February 22, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 32:3-12, Genesis 33:1-10

See God and Live

This is where it begins. Not death, exactly. Whatever we imagine that to be. But it’s not the land of the living with a bustling market place, a cozy house with a table by the fire, a garden where the dew is still on the roses. Not there, not today. Today we begin in the long, flat place in between, home to the wild beasts and the wild angels and nobody’s safe.

Now what happens there could have been a dream. Or maybe Jacob thought he had died and gone to the other side. Here in between life and death, heaven and earth, Jacob was not all the way awake when he sent his family and everything he owned across the stream, and he was alone. Then a man came and wrestled with him until the first light broke across the sky. You heard that right. These two had an actual wrestling match in the wilderness all night.

Whoever this man was, he injured Jacob’s hip, but Jacob was holding his own. When glimmers of sun started to make shadows on the ground, the man cried out, “Let me go, for the day is breaking!” Jacob said to him, no. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Really.

Of course, maybe it’s all just a dream. Jacob is known for his dreaming. Earlier he dreamed of that famous ladder leading to heaven all covered in angels. Then Jacob woke up and uttered the words that could haunt his whole life, and maybe ours too. He said, “‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. And he was afraid’” (Genesis 28:16-17a)

Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.

Today we are beginning our Lenten sermon series on forgiveness. It might be fair to say there are two kinds of forgiveness: easy and impossible. Easy forgiveness goes like this: “Oops! I’m sorry” “Oh that’s okay.” I start to change lanes without noticing you in my blindspot, and you honk, and I wave, “Sorry!”  and we all move on with our lives. We human people drop the ball, or say the wrong thing, or show up late, or knock over a glass of punch drenching everything in red. And we human people forgive. This is easy forgiveness. Impossible forgiveness takes a miracle. Why do we even try?

Along with these two kinds, it might be fair to say there are two places to stand when it comes to talking about forgiveness: outside and inside. Standing outside, you can talk about forgiveness from a safe distance.

If you ever watch one of those crime docudramas, you’ll notice they often end with a comment from the victim’s loved ones who are made to say on TV whether they will forgive the accused perpetrator or whether they wish she would rot. Now we who are on the outside watch this and judge. It seems everybody has an opinion as to whether or not a family should forgive. That’s because we’re outside in our living rooms or in our pulpits where it is safe. When you’re inside, the work of forgiveness is dangerous. You don’t know what you’ll see.

Years ago, I attended a training on how to support survivors of sexual assault. One woman shared her own experience with the group and expressed concern that maybe she did something wrong. Our trainer interrupted her with words of reassurance. She said to this woman, “Look in that moment, whatever you did was the right thing. You do what you need to, to live.”

Now I have to tell you, I don’t agree with this one hundred percent. I can definitely think of some things a person could do that would not at all be the right thing, even if they were afraid for their lives. That doesn’t justify escalating violence. Then again, I am standing outside of what happened.

Our trainer’s larger point is important. We can assess all kinds of strategies before an incident or after an incident. When the wrestling match is underway and it’s you who is on the ground, when it’s you sitting in the courtroom or waiting at the hospital, when it’s you standing in the need of prayer, you do what you need to, to live.

Today our scripture readings tell the story of Jacob and Esau. These two were twin brothers who wrestled with each other inside Rebekah’s womb. Esau managed to get born first, but Jacob came out of the womb gripping Esau’s heel. Their lives began in struggle. When they grew up, Esau came in from hunting and asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew he was cooking. Rather than just giving it to him, Jacob traded a bowl of stew for Esau’s birthright.

Later when Esau went to claim his blessing from his father, he learned that Jacob had beat him to it. Esau’s inheritance had been swindled from him, and he vows to kill Jacob. When Rebekah finds out, she sends Jacob away. The twins part ways for twenty years during which Jacob’s story of struggle continues. Today we pick up the story right when Jacob is setting off on a journey through the wilderness back to the land of his father, which means he is preparing to encounter his brother. Make no mistake, Jacob is afraid.

First he sends the angels out to meet Esau and appeal to him. Jacob offers him oxen, donkeys, livestock, slaves —a massive bounty so that Esau won’t kill him. When the messengers return, they tell Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. This news terrifies Jacob. He divides all the people and animals into two companies, so that if Esau destroys one, the other will remain.

Then, Jacob prays: “Deliver me, LORD, from the hand of my brother… for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted…’” Jacob means to believe that God will deliver him, and yet he is deeply distressed. His faith and his fear wrap around each other like a wrestling match that lasts all night.

Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. And he was afraid.

When it’s forgiveness we’re seeking to receive or forgiveness we mean to offer, either way, it is dangerous. And terrifying. Impossible forgiveness springs forth from our vulnerability. Already you have been hurt. Now you have no idea how this is going to turn out, and you very well could get hurt again. Why would anybody choose forgiveness? It’s a question we might ask if we’re standing on the outside at a safe distance.

But if you’re on the inside, if the wrestling match is underway and it’s you who’s on the ground, if it’s you in the courtroom or in the hospital, if it’s not your brother, not your sister, but it’s you O Lord, then you do what you need to, to live.

Even if what you need is to forgive.

After Jacob’s decision to divide his assets, after his prayer, after he wrestles all night long, when the day breaks, he looks up and sees Esau coming toward him with all those four hundred men. He goes on out ahead of all the women and children bowing himself to the ground six times with an injured hip, all the while moving closer to Esau. The seventh time he bows to the ground, and I’m guessing he takes one long deep breath. This is the exact spot where heaven meets earth, where life meets death, and now everything is on the line. He could get killed when he opens his eyes.

Suddenly Esau interrupts his prayer and knocks him to the ground! He has him in a choke hold, then he falls down and kisses him. Faith and fear wrap around each other, and both men are weeping. All their companies stop. I’m guessing all the world holds its breath, while Jacob and Esau don’t even kill each other. They live! Both of them.

What follows is an awkward exchange of people and animals, gifts the brothers offer each other. Can you imagine being in this crowd, being traded with your children for restitution? From the outside, these communities might look like the currency of reconciliation, but from the inside, this would be a different story.

And here in the middle of this transaction, Jacob lets it slip. He says to Esau, “Accept this present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God —since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10). I suspect Jacob is right, but it’s a strange thing to say. Seeing the face of God is dangerous and terrifying. How do you see the face of God and live?

I need to tell you, I think this might be exactly the risk we take if we choose to begin a journey of forgiveness. Really there are two ways you could approach our Lenten series. One is to stand back at a safe distance and hold forgiveness at arm’s length. From here, we can examine its theological dimensions, speculate on its psychological implications. You can come to the Wednesday program and read The Book of Forgiving[1] and learn about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. We need to hear from this perspective. If you’re not so sure about this, please do come and stand back behind the rail. You can see everything from here, and you won’t get any hurt splattered on your clothes.

Now the other option is to go ahead and get driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. It is not safe here. Inside, forgiveness is the slow, painful, weary work of getting up too early, wrestling with prayers that won’t let you go, falling down weeping and trying again. If you choose this approach, I don’t know what will happen. Do what you need to, to live, even if that means forgiving. But fair warning. Stand in the place of forgiveness and I really believe, you will come face to face with the glory of God.

When Jacob was wrestling with the angel on that long night, the angel said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” They ask each other’s names and Jacob gets the blessing he demands. Jacob called the place Peniel saying, “For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” I did not die.

May God bless and keep us on this journey. Fair warning: If you come to the place of impossible forgiveness, surely here we will see the face of God. And live. Amen.

[1] Tutu, Desmond and Mpho Tutu. Douglas C. Abrams editor. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Harper Collins: New York, 2014.

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