Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellThe Rev. Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School; Co-Faculty Dean of Eliot House. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



By the Rev. Stephanie Paulsell
Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School
Co-Faculty Dean of Eliot House
Former Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

Good morning, everyone. It is so good to see you and so good to hear our magnificent choir again. Would you pray with me? Oh, send out your light and your truth. Let them lead us. Let them lead us to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then we will go to your altar, oh God, oh God, our exceeding joy and we will praise you with the harp. Oh God, our God. Amen.

I'm so grateful to Matt for the invitation to be here with you today. It's been quite a week at the Memorial Church with John Green offering the first Noble Lecture since the series was interrupted, like so much else in the spring of 2020. In his introduction to that event, Matt said that what he valued about John Green's work was his vision, by which he meant Green's willingness to pay devoted attention to the aspects of life that are often neglected and ignored, and to see human life as it is in all its messiness, enmeshed in both grief and hope. That's where the holy is, Matt said, not floating above this world like a prize we're all down here trying to earn, but right here in the midst of our world and our lives.

It's hard to imagine a better story with which to explore the way the sacred permeates our complicated human lives than the story Sam just read for us, the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger in the night. We meet Jacob alone on the bank of the Jabbok River, a name that puns so hard on Jacob's own name that it feels a bit unreal, like a landscape in a dream. Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau, whom he cheated years before out of their father's blessing. Earlier in this chapter, we can hear Jacob praying, "Deliver me please from the hand of my brother for I am afraid of him. He may come and kill us all." Jacob has sent his family to the other side of the river and he has remained behind, alone. We never see Jacob's antagonist sneaking up on him. The story doesn't tell us who attacked whom. Jacob was left alone, the text says, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Yesterday I saw George Balanchine's ballet Apollo, in which four dancers become so intertwined that it's difficult to distinguish where one dancer's body ends and another begins, and that's how I imagine Jacob and the stranger, the boundary between their bodies difficult to locate in the dark, a tangle of limbs, two figures wrestling in silence.

What could be more human than this, this struggle in the nighttime, to be clobbered by our fears and anxieties, our shame and embarrassments, our griefs and our regrets in the darkness, where they seem larger and more solid than they are during the day. Who doesn't know what it's like to wrestle all night with fear or worry or grief that is so close to us that we can't tell where we stop and it begins?

When the night begins to wane, Jacob's antagonist wounds him and tries to slip away before the sun comes up, but Jacob holds on. "I will not let you go," Jacob tells the stranger, "until you bless me." And this is what Jacob is known for, for securing a blessing at any cost. Even in the womb, the text says Jacob grabbed hold of his brother's heel trying to be the firstborn. When that didn't work, he tricked their elderly father into giving him his brother's blessing. And now exhausted and wounded, he wants another blessing before he faces the brother who when he discovered Jacob's treachery consoled himself with plotting to murder him.

The stranger asked Jacob what his name is. "I am Jacob," Jacob says, a name that means supplanter. Certainly the identity by which his brother knows him best. "You're not that anymore," says the stranger. "Now you will be Israel because you have striven with God and human beings and have prevailed." "What is your name?" Jacob asks. "Why do you ask?" The stranger replies. And that is the last we hear of him. Jacob limps away, his hip out of joint, a wound that will remind him of his new identity with every step he takes.

Now, this is a story that is full of gaps and silences and obscurities, murky motivations, a sense of things left unsaid. It calls out for interpretation, and Jacob gives it one. "I have seen God face to face," he says, "And my life is preserved." Jacob somehow catches a glimpse of God's face in that long night of wrestling. This is not a God looking on to see who will prevail, like a medieval king at a joust. In this story, God is very much in the struggle.

Everyone Jacob knows and everything he has is on the other side of the river, but he is not alone in the night with his fears and anxieties and regrets. God is there too, an excess presence in this mysterious combat. Is God the antagonist? I think God is in the more that the antagonist's blessing bestows. Jacob is not just an imperfect man who tricked his father and 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 now encompasses a whole community. He contains multitudes. This is the blessing that Jacob receives. A community will draw strength from his life, but will not be limited by the boundary of his life. It will be more because he is more. He is more than he and his brother and we, the readers of this text, knew him to be.

