October 16, 2016
In this morning’s Old Testament lesson we meet Jacob on a dark night, alone and afraid. Summoned by God from his mother’s homeland back to his own native territory, Jacob learns as he moves closer that Esau, his twin whom he’d tricked and wronged years before, is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Growing up, Jacob had lived up, or down, to his name, grabbing what was not his. Out of the womb he came clutching his brother’s heel. That earned him his name, which meant “heel grabber” or “supplanter.” Next, in their youth, Jacob had cornered hungry Esau into trading for bread and a bowl of lentils his birthright—his right as the firstborn to double the inheritance. Finally, with the help of their mother, Rebekah, Jacob had hoodwinked their father, Isaac, into giving his paternal blessing not to his oldest son, Esau, as expected, but to Jacob.
When Esau finds out he’s been tricked out of both his blessing and his birthright, he pledges to kill his brother. Rebekah urges Jacob to flee Canaan for Mesopotamia and her family, where he can find a wife and settle down awhile. That journey and more than fourteen years have led to this: a black and solitary night when Jacob knows he has it coming.
Despite advantages of birthright, blessing, and status over his brother, before we meet Jacob this morning, he’s already acted toward Esau less like a lord and more like a subordinate. Jacob has sent him animal flocks and herds—as tributes or gifts—to diffuse Esau’s anger. Next Jacob offered God both thanksgiving for blessing and protection as well as pleas for deliverance from Esau’s vengeance. And as a last resort, Jacob has divided his family in half (in case one group is captured or ambushed) and has sent them all across a stream. Now he waits to face his brother and his brother’s men.
But rather than Esau and a small army, Jacob meets a lone man: indeed, before we know it, with a single short clause, we find ourselves in the middle—even near the end—of a long, intense encounter: “a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” We don’t expect a wrestling match. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised either that one breaks out for Jacob, given all the wrestling in his past—for the birthright and blessing, against his brother and father, growing up in Canaan; and for his wives and wages, against his father-in-law, Laban, in Mesopotamia.
The single clause that drops us into the middle of this match—“a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak”—opens our imaginations. In the sweat-drenched dark we hear the men scuffling and stomping, grunting and groaning. Words, maybe only whispers, come with the sunrise:
“Let me go!”
“No, bless me first!”
“What’s your name?”
“Not anymore. It’s Israel now, because you’ve strived with God and won out.”
“What’s your name?”
After this dialog ends, we are told that Jacob’s opponent blesses him.
A mystery of our lesson, an enduring question, is, who is Jacob’s opponent? Suggestions are many. From what I can gather, our lesson suggests that Jacob’s opponent is an agent of blessing; otherwise why would Jacob ask to be blessed? Also, our lesson ends with Jacob’s admission that, as one translation puts it, “I have seen God face to face and have come out alive.” Finally, our passage calls Jacob’s opponent a “man.” So even as the question endures, I’m content to hazard for now that Jacob’s opponent, in a humanlike form, represents God in some way. In some sense Jacob’s wrestling partner represents the God who creates, the God who blesses and saves creation, and the God who calls and blesses a people—Israel—for Godself.
That Jacob’s opponent represents God in a human
What attracts me to this passage as a person with disabilities is the following verse: “5When 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.” In this instance Jacob can feel God’s mark in his body, has a memory of God’s encounter in his body.
In this story God takes a human form and Jacob will not let go until he receives a blessing. God touches or strikes Jacob’s hip in order to be set free. It’s similar to circumcision, a mark in the body. But this is a mark from a specific encounter. I find this passage challenging because it challenges me to think about the ways my disabilities and difficulties signal that God is intimately at work in my life. It’s not that God is trying to teach us a lesson through our aches, pains, and illnesses, but how can our marks of mortality become a blessing to ourselves and to others?
In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the issue is holding on, reaching out to, a God who may be present but may be absent. The notion of persistence in seeking after God. How can the marks on our bodies aid us in our search for God?
One of my favorite parts of the Eucharistic liturgy is the concluding exhortation, “Feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.” So there is part of us that feeds on the bread in real time, but at the same time we feed on Christ in our hearts.
It’s the notion that pain reminds us that we are alive in a different kind of way.
Jacob has seen God and has come out alive. He has a new appreciation for life after encountering God, even though he must live now in this body that is fundamentally changed (b/c of the limp).
Jesus’s resurrection brings about for him a qualitatively new life, but the scars of crucifixion remain as a reminder that . . .
Also there is an element that although Jacob meets Esau the next day and though Jacob tells him that seeing him is like seeing the face of God.
What kind of blessings come about because of bodily change, disability, or illness?
We struggle with God perhaps as we experience changes ourselves.
Feast of St. Francis
October 2, 2015
Rev. John Hayes
Arguably the world’s most notorious and unlikely ex-seminarian Joseph Stalin once offhandedly remarked “give me ten men like Francis of Assisi and I could change the world!”
