Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario. Readings for Sunday, 3 August, the 8th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13A)
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:15; Matthew 14: 13-21
Sometimes the best gift you can give a fellow clergy person is the gift of time. My rector was just getting back from a month off this weekend and it seemed right to let her rest a bit longer and let me preach, for which, since I don’t preach much these days, I was grateful. The genesis (pardon the pun) for this sermon came from something said by the participants in this week’s excellent Sermon Brainwave podcast. I’d be lost without those guys to spark ideas. MP+
Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. (Gen 32:29-31)
A blessing and a limp. What an odd combination. Sometimes the early books of the Old Testament seem as strange to me as anything out of any myth or fairytale. The stories can seem odd and mysterious, and while we listen to them reverently in church, we struggle to make sense of them and wonder how they are relevant to our lives. Today I would like to focus on our first lesson, and I am going to suggest that the combination of blessing and limp are keys to understanding how this reading helps us understand what makes us distinct as God’s people and followers of Jesus.
In today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is nervously waiting to hear whether his brother Esau has forgiven him for cheating him out of his birthright. Jacob has sent his family and goods ahead of him in hopes of getting Esau to calm down, and is anxiously waiting for news. During the night a mysterious man appears, and the two wrestle each other. We aren’t told why they struggle or who started it. Jacob clings to the man, even after the stranger injures his hip, and then, with the dawn coming fast, the stranger begs Jacob to let go.
That detail about the stranger wanting to escape before the dawn is curious, isn’t it? In folktales and myths the night is often a time of magic and enchantment that has to end at sunrise. Likewise, in many myths, names can be magical and powerful. Knowing someone’s true name often gives others power over them. The stranger refuses to give Jacob his name, but gives him a blessing. He also gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. And then the sun has risen and the stranger has gone, leaving Jacob with a limp, a new name, and a role to play in the creation of God’s distinct people, Israel.
So what’s going on here? Who is the mysterious stranger? Why does Jacob wrestle with him? Why does Jacob get both a limp AND a blessing? And what does this story have to do with us?
Those are a lot of questions to throw out in a short summer sermon, but let’s take a few minutes to try and think through them.
We don’t know exactly who the stranger is, but it seems that he has some relationship to God. Genesis 28 tells of how Jacob slept along in another lonely place and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. This story, which also happens at night in a lonely place, reminds us of that dream and suggests that the wrestling stranger may be an angel. He certainly seems connected with God in some way, since he gives Jacob a blessing in return for his freedom, and Jacob, as the sun rises, concludes that somehow that night he has “seen God face to face”. So why, if the stranger is an angel, or even God himself, does Jacob end with a blessing AND a limp? That seems like an unattractive package. I for one wold be happy just to have the blessing.
But what if Jacob’s limp is a key to understanding this story? What if the story of Jacob at Penniel is about what happens when we encounter God? And what if the story is about how the encounter with God marks us in some distinct and permanent way?
All of us at some point have sought God for a blessing. It certainly happened at our baptism, or when we brought our children or grandchildren for baptism. It happened when we came before God with our loved one to see God’s blessing in marriage. Perhaps the encounter wasn’t a pleasant one, but was more like Jacob’s wrestling match, when we struggled with God in some dark night of the soul, in a hospital or a tragedy or a suddenly empty home, when God seemed distant, or more like an enemy than a comforter, and we grappled with God praying that tragedy might turn into blessing. And maybe that blessing happened, or like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanee, we grappled with God in hard and anxious prayer only to learn that God’s will would lead us down another, unwelcome, path.
We are like Jacob in that we seek God, we ask for the blessing, sometimes even struggle for it, but we are also like Jacob in that our relationship with God marks us and changes us. We are not marked in the sense that we are physically injured and have to limp but we are changed, and in the eyes of the secular world, sometimes our Christian identity can look like a handicap.
Take our baptism. We are literally marked, in water and oil, with the sign of the cross, and as we grow older and grow in the faith we come to realize that baptism changes us. We learn that we are called to stand with God in the world, to renounce Satan, the “evil powers of this world” and “all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God”. You may not walk with a limp after renewing the baptismal covenant every time you stand in the congregation and welcome the newly baptized, but you marked by these words. The baptismal covenant might be seen by some as a handicap, since it limits one’s ability to follow our culture and find freedom, identity and self-realization in things like the pursuit of wealth and sexual expression, but to Christians the baptismal covenant is a definition of our spiritual freedom as Christians (see St. Paul, Romans 8:21).
Take our worship. Not only do we give up pleasant Sunday mornings to sit in church, but we hear things in our readings and lessons that mark us and change us. Our gospel reading today, Matthew’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, marked us and changed us. The disciples look at the hungry crowds and say to Jesus “send them away”. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples off so easily: “you give them something to eat”, he tells them (Matt 14:16). One of the lessons of this story is that the compassion Jesus feels for the crowds translates into responsibility for his followers. Gospel readings such as this one have a cumulative effect in shaping us as Christians. They teach us that others, strangers we might prefer not to know, have a claim on our time, our money, and our compassion. As Christians, we are meant to grow into what Paul calls the maturity and the fullness of “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Some might call that a handicap. We disciples would call that freedom.
Being a disciple of Christ means that we are, or should be, marked out and made visible in the world. Sometimes that marking is self-sacrificial, and seems more like sharing the wounds of Christ than it seems like a blessing. Take the Christian community in parts of Iraq today, whose homes are marked by Islamist groups with the Arabic symbol “nun”, the first letter of the word Nazarene or Christian. That marking, that graffiti that comes in the night, means a choice between hasty flight, death, or renouncing the faith. Or I think of two Americans who are marked by their discipleship by a horrible illness. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol are two medical missionaries, with Samaritan’s Purse, who contracted the terrible disease Ebola while working with patients in Western Africa. They knew the risks, but I am guessing that they went to practice medicine in Africa because they follow a Saviour who took the hand of lepers and other outcast. Again we ask, is this marking, as the doctors become the sick in an isolation ward, a handicap, something to be pitied, or is it freedom? I can’t help but compare these two medical missionaries with the Australian couple who recently went to Thailand, where the surrogate mother they had hired had just given birth to twins. The couple returned with one healthy baby, and abandoned the other, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Was that choice an expression of freedom, or was it pitiful and wrong? We would hope that no persons of faith would act like that Australian couple.
The story of Jacob and the stranger in the night remains mysterious to me. I can’t explain all of it, but I think that the keys to the story are the blessing and the limp. I think they remind us of our own calling to follow God, to draw close to him and even struggle with him. The story of Jacob reminds us that faith is a risky business. Discipleship shouldn’t leave us unchanged. When we draw near to Jesus, even grapple and struggle with him as he calls us to leave our old selves and old ways, to take up our cross and follow him, we can be struck in all sorts of unexpected ways. We can find ourselves walking differently, talking differently, living differently. We aren’t the same. To some, who see only the limp, this might be a thing to be feared or pitied. But for us, we who follow the Saviour who walks on pierced feet, we know we are walking in the right direction, even if we are walking differently than we did before.