As evening falls on the crest of the river’s ford, Jacob sits alone at a small fire. He is poking tiredly at the embers while thinking about the journey underway. “Go home,” God says. “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you” (Genesis 30:3, 13). God’s was a voice of grace, a reprieve from the taunting voices of Jacob’s brothers-in-law who were accusing him of theft, even as Laban was stealing from Jacob.
There on the ridge, with the Jabbok River babbling below, Jacob thinks of Galeed and Mitzpah, the places of the “heaping witness” and the “watch post” pillar. Galeed and Mitzpah stand as testimonies of peace and markers of boundaries. Beyond them neither Laban nor Jacob would not cross toward each other. Peace would remain, their covenant declared, if each stayed on his own side of the markers erected.
No longer pursued by Laban, Jacob anticipates meeting his brother, Esau, from whom he had fled after stealing Isaac’s blessing. Esau, the red one, is approaching. He is coming with four hundred men around him. As darkness falls, Jacob is alone, undoubtedly tussling with the memories. Rehashing struggles borne in the womb. At birth, he, the younger twin, gripped Esau’s heel. In the tent, Jacob coerced his brother into selling his birthright. At the edge of Isaac’s bed, he stole Esau’s blessing, then ran to the house of Laban for safety. He has much to fear about the uncertain future, while his family and property is tucked safely across the river. Watching the dying fire he wonders if Esau’s anger still burns red hot. He feels vulnerable as he returns from exile.
It is in the emptiness of that night that the Divine dips down and wrestles Jacob the supplanter. Flesh and muscles wrap and flex all the night. Rolling in the darkness they strive against one another. Adrenaline gives way to fatigue, night to daybreak. Jacob is on top, mastering the Divine, prevailing while the beaten one begs for release. But Jacob does not let go. “Bless me,” Jacob says as he rubs his displaced hip. “Bless me.”
The Divine faces Jacob at Peniel and blesses him. God says, “You are Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” He limps away from the encounter as Esau approaches. He is a wounded man who turns to strive with his brother. Blessed he is, but vulnerable he goes forward.
Blessed, but vulnerable. These could be good words to describe the church. Blessed, but vulnerable. So many churches today are at the river Jabbok. We are at a place of vulnerability, often leading churches that bear wounds (are some of them from the Lord?) and are often afraid of the future. We are aware of our frailties and fearful of what may lie ahead. Many among us say that the “wealth” of the past is gone, that our glory days are behind us. Others point out that a changing society leaves us with little hope for a future of strength and vitality. In spite of all that is good and strong in our congregations, we continue to be an anxious, wondering what we’ll face next. Fears bubble up in disagreement and conflict. We feel alone and wonder what it means to be the church today.
In our fear, we push ourselves into exile. The church too often retreats in the face of dimished influence in society, uncertain finances, conflict, and anxiety. It pulls back and focuses on itself. It goes its own way, fleeing, one could say, from the sending Spirit.
Churches in exile are faced with at least two important questions that will define their future. The first is “Will we strike out and go it alone, hoping to gain wealth of our own efforts, as Jacob did when he fled the house and land of God’s covenant?” The second is, “Will we trust the call of the Holy Spirit who always calls us out of exile and turns us toward God’s mission in the world?”
Jacob was returning home. Having heard the call of God to go back to the family land, he left the exile of his fear-filled flight and journeyed back to the place of promise. For the people of Israel returning from exile, Jacob’s story showed them how they return. Returning involves wrestling with God, reconciling with others, and it seems, limping.
Lent’s not here, yet, but the call of return that is central to Lent seems to be a call needed in so many churches. Too often we settle for exile. We work on in-house stuff and strive to keep “members” of the church happy. We given into congregational voices that say, “What about us?” And work hard to keep alive dying practices and customs that don’t make sense, anymore.
A church that turns toward the future wrestles with God. It engages the One who calls it into being, seeking understanding, growing in faith, begging for blessing, and engaging issues important to sharing God’s new life with the world. Such a church takes seriously the tasks of reconciliation. It turns toward those it has neglected or harmed in the past and extends hands of peace. A church that is returning from exile is is one that reconnects with God’s mission. It takes seriously the covenant and knows that it stands as one community among the many. It knows itself to be called into being for the sake of extending God’s blessing into the world. This blessing is all about new life.
The church that returns, that is wrestling with God, reconciling with the neighbor, and reentering God’s missional covenant walks with a limp. Wrestling with God and receiving a blessing, the community bears the wounds of God. It is shaped in the cross, joined to Jesus, and carrying the wounds of death. It limps, though given new life. The limping and blessed church lives in its woundedness and embraces it as a sign of God’s good work among them, not an embarrassment to be hidden.
the call for the church is to reexamine its wounds and upon seeing them, recognizing them as a sign of God’s presence. In Jesus, God goes to the places of suffering. The wounds of the church may cause us to flee and to doubt God’s blessing. The story of Jacob, however, calls us to see that blessing comes at a cost.
The church, like Jacob, is called to enter God’s future as a wounded, limping and blessed church. This kind of church enters the world differently. Knowing its wounds, it enters to strengthen those who have grown wear, to bring good news to the poor, to announce God’s love for the wounded ones of the world.