Jacob wrestles with a Shadow

Our story begins long before we get to this moment. In our own lives we make choices every day. Sometimes these are choices that contribute to our own well-being, the well-being of those around us and the well-being of creation. Sometimes our choices end up being destructive.

In order for the story to make sense we need to go back to last week and back a few years in the life of Jacob. A synopsis of the intervening years might go like this: Last post I looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their promised child Isaac. Isaac eventually grew up and married Rebekah. Rebekah had twins – Esau (meaning hairy) and Jacob (meaning heel). Esau and Jacob like many siblings carried on a rivalry. As the oldest brother Esau would inherit everything including the blessing. When Esau came in from hard labour and was tired, Jacob traded a bowl of stew for the inheritance. Jacob and his mother Rebekah plotted together so that Isaac would give the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Isaac was old and blind so they put goat skin on Jacob’s hands and face so he would feel hairy like Esau. Jacob pretends to be Esau and tricks Isaac into blessing him. Now Jacob is set to inherit everything…all the land, livestock and the blessing. But it doesn’t work out the way Jacob hopes. He has to go on the run to escape Esau who is out to kill him. He leaves everything behind that he has just accumulated through questionable means and goes on the run.

Jacob goes to his uncle Laban and immediately decides on the cousin he wants to marry. His uncle Laban also has a bit of the trickster in him and tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter. Jacob works for his uncle in order to earn the right to the woman he really wants to marry. While he’s looking after Laban’s sheep he breeds them so that the sheep Laban has agreed to give him will be healthy and strong and Laban’s own flock will eventually be made up of the weaker sheep. Now Jacob has to go on the run again.

This time Jacob is able to take his wives and children, his flocks and other animals when he runs. And he heads for home—back to the Esau. He’s not sure how Esau will respond—Jacob appears to be returning to claim the inheritance that he stole from Esau. Jacob sends herds and flocks ahead as gifts to Esau. The night before he is to meet Esau he sends everyone across the river and stays behind alone.

This is where the story picks up today:

Jacob has made some bad choices in his life. He’s been a trickster and con-man for most of it. His name means heel because he was born holding onto Esau’s heel but he has also spent his life behaving like a heel. And now Jacob has reached a moment of decision:

The river that the rest of his family has already crossed is the Yabbok River meaning crossroads. What will Jacob do? Will he continue on this path of tricking and plotting and stealing things that aren’t rightfully his or will he cross that river and reconcile with his brother?

While he is facing this moment of decision, a mysterious stranger arrives at his camp and wrestles with him. We aren’t told who this person is or why they attack him. There is a tradition that identifies the stranger as an angel or God in human form. The literal translation is closer to mortal. There is some suggestion in several commentaries that Jacob is actually wrestling with his shadow side or his conscience. As they are struggling, Jacob is struck and his hip is dislocated. The Inclusive Bible has a note indicating that Jacob “was struck at the centre of his being, and that we was changed—losing his own power but gaining God’s.”

This story is characterized by defining moments. That first moment when Jacob stole the inheritance from Esau set his life on particular path. As a young man Jacob saw that he would have nothing—no inheritance from his father—unless he stole it. He understood that he would have no blessing unless he stole it. Now Jacob is at another defining moment. He could choose to come back and claim the inheritance and the blessing. He could choose to be the “lord of the manor” even though Esau had been managing the crops and livestock all the years he was away. It was his right as the inheritor.

And so Jacob wrestles with this unknown assailant. In Jacob’s culture, names had power and meaning. Knowing someone’s name gave the other power over someone. Here we find Jacob demanding a blessing in the midst of a conflict and his opponent asking Jacob his name. We already know that Jacob’s name tells us he is a “heel.” He is a trickster who steals. He’s a con-man and his name reveals this.

And suddenly Jacob is given a new name. Israel. There are two possible meanings for Israel. The first relates to wrestling with God or striving with God and we’ve just heard this story about the all night struggle. Jacob was able to overcome whoever or whatever he was struggling with. Even though he was injured in the process, Jacob won the blessing.

