Articles, Blog

Wrestling in the River

December 3, 2019

– It’s one thing to write an address, it’s another thing to reassemble it. (audience laughing) Hold that thought. (audience laughing) – [Dean Sterling] I hope they fell straight. – I think you did a pretty good job of knocking it off in order, yeah. Well, you heard him. This is the beginning
of the academic year, but nobody is ready for this. (audience laughing) Our pre-Labor Day start-up
probably hits the faculty worst. Only yesterday it seemed we
put our regalia into mothballs, set out to do the work of the
summer season that in May, stretched for month after
month in our imagination. Now it’s time to stop even though no project
is actually finished. And worse yet, the writing
that looked pretty well made in early June started to
crumble in mid August. And then there are the seasonal nightmares that plague a professor
on the cusp of September. Dreams in which you cannot
find the proper classroom. In which your tongue clings
to the roof of your mouth. Or suddenly you see yourself standing in front of fully clothed students when you yourself are naked
as the day you were born. Welcome to my world. (audience laughing) Teachers have it bad, but so
do administrators and staff who keep the school running
throughout the year, not to mention year after year. They have had the quadrangles
to themselves all summer, have recently discovered
if they do every June, that they could actually
do their jobs better without the rest of us making trouble. (audience laughing) Now we come back and spoil things and the mayhem starts all over again. Which brings me to students. Mayhem is the theme word there. Some of whom are experienced in the ways of 409 Prospect Street, and therefore invaluable to showing the ropes to the rest of us. We need them to explain what
a reading week actually is. You’ve got five of them this year. And how in the world to find
the Nouwen prayer chapel which is buried somewhere in
the bowels of the library. Returning students can even
afford to be a little smug toward those who have
just arrived, after all, they know where everything is, have figured out how to handle New Haven, are no longer shy about being at Yale, and have calculated exactly how much of the assigned
reading needs to be done. (audience laughing) Then there are those
students who are brand new and embarking on a
divinity school education with great and very various expectations. Some are preparing for ordained ministry, trying to understand just what it means. So little time, so many people to please, so many gnawing questions about vocation. Others arrive with a career
rather than a vocation in mind, they have an academic
discipline they want to pursue rather than something
spooky, like a calling. (audience laughing) For them, YDS may be stage one of graduate school, and who knows, if everything goes will,
the grades are good, the professors are encouraging, there may be a PhD
further along the horizon. But of course this kind
of neat sorting out is much too neat. Vocation and career overlap. And a profession can easily be a ministry, though with a different
costume and pay scale. (audience laughing) Students also change
their course midstream and find that a degree in divinity can lead quite naturally
to law or social work or secondary school teaching, or indeed, the myriad other things that
divinity school graduates do with or despite their degrees. Last but not least, there are those who come
here looking for God and hope that doing a degree program isn’t going to prevent that
search from going forward. These folks are often very
difficult for faculty to advise. (audience laughing) And it’d be hard for other students, especially those who have
figured it out already. They don’t want a degree in divinity so much as they want divinity. Their patience with academia can be small, their appetite for something
they can’t quite name enormous. They come from every
denominational background or arrive with little or
no religious background. They round out the
motley crew that we are. Now, given our very mixed and motley bag, I wanna propose a patron
saint to invoke this year. Jacob. The wandering Aramaean who
is our spiritual ancestor. The man who wrestled one night
in the waters of the Jabbok. And at least according to the cheeky Emily Dickinson, worsted God. Jacob’s wrestling in the river is one of the most famous
passages in Scripture, a showstopper in either Hebrew or English, versatile enough to inspire
a pious Charles Wesley hymn and an irreverent Dickinson poem. It may also be powerful and bizarre enough to get us to think about something other than the distractions of
moving in and settling down. But as always, to get the force of any particular biblical story, or what you student newcomers will learn to call a pericope, you have to take in the bigger picture. For what happens in the
River Jabbok is only one eddy in a stream of Genesis narrative that originates in Ur of the Chaldees and flows forward to Egypt. To feel its full effect
requires a backstory and some hint of what’s to follow. Now, the background, given the occasion of
a solemn Yale assembly, might appropriately be the measured tones of the Deuteronomist. A wandering Aramaean was my father. He went down into Egypt, lived there as an alien few in number, and there he became a great
nation, mighty and populous. Thus rendered, the back story
takes on an easy smoothness. There’s a sense of inevitability to it, as well as the dignity and
the cadence of a liturgy. Yet leave behind the blessed
assurance of sacred history, and what you find is a
really weird family story, more complicated and vexed even than your own family’s story. Indeed, you get something like the world of Jerry Springer or Dr.