Of course, it's not just Jacob's transformation that draws us to this story. It's also the story's deep silences. Every time I read it, I'm struck by the presence and then the absence of the two wives, the two maids, the 11 children that the text says Jacob sent across the river before his struggle with the stranger began. I always wonder what the night was like for those women as they wait for Jacob's brother and his retenue of troops to appear on the horizon.

When men go to war, women and children always fare badly, as the journalists who are telling the stories of women in Ukraine are teaching us yet again. No one tells the story of what the night was like for the women in Jacob's household. Were they left to wrestle with their fears alone? Did they see God's face during that long night? Were there any blessings for them? This is a very deep silence. I press my ear to the page and I can't hear a thing, but I wonder if I hear an echo of those women's voices in the poet Denise Levertov's poem, Where is the Angel, which ends, "Where is the angel to wrestle with me and wound, not my thigh but my throat, so curses and blessings flow storming out and the glass shatters and the iron sunders."

And I wonder if I hear them in Emily Dickinson's audacious misquoting of this biblical text. She does this twice at the end of her life in letters to friends, one in particular written to a friend whom she considered a mentor, quotes Jacob as saying to the one with whom he's wrestling not, "I will not let the go except you bless me," but, "I will not let the go except I bless thee." There's a longing in Levertov's poem and Dickinson's letters, not for the blessing Jacob craved, but to be the one who blesses, to flow with curses and blessings powerful enough to shatter glass and sunder iron, to flow with poetry that subverts the way things are, to speak in one's own voice and be heard down the generations, to create the way God creates. God's more is present here too.

There's at least one more silence in this story that asks us to listen for what it might contain, and that's the silence of Jacob's antagonist who when Jacob asks for his name replies enigmatically, "Why do you want to know?" And disappears from the story. Is the stranger an angel? Is the stranger God? Is the stranger Jacob's brother? Is the stranger and embodiment of all the things that keep Jacob awake at night? Is the stranger an echo of all of these presences? The only thing we can say with confidence, I think, is that the stranger is intent on protecting the undecidable quality of this story as it unfolds, protecting the possibility that it could have many meanings and excess of meaning for those like us who will read it and hear it, interpret it and reinterpret it in the unknown future, and also for Jacob himself who will have the rest of his life to ponder it.

This is part of the blessing for Jacob and for us, I think, this undecidable quality, the story's unanswered questions and mysterious depths. Engaging with this story strengthens what the poet John Keats called our negative capability, our capacity to hold many possibilities as truthful at once. It also invites us to recognize and honor the unknowable more within ourselves and others. We can't know when we arrive here on Sunday morning who has been up all night wrestling with fear and worry, with unanswered questions or even with hope, but we can imagine that we all have been. And if we did imagine that, how would that shape the way we listen to each other and speak to each other? What more might we see in each other? What more might we evoke from each other?

To be blessed is to be called to bless. "I will bless you so that you will be a blessing," God says to Jacob's ancestor, Abraham. The blessing of undecidability this story offers is a shareable one. Jacob has received a new name, but if those around him don't honor the possibility that he might change, if they don't allow for his transformation to be real, what can that transformation mean? Jacob will need the help of others to imagine his way into a new identity as one who not only seeks to be blessed, but to bless, from whose life more life will be born. We can't do that for each other if we believe we've got each other figured out. When we honor the more we cannot see within others and within ourselves. We keep open the possibility that we could change. We keep open the possibility that the world could change.

After his night-long wrestling match, Jacob begins finding God everywhere. In the one who wrestled with him until daybreak, in the face of his brother, who does appear with his army in the next chapter, but who weeps to see Jacob and embraces him. And perhaps we begin to see God in this story too, making room for more, in the women whose voices are not heard, but whose presence is felt, in the darkness in which Jacob's struggle takes place, in the struggle itself. And in Jacob, whose life means more than the mistakes he has made, as everyone's life does, as all our lives do. Amen.