Some of the most ancient passages in the Bible are the most fruitful and profound when we spend time with them. Back in the early 90s, Genesis was the theme of a PBS series with Bill Moyers in which he simply let different people debate their reactions to the material. Whatever you make of Jordan Peterson, his psychological Genesis podcasts have a million subscribers. The Guardian ran an 8 part series on Genesis in 2011, with Anglican theologian Jane Williams leading readers through topics like the dubious morality of the characters, the darkness and complexity of stories some of us carelessly dismiss as cutesy Sunday School material, and the damage that has been done when these texts were used as if they sanctioned oppression and patriarchy. There’s a lot in there. A lot.
Today’s passage from Genesis focuses on a mysterious encounter that Jacob has in the middle of the night. As darkness falls, Jacob is coming from one in a long series of manipulative schemes designed to put himself on top in encounters with family members, and he is on the way to another manipulative scheme designed to put himself on top in an encounter with a family member. Along the way he has done some noble and kind things, and he has turned to God and then away again; in other words, he has been as bad and good as any of us, and rather more calculating than most of us.
Here in Chapter 32 he is on his way to meet his estranged brother Esau, whose firstborn rights he stole and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Jacob has his whole plan laid out; it was detailed in the verses just before our lesson. He’s sending wave after wave of gifts ahead of him, to try and butter Esau up, and he’s sequestered all the people and possessions that really matter to him out of the line of fire, and he’s even prayed for help for good measure, and he’s got everything lined up to make the meeting go his way. But a complete surprise happens, a complete nonsequitur comes. There is an inbreaking of God’s uncontrollable and undeserved grace, that takes Jacob into depths that have nothing to do with his plan.
If anyone tells you they’ve got this story all figured out, don’t listen. You heard it: 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.
I read last week an interview in The Paris Review with the essayist Leslie Jamison. She has a new collection called Make it Scream, Make it Burn, and the interviewer kind of pressed her on the role grace plays in several of the essays. He wanted to hear why her book, as he put it, made a steady orbit around the idea of grace. Jamison responded at length, and you can immediately tell from her words that this is someone who has experienced grace in the Christian sense of the word, and who has processed it and let it change the way she sees the world and lives in the world. I want to read you some of her comments. [G]race, she begins, is like diving into the deep end of the swimming pool—so much better than slowly lowering each inch of thigh down the steps in the shallow end. Or maybe it’s really like diving into the deep end of an infinity pool, where you come up to the edge and see that below is a more infinite body of water than the one you’re swimming in. Which is part of what grace means to me, you feel the world get larger around you, feel yourself get smaller within it.
These words are describing the same kind of thing that happens to Jacob in our first reading today. The world suddenly gets much, much larger around him, and he gets smaller within it. From a shrewd schemer and a powerful patriarch, he is suddenly turned into almost the plaything of this mysterious being, this manifestation of the more infinite body of water than the one we’re swimming in that the Bible calls Yahweh, the One Who is, God. Jacob is allowed to fight back, then wounded at a touch, and given a new name that contains in it the hope of a new future. Who gets to do that to us? And why, when experiences like this are available, do we prefer trying to control life by lowering ourselves into it inch by inch, back down at the shallow end?
Part of what grace means to me, says Jamison, is that you feel the world get larger around you, feel yourself get smaller within it...…[G]race is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for. It certainly didn’t give Jacob the upper hand over Esau he asked for, did it? And she goes on, And that means we have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived. Paying attention is what we’re trying to do this month, with our Wonder In All focus, as we invite you to stop and let yourself be made aware that grace has arrived. Some of you have already done the inventory and put a card and a sticker or two on the board in the Great Hall, and I hope all of us will contribute our observations as the month goes on.
You may not have a story as destabilizing or complex as Jacob’s, though over the years I’ve heard many stories of grace arriving in parishioners’ lives and they don’t tend to be neat, predictable, or pious – so if what you notice is something you didn’t expect and that doesn’t sound conventionally religious, you’re probably on the right track. Put it on the board.
We have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived. As she continues the interview, Jamison comments that she’s noticed that surprise is an important part of grace. You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer. Grace isn’t the thing you planned, it’s what you get instead. Which is [why we have] to uncouple it from a sense of contingency or deserving it. It’s not a product of … moral cause-and-effect. [Grace] catches you off guard.
You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer. Or, if you’re a more controlled sort of person, you thought you wanted seltzer, but you really needed cookies. It’s not like the conventional tit-for-tat thought patterns or the moral cause-and-effect plans that we humans attempt to live by, and then project upwards onto the various useful and predictable deities we invent for ourselves. The universe of grace works differently, this larger universe that the God who reveals himself in Scripture has made and is trying to lure us into. God’s generosity is not about deserving or contingency or control. The lavish, undeserved grace of God flows from who he is, it springs out of the nature and character of this (again) more infinite body of water than the one we’re swimming in that the Bible calls Yahweh, the One Who is, the one who became God with us in Jesus Christ.
We think we know what we want and need – we want cookies, or seltzer, depending on who we are. We want to surround ourselves with people who can benefit us or people who make us feel like we nobly benefit others, depending on who we are. We think that we need to sleep in and then treat ourselves to brunch most Sundays, or that we have to be at church every time the doors are open to prove our dedication, or whatever. Like Jacob, we have our plans and our expectations for our own lives. Grace never agrees to fit in to those: it invites us to fit in to something much larger and more beautiful and uncontrollable.
Grace smiles at us, lets us fight (a little or a lot), tries to get our attention like Jacob in the middle of the night. Grace even allows us to ignore grace. Have you noticed that God never smites us when we falsely brag that we earned his gifts ourselves, and he never shames us when we are stingy in what we offer back? God knows us too well for that and loves us too well for that. God knows how hard it is for us to believe what he has revealed -- that there is no tit for tat, that whatever we do his love is still steady and his generosity is unchanged.
The God Christians proclaim is not a deity who lets us earn our way to what we think we want and need. The God we proclaim surprises us by giving us things we had no idea we needed, and then teaches us why we needed them and how to want them and what to do with them. A God with whom we, as Jamison suggested and Jacob experienced, feel the world get larger around us, feel ourselves get smaller within it. …[G]race is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for. And that means we have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived.
Pay attention, become aware, share your field notes on the board. If you already did it and notice something new today, take another card. We’ve got 500. If we’re paying attention, we will need a couple thousand. By the time we get to our pledge ingathering on November 3, when we let go and give back in love, I hope we will have taken a step, together as a Christian community, in becoming more aware that grace has arrived. It’s arriving all the time. That’s the way God is.