Phil or the Bravo channel. (audience laughing) Where to begin telling Jacob’s tale? Is it with Grandfather Abraham, who hears a voice and goes
wherever it sends him, whether across the Negev or
up the slopes of Mount Mariah? Or with Grandmother Sarah,
who to her anguish and shame cannot have a baby? Or do you start with Father Isaac, who was offered up to God as a sacrifice and lives to tell the tale? Isaac, who subsequently doesn’t
seem able to do very much on his own except to pass
off his bride as his sister when that seems like a good idea. That bride Rebecca is
afflicted by barreness like her mother in law
until she gets double what she asked for, not one child but two. Two raging male fetuses who make her life a
living hell in the womb and a trial thereafter. Or should we focus on our
ancestor Jacob himself? The slightly younger
of those warring twins who was unsuccessful
in his uterine attempt to be born first, but then
spent the rest of his life making sure he always turned out on top. He buys a birthright that
doesn’t really belong to him. Then in the course of
an elaborate camouflage, all staged for his benefit by Mom, he at once deceives a daughter
and dear blind father, and egregiously swindles,
his only brother, his twin. Now there’s enough here for a cable mini series on television. The plot continues to
thicken once Jacob on the lam escapes his brother’s household. His fury discovers his true love Rachel, or rather, after the
delirious wedding night, he discovers his love’s
older sister, Leah, who has been substituted between
the sheets by her father, Jacob’s Uncle Laban. And why not, this family being what it is? Makes a kind of perverse sense. Laban has two daughters to
marry off, and as it turns out, a son in law he can exploit for roughly two decades
of indentured service. He has in Jacob a trickster
he can enjoy tricking. During these years of
minding Laban’s flocks, the tents of Jacob running
turn into a stud farm. Night after night, he’s
commanded by his wives their female servants who forced him into fatherhood again and
again with the command gives me children or I shall die. What’s love got to do with it? 10 boys and one girl are born to Jacob, four different women, all merging with a larger biological push
to increase and multiply. Jacobs population explosion, moreover, is not only about children,
but about herds of livestock, sheep, goats, all speckled
and striped and mottled. But It’s time to return to Canaan, with a likely to build be
still smoldering brother Esau remains to be seen Jacob
marshalls his forces, wives, Leah and Rachel
concubines Zilpah and Bilhah, the accumulated sons
and the single daughter, not to mention the flocks,
and herds and camels. He prepares for the worst by
sending the best ahead of him. As wave after wave of
animals make their way across the river, followed
by the family he’s raised up. This gradual staging of return presents a really odd instance
of women and children first. Since they are initially set in harm’s way to provide a protective buffer for him before he sets foot on Esau’s territory. Perhaps Jacob knows that
everyone else’s safe but him, there’s really only one victim that Esau will have in mind. When we come to our
passage, it’s nightfall. Jacob is all alone. This is remarkable. For not only is he seen apart
from all that he has required since running away from
his brother in Canaan but as far as we can tell, he’s alone for the first time in 20 years. There’s no entourage of flocks and family. There’s just him. In this aloneness is
this aloneness meant to take us back to that other
solitary night long ago, when he first fled from
his brother’s wrath? At that time in the middle of nowhere, with a few rocks for a pillow, he laid himself down to sleep. He dreamt that a ladder
descended from heaven to earth, with the Lord speaking to him from above the God of Abraham, and Isaac, who extends the same blessing of land,
offspring and protection that earlier have been given
to grandfather and father. Comes into his senses, he builds an altar, he makes a sacrifice. He calls the place Bethel,
literally the house of God, because that is what the middle
of nowhere turns out to be. Now 20 years later, at the
ford of the river, Java, Jacob is again all alone. But then suddenly, he’s not. In a moment in the twinkling of an eye, there’s something else in that water or is it someone else, whose
idea of getting to know you is nothing less than all out assault? Tradition speaks of the
bruiser as an angel, perhaps even Michael the Archangel. The NRSV identifies him
only as a he or a man. The Hebrew calls him a
divine being an Elohim. Whatever happens between the two of them, goes on all night and
lasts until daybreak. It also goes unreported. The teller of this tale has
no interest in a blow by blow. There’s no account of
hammerlock or full nelson, there’s no eye gouging or hair pulling, such as when we read
about in Homer, or see, televised by the World
Wrestling Federation. Strange for wrestling match,
