Rev. Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, January 3, 2016
The story of Jacob wanders over 7 long chapters of Genesis before it comes to it’s important point. So Here’s a quick summary and then the final critical verses:
Jacob was the second son of Isaac, who was in turn the son of Abraham, the Father of the Hebrew peoples. Jacob was clever, bright and ambitious. He was slender and sleek. He was also the younger brother of Esau his fraternal twin who was large, hairy and loved hunting. Of course, Esau would inherit everything under Jewish law. But to make a long story very short, Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright. Esau threatened to kill him. Jacob ran to another land and worked for his uncle, Laban. He stated as a servant, but showed his gift for animal husbandry and grew Laban’s flocks enormously, while increasing his own wealth both legitimately and by trickery. He married both of Laban’s daughters.
After about 14 years, old Laban finally figured out that he was being swindled and Jacob figured it was time to run again. He took his family and his flocks and headed back for Canaan – he had no place else to go really.
For a time he worried about being chased, but as he got closer to home he started to fear what lay ahead with Esau. His past was catching up with him. He sent some services and a huge flock ahead across the river as a gift for Esau. But in a spectacular failure of intelligence, when hi men returned they only told him that Esau was coming to meet him with 40 armed men. They could not say anything about his mood. Jacob was terrified. What happens next? Over to you, Genesis:
Genesis 32:22-31New International Version (NIV)
Jacob Wrestles With God
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[c] and he was limping because of his hip.
Yes or no: Are you brave? Are you a courageous person?
I wonder how many of us will unhesitatingly answer “Yes!” I would bet very few.
In fact, I would probably say, none of us, myself most definitely included. Our culture likes to install an idea of unhesitating courage. Like the new Star Wars film, the heroes unflinchingly go through that door in spite of the Storm Troopers and blaster fire. The most we ever see in various films is a brief hesitation, a deep breath and then on to glory.
But that’s not courage, that’s cinema…fiction…images of how we might like to see ourselves act in time of crisis. It’s not real.
To claim to be brave or courageous all the time is at the very least boastful, and absurdly simplistic. There are, I would venture, no brave people per se. There are only ordinary people who have moments of bravery or courage. And yes, for some there are more of those moments than for others, but they are still moments only, not lifetimes. And those moments come completely and entirely in context.
I can’t believe I am actually going to quote Ronald Reagan here, but I agree with his famous statement, “Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They’re just braver five minutes longer.”
To cleanse the palate slightly I will also quote another President, Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
And for the record, I don’t think either man was being completely original. These are not new ideas. Consider these words by Aristotle and Plato. As educators and philosophers, neither ever reached the front lines but both lived through wars and revolutions.
Watching all of this history unfold, Plato suggested, “Courage is knowing what to fear”. Aristotle would later add, “We become brave by doing brave acts,” meaning bravery is not an intrinsic quality.
One of the great misconceptions about courage is that it is a thing, a quality that is identifiable, an aspect of character. It isn’t really, not in any distinct sense. Many of us will first defer, deflect or ignore until we no longer can. Then we act in a way that some might call brave…but it feels like there is no other choice.
Courage is more a reaction to circumstance. A situation occurs in our lives and we have a decision to make. Do we face it head on? Do we ignore it and hope it goes away? Do we try to get someone else to manage the situation for us? Do we just cut and run? These are a few of the strategies available to us. All have their uses.
And what kinds of events am I describing? Everyday things. I am not talking about finding ourselves in a war zone or under violent criminal attack. That’s not a moment that has come to too many of us, I think. And I also suspect that under such extreme circumstances, the decision-making process is entirely instinctive. People just react. The ones who react and survive are called courageous and heroic. I have read a few accounts of war heroes. They mostly dismiss the labels and say they were just doing what they had to do. I don’t think it’s false modesty. I bet many of them deferred, deflected or ignored it all as well, at least at first.
No, for most of us in this peaceful land of ours, the demands to be courageous are smaller – yet no less important or challenging. For the fears we must face are just as real and daunting. The decision to leave a marriage, or leave a job can be acts demanding courage. Admitting to our faults and mistakes can demand courage. Going ahead and doing something we really don’t want to do can require courage. Getting a hard medical diagnosis and just getting on with life can take courage too. Getting back to living after the death of a loved one, that too can require courage.
