Guest preacher Dan Sack
Who has a sibling?
I have a big brother. Really. He’s older than me, and he’s bigger than me.
What can you tell us about that relationship?
Who has a twin? How is that special?
What makes a sibling particularly important? This might be the person who knows you the longest, maybe even knows you the best. They might be competitors, they might be co-conspirators. They might be an inspiring example or a dreadful warning. Perhaps most importantly, they know your story, they know the family stories.
Today we’re going to talk about siblings, and what you do with your own story.
First, let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
At the beginning of this morning’s scripture lesson, Jacob is running for his life—and not for the first time. Jacob was a smart man, maybe too smart for his own good. He had a history of cheating people and fleeing before they could catch him. He cheated his twin brother of his inheritance. He cheated his father in law of his best sheep and goats. With his brothers-in-law hot on his heels, Jacob is running for his life—and his brother is straight ahead. Jacob is caught between two men he had wronged.
Jacob, of course, is not some random con man, but the third of the three patriarchs in the Hebrew book of Genesis. His grandfather Abraham heard God’s promise that his children would become a great nation—that he would have more descendants than there were stars in the sky. His father Isaac was almost sacrificed as a boy, but lived to father twin sons. They weren’t identical twins, because these two boys were very different. The older boy Esau was rugged but a bit dim, while the younger Jacob was quiet but clever. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance. When Esau realized what had happened, he swore vengeance on the little twerp.
Jacob fled the family home, but he continued his clever deeds. He wooed and won two daughters of a wealthy man, who bore him twelve sons. It’s true that his father-in-law tried to cheat Jacob, but Jacob cheated him back. When he discovered that Jacob had taken the best sheep and goats from his flock, Jacob and his family fled again, his brothers-in-law close behind. Jacob then discovered that the only way home was through Esau’s territory, and Esau was coming with four hundred men.
Jacob realized that he was stuck. His past was catching up with him. The brother he cheated was on one side, with an army. The father-in-law he cheated was on the other side, with an army. Jacob was in the middle, with two wives, two concubines, twelve sons and an unknown number of daughters, plus slaves, sheep, goats, donkeys, and oxen. Jacob was stuck. What to do?
Jacob’s first thought was for his family. He sent his wives and children across the river to safety. He dispersed his flocks so no enemy could capture them all. He sent servants toward Esau’s camp with gifts for his brother, sheep and goats, with the hope of appeasing his anger.
And then Jacob waited, alone, in the dark. Imagine this moment. This man had moved through life by his wits, outsmarting his family, building his wealth through cheating. His brother had sworn vengeance and was now coming with four hundred men. Jacob waited, alone, in the dark, in the quiet. God’s promise to Abraham hung by a thread as Jacob’s past caught up with him.
Suddenly Jacob was attacked, not by Esau and his army, not by his father-in-law and his army, but by a mysterious stranger. The two men wrestled all night. The stranger, ironically, could only prevail over Jacob by cheating himself—he dislocated Jacob’s hip. Jacob realized that his opponent was a heavenly being and demanded a blessing. The angel gave Jacob a blessing and a new name—Israel, Hebrew for “the one who strives with God.” As the sun rose, the stranger disappeared and Jacob, Israel, was once again alone—a new man.
In this dark night of wrestling, Jacob comes to grips—sorry for the pun—comes to grips with his life story. In his struggle with the angel, Jacob acknowledges who he is, who he has hurt, and who he has been hurt by. Through this wrestling, Jacob receives a blessing and becomes a new man.
Like Jacob, we are human, and we have a past. We have a story. Sometimes we have been Jacob, betraying a family member. Sometimes we have been Esau, betrayed. Sometimes we have been abused. And sometimes we have been the abuser. Unless we are perfect, bad things have happened in our lives. The result is, at best, a guilty conscience. In the immortal words of Moe Syzlak, Homer Simpson’s bartender, “I done things I ain’t proud of, and the things I am proud of are disgusting.” The result is, at worst, deep, deep agony.
We might call these parts of our story sin, or betrayal, or disappointment, or trauma. They tie us to our past, keeping us from moving forward. Think of the chains on Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. Or think of barnacles on a ship’s bottom that keep it from sailing fast.
Religious faith helps us to deal with our past. Just like Jacob wrestled with the angel in the middle of the night, faith helps us wrestle with the sins, disappointments, or traumas of our life. It helps us deal with these obstacles so that we can move forward into the future, unencumbered.