it’s not clear who wins. Jacob seems to have the upper hand before dawn’s early light,
he prevails we’re told. But then the other man
finally takes him out by striking him on the hip socket. Jacob is literally thrown out of joint Is this fair? Says the first year M.Div. student. A divine being pulling rank when things are going badly for him and arbitrarily changing
the rules of engagement. There’s no referee to decide the case nor come to think of it
as fairness in general, have much to do with heavenly beings, or for that matter with
Genesis as a whole. I mean, just ask Hagar, Ishmael and Esau. With Jacob’s injury the wrestling stops but Jacob himself doesn’t, he doesn’t let go of his
opponent for a minute. Instead, he holds on
even when the man says the time is flying and
it’s really time to go. He holds on like a terrier with a bone. He concedes no ground,
I will not let you go unless you bless me. And a blessing is what he gets, which comes in the form of a new name. Israel. From his time in the
womb, he had been a Jacob, a heel grabber, a supplanter,
a smuggler against the odds. But now, you shall no longer
be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven
with God and with humans and have prevailed. The mama’s boy who is good in the kitchen, has striven with God and with
angels, and has prevailed, promised a multitude as infinite and far flung as the dust of the earth. Jacob gets it all, at least in promise. The wandering Aramaen becomes our father, as generations of Jews and
Christians in one way or another, claim him as their own
and call him blessed. The sense of a happy ending spills over into the next chapter,
when it turns out that Esau rather than setting out to
murder, Jacob wants to love him. Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck and
kissed him and they wept. Jacob is stunned, as well he might be, because he certainly doesn’t deserve this. Truly to see your face,
he tells his brother, is like seeing the face of God since you have received
me with such favor. But happiness in this world is short lived and very soon as the story continues, blessing and favor seem to disappear into the dust of the earth. Jacobs one daughter Dinah is
raped then hideously avenged by her brothers who take matters out of their father’s hand and into their own. One son, Reuben sleeps with
Jacobs concubine, Bilhah, the mother of two of Jacob’s children, which is to say with two
of Reuben’s brothers. Another son Judah, with a woman twins, he thinks that the woman is a prostitute. No, she’s not. She’s his daughter in law, and
from their issue, come twins. Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, might easily have been
murdered by his brothers. Instead, they sell them
into slavery in Egypt. Why? You may be asking yourselves, is the convocation
speaker choosing to open the academic year with this
convoluted and sorry account? Plus, it’s hot. Is it to remind the incoming students that the Bible is more of a cautionary tale than an exemplary one? That God consistently works with people you would never want to meet (audience laughing) but who are in fact versions of you. Albeit, you on a very very bad day, maybe. What interests me most in the story of Jacob’s wrestling in the river are two details I’ve not yet mentioned. They’re note worthy in
their own right I think but they strike me as poignant. For all of us at this
moment in our years calendar and especially for those who are just beginning their
studies in divinity. Point one. The divine being who suddenly
rises up from the river refuses to disclose his name. Make no mistake, he doesn’t
hesitate to ask for Jacob, what is your name? Nor does he scruple about
changing that name on the spot, you shall no longer be
called Jacob but Israel. He will also confer along with
that name change, a blessing. But Even though Jacob holds on tight, even though he begs his challenger with the Hebrew equivalent
of the magic word, please tell me your name? The man will not in
return, deliver the goods. The commentators tell us why, to have someone’s name is
to have power over them. It’s to call the shots. Not here. Divinity may let a human being come close may even prevail from time to time, but sorry Emily Dickinson,
God is never worsted. Even Jacob realizes this
for all his brashness. After the wrestling match
when he names the place Peniel, the face of God. He does so in order to memorialize the lesson of the encounter. Although he may have
prevailed in the instant, he knows that his real blessing
is to have gotten out alive. For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved. Let us children of this Jacob
renamed Israel, take note. There are limits in
every sense to our grasp. When it comes to the divine,
we will always be surprised and worsted God shows up
in the middle of nowhere, at the ford of a river
in a dream, in a fight and often in the dark when
it’s easiest to catch us unprepared and disarmed. We may say please all we want and stay awake as long as we can but there are certain things,
