The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 3, 2014
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Preacher: Anne Marie Roderick, Seminarian at St. Michael’s Church and Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary
I bet that many of you have heard the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, but how many of you have ever attended a professional wrestling match? I have to confess—when I was in middle school, I went through a brief phase during which I was obsessed with wrestling. Not high school or college wrestling, or the kind of wrestling you might see in the Olympics, but entertainment wrestling. If you don’t know what that is, just picture huge body-builders with tattoos and stage names like The Rock, or Stone Cold, who fight each other in front of thousands and thousands of fans until one wrestler, usually bloody and publicly shamed, admits defeat. The matches are fixed in advanced and are highly theatrical and I used to watch them with gleeful awe. My best friend and I had pocket folders and school notebooks with our favorite wrestlers on them—we even fantasized about marrying a wrestler one day. As I already mentioned, this phase was short lived and it was in the days before high definition television—I doubt I could stomach that kind of entertainment today.
Jacob’s wrestling in the book of Genesis was not quite the gruesome spectacle of professional wrestling. There was no big arena, no crowd cheering on either side, no referee calling the shots, and most important perhaps, there was no clear winner. But it was still an epic match and, even though it isn’t clear who was victorious, Jacob’s perseverance earns him a new name, a new title that redefined his relationship to God and continues to inform the faith of many today.
So what really happened in this wrestling match? Jacob was en route to Idom with his family where he feared he might encounter his estranged twin brother, Esau. You may remember from earlier passages in the Book of Genesis that Jacob and Esau did not have the greatest relationship—in fact, one might say they had been wrestling with each other for years. They wrestled in the womb until Esau finally emerged first, Jacob following quickly behind, clinging to his brother’s heel. Jacob had tricked and cheated Esau on a couple different occasions and had fled his hometown for fear of Esau’s anger. Now, years later, Jacob was scared that he would meet his brother again and finally be forced to face Esau’s wrath. Although the two of them had wrestled before, this could be the final smack down. So when he and his clan reached the Jabbok river, Jacob sent his wives and children and all of his servants and livestock and possessions across the stream ahead of him and he waited on the riverbank alone.
Eventually, a man appeared.
The scripture doesn’t tell us yet who the opponent was—was it Jacob’s brother, Esau? Was it Jacob’s own inner struggles made manifest in human form? Was it the devil? An angel? Or was it God? Whoever it was, their match lasted longer than a 60 minute TV slot: Jacob and the man wrestled all night .
I wonder if any of you have ever wrestled like that? For many of us, nighttime—either literally or figuratively—is when we meet our fears; when we can no longer hide those things that cause us strife. It is at night when we are forced to come face to face with those parts of ourselves that can be masked in in our day-time lives. It is at night when we feel lonely—when we battle, or indulge our addictions. At nighttime we remember what and whom we have lost. We remember what and whom we have let go. At night we cannot escape our fears. We ask questions: why me? Why now? Are you really there, God?
When the dawn was breaking, Jacob’s opponent, seeing that Jacob was not going to give up, took a cheap shot and struck Jacob in the hip—remember, there were no referees in this match. And the man says to Jacob, “Let me go!” I wonder if any of you have ever received a low blow and heard that voice in your head? It’s not worth it. Give up. Give in.
But Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Jacob clings to this man. “I won’t let go. Not this time. Not until you bless me. Not until you tell me your name.”
Jacob clings, not just to the man, but to the struggle itself. I don’t know about you, but in my nighttime experiences, I have not always stuck it out for the struggle. Instead, I have let go and chosen a pint of ice cream instead. I have chosen to sit alone in my grief even when loved ones were trying to reach out. I have held on to anger and resentments for too long. But every once in a while I do show up for the fight and, like Jacob, I am able to stick it out. I wonder if any of you have ever stuck it out like Jacob? Have you ever chosen to face your fears, your anger, your addictions, your loneliness, or your losses, head on? Perhaps Jacob offers us the courage to do so. Through his struggle Jacob shows us that we can persevere, that it is when we struggle—when we show up and step into the ring—that we meet God.
In the end, Jacob doesn’t win or lose, but he gets what he wants—a blessing. The man with whom Jacob has been wrestling blesses him and offers Jacob a new name—Israel—because he has striven with God and humanity and has prevailed. Although the man does not reveal his own name, Jacob knows that he has been in the presence of God. He says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” I believe he did see God and I believe that each of us will come face to face with God whenever we struggle in earnest and with integrity. When we want to let go, when we want to give in to our fears—it is God who summons us to the ring. In these wrestling matches of life, we encounter God and we wrestle with God. Unlike entertainment wrestling, our struggles with God are not for spectacle and do not have fixed outcomes. They are intense and intimate and we may feel as though there is no end in sight.
Our Gospel reading for today offers some words of comfort to those of us who may feel like weary wrestlers. Jesus feeds five thousand of his followers with just five loaves of bread and two fish. What a miracle. But the take away from this passage is not just that Jesus is a good magician, it is perhaps that Jesus knows how to turn a desperate situation into one of abundance and nourishment. When we are hungry, God feeds us. When we are alone in our darkest nights, God shows up to have it out with us. The nourishment of God is never ending. Even when we have been struggling or wrestling all night, all year, all our lives: God is there, with us. We may get scuffed up—you notice that Jacob limps away from the match after his opponent’s shot to the hip—but Jesus will not let us leave us empty. At those times when we feel so worn down that we barely have the strength to go on, we have a never-ending life source in Jesus—and that source can sustain us as we wrestle with God and ourselves throughout our lives.