The second meaning of Israel is “one who sees God.” When Jacob asks his opponent his name he doesn’t receive a direct answer. The response is “why do you ask?” Once his opponent has blessed Jacob/Israel, Jacob identifies that he has seen the face of God and survived. In the next chapter, when Jacob and Esau meet, Jacob says to Esau “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” God is suddenly everywhere.

God is found internally as Jacob wrestles with himself and as he tries to decide what kind of person he wants to be going forward. God is found in the face of Jacob’s estranged brother Esau as they reunite and come to a peaceable understanding.

Esau could have continued to hold a grudge or keep a bounty out for Jacob. How could Esau trust that Jacob had really changed? How could Esau trust that Jacob’s return wasn’t the next big scam?

One of the core values in Christianity is that there is always a place for transformation. There is always the possibility that what was—and is—is not what will be. There’s always the possibility that God re-imagines us and that we can re-imagine our own lives with God. That re-imagining is not an easy process and it requires wrestling with habits and patterns that we create over a lifetime. Most of us have moments that we regret or wish could be different but the challenge is whether those moments define who we will always be. Unless we wrestle with our shadow sides—with the God within us—we can find ourselves stuck. That’s where Jacob seems to be for most of his life. He goes along doing what seems easiest or whatever seems to gain the most in a particular moment.

But that is not all his life is to be. As he wrestles with himself, he wrestles with God and chooses to do one of the most difficult things. He chooses to reconcile with his estranged brother. It took courage for Jacob to meet Esau face to face without knowing what kind of reception he would receive. He stole a blessing and had to run because of it. Now he asks for a blessing and is reunited with Esau. In that struggle and in that reconciliation he finds God.

It is tempting to want to avoid our shadow sides and sometimes—like Jacob—it just seems easier. But that struggle with our own shadow places us in a position to wrestle not only with ourselves but with God. In that struggle we can see God.


Welcoming the Stranger: A Biblical Requirement

Imagine yourself as the travellers in this story from Genesis 18. You are in a desert and have been travelling for many weeks. Water is scarce. Food might be getting short. You are hot, covered in dust and sand and tired. As you travel you see someone coming toward you. This man gets closer and bows to you. He invites you to his tent. You accept and he runs ahead so that his wife and servants can prepare food.

You follow more slowly. When you arrive your host has prepared a bowl of water to wash your feet. You sit in the shade of a big tree while your feet are washed and your host brings food. The food is the best that they have to offer. The best calf—butchered and offered to you in honour of your arrival.

As you eat you speak to your host, Abraham. You exchange news, find common kin, talk about hopes and dreams, even promises from God. When you have eaten and rested you rise and continue your journey. Abraham starts out on your journey and travels a little way with you. He watches as you continue your journey and when you are out of sight he returns home.

In this particular text, the travelers are identified interchangeably as “The Lord,” “three men,” and some translations identify angels. There is ambiguity about whether the visit is from God specifically, divine messengers in the form of angels or simply human travellers. But it doesn’t really matter. What is important in the story is that the travellers were offered and accepted hospitality. Abraham didn’t stop to ask who these men were or what their business was or whether it was safe to invite them to stop. He didn’t ask whether there was enough food to feed a few extra mouths or whether washing their feet might be enough to cause a shortage of water later in the season.

Abraham and the travellers were part of a culture that practiced hospitality. Hospitality was incredibly important in the ancient world. There was almost a ritual to hospitality. Not following the ritual correctly could result in the shaming not just of an individual but of families and communities. Residents (in this case Abraham) were obligated to provide hospitality. There wasn’t a question of not providing hospitality. It was required. Hospitality included food, water and shelter. Miss any one of the three and you would be in trouble. When guests arrive, the head of the household would rush out to meet the guests, they would be invited in. Water would be brought to wash the feet and refresh the travellers. The best food that could be provided was offered even if it meant the family would not eat. Failure to do these things could be construed as hostility and in some places in scripture almost leads to war. Once someone offered hospitality it was an insult to decline and declining would identify the stranger as an enemy. Providing hospitality also implied protection to the traveller or stranger. Once someone was a guest they were given the protection of their host. This was also important in a culture where strangers or travellers had very few political or legal rights. Dennis Bratcher indicates that sharing food is a sign of friendship. Hospitality was not a one-time thing it created an on-going relationship where the obligations continued into the future.