in the story it’s a name, that not even the most persistent human will be able to grab hold of. There is no mastering divinity, no matter what your degree is called. (audience laughing) But how wonderful that Jacob
did the grabbing, nonetheless. How wonderful that he was
willing to take on all comers to hold onto a morning to
ask for what he wanted. Even if he couldn’t have it. In the end, he had to
take no for an answer. But look what he got,
a face to face vision, a new name for himself
and with it could it be the identity of someone who
not only wrestles with God, but wrestles on God’s side, on
God’s behalf, in God’s cause? It sounds marvelous, doesn’t it? And yet it comes with a cost. Which leads me to my second point, Jacob is able to prevail
against the divine being at least for a time but
he’s never the same again, He’s wounded, he’s struck in the hip, he walks away into the future
limping because of his hip. Now, the teller of the tale is overtly interested in this fact because it has to do with food, with
what you do or do not eat. It’s an etiology. (audience laughing)
(audience applause) Oh, your buddy whose
been here before, yes. But more compelling to me is what Jacobs limb suggests about the danger of getting close to God. Inevitably, it hurts. It wounds it changes the
way you walk in the world. This assault on one status
quo is important to remember at the beginning of an academic year, you should be prepared for trouble because you’re getting into it. You should also cautiously
allow the trouble to happen. Soon it will become all too easy to study scripture or theology, as if it were business as usual. Now you can turn it into
merely academic business if you want to. But In fact, this, this
curriculum comes with a warning. It’s dangerous. It can keep you up at night. And not only because there
are so many pages to read or to write, it can keep you struggling because it’s so full of hard
sayings and difficult issues. Be warned, you can lose sleep, trying to figure out
what’s actually going on in the river that you’re entering here. Are you fighting against
or fighting alongside? Hey, and maybe it’s just
another fantasy after all, another ghost story from long ago that somehow has managed to
keep bothering people, when by all rights the whole
thing should have disappeared with the Enlightenment state right? If that’s the case, then
you’re spending time and money giving an illusion of future. Do you really want to do that? Or to turntables? What if you come here with an intellectual interest in religion as one subject among others, and then find yourself getting involved with it in some newly passionate way? Suddenly is not just
religion you’re studying, fascinating as though it is, is there anything more fascinating? But there’s something that
seems to be studying you. Taking your measure, taking you on. It feels as if you’re being drawn in against your better judgment, as if someone were calling you, maybe giving you a new name, something, someone is messing with your life, you might drown. Now, I suggested a little while ago that studying divinity might
be especially poignant for those who in one sense,
doing it for the first time, I wanted them to be prepared
for the disruptions to come, which may very well cause
a wound leave a limp. But this is no less true for those of us who have been at this work for a while, nothing really gets easier. Divinity is inevitably disturbing. As what you used to be able to sit easy with becomes problematic. What you thought wasn’t worth dealing with becomes the thing you can’t let go of, what you once had under control refuses to be brought into your life. Yet should we love the
scary unknown, not fear it? Maybe this is what our patron Jacob would have us embrace about the river we’re all entering now. You have at least a year together in times ever flowing stream. There will be occasions when
it’s best to hold on tight. There will be others when
it’s meeting right to let go. Limping is in the forecast. But so to is blessing. Both. There’s absolutely no telling the outcome, but who in his or her right mind would prefer to stay on the
shore where it’s safe? Take heart. We are all in this together. In the company has many ancestors who have wrestled in the
river a millennia before us, like Jacob, hip out of
socket, but still walking. May we carry on in his
contentious tradition. Whether we’ve been crossing
the river for a long time, like me or are only just
entering it like some of you. This will be my final beginning at YDS, and my hope is that you too find the joy and struggle and excitement of discovery that I’ve known here since 1976. This has been a place of blessing as I hope it will be for all of you. And If I may turn Jacobs
astonished explanation at Peniel into a personal benediction and a wish, May you see God’s face to face and may your life be preserved. Amen. (audience applauding)

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