My mother was the second youngest of nine daughters. She had many wonderful qualities, but no one would have put bravery on the list. Timid was a better word. The whole world made her nervous for she had a marvellous ability to see all the things that could go wrong in any situation.
When my father died she had never spent a single night alone in a house in her entire 79 years. She moved in with my sister. That had always been the plan. That lasted two weeks – a house can only have one mistress and all that. So, she moved in with my brother’s family That lasted two days. Then she marched back to her own house and for the next week napped during the days and sat up all night long facing her demons in the dark until she got used to being alone. That was a courageous action. It wasn’t one she jumped at making, but once it became the only realistic alternative, she went ahead and took that leap of faith. I have never respected my mother more.
Courage plays out in every day things, not just on great battlefields.
I first used the story of Jacob and Esau in this church about 15 years ago. It is my favourite Biblical story exactly because it is about those everyday decisions.
For all of his life Jacob ran from the hard decisions, ran from standing up for the right thing. He swindled his brother and ran in fear of his life. He ran because in his moral weakness he conjured a moral outrage that threatened his life.
A good many humanist theologians have argued that Hell does not exist in some far away place or in the afterlife. It exists right her and right now. We each construct our own version of Hell when we fail to live up to being the kind of person we wish to be, when we let our imagined fears rule our lives. Jacob did exactly that.
He wandered away from home for 14 years or more. He built a new life, but then fell back into his old weakness of character and swindles his father in law and ran again.
The story leads us to his one act of courage – or more properly to the climactic struggle that leads to his one act of courage. Wrestling with the man through the long night.
It is that image more than any other that moves me. Why? Because I have been there. I suspect most of us have to one degree or another. An old hymn we will sing after this sermon begins “Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side:”
We all face those moments. There have been a few times when that powerful image of Jacob and the angel has beckoned me, sleepless nights filled with fear, times when no amount of positive thinking or breathing exercises or attempts at distraction can push that angel away. The 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross named it “the dark night of the soul.” What an powerful description. Contemporary philosopher Eckhart Tolle wrote
The “dark night of the soul” is a term that goes back a long time. Yes, I have also experienced it. It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death, for example if your child dies. Or you had built up your life, and given it meaning – and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.
From Genesis we get the wonderful and evocative image of wrestling through the night with a man – or an angel. Sent from God? Summoned from within? You get to decide that – we are Unitarians after all.
But here are the two critical parts of the story the things that for me. describe courage.
First, once engaged in the struggle, once he finally faces his past deeds, his character flaws, his sins, his failings…once he starts to face these things, Jacob doesn’t let go. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t cut and run. Is this courage? Is it simply that he has no other choice? Like the archetypal soldier under fire, it doesn’t matter. As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.” There is no escaping this battle, choice, decision any longer. But folks, even if he has no choice, it is still an act of discovering his courage.
The second great part of the story is the consequence. I don’t mean the reunion with Esau. What happens once he crosses the river is irrelevant. (In fact the brothers are reconciled when Esau welcomes him with open arms). Somewhere in the night the angel has dislocated Jacob’s hip, the kind of thing that would leave him with a permanent limp. In the morning he blesses Jacob with a new name. You see in coming to terms with his past, in facing it with his first ever act of courage, Jacob is forever changed. He is scarred, yes, but he also emerges with a new identity, not a name given by someone else, but a new self-understanding of who he is.
Who can’t relate to that? Who has not emerged from your own dark night without a new perception of who you are, and maybe a few scars to show for it? And you know what? That new being, that new you? That’s a beautiful being. We are enhanced by our life stories. It’s just that sometimes we don’t see it.
One of the saddest things to me is spending time with people who try to pretend that the scars don’t exist. They push them away, cover them in make up or good tailoring. I find that sad.
Okay I don’t mean this personal history is the first thing you say after the handshake, but this thing you have survived, indeed this thing you have triumphed over like Jacob is part of your beautiful story. It is your new name. It makes you who you are, and people with stories are so much more interesting than those without. In my world, every line, every limp, every stretch mark makes someone more interesting and attractive, not less. People who have lived are beautiful and who embrace their living are gifts. Be a gift.
We each only get one story to live. Don’t pretend that some parts didn’t happen or didn’t really matter. The beauty of humanity shines through not in our all too brief moments of perfection and success, but in the far more numerous missteps and failures and hurts and wounds. Those are the coloured bits that form the magnificent stained glass window of illustrating your life story.
Love every part of yourself, friends. Admit your own courage.