Wrestling on the Banks of the River          October 21, 2007          

By Rev. Kevin Baxter    

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Gustave Doré (1832-1883)


Our music last Sunday, as well as today, has included compositions on autumn. As we are reminded when we drive through the countryside or walk down tree-lined streets, autumn has arrived.

Along with turning leaves and kids in costumes, October is also a time when colleges and high schools celebrate homecoming. The University of Missouri currently holds the title for the first homecoming; in 1911 they encouraged their alumni to return to the school on one particular weekend and celebrated the event with a parade in their honor.

Mizzou may hold the title to the first homecoming football game, but the experience or act of homecoming has been around for a long, long time. A key element of a homecoming is its opposite—leaving home. While we don’t celebrate people leaving home in the same way that we honor their homecoming (OK, parents probably do sometimes!), leaving home is an experience that almost everyone goes through in some form or another. Stepping out to explore the world! Facing the wilds under your own power!

Or, in the case of Jacob, running away from home out of self-protection and fear.

As is true for everyone who leaves home, this turned out to be a valuable experience for Jacob. He moved away, got a job—not necessarily the job he would have liked, but he started in the metaphorical mailroom and worked his way up at Laban and Co. He built a new life for himself, a life that included the love of his life. If only he could have married her the first time around, he wouldn’t have needed to stay all those extra years. After twenty-two years, eleven children, and the amassing of a considerable pile of wealth, Jacob decides to return to his ancestral home—to make a homecoming.

The prodigal son, Jacob’s return, the people of Israel returning from Egypt: the Bible and numerous literary, cinematographic, and other works have been dedicated to the universal human experience of homecoming. Maxwell House commercials tell us how great it is to come home, especially if you arrive at 5 a.m. and make coffee for your sleeping family. We are reminded that coming home gives us a feeling of warmth, with the friendly faces, the familiar ground.

But the homecoming stories are also filled with other messages. After all, as the old cliché states, you can never go home again. The streets may be the same, but the home-arriving traveler sees them a little differently. While I was in high school, I revisited my elementary school, which was about to be demolished. The colors and the pictures were basically the same, but the formerly chin-high water fountains barely reached my waist. My primary-school alma mater had not changed, but I certainly had.

Isn’t it odd how the experience of returning home can include both welcome and estrangement? In much the same way, we can both welcome and dread leaving home. The act of leaving changes the person who goes. He or she lives in a different world, is responsible for a variety of previously unimaginable details. Often, the world grows a little more complex and little grayer when a person heads off alone. Some childhood ideals and dreams get pushed to the wayside.

This is where Jacob stands at the beginning of our passage today. He, for better or worse and right or wrong, is responsible for his household’s future. He has been given a blessing and a mission to care for his ancestors and descendants. Jacob went to his uncle’s house to get a wife so that he could have a family. It wasn’t as though he was just running out to the corner store, but no one expected him to take twenty-two years to return.

Rather than just finding a wife, he fell in love. He worked, and worked, and worked some more for that love. He labored away until the birth of his eleventh child, the child of Rachel, his heart’s true love. At this point, Jacob realized he needed to go home. Receiving payment in the form of the lesser animals of the flock, he left his uncle’s house with his family to return home.

Jacob receives the vision of the ladder, granted to him because he has remembered what he has left—namely, his duty and calling. Then Jacob stands on the border of his homeland. Crossing the river is risky, because he does not know what will await him on the other side. Because he fears death, he now stands in two camps: his goods and valuables on one side of the river, and his ideals on the other.

It is at this point that we read about the very first homecoming sporting event: the homecoming wrestling match. Jacob wrestles physically with the Lord, but each of us does it spiritually.

If we’re lucky, we grow up surrounded by understanding and love. Our youthful vigor is accompanied by idealistic hopes and dreams. We have hopes and dreams so that we can make a difference in the world, live a certain way, do meaningful things. Before we leave home, the truth is often black and white, and righteousness leads the way.

Once we’re on our own, however, we get distracted. The necessities of life start pressing upon us. Because our understanding and our love have never been tested, never been fused by challenge, never integrated, we have forgotten about our calling to make the world a better place. We have been so busy taking care of our own business that we have forgotten our duty to the Lord, our duty to those who have come before us, our duty to those will come after us.

What happens when we remember why we left home in the first place? What happens when we become financially secure—or realize that financial security won’t bring us to a place that fulfills what we know in our hearts to be our true and proper calling? We have to recommit ourselves to what we were, experience a spiritual homecoming of sorts. People encounter these turning points throughout their lives: students change majors, parents go back to church, careers change in mid-life, new volunteer opportunities reveal passions we never knew we had. In these times, the Lord gives us the gift of emptiness, which, if all things go according to plan, helps us realize that human connection and caring for one another are essential to being human. Each of us has a gift or gifts that allow us to be good citizens and loving neighbors.

In the book Varieties of Religious Experience, William James explains what makes up a “saintly” or “good” life. One of the aspects is a compulsion to act without remuneration—when one can say, “Heaven or hell is of no regard, for this I must do.” That is a regenerate, or holy, state. But James also states that we cannot achieve this without struggle—a claim that makes sense given his Swedenborgian upbringing. To truly change, we must face temptation. We need to realize the good and act according to it. We can only act according to the good if we are given the choice of the good action over the wrong action.

The wrestling match, then, takes place at the transition point, standing between two shores. One shore is the point at which we realize we have lost our way (even though losing our way is part of the way…think about that for a while!); on the other shore, we act from an integrated sense of love and the joy of being charitable and of use to our neighbor. But, as we can tell from our Bible verse, you can’t just wade into the water when you are at this point. You are divided into two camps. On one side, you might stand there looking across the shore, desiring to return to your homeland, but on the other shore are your possessions and the life that, to some degree, you have to part with. The choice between love of self and love of the Lord and the neighbor is not a simple one. There will be struggle.

But you have brought with you something that helps you: your experience. The same possessions that you fear losing also help you understand you must cross back over and risk their loss. The very future of the world hangs on our ability to love selflessly. Our children, our environment, and so much more have no future if we do not. While we wrestle, we must realize that the only true choice is the one in which we hand over all we have so that the Lord can use it to increase the love in this world.

After the wrestling match on the bank of the river, Jacob was renamed Israel, which means “one who struggled with God.” It is a divine commission for us to struggle with the Lord and with the purpose and meaning of our lives. It is part of the plan. For when we cross the banks of the river, limping, we are welcomed home.

Homecoming or no, however, things have changed. We are welcomed with a new understanding of responsibility; we understand that we are called not to fulfill our own designs, but to care for a nation of people. We must put love of others before love of the self and embrace the blessing we have been called to.

This autumn—this week, even—are you embracing what the Lord has called you to do? Are you toiling away, forgetting what has been asked of you? Or have you re-heard your call to be charitable to your fellow creatures? No matter where you are on the spectrum of life, the Lord is sending you messages, calling you into your true birthright. Love of family, love of ideals, love of community: all are leading us into a deeper relationship with the Lord, a deeper connection with the love we were meant to embody. As we wrestle with the future, with our actions, we simply need to ask ourselves where the future is. It is not with ourselves, but with the generations to come. It is our birthright to prepare the way, and it is our privilege to struggle on the banks of the river, so that we might be the instruments of love who welcome those who succeed us. 

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