Proclaim the message. Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.
Names are significant for most of us, and names in scripture can be especially so. Jacob, born after his twin brother Esau, holding his heel, was named “the one who takes the heel,” which has also been interpreted as “the one who supplants.” Which he does, remember? Jacob pretends to be Esau and steals his birthright and the first-born’s blessing. He is a trickster and a dreamer. Through this identity he wins his beloved Rachel and finally parts ways with his demanding father-in-law, Laban. When we meet him on the banks of the Jabbok River, he is anticipating the next chapter of his life. He is at a crossroads, and wrestling with his own identity as well as with an angel.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker author and teacher, has written about identity in his book, A Hidden Wholeness. He uses the low-tech, interactive teaching tool you should have in your bulletins.
Hold the strip on your lap, like this. Imagine one side being the self we show to the world. The other side represents our inner self. Palmer talks about this as our “on-stage life” and our “back-stage life.” Our on-stage life is the world of image and impact; our backstage life is the world of feelings and heart. For Jacob, his on-stage self, the self he shows to the world, is his determination to get what was Esau’s, to be the trickster, and work, work, work, for his uncle Laban. Backstage, perhaps, his spirit is consumed with his love for Rachel and his longing for reconciliation with his brother. You might think of dichotomies in your own life of on-stage and backstage.
But there’s another way to use the strip of paper to look at identity, perhaps with less division and more integrity. Take the ends and put them together. The circle is a symbol of unity, of wholeness. For Jacob, there on the riverbank, perhaps the unifying factor is the persistence that has seen him through those long years of working and waiting, the persistence he brings to battle with the angel. Like the widow in today’s gospel, he never gives up.
Hold the paper like this. Nice, right? Now, turn it sideways, parallel to the floor. It’s a closed system. Jacob thinks he knows who he is and what he stands for. We have perhaps gotten clarity sometime about who we are, how we define ourselves, our own “unifying principle.” The danger here is that we will close ourselves off to anything or anyone that wants to wrestle their way into our system and show us something new.
Now, a third way. Some of you probably have seen this coming. Take the piece of paper, twist it, and then hold the two ends together. This is called a mobius, and it is a mysterious form. If you move your finger around it, inside becomes outside, and outside becomes inside. The inside-outside reality is one whole, one identity, but it is not a closed system, it is open to change, to wrestling, and to blessing. The journey along the mobius is a journey of persistence, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.
This is the way I understand Jacob’s new identity with God. He is blessed, and broken. His former life is woven into his future life. He has his same complicated history with his brother, and he has a new identity, and a new name. In the course of struggle and in the course of blessing, his private life and his public life, his past and his present are joined together, in a way that has him poised for whatever God has in store for the future. He is blessed, and he is limping. He has a new name, and his whole life story brought him to this moment. Something broken becomes blessed.
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Eight days ago Canadian writer Kelly Oxford posted an invitation on social media: Women, tweet me your first assaults. Thousands of women have responded in the intervening days. I was one of them. As I was writing this sermon, I realized that I could look at that experience as life on the Mobius strip. When I was twelve in New York City, a couple of young men pushed me up against a building in broad daylight and touched me in ways they shouldn’t have. I reacted in that seemingly inexplicable way that some of us do, especially at that age. I didn’t fight back, I felt ashamed, and I never told anyone. Later, I totally got over it, I really did. I even forgot about it until five or six years ago when I was doing some writing about women’s sexual vulnerability. In that work, the flat strip, the fence between my backstage life and my onstage life became more like a circle, because I was able to connect the story to the rest of my life in a way I hadn’t before. Then last week I was having lunch with some friends and we were sharing our stories. All four of us had had similar experiences at twelve or thirteen. That’s when I decided to join the throng of thousands, and send Kelly Oxford a tweet about my experience, with the hashtag “notokay.” In that process, mysteriously enough, the circle became the mobius. Something broken became blessed.
This is, of course, true of our Eucharistic life here in this place and around tables like this everywhere. Something blessed becomes broken becomes blessed. It is no less broken, no less blessed. We can think about the Eucharist in terms of this same slip of paper. It can be a defining fence, between our personal connection with the sacrament and the outside world. It can be a closed-system container for one particular experience or understanding, one particular piece of history. Or it can be this visible, tangible, mysterious infinity.
1 Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Jossey-Bass, 2004.