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On the Boundary

August 4, 2014

“On the Boundary” Genesis 32:22-32 © 8.3.14 Ordinary 18A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s been commonplace for some years now to speak of life as a journey, with progress along the way measured by our arrival at various mile markers. We’ve become used to the notion of developmental stages, each with its own unique tasks, including those having to do with faith. Academics as well as popular writers have helped us understand what we need to accomplish and why. We know the names of the stages well: childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, young adulthood, middle age, old age. The tasks might range from taking a first step to learning to share to finding a mate to discerning how one has used his or her life to preparing for death. The accompanying stages of faith go by names like “literal,” “conventional,” and “individuative/reflective.”

Birthdays serve as boundary markers. At 12 or 16 or 18 or 30 or 50 or 65 or 85, we may feel as if we’re on the cusp of something new, but not quite sure we’re finished with the old. We stand looking over into what is to come, but steal furtive glances back at the land we are preparing to leave. Of course, we can be on the edge and in limbo, neither here nor there, on the border, between two worlds anytime, even from one moment and the next. Paul Tillich, the great twentieth-century theologian, wrote in his autobiography that at every point in his life, he had to stand “between alternative possibilities of existence, to be at home in neither and take no definitive stand against either.”

We would rather be this or that, here or there. A boundary layer, a margin, what the scholars call a liminal experience, a threshold of thought or feeling, is not an easy place. Not anywhere anybody would want to be or choose to be.

But it was at such a difficult point in his life that Jacob now found himself. Camped at a natural boundary, the bank of a river, he was also on the boundary between what lay behind and what loomed ahead. In the fairly recent past he had outwitted his uncle Laban by some selective breeding of the flock. Way back when, twenty years before, he had stolen the birthright from his brother Esau and later cheated him out of his father’s blessing. It’s no wonder Esau had sworn to kill Jacob. The elder sibling is on the other side of the river now, and Jacob has no guarantee his brother won’t carry out the threat from long ago.

All his life Jacob had lived by his wits, cheating, swindling, outsmarting, in order to get rich and make his life easier. But now all that is gone for awhile. He’s sent his family and all his possessions across at the ford of the river. Jacob is left alone now, without all those supports on which he had relied. No money or animals. No wives or children. No servants. Just Jacob and the darkness.

A stranger sneaks up on him and starts wrestling with Jacob. We don’t know who the man is, but there’s something mysterious about him. Maybe he’s not a man at all, but divine.

They go at it all night, with neither one winning. When daybreak comes, the man wants to get away, but Jacob won’t let him go unless the stranger blesses him. Has he begun to have a clue about who the man really is?

Indeed the man turns out to be none other than Yahweh God himself. Rather than give a blessing, though, the Lord asks Jacob his name. In saying his name, does Jacob give away more than information? Does he reveal the state of his heart, maybe some regret? Is he confessing that in fact he has lived up to or is it down to (?) the meaning of his name: heel, trickster, one who supplants, opportunist, someone skilled in one-upmanship. Is there the unspoken desire finally to be more than that, somehow to change his destiny?

Whatever Jacob was thinking and whatever he actually wanted, what he got was a new name from God. From now on, he’ll be “Israel,” which means “God protects” or “God preserves.” Being called something else means he’s gotten a fresh start and a new character. As the apostle Paul would later put it, Jacob has become a “new creation.” The old had gone; everything had become fresh and new because of what God had done.

But the gift is not without its downside. Jacob comes away wounded, limping, forever marked. God is at the same time adversary and benefactor. When he touches Jacob’s thigh, it’s put of out of joint and never quite heals properly. The new creation doesn’t replace the old without pain and hurt and agony. Jacob has seen God and lived, which is pretty amazing. But he will never be the same, and neither can anyone who has ever had an encounter with God. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once put it: “There are no untroubled victories with this Holy One.”

One more thing. Jacob may have wrestled a blessing out of God, but he could not control him. He wanted to. He asked his opponent’s name. Knowing someone’s name in the ancient world gave you power over them. That’s not so hard to understand. Today if you know a name, address, a Social Security number, you could possibly steal someone’s identity. And there are the “name droppers,” who mention some bigwig’s name in a familiar way in business or a social setting, gaining prestige for themselves.

But the stranger refuses to give his name. So Jacob could not gain power over him. The mystery of God is preserved; he’s still hidden, revealing only what he chooses to reveal. Jacob has to trust God to lead the way into a new destiny without knowing all the answers, all the secrets, right here and now.

Israel’s descendants found themselves in this story. They saw the tale of their own struggle to be faithful to God, especially at times when they were frightened or alone. They noticed that they, too, had stopped from time to time along the journey, found themselves at a crossroads or a place in-between this and that. And they discovered that at such times and places, God was there. Unbidden and unexpected. To bless and to challenge. To wound and to heal. They had seen God, and the sight had changed their lives, giving and even imposing obligations and privileges.

But this story of struggle and blessing, of new names and old wounds, is not simply the history of one man or one community of faith. It’s about all of us, as heirs of God’s promises. And it isn’t some old tale from long ago. It’s as fresh and relevant as the choices and challenges you and I face every day. Even the smallest of decisions can make a big difference in the course of our lives and those of others. We are reminded that when we stand at a critical juncture in life, a boundary that feels for all the world like when we cross it we will be in a new country, we have an opportunity for encounter with God. He may touch us in a special way, and though his grip may wound us forever, we are changed and blessed. At such times, preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor observes, we may need to “abandon everything [we know] for something [we can] only trust: that God [is] in this loss, which was not robbery but relinquishment.” Reflecting on her own experience of going from one kind of life to another, she writes: “If I could open my hands, then all that fell from them might flower on the way down. If could let myself fall, then I too might land in a fertile place” (Leaving Church: 123). We can fight with God, we can fear his purposes or we can allow the change to happen, believing, again with Brueggemann, that “the world for which [we] have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from [us] by the grace of God.”

Whether we celebrate God’s presence and blessing or struggle with him in the night at the boundary between now and not yet, we are not alone. Our brothers and sisters in faith are there to weep when we weep and rejoice when we rejoice. But even should no one in the church ever care for us, there is One who knows our new name, so hard won, who is our friend and companion. He also wrestled with God in the night, facing the ultimate challenge of his life. And when he rose from that nocturnal agony, when the beatings and mocking were over, he went limping toward a hill called Calvary, bearing his cross. And maybe somebody along the way remarked to themselves: “That man walks like Jacob, that man walks like me.”

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