Digging a Hole
Delivered to The United Church of Jaffrey
October 16 th, 2016
Readings: Genesis 32:22-31 / Luke 18:1-8
I’m digging a hole.
I’ve chosen a spot right outside my office window, at the base of our crabapple tree.
I’m hitting roots. I guess this spot is a bit too close to the crabapple.
But I am in no mood to mess with roots, so I put some more elbow grease into it, and cut through them with the blade of my spade.
Chunk, chunk, chunk…
After a while my wife Cary comes out. She stands a little ways off, watching me.
“You OK?” She asks.
After a while, she says:
“Shall I get the boys?”
“Yes, I think so.”
She turns and walks slowly back into the house.
Dear friends, this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible — story of Jacob wrestling with the angel — is one of my favorites.
Part of the genius of the Hebrew scriptures, is the astonishing compactness of form.
The entire story is told in 9 verses.
And yet there is so much there!
This story is filled with human drama.
The story is frightening.
Jacob is vulnerable. He is on the run. Everyone and everything that is important to him is on the other side of the river.
Alone at night, in the wilderness… That last thing in the world you want at such a moment, is to be accosted by a violent stranger. But that is exactly what happens to Jacob!
The story is mysterious.
Who is this stranger? According to tradition, the stranger was an Angel. Famous artists throughout the ages like Rembrandt and Chagall have all depicted this scene with an Angel complete with wings, trying to overpower Jacob. But the text itself doesn’t use the word Angel. The text says: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Who is this man?
Jacob demands that he identify himself, but he refuses.
The story is surprising!
After wrestling desperately with the mysterious man all night long, Jacob appears to prevail!
This is unexpected!
But then the man strikes Jacob, injuring his hip.
In spite of this, Jacob seems to have the man pinned down, because the man demands to be released.
But Jacob, now in an unexpected position of power, makes a demand:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And then comes the big surprise. The man says:
“What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Striven with who?
Striven with God?
Did I read that right?
Just a second ago, the passage said that “a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
But then this same “man” renames Jacob because, as he says Jacob has “striven with God.”
So, did Jacob wrestle a man?
Or did Jacob wrestle with God?
Which is it?
Tradition offers us a third option — the Angel.
Jewish Rabbis whose interpretations of the Bible were gathered in the Talmud, may have been the first to replace the word “God” in this story, with the word “Angel.”
Perhaps the Rabbi’s couldn’t put up with the idea of Jacob — a mere mortal — wrestling with, and even besting God.
And do you blame them? It’s a hard notion to swallow.
For those of us who pray to God, who worship God, who love God … we don’t like to think of wrestling with God.
I don’t like it.
But even so, I find the “Angel” interpretation is unsatisfying too.
It’s does make the story easier to take.
But are Bible stories they supposed to be easy to take?
Are they supposed to fit easily into our notions of what is proper?
I don’t know about you, but that’s not the Bible I am familiar with.
The Bible I know is filled with stories that are totally surprising in unexpected ways.
And if we do some fancy footwork to make this story make sense, I fear we will make it bland — more logical perhaps, but less thought provoking.
As a preacher, I am on the lookout for peculiarities like this. When I find something confusing, I say to myself — “Excellent! Let’s see what this confusion tells us.”
That, I think, is a more theologically meaningful way to read the Bible.
It’s hard to remember a time before Kiko, but I suppose there was such a time.
Kiko was our dog. She came into our lives in late August of 2002 — six weeks old and cute enough to soften even the Pharoah’s heart.
We were very sneaky about it. We told Isabel, who was 6 years old at the time, that we were visiting some friends, and she reluctantly came along. When we walked into the house, she was swarmed by puppies and, of course, thirty seconds didn’t elapse before she said
“Can we take one?”
These were the words we were waiting for.
“Yes,” I said “that’s why we’re here!”
The little thing lay in Isabel’s lap all the way home. She trembled, and Isabel eased her, and in that hour, a great love was formed.
Kiko was a Shiba Inu — which is a Japanese breed of dog. Everytime we walked her in public, someone would say: “She looks just like a fox”
It was true.
If we had a nickel for every time someone said that, we’d be rich — that’s what we used to say.
She was a wonderful family dog — very loyal, and willing to put up with all kinds of shenanigans. In the two years that followed, our two boys, Amos and Silas were born, and this, of course, meant all kinds of tail pulling and ear grabbing and whisker tweaking. Kiko put up with all these indignities as only a dog can — gracefully, with only a hint of woe in her eyes.
I’m afraid that I have to admit, though, that the greatest indignity she suffered was my handy work. I would sit down on the couch and call her over, and like a chump, she would come. I would hold a sock in my hands and lower it down just so — and in an instant I’d slip it onto her head.
Sockdog! I would shout, and all the little boys would scramble over and whoop with delight as Kiko did a little backwards dance across the room.
“Poor thing!” Cary would say.
Contrite, I’d grab the end of the sock and Kiko would yank her head out. She’d give me a little hurt look, and slink away into the corner.
She was so fine!
Instead of resolving the Man/God/Angel confusion, I invite us to live in it for a few minutes this morning.
First, I want to consider something particular in this story that, I think, causes this confusion.
I’m not talking about the dark night…
I’ll bet that had something to do with it…
But it’s not what I’m after.
Was it the fact that Jacob was all alone?
Being alone makes everything more intense…
But it’s not what I’m after.
Was it God’s intention to teach Jacob something?
Probably. But we can never know this for sure.
What’s left to talk about?
That’s what I want to talk about.
You see, I am convinced that there is something mysterious and wonderful about physical exertion that awakens in each of us, a deeper awareness.
An awareness of what, you might ask?
I think that hard physical work awakens us to many things — it can awaken us to oppression. It can awaken us to pain. It can awaken us to the need to grow things, and to care for the earth. It can awaken us to each other.
Remember when the prodigal son “came to himself” and resolved to return to his father’s house? When he was out feeding pigs in the fields
Work — good honest physical work — can awaken us to that which is most important. It can cause is to change.
There is a Quaker saying that I love — a simple statement that distills into six words exactly what I am trying to get at. It goes like this:
Hands to Work, Hearts to God
Hands to Work, Hearts to God.
Was Jacob wrestling with a man until daybreak?
The one that struck his hip — was he a man, or an Angel?
The one who blessed Jacob and gave him a new name — was that God?
If we stay within the confusion we can affirm that Jacob wrestled with all three.
And that we too wrestle with all three.
There are times when we wrestle with distinctly human concerns. At other times we struggle with Angels. Are there not times, in each of our lives, when we wrestle in the dark with God? Does this not change us?
Wrestling, here, can be a metaphor.
I suggest that it has meaning as a physical reality too — that sometimes physical work brings us close to the ultimate.
There is something about digging a hole.
When you dig a hole in the ground, you reveal layers of history.
How many countless autumns have deposited leaves to decay in this spot?
How the earth, even a foot or so down, shows signs of sediment from the nearby river.
And these rocks — evidence of cleared fields, or the proximity of a stone foundation…
Our life in this house, has been such a small moment in time.
Cary reappears. The boys trailed slowly behind her.
The three of them looked down into the hole and then across at the little cardboard box in among the tattered Pachysandra.
“She looks so small.” Cary says.
“And so quiet,” Amos says.
“Yes,” I say, leaning the spade against the crabapple, “the moment she died, she relaxed in my arms. It was like she was suddenly becoming her old self again.”
The boys both start crying.
I placed the little box in the hole.
I reached out my hands, and Cary and the boys and I formed a circle around the little grave.
“Thank you Kiko,” I said, “for being a good dog.”
Thank you Kiko.
Thank you God.