God is serving up some experiential learning this week. I have wrestled with how to put this reflection together, re-writing the start of it ad nauseam. I even woke up in the middle of a few nights thinking on it. #iseeyougod
If you’ll limp along with me and Jacob, I’d like to offer some disjointed observations and reflections. I’ll follow the lead of the Psalmist and Matthew’s crowd of 5000+, trusting that God will confront us with blessing in this exercise, even if – like Paul – I struggle to understand exactly how that’s going to work.
Facing God with the fullness of human experience / being received with all of our baggage
Genesis, Psalms and Matthew recount stories of people facing God. Although the narrator leaves Jacob’s wrestling partner unnamed, Jacob declares that he saw God face to face in the struggle. The Psalmist directly addresses God via prayer. The crowds travel on foot to seek out Jesus in a lakeside deserted place.
Psalms and Matthew both include elements of contrast to Jacob’s story, which highlight God’s steadfastness in showing up and emphasize God’s willingness to receive the fullness of human experience, i.e. our good, bad and ugly.
Genesis and Psalms
I bet most of us wish we could face God and each other with the righteousness of the Psalmist, who declares he has nothing to hide. He invites God to visit him in the night à la Jacob’s visitor, asserting that his lips are “free of deceit.” God will find no wickedness in him, and he has “avoided the ways of the violent,” sticking close to God’s path.
But we inevitably face God with a posture similar to Jacob. Pick a relevant parallel for yourself. He had fought with his brother since they were wombmates. Jacob’s lips were full of deceit when he conspired to trick his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. And in this story, Jacob is fleeing his father-in-law and returning home to face Esau. He’s taken the best of Laban’s flock with him–thanks to some strategic selective breeding–and is using these sheep and goats as gifts to butter up Esau. Let’s just say he knows how to work a system to his benefit.
But both the Psalmist and Jacob demand blessing.
With characteristic forthrightness, the Psalmist trusts God’s presence: You will answer me. Incline your ear. Hear my words. Show your love.
Jacob also demands blessing, refusing to let go of his unknown visitor until a blessing is granted. After he is gifted with a name that reflects his willingness to hold on and struggle with God and humans, he declares that he has seen God face to face, although he’s a little surprised he survived the encounter.
(Side note: Psalm 17 is historically attributed to David. He killed people and abused his power as king to summon and sleep with a married woman. Takeaway: Despite the face we present, we all face God with good, bad and ugly.)
Genesis and Matthew
The narrative in Matthew further enfleshes the theme: God shows up to receive humanity unconditionally.
We know a lot about Jacob’s history, but the only specifics we know about the crowd are vulnerabilities common to all bodies: there are sick people and they all get hungry. The contextual details that Matthew provides about the face-to-face are opposite Jacob’s experience of God. Jacob is confronted in the middle of the night alone, and he’s left with a limp. Conversely, the crowd undertakes a group dayhike to find Jesus, and Jesus’ compassion upon seeing them moves him to heal the sick.
Together, these three passages affirm that God dignifies every body with God’s attentive presence. God receives us day or night through individual or communal confrontation or seeking. God accepts our good/bad/ugly histories, forthright demands, sincere or manipulative intentions, and vulnerabilities inherent to bodies.
As the church, we bear the face of God to one another by receiving people unconditionally.
The disciples in Matthew learn this lesson when Jesus instructs them to feed the crowd. They are to accept these people and their needs on behalf of Jesus. Jesus breaks the bread, and the disciples feed the crowd.
But receiving people, much less letting their needs make claim on you is so difficult. We often can’t get past the accepting part; we reject people by failing to fully accept them all the time. We make fun of people. Some of us revel in another’s failure. We judge people and we gossip. (Can you believe? I would never do such a thing…Did you hear?…Well, so-and-so said…I’m not supposed to tell you this, but…). We tear other people down to build ourselves up, maybe because we’re ashamed of our own bad and ugly. Maybe because we fear judgment and rejection – we are actually scared that people won’t receive us if they really knew who we were or that thing we did.
Jacob felt the same way. He was surprised that he survived the face-to-face with God, indicating how vulnerable it is to be fully seen and known. But instead of giving up, he held on and struggled through the brokenness and found life and blessing on the other side of it. God held on to Jacob and God holds on to you in the struggle, too.
Jacob and Esau’s reunion a chapter later oozes the grace inherent in receiving people unconditionally. And it affirms that we reflect the face of God to the world by offering the same inclusive reception. Esau – with full knowledge of Jacob’s misdeeds and manipulations – runs to Jacob, embraces him and kisses him. Jacob in return says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (33:10).
If God is willing to receive you and me with compassion and then hang on through the struggles together, then the church, the body of Christ, is called to follow this example. Although we are guaranteed to fall short, how can we move toward offering the gift of unconditional reception, along with the promise of holding tight and sticking out the hard stuff together?
Additional questions for reflection
How well does your church receive one another and struggle together through the good, bad, and ugly? How do we mitigate the fear of rejection?
Is there a place for everyone in your pews? Who – individuals or categories of individuals – is not showing up?
How do we create church communities where people feel safe enough to be vulnerable and open? In other words, how healthy is the very difficult practice of confession in your congregation?