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Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
This is the night before Jacob is to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in twenty years. They’ve been apart for so long because of Jacob. See, the bigger context of this story is that Jacob cheated his brother – there’s really no other way to say it – taking all of his inheritance and fleeing to another country. It’s not exactly a good way to foster a good relationship with one’s sibling. 20 years ago, Esau wanted to kill Jacob, and for all Jacob knows at this moment, he still wants to kill him. Such an assumption, frankly, has as much to say about Jacob as it does about Esau. Jacob seems to know he’s not been very good to his brother. If he had no self-awareness at all, he’d march right up to Esau, wondering what in the world was the problem. Butin the paragraphs just before what was read this morning, Jacob has learned that Esau is on his way to meet him… along with four hundred men! It does not sound like the makings of a happy reunion, and Jacob is terrified.
So Jacob sends a gift ahead to his brother via a messenger, in the hopes that he can appease his assumed wrath, and then he sends his family, his close servants, everyone else from his traveling group ahead of him and he is alone at the side of the stream. This is perhaps the first time in the story of Jacob from Genesis that he is this vulnerable, largely because he always avoids his vulnerability, cheating his way around it, stealing what he think he needs for protection and security and avoiding the things that make him vulnerable in the first place. But not this time. This night he stays in this vulnerable place, facing it for perhaps the first time, and that’s when he encounters this “man” and wrestles with him throughout the night.
The Hebrew in Genesis is quite clear, this is an ish, the word for man. But when the prophet Hosea, later in the Bible, recounts this story, in verse 4 of chapter 12, it says, “He [Jacob] strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor…” Somewhere in the imaginings of the Hebrew writers and thinkers, this ish becomes a malak, which means messenger – traditionally the role of and name for what we call in English an “angel.” But the pronoun usage in the text makes it hard to decipher who is speaking and what action is really going on, leaving plenty of room in this story for a more modern psychological interpretation, Jacob wrestling with himself through the night…facing his past and his transgressions and his vulnerability directly.
Whomever Jacob’s sparring partner is, he does not leave the melee unscathed. For the rest of his life, Jacob will limp. He will feel every front that moves through Israel, he’ll wake up each morning and take while to “warm up,” he’ll get to heaven and be disappointed that if he’d only been born a couple thousand years later he’d have had access to ibuprofen. And he will be doubly marked, for he not only has his limp, his “blessing” comes in the form of a name change, a very common ancient narrative tool that signifies transformation. For if this sparring match is about anything, it is about identity. Jacob’s name means “trickster” or “grabs at the heel,” a direct reference to this twin born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel, even at birth taking advantage of others for his own gain. The angel changes it to “Israel,” which means “God-wrestler.”
Jacob has defined himself through acquisition by any means necessary up to this point, but something about this impending encounter is too big for his standard operating procedure and he knows it. His anxiety is driven by his awareness that what he has been up to now may not be enough for what is to come. He won’t be able to avoid this interaction, he won’t be able to trick his way out or walk briskly away in the other direction. So, he engages, placing a half-nelson on his self-revelation, refusing to let go until he finds something worthwhile. The ambiguity of the text seems purposeful, as if when we do our wrestling with ourselves, we are also struggling with God. And, the story tells us, it’s the struggle that delivers the blessing. Sometimes we have to be stubborn, to resist, to refuse to let go in order to find our benefit.
This weekend the annual meeting of the UCC churches in Kansas and Oklahoma was held – our conference meeting. Many of you were there and I hope you experienced some of what it means to be together as a larger church, though not much larger of a church. One of the harsh realities that our conference minister spoke to was our size. We are now 56 churches spread out over two states, with a church in Kansas City closing at the end of the year. So we’ll be 55. And our conference minister, Dr. Edith Guffey, told us that she lists 17 more as endangered. So, we’ll likely be a lot smaller in the next 10 years.
Now we could try and avoid that anxiety, running away from the news, burying our heads in the sand and doing the same stuff over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. Or, like Jacob, we could see that while our past may have delivered us much, it is not the deliverer of our future. For that we must struggle, and wrestle – with God and each other, we must claim the promise of church, in the truest sense of that hope, and refuse to let go until it blesses us.
