August 2, 2020
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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to
him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.
I encountered the story of Jacob and Esau for the first time when I was 18. I’m sure I had heard parts of it growing up, but when I first read and heard the Biblical story in Genesis of fraternal twins Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, learning how Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his birth right when he’s hungry after hunting for a bowl of lentil soup, how Rebecca and Jacob trick Isaac into giving Jacob his blessing and his brother’s inheritance, and how Jacob had to flee for his life from his brother, I was enthralled. There was something within this story that struck me in a place deeper than words could describe at the time. It felt like a hand was inside my chest, a longing, an ache, a deep sense of, somehow, finding myself in the pages of scripture. Which is odd, because I’m an only child; I don’t have a Brother, let alone a twin. And yet I found myself in Jacob’s obsession to be claimed as his Father’s own, of being gifted and sent out into the world. There was something so human and personal about how unsatisfying his stolen blessing was. Jacob does well, and yet all these years later, in our reading from this morning, when he wrestles with God, he’s still seeking a blessing all these years later. The reconciliation that comes after our reading this morning, of Jacob, now limping and re-named Israel, with his Brother Esau, it was a vision of what was possible that, in the moment, I didn’t fully understand, and yet desperately wanted for my own life. I wasn’t quite sure what this long awaited blessing was I was seeking. It was beyond words at the time. I was 18, having just graduated from High School, and was about to start at Lewis & Clark College in the fall. That summer, I was working at Reser’s Fine Foods quality control, spending my mornings and days in a refrigerated food processing plant watching potato salad be made. I had taken some of the money from that summer and signed up for the Presbyterian Youth Triennium; a gathering of thousands of Presbyterian Youth for a week of worship, Bible study in small groups, and engaging in the wider world through advocacy and ministry. Before I knew it, I was offered a job working with a High School Youth Group as an intern, and training to be a summer staffer at a Methodist Church camp during my summers. I was off on my grand adventure. But I couldn’t shake that sense from the story, that connection to Jacob’s longed for blessing, even as his family grows, as God leads him into a new life.
Like Jacob, I had received so many blessings from my family. Our matriarchs and patriarchs on my Mom’s side, the Kaiser’s /Debernardi’s and my Father’s Norse’s and Johnston’s, all the genealogies funneled down to me. They helped me go to college. My family eventually came around to the idea of me not being a doctor, and instead starting the ordination process to become a Pastor. But while I had the financial support, the loving admiration, there was still this sense that I had somehow tricked everyone into it; if only they knew, I thought. That I wasn’t who they thought I was.
Finally, at the end of Seminary, after coming out to my parents, getting ready for graduation, it dawned on me; this was the time to come out to the larger family. With the help of a support group on campus, I prepared myself for what might happen; losing family, being written off, not being the beloved nephew, grandson, child. And then my family surprised me. My Dad gave me one of the most incredible gifts he has ever shared with me; he asked if he could tell the extended family for me. It was such an honest gift; my Dad has, like many others, evolved into a place of supporting marriage equality and ordination equality in the Presbyterian Church. He had actually lobbied against the congregation of my youth becoming open and affirming. And here he was, willing to have uncomfortable conversations with his cousins he had grown up with, like I had grown up with their kids. He was ready to pick up the phone and talk with his parents, his younger brother, and my Mother’s cousin, my beloved, now dead Uncle Mark. I had approached my parents to warn them that I was going to come out to the family; instead they embraced me and reminded me that I was loved. After all of my wrangling with my Dad, he gave me a chance to walk into a new life, providing a blessing I, like Jacob, didn’t realize I had needed until I asked for it.
Beloved, I wonder what blessings you have struggled for, longed for? I know for some of us our parents couldn’t give us the love we needed growing up. Or there’s a child who you wish you could be reconciled to. Maybe you, like me, have lost loved-ones or friends to death with words unspoken, forgiveness not given or received. Maybe you’re someone who looks around our Nation and longs to hear that your life as a Black person matters in our criminal justice system, on our streets, in your own home. Some of us struggle with the effects of poverty, and just seek to know that we are beloved, when our capitalist system tries to shame you for being the target of its exploitation. For you, it might be the pain the church has caused you, shaming you for being human, degrading you because you are a woman, trying to silence the voice of the Holy Spirit moving through you. Some of us are in recovery, and there’s shame we feel from what we’ve done, amends we still seek to make, or others of us who are survivors of trauma, who long to feel, at long last, safe, and able to heal wounds that will always have scars, but maybe someday might not be so raw. In our ablest society, you may long to be seen as a full person, not as the accommodations you make to communicate, move, and live. We all strive with others, and with God, in our own ways. When we are honest with ourselves, sometimes late at night when we can’t sleep, or in the quiet moments when we are not distracted during our days, we can admit that, even after all these years, we all seek a blessing, to know that we are worthy of love, that we truly have a place in the human family, and in God’s love and light. When you are ready, I’d invite you to have it out with God. She can take it. Maybe your wrestling takes the form of deconstructing the harmful theologies you’ve encountered, dismantling the Patriarchal, Heteronomative White Supremacist’s false vision of Jesus and God. Or maybe it’s working with a therapist to get to that place where you can start to heal, without having to pretend that the wounds and scars aren’t real. It could be your anger at the Holy One for the death or the illness you or others have experienced or are facing. Whatever the blessing is you seek, just know that when the time comes, God’s ready and waiting, with blessings and a new way forward ahead of you. And when it’s time to engage anew with the people in your life, know that we, this band of misfits, your fellow disciples and traveling companions on the journey, we will run to meet you, and embrace you.
And while you prepare yourself for this struggle, this journey, come and be fed. Or as you remember the struggle and the blessing, come and be refreshed by this cup. Because you are not alone in this human struggle, God gives of us Their very presence and self, through Jesus’ meal with his friends, where a place has been ready for you that only you, yes, all of who you are, can fill, in the joyful reign of God here and now.
In the Name of God our Parent, Friend, and Holy Agitator, Amen.