nothing would ever separate her from God. For us, we too are called to find God in all our struggles. We are Israel; we are God’s.

At the end of his wrestling match Jacob is not the only one who receives a blessing. Rachel, Leah, and his whole family receive God’s blessing as well. Jacob’s families and are now members of Israel; we belong to God.  It’s true when I was a hospice chaplain I discovered people tended to shy away from suffering—that’s only being human. Yet our faith reminds us that it is in our struggles that we discover God’s presence. God has stepped into our hungers, our pains, our loss making them scared—a place where blessing will be received. May you and I continue to have the eyes of faith so that when we wrestle with life’s hardship we will see and feel the presence of God. We will remember that whose we are.

Amen.