Sermon for August 2, 2020

The Abraham family was an interesting and unusual clan. Most of the heroes and gods of the ancient world were larger than life – nothing like the everyday people of the ancient world. They were characters like Apollo and Zeus and Diana and Athena. They lived on mountaintops in grand palaces. They took almost no notice of humankind, unless it was for sex.

But the Abrahams were human. You could have met them at the grocery store. They made human mistakes. They succeeded as humans. They may have actually existed or at least were an accurate archetype for the first Jewish people. And Abraham walked and talked with his one God, like a friend.

Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob; Esau and Jacob fought with each other in the womb. Esau came out first, but Jacob followed immediately after, hanging on to Esau’s foot. They were twins who were totally unalike. For example, Esau loved the outdoors and hunting and Jacob was a homebody.

Once, when Esau returned from a hunting trip, he was famished. I guess he didn’t catch much! He smelled a stew Jacob was cooking. Esau asked Jacob to give him “some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “Sure. Give me your birthright.” Esau couldn’t think any further than his stomach at the time, so he said “Fine! What is my birthright worth if I’m dying of hunger!?!” So he tossed his birthright away and got a bowl of stew for it. Shortly thereafter, Jacob wisely decided not to immediately claim the birthright but to put time and distance between himself and his brother. So he ran away to live with his maternal uncle, Laban.

On the way he dreamt (Jacob had great dreams!) of angels going up and down a ladder. I’m not sure how, but it foretold his success as a leader for his people. (People tended to become jealous of Jacob – for good reason!) He was clever. So was his uncle Laban. Both Laban and Jacob were both clever guys. Laban tricked Jacob into working 14 years for him. Jacob thought he was working to win Rebecca, but after 7 years, on his wedding night, Laban pulled a switcheroo and substituted his older daughter Leah.  So Jacob had to work another 7 years  for Rebecca. Then, when Jacob finished the second 7 years and got the daughter he wanted, he decided to leave (with his wives and his herds) and go back to his father Isaac, hoping he could face Esau, his brother. Jacob left Laban and returned home.

As Jacob neared home, he was afraid of the reception he might receive from Esau. He sent his family across the river ahead of him. Then he lay down alone to sleep and prepare for possible battle.  He had an eventful night. What happened that night!?! A wrestling match! I recently read a wonderful account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God or maybe it was with an angel. We are never told for sure. We are told he wrestled with a man – all night.  This account was written by Frederick Buechner. It’s from his book Son of Laughter. Jacob is speaking.

Our bodies were slippery with mud.  We were panting like beasts.  We could not see each other.  We spoke no words.  I did not know why we were fighting.  It was like fighting in a dream.

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me.  He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me.  When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted.  I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment.  He had his knee under my hip.  The rest of his weight was on top of my hip.  Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust.  I felt a fierce pain.

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw.  I saw it as light.  I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light.  The pain’s beak impaled me with light.  It blinded me with the light of its wings.  I knew I was crippled and done for.  I could do nothing but cling now.  I clung for dear life.  I clung for dear death.  My arms trussed him.  My legs locked him.  For the first time he spoke. “Let me go,” He said, “for the day is breaking.”

The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.

I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him.  It was my life I clung to.  My enemy was my life.  My life was my enemy.

“Bless me,” I said.  “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.

He said, “Who are you?”

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.  My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

“Jacob,” I said.  “My name is Jacob.”

“It is Jacob no longer,” he said.  “Now you are Israel.  You have wrestled with God and with men.  You have prevailed.  That is the meaning of the name Israel.”

I was no longer Jacob.   I was no longer myself.  Israel was who I was.  The stranger had said it.  I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail.  I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was.  I could not see him.  I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me.  I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.

I said, “What is your name?”  I could only whisper it.

“Why do you ask my name?”

We were both of us whispering.  He did not wait for my answer.  He blessed me as I had asked him.  I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words.  I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go.  I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky. I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face.  It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror.  It was the face of light.  No words can tell of it.  Silence cannot tell of it.  Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but only that I dreamed I saw it.  Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.

The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok.  Bands of gold fanned across the sky.  I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep with each new step and my head bobbing.  

It is the way I have walked ever since.

From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with the new name the Face of light gave me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.                            

When he gave me his blessing… and crippled me.”

How often do we ask and expect God’s blessings on our terms? Are we willing to accept God’s blessings on God’s terms? Sometimes blessings are painful.

We are now going through a tough time – tough economically, tough emotionally, and tough for society.  Tough because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Tough times. Things are changing and our world is being turned upside down. Our world WILL change.

Can we move through change with faith, in faith? Can we accept change as a blessing? Can we trust in God? Can we trust in God on God’s terms? Can we receive God’s blessings?

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