In our own culture, we no longer practice hospitality in this way. We think of hospitality and we might think of inviting our friends over to our home for coffee or a meal. Maybe family arrives from out of town for a few days. These are examples of hospitality in our culture. In our culture hospitality is a nice thing to do but is not required and primarily relates to people that we already have relationships with.

But what if we think in terms of what happens in the world around us and the Biblical expectations of hospitality. For example, if someone comes to the door of the church looking for food what should our response be? Our culture might tell us that we are under no obligation to do anything. We don’t know them and strangers are to suspect and scary. They might be trying to take advantage of us and if we offer food once we might have to offer it the next time they come.

In terms of biblical hospitality, the response might be more along the lines of, “Please come in. Would you like to use our bathroom to wash and refresh yourself? While you do that, I will put the coffee on so we can visit and then we will find food and nourishment that you can take with you when you leave.” As we talk the person might indicate that they are having trouble getting their social assistance cheque and that it won’t be enough to cover basic expenses when it does come. The response to this might be, “let us help you advocate for enough to live on and if there isn’t enough we will help you.”

OK. I know this sounds radical but all of this fits within the realm of what is expected in terms of hospitality code. There is a request for hospitality and then an invitation. There is an offer of water and refreshment. There is an offer of protection and help and support within and political/legal arena where the individual has minimal influence. I wonder if we took scripture seriously if it might lead us to a deeper engagement with people who come, rightly I think, to church looking for help. People who seek support from the church in this way instinctively know that our scriptures teach us about hospitality. I think sometimes people outside the church see more clearly what our gospel teaches than we ourselves do.

There is another big question of hospitality around the world at the moment. Refugees—people who are fleeing their homes and communities because of violence, danger and destruction. As I listen to the news I hear comments about how welcoming refugees into Canada is opening the door to terrorists. I hear people say that we don’t have enough resources to look after more people. But if we set those concerns aside and look at refugees in terms of what scripture call us to do it might suggest a response of compassion.

When Abraham ran out to greet his visitors he didn’t ask whether or not they were safe. He didn’t consider whether or not he could afford to have them under his roof for a few days. He did what was required and invited them into his home. Biblical hospitality requires something similar of us. We find ourselves in a time where thousands of people are in need of hospitality. Our obligation—as people of faith—is to respond. To not respond is an insult. To not respond is a sign of hostility. As we watch refugees struggle to find food, water, shelter and safety will we simply allow them to continue being an issue for someone else to deal with or will we welcome them into our own communities as a practice of the hospitality which Abraham offered? It is interesting that the scriptures refer to Lord, people and angels interchangeably in a story about hospitality. Perhaps there is no difference. Perhaps in extending hospitality to people in need we are in fact extending hospitality to God.

God Created the Earth in One Day

There are two creation stories. Sometimes they get mashed together in our minds but they really are distinct. They tell us different things about God and the people who created the stories.

“By allowing these contrasting views of creation to coexist . . .  the Bible makes it clear from the very beginning that it will not give neat, tidy answers. . . . We cannot treat the Bible as a Holy encyclopedia where we can look up information about the divine, because we are likely to find contradictory information in the very next chapter.”[1]  In approaching scripture with questions about life and death, our purpose and meaning and morality, scripture almost always gives us several answers. As we spend time in the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few weeks I invite you to be open to thinking about the contradictions. The Bible doesn’t give us a neat package with all the answers. Sometimes it gives us more questions.

