Sunday, April 15, 2012

Please Tell Me Who I Am: The Identity of People of Faith [Genesis 32.22-33.1a] (28 April 2002)

Supertramp - The logical song

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Dripping with sarcasm and oozing irony, The Logical Song by Supertramp poses well the question that many people ask themselves, especially in times of transition. Because the lyrics of The Logical Song draw heavily from the experience of receiving a higher education, I chose to introduce today’s sermon with it. After all, today is the day we at NUPC are honoring our graduates.

People often ask themselves, “Who am I?” when going through change. The past that we are familiar with often has an answer different from the one offered by the unfamiliar future. And these competing answers cause us to reflect on what the essence of our identity might be. For people of faith, however, competing answers are heard not only in times of change, but daily. People and institutions are often only too willing to tell us our identities—identities that frequently are contrary to God’s purposes. Unfortunately, at times the people who identify us incorrectly are Christians. Even the church often fails in the task of telling us our true identity. Because of this, though today’s message is especially for graduates, it is also, I believe, appropriate for all of us. More to the point, it is appropriate precisely because of the passage from which I have chosen to preach.

I have asked Alice to read the passage for us. So, as she comes up, please turn with me to Genesis 32.22-33.1a.

Thanks Alice.

The passage is rich in language and theology. If you want to know about the language, please come to me later. We will concern ourselves only with the theology.

Jacob’s attitude before the encounter is pretty much what we would have come to expect from him had we been reading Genesis. Always looking out for his own benefit, he has no qualms placing others in danger to save his own skin. He uses his animals, his servants, his concubines, his wives, and his children as ways of quenching Esau’s supposed need to shed blood. In chapter 32, he is furthest from the danger. He places himself at the end of the entourage. Just as he had stolen blessings from his parents and denied his brother his birthright, so also he is willing to play with the lives of those whom we would expect him to protect. If we can learn anything from this Jacob, it is that we ought not look to him as a model for being a spouse and parent.

This Jacob saw his brother as someone to overcome. He believed Esau was his rival and strove to deprive Esau of everything that was rightfully his. It is with this in mind that Jacob approached the prospect of meeting Esau. He would not repent. He would not apologize. Rather, he would seek to mollify his brother, thereby making Esau complicit in the very deception that had stripped Esau of a future.

We see a different Jacob after today’s passage. After the encounter, while he still ranks members of his family, he goes ahead of them to meet Esau. If nothing else, he is at least bold. For the first time in his life, he is able to confront someone face to face. Moreover, even the blessing he stole from Esau in chapter 27, he returns when he bows before Esau and calls himself Esau’s servant. Esau is now a brother with whom to be reconciled.

What is more, Jacob expresses a high moral standard when he deplores the deception of Simeon and Levi in chapter 34. In other words, after the fight, he condemns the very kind of behavior that characterized him before the fight. The changed Jacob has strength of character—even if he is still not perfect.

What a marked transformation! What happened in the fight that converted Jacob? Leading up to the incident, Jacob’s greatest fear is seeing his brother again. Following the incident, Jacob raises his eyes and sees Esau, but now he is no longer fearful. If we were to skip from Genesis 32.21 to 33.1b, omitting today’s passage, we would conclude that during the night Jacob overcame his fear of Esau. In other words, Jacob believed he was struggling to see his brother again. So also, when Jacob wrestles his opponent, he thinks he is struggling with Esau. Only toward dawn does he realize that there is more to his opponent.

In other words, our passage tells us that Jacob’s real struggle was not with his brother but with God. All his life he had been deceiving others and running away. Our passage tells us that all the while he had been running from God. Finally, God—whom C.S. Lewis calls the Hound of Heaven—caught up with Jacob and wrestled him. This man, who had been fleeing from God’s presence and who refused to do the difficult job of wrestling with God, was now forced to do just that. God was in his face and was breaking him bit by bit—literally!

Slowly Jacob realizes that his assailant cannot be a mere human. After all, in chapter 29 we read that Jacob was able to move a boulder from the mouth of a well! I mean, Jacob was buff! We are not dealing with a weakling here. Yet, he was unable to defeat his adversary. So Jacob too realizes that, though he had thought he was fighting Esau, his opponent was too strong to be his brother.

As Jacob wonders about the identity of the man, he hears the man ask him his name. In all prior instances, Jacob introduced himself in terms of his being the son of Isaac and Rebecca. Never before in Genesis do we hear Jacob use his own name. But finally, when God has him pinned to the ground, it comes to a head. 

“What is your name?” In other words, “Who are you? What kind of a person are you?”

Jacob is cornered. There is no getting out of this quandary. So he gives a one-word answer: Jacob. Finally, Jacob comes face to face not only with God but also with who he is. “I am a supplanter, a usurper” “I am someone who pulls others down as I climb the social ladder.” “I am a person who saves his skin by risking the hides of others.” “I am Jacob.”

This is the question we all need to answer: “What is your name?” “Who are you?” Alternatively, as The Logical Song would have it, “Please tell me who I am.”

Right from the day we are born, people tell us who we are. We have identities in our families. We are at once a daughter or a son. Maybe we are a sister or a brother. People categorize us according to age as babies, infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, young adults, adults, middle-aged, or senior. We have marital status. We may be single, married, divorced, or widowed. If you are working, you have a job title that defines you in relation to your workplace. Those of you who are graduating are going to receive new titles: Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, etc.

Some of the titles or names assigned to us have not been positive: jerk, geek, idiot. At times, even those who ought to love us unconditionally have hurt us with their words. “You will never amount to anything.” “If only you were like your brother.” “Your sister is so understanding.”

