Alone and Not Alone

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Sunday sermon August 2, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)




In 1935, a German scholar named Erich Auerbach lost his job during the Nazi regime’s purge of Jewish faculty from the universities. In his exile, Auerbach wrote a now-famous essay on the difference between the epic poems of Homer and the stories of the Bible. In the Odyssey and the Iliad, he said, everything is visible. The relationships between characters are clear, and so are their motivations. Everything is narrated in the present tense, even memories. We know what the characters are thinking because they tell us; we know what the gods are thinking because they talk to each other, and we overhear what they say. The emotions of the characters, and their reasons for doing the things they do, Auerbach said, are all in the foreground of the story.

The stories of the Bible, on the other hand, are marked by omissions and obscurities, the sense of something left unexpressed. Characters often make choices for no reasons we can see and often operate in an uncertain past within landscapes that are difficult to map. What we are meant to learn from these stories is not always clear; their significance has to be struggled for, Auerbach said, through interpretation. God, being singular, remains hidden. So much of what is going on is in the background, where we can barely discern its outline.

The story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a stranger that Joey read for us this morning is that kind of story: a story full of omissions and murky motivations; a story in which so much feels unsaid. Some things are clear: Jacob is on a journey to meet his brother Esau, whom Jacob had cheated out of his inheritance years before. Jacob has sent messengers ahead with gifts for the brother he once wronged, because he’s afraid that his brother may still be holding a grudge, afraid that Esau might be angry enough to kill him.

But when we meet Jacob in this story, we find him alone. He has distanced himself from his household, sending them on ahead while he remains behind for reasons that are not explained. Jacob is alone, but somehow also not alone, because he wrestles with a stranger all night until the sun starts to come up the next day. We never see his antagonist sneaking up on him; the story doesn’t even tell us who attacked whom. Jacob was left alone, the text says, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Jacob is both alone and not alone at the same time.

This story has been compared to a painting by Rembrandt, in whose canvases it can be difficult to distinguish where one figure begins and another ends. When I think of this story, that’s how I see it – the boundary between Jacob and the man with whom he struggles difficult to locate in the dark. In the foreground of the story is a tangle of limbs, two figures wrestling in silence. In the background, there are unanswered questions and mysterious depths.

Auerbach would say that these depths make the story susceptible to many interpretations. And that is part of the pleasure of reading it – listening for clues out of which to piece together an understanding of what’s going on, finding a doorway of meaning to nudge open. If you’re like me, one such doorway is our own experience with nighttime struggle. Who doesn’t know what it’s like to wrestle all night with something so close to us that we can’t tell where we stop and the worry, or the grief, or the shame keeping us awake begin. The low drone of anxiety that has accompanied this pandemic for many of us often spikes in the night: we worry about our loved ones, about ourselves, about our communities, about our country and the world. And it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of getting through the day only to toss and turn all night — and then to wake up exhausted the next day and have it begin again.

Maybe Jacob separates himself from his family and his possessions for a night because he wants that cycle to stop. He wants his situation to change. Like the desert monks who, centuries later, will look back to his story to understand their own, Jacob embraces the vulnerability of solitude to confront whatever it is that he needs to confront to break the cycle of anxiety, to fight back against all the things that rise up in the night to clobber us.

But just when it seems like this story wants to teach us that we can wrestle our fears to a draw through the sheer force of will, the sun begins to come up, and Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” Jacobs insists. And in reply, the stranger blesses Jacob with a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Jacob is not just an imperfect man who cheated his brother; he is more than that; he is Israel. He is more than his anxiety, more than his shame, more than his many mistakes. His identity encompasses a community; he contains multitudes. He is alone but not alone.

In our reading group this summer, we talked a lot about the relationship between change in ourselves and change in our world. We talked about the internal work we need to do if we’re white — the resistance to our formation in white supremacy, the confrontation with our history, the cultivation of a listening posture rather than a defensive one. That internal individual wrestling is really important, an ongoing process to which we have to remain committed. But white supremacy won’t be defeated through internal wrestling alone. It can only be defeated in community — communities rising up in disobedience to the malformation that makes that internal wrestling necessary. Communities that rise up to protest, to vote, to work together toward new ways of living. This is the blessing that Jacob receives: a community that will draw strength from his life but will not stop at the boundary of his life.

The gospel story Eric read for this morning begins with another man separating himself from others. This time, the man is Jesus. He has just heard from the disciples of John the Baptist that John had been executed by King Herod, as a gift to the king’s niece who had asked for his head. As soon as he hears this disturbing news, Jesus gets on a boat and sails to a place he believes will be deserted. Why? The gospel writer doesn’t tell us. Maybe, like Jacob, Jesus is afraid. Maybe his instinct is to hide after hearing that the King has killed another preacher, one who had celebrated the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Or maybe he’s sickened by the almost casual way the violence of the state has been wielded against John and wants to be alone in his grief. Maybe he needs a place to toss and turn. Maybe he needs a place to wrestle with God, a place to be alone and yet not alone.

But when he arrives on the shore of his retreat, the crowd from which he had separated himself is already there waiting for him. They had gone ahead on foot, and they are there, with all their needs, when Jesus arrives. Maybe his own grief and fear helped him identify with that of the crowds, because the gospel says that “he had compassion for them” — literally, that he suffered with them — "and cured their sick.”

As in Jacob’s story, the day eventually deepens into evening. And that’s when the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away — they’re going to be hungry, the disciples worry, and we only have five loaves and two fish. But Jesus tells them not to send the crowds away but to feed them. He offers a blessing over their meager provisions and the disciples begin passing the food out to the crowd. And in the growing darkness, everyone eats their fill, and the disciples collect twelve baskets of leftover broken pieces.

It’s the same blessing, I think — the stranger’s blessing of Jacob and Jesus’s blessing of the loaves and fish. They are the blessings of God’s economy, the miracle of it: that in sharing what we have — our lives, our food — we end up with much more than we had in the first place. Jacob becomes more than he knew himself to be; the loaves and fish become more than enough to feed thousands of people.

It is in these moments of more that God feels most present in these stories. Auerbach says that God is never wholly revealed in the Bible, that God always extends into depths we can’t reach. But in those moments of transformation — when the life of one fearful man reveals its promise for others; when a man seeking enough solitude to grieve is able to open his heart to needs of a crowd; when the simplest offerings of food become enough to satisfy the hunger of thousands —we catch a glimpse of God. When even in the midst of a global pandemic, communities find strength to rise up and say: the world must change, we can do better than this, we can be more than this. God is present in these moments of excess presence, these moments of something more.

Jacob seems to have thought so, at any rate. Jacob has to struggle not only with the stranger, but also with the stranger’s identity. Because the stranger with whom he wrestled won’t tell him who he is: why do you want to know, the stranger replies when Jacob asks. The stranger seems intent on protecting the undecidable quality of the story as it unfolds, protecting the possibility that this story could have many meanings, an excess of meaning, not only for those who read it and hear it in the unknown future, but also, perhaps, for Jacob himself, who will have the rest of his life to ponder it.

Jacob finds God in this stranger who seems more comfortable in the obscurity of darkness than in the daylight that reveals who is who. Jacob names the place by the river Peniel, “the face of God,” because, as Jacob tells himself, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob is alive, although he has been wounded in the struggle. And he is alone once more, yet still not alone, because he carries the possibility of a new community within him.

Such new possibilities are coiled within all our lives, and within every moment, ready to unfurl like a banner. Even in the long nights of wrestling, we are not alone, for God dwells in these possibilities, never tiring of reminding us that in caring for one another, we will find that we are more than we believe ourselves to be.