The first story of the whole Bible begins: In the beginning God created….this creation happens in 7 days and at the end of each day, God declares the creation good. In the first story, men and women are created at the same time and are the last of the creatures to be formed. The first story makes no reference to the garden of Eden. This version of the story was written in the 6th century BCE and comes from the priestly tradition which is concerned with a creation that is neatly structured and certain. God created. God saw that it was good. God instituted the Sabbath and everything was as it should be.

Much earlier, the second story was written around the 10th century BCE. In this version, creation happens in one day. Think of God as the potter working the clay. Adam is formed first, from the dust. Then the plants and trees grow. Into this garden God places two trees:  tree of life and tree of knowledge. God puts Adam in the middle of the garden, tells him not to eat of the tree of knowledge and then parades all the creatures by as they are being created. Adam has the privilege of naming each one as he seeks a helper. No helper is found and so Adam falls asleep, God takes a rib out of him and creates Eve. This is the Yahwist version written as folklore.

This version doesn’t end neat and tidy. It doesn’t leave God in charge of the earth. By the end of this passage, Adam and Eve have been left in charge. You might know the next part of the story which describes how Adam and Eve came to eat from the tree of knowledge and be expelled from the garden.

This passage can be troublesome for women because it has been used to suggest that because men were created first and Eve is linked with the initial action of eating the forbidden fruit, men are superior. Because it comes from a culture in which men were socially superior to women the story’s view makes sense.

But Karen Armstrong writes, “The women of Genesis are certainly no helpmates, obediently subservient to their husbands. They are often forceful characters . . .  and sometimes display more insight thein their menfolk.” The image of women as subservient to men is not grounded in the creation story.

In this creation story, there’s a sense that whatever happens next is up to the humans. They have been given instructions but in order to be successful in tilling and caring for the earth, they must work together. God isn’t going to do it for them.

The other reason for a helper is that it “is not good to be alone.” From the beginning of creation, relationships are central. We need to be reminded that we don’t have to do everything on our own and that we need help. It’s OK to ask for help when we need it. It’s OK when we’ve done what we can to allow others to take over and finish what we started.

How Adam and Eve moved forward in life was up to them. They had instructions which they could choose to follow or not. They had each other to help make decisions. I was at a gathering of theological students where we were discussing the creation story. Someone suggested that because God had given the creation to Adam and Eve, humans were free to do whatever they wish with the creation. There was no responsibility beyond taking whatever the earth provided.

This passage makes it clear that while the earth is a gift, there is responsibility and there are limits to what we can take from the earth. Walter Brueggemann describes three themes that run from this story throughout the Hebrew scriptures: Vocation, permission and prohibition.[2]

Vocation: Care of the creation is a central vocation given to all of us. The specifics of how we live out that vocation are unique to our gifts and skills. Some people might be really good at environmental education. Someone else might be called have a giant compost heap in their back yard that they share with all the neighbours. Others are gardeners and farmers. Some are very careful about living simply to minimize their impact on the earth. Some are scientists and inventors who are able to create new ideas to help us care for the earth. Doctors and vets care for creatures.

Permission: Eat freely of everything—the creation is there to support and nurture life. The creation is a gift.  We need to recognize the gift that the creation is and all the ways the earth supports all the life within its being.

Prohibition:  In this case, the limit is the tree of knowledge. There isn’t endless consumption. There are things that are allowed and things that are not allowed. One reason Christianity, and particularly the Hebrew Scriptures gets bad rap is that there is often a focus on the limits, the rules about what is not to be done. As a reaction to the limits imposed by Christianity we live in culture which often perceives very few limits. We don’t always hear the voice of God telling us the limits. We need each other to help determine where the limits are. God is no longer responsible for the creation—we are.

Brueggemann suggests that the primary task for humans is always to be seeking the balance. We need balance between vocation, permission and prohibition in order to be healthy as individuals, to be healthy in our relationships with each other and the creation and to be healthy in our relationship with God.