That’s why many Christian worship services feature a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. That’s what’s happening each Sunday when Ellen leads us through a reflection on the events of the past week. She calls us to remember the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done, and the things we haven’t done that we should have. She reminds us of God’s forgiveness, and then we share that forgiveness with each other as we pass the peace. That forgiveness, and the peace we share with each other, helps us deal with our past and sets us free for the week ahead.
Religious faith helps us, makes us, deal with our past. And it’s not just Christianity. Our Jewish sisters and brothers have just marked Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. On that day, Jews believe, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life. During these high holy days, a Jew tries to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. This practice seals the sins and traumas of the past year in the past and prepares the believer for the year to come. Hinduism and Buddhism spin it slightly differently. According to their idea of karma, your current station in life is determined by your practice in the past—not just in your current past, but in previous lives. A very low status in this life—as an animal or a human of low caste—means that you had done something bad in the past. Your low station, they believe, is an opportunity to atone for that past and purify yourself for a better future life.
Secular therapies have similar practices. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups require a careful reflection on one’s past. The fourth step calls alcoholics to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The fifth tells them to admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” You can only move into the future, AA believes, if you come to grips with your past. It’s no surprise if that sounds familiar—the teachings and practices of AA grew out of evangelical Christianity. In the same way, therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder helps people come to grips with the trauma in their past, so that they can live a healed life.
Confession, atonement, karma, therapy—whatever you call it, it’s dealing with your past. It is wrestling with something—an angel, a demon, or something in between. It is an admission that human beings live in history, and that we can only move forward if we acknowledge what happened before. You can’t ignore your past. You have to deal with it.
None of this is easy. Looking at our past can be deeply painful—it requires us to excavate old traumas, or acknowledge how we may have hurt someone else. A wounded soul can leave us feeling very vulnerable. A guilty conscience can force us to acknowledge our limitations. But benefits come with the pain. Jacob’s night of wrestling left him with a limp. But it also gave him a new name. Wrestling with our past can help us understand ourselves. It can help us become a new person, a better person. In a recent Christian Century column, Peter Marty remembered how he and his junior high friends tormented a classmate decades ago. He acknowledged his shame for his behavior, and looked for a way forward. He wrote, “I know of no perfect way to atone for wrongs of the distant past except to take the painful lessons learned and humbly focus life more generously toward others. God doesn’t excuse shameful behavior that harms others. But if confession can deepen compassion, and if personal faith can strengthen kindness, and if repentance can redirect support to favor mocked or bullied people, perhaps adjudicating people’s past sins is not what’s most important.” He concluded, “I’m less enthused about punishing others for their own gross insensitivities and more interested in looking for signs of humility, acknowledgment of pain caused, and serious course correction.”
As Marty suggests, all this wrestling—confession, atonement, therapy—is not meant to be masochistic. We don’t confess our sins to make ourselves feel bad. We don’t go through therapy or the twelve steps to revel in the pain. James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time: “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Just like Jacob, we are called to accept our past—not to drown in it, not to be swallowed up by shame or trauma. We are called to use our past to understand ourselves and to offer compassion to ourselves and those we may have hurt.
Jacob sat alone in the darkness, as his past caught up with him. As he waited for his brother, Jacob wrestled with an angel until the break of day. As the sun rose Jacob saw his brother Esau coming with an army of four hundred men. Jacob made sure that his family was safe, and then bowed down before his brother, expecting the worst. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.” Esau greeted his brother’s wives and children and together they visited their old father Isaac. Jacob’s wrestling with the past prepared him to move into a new future, living out God’s promise.
And now is our opportunity to think about the past and look towards the future. I invite you to a time of quiet. Silence the noisy part of your mind. Focus your wandering attention on what is right here and now. Get comfortable. Breathe deeply.
Where have you encountered God this week?
Where have you felt blessed this week?
Who let you down this week?
Who did you let down this week?
What does the week ahead hold? What scares you? What excites you?
God of the past, we thank you for the times we have encountered you this week. God of the present, we thank you for your blessings. God of compassion, help us to forgive those who have let us down, as we forgive those we have let down. God of the future, prepare us for the week ahead, with its own sorrows and joys.
Remember: we are human. We have hurt other people, and we have been hurt by them. But God offers us the grace of confession, of atonement, of healing, so that we can move out of our past into the future. Remember, “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” The grace of God can help us accept our past and learn to use it