9 Pentecost/Proper 13/Ordinary 18 Year A August 6, 2017
Luther Memorial Church Seattle, WA
The Rev. Julie Hutson
Genesis 32: 22-13 Psalm
Romans 9: 1-5 Matthew 14: 13-21
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When Bruce and I moved just over a year ago a box of old photos surfaced that I’d not seen before. In that stack of photos I found a picture of Bruce at a high school wrestling match. I don’t know much about wrestling, but in this photo his opponent looked a WHOLE LOT bigger than he was. So I asked him to tell me the story and as it turns out, the team needed someone to move up a weight class for this particular match and Bruce, well, he was the lucky one. It also turns out that he won the match. I promised not to leave that part out of this story.
Again, I don’t know much at all about wrestling, or at least about this kind of wrestling. But I do know a little bit about other kinds of wrestling. I’m guessing we all do.
We wrestle with hard decisions.
We wrestle with moving forward.
We wrestle with trying new things or ending old ones.
The reading from Genesis this morning is the story of Jacob as he wrestles with a man through the watches of the night, all the way to daybreak.
It’s useful to remember that Jacob was actually a person who had been on the run. He had duped his brother Esau many years before and was now returning to encounter Esau for the first time since. The verses leading up to our reading in Genesis this morning tell how Jacob sent some of his men ahead to scope things out; to see how things looked with Esau. They returned to report that Esau had a strong contingent of over 400 men. Of course, Jacob was afraid that Esau would exact revenge on his wives, mistresses, and children so he divided his servants and people into two camps, and sent one contingent ahead to meet Esau, taking with them fine gifts of livestock to present as a sort of peace offering. Then, the story picks up with our reading, where Jacob takes his wives and his mistresses and all of the children he has with them and crosses the Jabbok river. Then he sends them across the stream with all of their possessions. And Jacob finds himself entirely alone.
Then….just like that….with no preamble and no introduction and no warning…Jacob finds himself wrestling with an unnamed man throughout the night. Seeing that he would not win…(who knows? Maybe the man was wrestling up a class!) the man strikes Jacob on the hip for one final blow. And he pleads with Jacob to let him go, but Jacob refuses to do so until the unknown being offers his blessing.
If there is something the Bruce learned by wrestling up a weight class when he was 15 years old, it might be that he could handle large opponents or that he was stronger when he was encountering the unexpected.
If there is something that we learn from the story of Jacob’s wrestling match, it might be that, many times, before we can receive the fullness of blessing God intends for us, we must engage in wrestling matches of our own. We are not so different from Jacob.
Jacob was alone when he wrestled with the unknown being there alongside the Jabbok. He fully understood the problem he was facing: a brother he had wronged almost two decades earlier, now approaching with a robust contingent of fighters. Jacob had no way of knowing if his Esau was still angry, if he was nursing that 20 year old grudge. So Jacob prepared as best as he could. He divided his contingent so that if Esau’s forces encountered them with revenge in mind, they would only wipe out half of them. He sent his wives, mistresses, and children ahead separately. He had gifts for Esau, to soften or bribe depending on how you look at it. And yet, after all of that preparation, he was entirely alone.
When we face challenges, it is certainly reasonable to expect that we will do all that we can in preparation. That we might strategize and plan and consider the problem from every angle. We do well to invite the opinions of trusted companions along the way, perhaps those who have faced similar situations. Still, ultimately, the hard wrestling that we do, we do alone. It’s not a tag team match.
To move forward in his life, Jacob had to leave behind all that was familiar. The landscape he knew and loved was in the rearview mirror as he set out to finally right the wrong he had done. Clinging to what is familiar just because it feels safe, when God is calling us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, is not the way we move toward what God has called us to. There are no Biblical examples of God calling and using someone by inviting them to stay just where they are and continue doing exactly what they are doing. God is always calling us forward, to new things. Now, sometimes, the landscape we leave behind is a figurative one. We may still live in the exact same place, but God calls us forward, so that even what seems familiar topography is actually transformed into the fullness of God.
It is so very tempting to just stay exactly where we are doing exactly what we know how to do best. But God calls and the Holy Spirit pesters until we find ourselves trekking out with fear and trembling to meet that thing that terrifies us, that we have presumed impossible…and we find ourselves wrestling in the wilderness.
This blessing we seek requires that we persist through the long dark night….no matter how long it is. It requires us to stretch and move and fight and tumble and persist until the sun rises and we have a new commitment to God’s call. It means that we have to want it enough that we will not walk away from the struggle.
When daylight came, Jacob asked his sparring partner for a blessing. And in return, Jacob received a new name. No longer was Jacob simply Easu’s brother, but soon, as the Genesis stories will reveal, he was the founder of a whole new nation. The nation of Israel. God’s beloved and wayward people. If Jacob had known the fullness of all that was ahead….if he had had any clue about the kinds of struggles that were in the future….he might well have returned the way he had come, back to all that was familiar and safe and comfortable.
But Jacob had seen God and wrestled with all that God was calling him to. He didn’t have guarantees, but he had a new name. He didn’t strive forward or run forward…he limped into the future….toward God’s call.
Oh beloved community….this story….this is our story…..this is our story as a congregation and our story as God’s individual beloved people. If our story together had been easy, if we had grown in numbers even as every other congregation declines….if we had not had to wrestle with what our future holds, if we’d not had to consider a relocation almost a decade ago….if we’d not had to ask ourselves what God requires of us for the gift of this land in the face of so many of God’s children without homes…..we would not know the gift of wrestling, of striving, with God.
Each of us has faced God in the watches of the night as we wrestled with what is ahead….but God is not our opponent, God is our sparring partner, equipping us for the future in the struggle.…..and when the sun rises and we are ready to set our face toward the hard thing….God re-names us as beloved children and blesses us on our way. We are limping, but we are loved and claimed….called and named anew.
Thanks be to God and let the Church say…Amen.
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 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.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.