Francis of Assisi is one of the great saints of the western church, a religious genius who managed a reform of the medieval church without schism, the founder of one of a great religious order that enormously shaped the course of western philosophy, theology and science and whose missionary efforts, whatever their ambiguous legacy, can be felt in every continent of the world.
Not bad for a short guy without a high school education, a rube from a small town in the hill country of Italy.
God uses the ordinary to accomplish great things in humanity.
Saints are important because they show concretely what a life transfigured by Christ really looks like. Saints are icons of the divine humanity each in their own unique and often crazy idiom. Francis not only lived the gospel but became gospel. He took Paul’s words to heart and truly died to himself so that he lived no longer, but rather Christ lived in him.
Our standard image of Francis gets it all wrong. Stalin’s appraisal hardly squares with the tame, kitsch sissy that adorns many a birdbath. Dorothy Day remarked that the church makes saints tame and thus easy to dismiss. Their untamed witness challenges and disturbs us; they show us that Jesus is serious about transformation. Truth be told, most days we prefer the predictable security of “cheap grace”.
Francis was born just before the turn of the 13th century, not unlike our own a time of great social unrest and momentous rapid change: cities are emerging all over Europe as centers of commerce, industry and learning and poor people were displaced from the settled timeless round of life in the countryside. The middle commercial classes were asserting their new prerogatives in the hierarchy of privilege and status. National consciousness was heightened, foreign trade opening up, vernacular languages emerging, and the old medieval Christendom with pope and king and monastery hand-in-glove had become stale and redundant.
Francis was the only child of one of these rising nouveau-riche merchant families. When war came he twice he went off to war with the other young men. If you have seen the movie Braveheart, you have the ghastly picture of abattoir that was medieval war. We don’t think of Francis of the birdbath as a two-time war vet and prisoner of war. And like many a young man, he didn’t come home the same. The vain, pleasure-loving party boy was gone. Francis was lost. Nothing about life made sense. He drove his father crazy when he started giving away the goods from the family store to poor people. He started wandering around the hills alone like a crazy person. One afternoon he met a leprous man on the road. Everything in him was repulsed; he wanted to run but could not. Francis could not but see the man’s humanity as his own; he saw Christ in him. He pushed through his fear and revulsion and embraced and kissed this outcast man. Francis was never the same.
Francis wandered into a dilapidated church and heard the crucifix tell him “Francis rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin”. Like most men, he was more than a little concrete and got to work gathering stones and cement and rebuilding the little San Damiano chapel. Of course God had bigger plans for Francis and his church much in need of reform. Francis heard the gospel read at Mass “if you would be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me”. (Baltimore trivia: that very gospel book is at the Walters Museum) Unlike the rich young man in the gospel who “went away sad for he had many possessions” Francis gave it all away, literally at first, and then began the long internal dispossession of authentic conversion.
His mother was distraught; his father enraged. It all came to a head in front of the Assisi cathedral where Francis took off every stitch of clothing and gave all back to his father: “From now on God alone is my father”. He chose dispossession. He gave up all the illusory security of position, power and wealth. Francis lost all fear of suffering, all need for power and prestige, all need for his small self to be important in the world’s eyes. The great paradox is that this was not self-hating masochism but liberation. This was not neurotic fanaticism, but surrendering the false self for the real self. Francis found the paradoxical truth that we don’t know who we really are until we find ourselves in God.
Francis died into life rather than living life in fear of death. Francis died into the one and only life there is: the life of self-emptying love, the love of Jesus manifest in the cross, “through which the world is crucified to me and I to the world”. Francis was not about self-centered neurotic perfectionism. The world was his monastery; the center was everywhere. Surrendering to love, embracing the cross, identifying with the poor and suffering, was the only way to real joy, to the “peace that surpasses understanding.”
This of course is the truth hidden in plain sight that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel, the plain truth unseen by the wise and invisible to those of worldly intelligence, but readily seen by little children and those willing to become like little children: open, vulnerable, shorn of pretense and false security, open to love.
I doubt that the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh had Francis in mind when he wrote this poem, but if he did, he was right on target.
Poem: Patrick Kavanagh: The Self-Slaved
Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
See over there
A created splendour
Made by one individual
From things residual
With all the various
Hitherto was not:
A November mood
As by one man understood;
Familiar, an old custom
Leaves falling, a white frosting
Bringing a sanguine dream
A new beginning with an old theme
Throw away thy sloth
Self, carry off my wrath
With its self-righteous
No self, no self-exposure
The weakness of the proser
By means of the beatable
I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.
Prometheus calls me: Son,
We’ll both go off together
In this delightful weather.
May we all find that truth that Francis found and encounter in our own crazy way the transforming love of Christ.
May it be so.