Then we have our names—by far the most enduring label we will carry with us. These often represent the hopes and aspirations our parents have for us. My mom, even today, tells me that I am to bear the light of God to the world. After all, Deepak means lamp. Should we assume then that a man named John would be gracious since his name means “Yahweh is gracious”? Should we expect that a woman named Mary would be a rebel since her name means “rebellious”?

In Jacob’s case, what was he to expect? His parents called him “usurper.” And true to his name, a usurper he became! Here in our passage, his adversary tells him, “Take a moment to evaluate yourself. Then tell me what you see.”

And Jacob can only reply, “I see a supplanter. I have become a usurper.” How sad! Imagine having to say that to someone, to anyone!

But once Jacob is able to speak those hurtful words of self-evaluation, God overturns the verdict. “No longer,” says God. It is the “no longer” of abundant, amazing grace. It is God’s declaration in favor of him and against his parents’ declaration. While his parents charted Jacob’s future based on a past act of which he was unaware, God opened up the possibilities of Jacob’s present on the basis of a future destiny of which God was aware. That is what God always does.

An apocryphal story about Michelangelo begins with the sculptor lugging a huge block of marble to his studio. A neighbor noticed him and called out, “Michelangelo, what are you doing with that block of marble?” To that the artist replied, “There is an angel in there waiting to come out!” That is just like God. God looked at the purpose he had for Jacob and named him Israel. God names Jacob Israel because Jacob had struggled with God and had to struggle with God.

This would all be very nice information if it were not for the fact that God’s people in the Old Testament were subsequently called Israel. Moreover, in the New Testament, the church is called the Israel of God. This does not mean that the church replaces the Jewish people. Rather, it means that the church is like the Jewish people in a special way. Both the Jewish people and the church are people who struggle with God. In other words, the people of God are those who struggle with God. This is our identity.

But what do I mean when I say we are those who struggle with God? What is the nature of the struggle? What are the issues over which we are struggling? The nature of the struggle and the issues over which you struggle will depend on what you do. A doctor might need to struggle with a healthcare system that is failing more people now than ever. How can I administer healing when I have not received authorization from the HMO? A filmmaker might struggle with how graphic does violence need to be before it crosses from being realistic to being gratuitous. How can I depict the reality of the human situation without making light of it? A teacher might wrestle with an education system geared at pumping students full of knowledge. How can I communicate that who one is and how one acts is more important than what one knows?

Regardless of the issues over which we struggle, we need to realize is that to struggle is to accept that we do not have all the answers. Life is not black and white. This does not mean we never reach any conclusions. But it does mean that we only struggle in areas where the answers elude us. For instance, I do not think any of us actually loses sleep over whether 2 plus 2 is 4! That answer does not elude us. So we do not struggle over it. When we believe we have the answer to an issue, we stop struggling with the issue. Reaching an answer normally signals the end of a quest.

For over two thousand years, mathematicians accepted a priori Euclid’s five axioms of geometry. No one questioned them. They were inviolable truths of mathematics. They had the answers. Therefore, there was no struggle. However, in 1826, Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevski announced that the fifth postulate was not always true—Euclid's theorems could no longer always be taken a priori—and that a non-Euclidean geometry was possible. Non-Euclidean geometry made possible Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the lunar landing, and Hubble’s Law for the expansion of the universe. I cite this example only to show us that having an answer, no matter how strenuously defended, does not mean that we have the right answer.

Some of you are moving on from one stage of life to another. You are graduating. You will receive a certificate stating that you have completed the necessary coursework for the degree you are receiving. Remember, however, that this does not mean you have all the answers. Indeed, all of us are with you there. None of us has all the answers. More to the point, none of us even has the right questions! But we are all together in this struggle with God.

As you go on to the next phase in your lives remember that, as part of the people of God, this is your holy calling. You are Israel! You are to allow God to surprise you in the darkness of your life, when you are alone, when you are afraid. You are to allow God to lock you in an embrace in which you tremble. You are to struggle with God and elicit the blessing from him, even if it means coming away maimed. You are to approach your new life as a sacrament in and through which God will make himself known to you and to those around you. If life stops being a challenge, ceases to be worth living, if you find that you have more answers than questions, ask yourself why you stopped struggling with your God. For, if he has called you Israel, then you not only are Israel. You are to become Israel.

Donald McKim has written, “God’s call is to all who believe to be Christian in all that we do.” All that we do leaves no sphere untouched by God’s call. Whether you are going to be a doctor, a filmmaker, a teacher, a researcher, or in my case a pastor, God asks that we fulfill these roles in a Christian way. Moreover, if the call is to be Christian, it implies that what comes naturally is to be not Christian. In other words, being Christian takes effort. It is a call. Therefore, it is a struggle.

When you do this, when you make your careers the arena in which you struggle with God to be Christian, the words of The Logical Song should warn you about what to expect from people: they’ll be calling you a radical, liberal, fanatical, criminal. After all, only a radical would seek to inform her career with her faith. And only a fanatic would try to enlighten his faith with his career. However, as the great reformer, Martin Luther stated, “There is simply no special religious vocation, since the call of God comes to each at the common tasks.” Indeed, to struggle to hear God’s voice and to obey it at our jobs, in our schools, at our homes, when we are out of the supposedly safe environment of the church, is to be Israel.

1 comment:

  1. Thank God, that He looks at what are potential is, that He has a name for us and that He is with us always, helping us in our respective struggles to be Israel.