As we prepare for another election, you might want to see which policies or candidates offer environmental views that fit with your own. Is there a sense that we need to care for the creation? Is there a sense that the earth is a gift to all creation? Is there a sense that we have limits?

The people who brought us the creation stories were seeking to make sense of the world they lived in. They needed to understand their role and their relationship to God. The first story makes it clear that God is in control. The second story leaves humans in charge leaves the ending of the story up to us? What kind of a world will you seek?

[1] Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 21.

[2] Walter Brueggemann,  Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 46.


Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, God spoke directly to the people. Once upon a time, angels appeared to humans. Once upon a time, God appeared in dreams and visions. Once upon a time, God lived among us. And so the book of Hebrews begins.

The book begins by announcing that God has communicated to the ancestors in many ways. The prophets were a continuation of this communication. Finally Jesus arrived with direct communication from God.

The book of Hebrews was written around 70-90 CE, at least 70 years after Jesus’ death. The author is unknown. It gets lumped in with the letters but is actually more like a sermon than a letter.

The book of Hebrew’s goes on to describe and speak to what is happening in the congregation’s life. The new Christians have had an experience of God at work in their life. This is a good and exciting time. Then there comes some tension with the people around who don’t share similar beliefs but the pressure from outside makes the community even more important. The third part of the book describes how the congregation disintegrates – not because of crisis or persecution but because of neglect.The preacher of this book is attempting to re-inspire the faith and passion that individuals and the congregation held initially.

In our own context, we might talk about the glorious days of the past when the church was the center of the community. We might talk about how we find ourselves in a mulit-cultural, multi-faith and secular world. It might feel difficult to maintain a strong Christian faith when our culture doesn’t seem to value the faith of the past. Sometimes it might seem easier to move with the flow of the world around us than struggle to maintain a belief system and community that feels counter-cultural.

The first words of this sermon in Hebrews are “Long Ago.” We also know that anything that happened in scripture was far away. Long ago and far away…

Back in those days, God spoke to people in visions and in dreams. Sometimes actual angels appeared with messages, warnings or words of advice. Then when God’s message didn’t seem to be heard, the prophets appeared. These are people who were good at reading the signs of the time. They were good at seeing what was happening and trying to re-orient the people back to God when the world seemed to be falling apart. Even for the writer of Hebrews, God spoke directly to people in the past. The direct contact with God seemed to be a distant memory—until Jesus.

For the author of Hebrews, direct contact with God is re-established in the person of Jesus. Throughout the book of Hebrews there are many different images of Jesus but these first few verses establish the authority of Jesus not just as the messenger but also as the message.

If we believe that the messages stopped in scripture and with Jesus, then our faith becomes a fairy tale – something unattainable. We might want to live in that lovely castle with knights in shining armour and beautiful princesses—stories that happened long ago in a far away land to some other people but we know they are just stories that can never happen in our lives and in the real world. But our faith is alive and well. Our faith is what nurtures and sustains us in a world that is often uncertain so why would God’s messages to us stop?

I believe God is constantly sending messages and messengers to us. Sometimes God speaks to us in mystical experiences. You might have an experience where you know a loved one who has died is present. You might have a dream that seems to offer advice or insight. These are messages from God.

Sometimes God speaks to us through another person. We might be inspired by another’s actions. Maybe a conversation moves us or encourages us. These are also God speaking to us.

God’s messages to us didn’t stop with Jesus. I’m inviting you to consider the ways in which you have experienced God in your life and share those experiences with the faith community. Consider sharing these stories publicly. If you happen to worship at St. Andrew’s there will be time in worship to share these stories. These stories that you share can be anything about your faith. It could be something that moves you. It could be a mystical experience. (No you are not crazy.) It could be a time when your faith was shaken to its core. It could be simply a statement of your belief. No matter where you live or find your faith community, seek opportunities to tell faith stories and to hear the faith stories of others.

I invite you to risk sharing the message that God has given you with the wider community. These stories will be received by the community with gratitude for you presence and witness.