Jacob, Genesis tells us, is not a good person. Throughout Genesis, he cons, cheats, deceives, and manipulates his way into his personal blessings. He steals his inheritance from his brother, the rightful heir, exploiting his father’s blindness and Esau’s gullibility. At almost every turn, however, Jacob’s transgressions seem to grant him only more wealth, more success. How is it that this person is the one in whom we invest such spiritual meaning – the one who is called the father of the great nation of Israel, the one who is actually renamed Israel…for, the angel says, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed?” But let us note something else, too…something you didn’t get to hear in the lectionary cut this morning. Jacob doesn’t just come expecting forgiveness from his brother. He comes with two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. In other words, he comes with reparations for his brother – some concrete way to repair that broken relationship.
We, too, as a church have a blemished past. We have, even in the so-called progressive world of the UCC, bought into the lie of white supremacy, we have colonialism and cultural appropriation in our past. We have with narrow vision claimed the doctrine of “All Lives Matter,” blinding ourselves to the injustice that makes “Black Lives Matter” a crucial necessity for any kind of justice. We can celebrate the first openly gay man being ordained in 1974, but must also acknowledge that he was never given a pulpit in the same denomination that ordained him. We can claim victories in the civil rights of minorities to the mass media of the time, radio, while also knowing that we bear our own scars of racism and sexism, often at our highest levels. None of us are free from our collective past, though we can seek a different future, and wrestle with the things we must in order to reach that dream. As the great Oscar Wilde once wrote, “we are all of us in the gutter…but some of us are looking at the stars.” But if we only look at the stars, and offer the hope of a fluffy, polished dream without offering the work, the struggle of repairing that which has been broken, then we stay exactly where we are.
We may indeed have an uncertain future ahead of us and, frankly, the church has done itself no favors. Our particular “American Christianity” has warped the way of Jesus, we ought to have some fear about how we will now be received, and no reasonable expectation that any of the people we seek to welcome here at our church have a reason to trust church at all. We cannot do what we’ve always done, nor can we expect to present them with the same old model, with a few different words here and there, and hope to attract them. We will have to give to gain, we will have to humble ourselves to be lifted up, we will have to demonstrate the dream, to show the struggle we’ve all had with our faith as deeply as we can. It is precisely that wrestling match which must be on full display, giving people a sense of the contrition for our past, the hard work to repair that damage and the realization that it has scarred us, a limp we will carry as we seek a new blessing walking forward together and refusing to let go of Jesus simply because some people have co-opted him for their own bigotry and narrowness.
This story reveals to us a profound truth. Our deepest struggles are often the things that mark us the most and what give us the most profound wisdom, if we will hold on long enough to get such a terrible, wonderful blessing. Our “blessings” often dance (or wrestle) with our afflictions, and the distance between them is measured in our faith. A child with a chronic illness, the weight of deep depression, the inability to “get ahead” in a culture so driven by the illusion of independence, all of these are ways that we seem to be trapped by our identities, yet this story suggests to us that there is blessing to be found in that struggle – if we expose ourselves to possibility, if we risk connection, and if we trust in something bigger than what is happening to us in that moment..for blessing never seems to arrive alone, it always comes with injury – to our selves, our previous identities, maybe even to our bodies…faith leaves a mark.
And while I say that with full voice, I am NOT saying, nor should you hear, that suffering is biblically mandated. Pain may be a necessary component of growth, but hurt, inflicted on you by another or by you on someone else, is not what this story supports and upholds. Abuse is not biblical, nor is it holy. I’m not telling you to hold onto things that aren’t healthy for you – something being difficult is different than it being dangerous. This is a story about how we will seek and gain meaning, it is about who we are as human beings, and how we are in relationship with God, a God who will not just set life before us wrapped in a tidy package, but offers us life, death ad resurrection, the cosmic equation that asks us to wrestle with life, to seek our meaning, to find our blessing in the struggle, tightening our grip when it gets challenging.
In the midst of the broken relationships, the diagnosis, the bully, the depression…surrounded by work, deadlines, Atatiana Jefferson, the Kurds…in the grips of pain, loss, sobriety, and the struggle of growing up, which never really ends no matter how old we get, we must hold on like Jacob’s grip on the angel, refusing to let go of the idea that God is at work in our lives, that a just world is possible and that our identities are fluid, not static. God IS still speaking, and while it may seem like we stand on the river’s edge awaiting our death, literally and metaphorically, politically and socially, in the church and out of it, let me assure you that our task is actually to hold on, to lock our arms around a faith life that we are re-imagining, and to repair those broken relationships, for a new name awaits us…and a new blessing.
May God bless us in our holy wrestling.