October 2017  
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This sermon was preached August 3, 2008, by the Rev. Cathy Schuyler to a joint worship service of the Duluth Congregational Church, of which she is pastor, and the Pilgrim United Church of Christ (Congregational). The former was founded by persons who left the latter in the early 1960's, in a difference of opinion regarding the congregation's affiliation. --R.E.E.



Limping on in Love

Genesis 32:22-31, Isaiah 55:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21


We are gathered at the river, or at least where the river meets the mighty Gitchi Gumee.  It’s hard to worship here in this beauty without being aware of our surroundings.  It really is a gift to be able to worship together in the midst of God’s magnificence in nature.  Being outside also helps me grasp why so many Bible stories talk about where events happen – at the river, by the oak of Mamre, on the mountain side.  Sitting in a sanctuary, such details seem almost quaint; here they seem obviously essential.  The song we sang together is inspired by the river ‘whose streams make glad the city of God.’  Revelation 22 speaks of it as the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city, and we know that God’s love will bring us all there together someday.  Our river isn’t quite as bright as crystal, but it sure does sparkle, even in the winter as ice forms on its banks, as does our lake, the shining water.  Jacob finds himself at a river, the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan River.  But his adventure begins years earlier.

Jacob is born, with his twin brother Esau, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Genesis, and he doesn’t die until the end of the forty-ninth chapter.  We know a lot about Jacob from the stories in Genesis, and he’s quite a character.  By the time he’s twenty, he is an exile from the land of promise, running from his brother because Jacob has cheated Esau not once but twice, claiming both his birthright and his father’s blessing from his older brother by less than ethical means.  He leaves on the run rather than risk his brother’s wrath, and when we meet him in this morning’s reading, he has been on the run for twenty years.  He went to his Uncle Laban’s home, and there worked fourteen years for the hand of both of Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel.  He worked another six years for a portion of Laban’s flock of goats and sheep and camels and donkeys, so he is returning to his home a rich man.  He has eleven sons and a daughter, two wives, and two other women who serve them who are mothers of some of his sons.  And just a few weeks ago he heard God say to him, ‘Now leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth.’  So he finds himself almost home, matured, responsible for the lives of many, and still quite afraid of what he might find waiting for him in the heart of his brother whom he ran away from twenty years ago. 

Relationships with siblings can be interesting, to say the least.  Many of us have brothers and sisters, people who know us almost from the beginning.  Some sibling relationships are wonderful; brothers and sisters are the most common choice for best men and maids of honor at weddings.  My husband talks to his siblings at least two or three times a week, and they all live in different states, and have for most of their adult lives. Other families aren’t so close; I talk to one of my brothers or my sister probably once a month, but we had a great time together just a month ago out east.  We’re fond of each other, but not necessarily close.  And there are families of siblings who can’t be in the same room together or else the fur will fly.  Jacob has good reason to believe that’s where he stands with Esau.

The odd thing about siblings is that they knew us best as children, and most of us have grown and changed since then.  If our connection with our siblings hasn’t kept pace with our own growth, it may be hard to trust that they ever accept the people we’ve become.  The other side of that is that they have known us at our worst and may not be willing to let that go and see us or our lives in hope for good in the future.   Or, as in Jacob’s case, we may not trust that they have matured and mellowed as we have, if, in fact, we have matured and mellowed.

Jacob is at the river, the boundary between the old Jacob and the new Jacob.  Just as our river marks a definite boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, so the Jabbok here is a dividing line.  For the last twenty years, Jacob has been here and Esau has been there, and things have worked just fine.  Now Jacob is going to cross that boundary, ford that river, and face his past.  He’s worried.

He’s facing this boundary and taking on his past because God told him to go home, the same God who promised to be with him until the blessing of the land for him and his descendents was real.  Jacob and God have been in conversation for quite a while now; God stood by Jacob in his dream as he ran away, promising him that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, saying, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.” 

Why does God love Jacob so?  It’s not because he’s ethical or because he’s well-behaved; he’s not.  What we can say about Jacob, however, is that he is engaged with life.  He deeply appreciates this gift of life and blessing and promise that God offers.  He throws himself into claiming the blessing and the promise that God made to Abraham and Isaac.  When he gets to Laban’s home, he falls deeply and passionately in love with Rachel, a love that guides his decisions, some wise, some not-so-wise, for the rest of his life.  Nowhere else in scripture, except for perhaps between the unnamed lovers of the Song of Songs, is there a deep love named like the love Jacob has for Rachel.  Jacob lives life passionately, engaging with it as it comes along. 

I think God likes that.  In The Color Purple, Celie and Shug have a conversation about God:

Shug:  More than anything God love admiration.
Celie: You saying God is vain?
Shug: No, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it makes God mad when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.

Jacob doesn’t walk by the color purple, without noticing.  Life for Jacob is real and to be lived fully, in all its ups and downs. 

That’s what I think this wrestling match is about.  So far, Jacob’s made it ok.  After outwitting his brother, he has survived and even thrived.  He and Laban had their challenges, and he ended up with more wives than he originally planned for, but he is now a proud patriarch and he could have simply settled down somewhere else, far enough from both Esau and Laban to be out of their way, and lived out the rest of his life in peace.  Except for this God piece.  God doesn’t let him forget that he belongs to the land of his birth.  God insists that he complete the circle, that he go home and face up to his brother and to his past.  Jacob’s actions of sending flocks ahead of him to bribe and placate his brother all make strategic sense; splitting the family up into two companies makes strategic sense; sending the family in order, with Rachel and Joseph, whom he holds most dear at the rear makes strategic sense.  Sending them across first and staying behind for the night doesn’t make sense.  What is he thinking?  Is he considering running away again?  We’re not told.  As in most stories in scripture, we’re given the facts, just the facts.  Motivations are for us to unlock by living the stories and building our own relationships with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Whatever his reasons or his thoughts, he stays alone one more night on this side of the river Jabbok.  And a man wrestles with him all night long.  It must have been quite a match.  When the Olympics begin next week, the wrestling matches will be no longer than six minutes apiece, and the opponents will have worn themselves out in those six minutes.  Jacob and the man wrestled all night long, and as dawn is breaking, Jacob’s opponent injures Jacob’s thigh and asks to leave.  Jacob will not let go until he receives a blessing.  This man who has already claimed his father’s blessing at his brother’s expense and who has been blessed outright by God, who has extended the blessing through him to all the families of the earth, asks again.  ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’  And he is given a new name, Israel, which means, the one who strives with God.  Israel is the name that sticks with the family, the people, throughout the ages.  The one who strives with God, who engages God and the gift of God that is life itself.  Who is this nocturnal opponent?  We’re never really told.  The text calls him a man, yet the naming, both of Israel and of the place, Peniel, suggest that the opponent is actually God’s self.  God faces Jacob at this moment of decision and grapples with him.  Through this long struggle, Jacob owns all of himself – his long ago past, his recent past, his encounter tomorrow with Esau and whatever that may bring, and the future that God has promised him.  It’s all his; it’s all part of his life and he can’t have some of it without it all. 

We, too, have full lives, with ups and downs, moments we’re proud of and moments we wish we could forget.  Most of us, in fact, try to forget them.  We pretend they never happened, and we carefully tiptoe around their consequences if at all possible, so we don’t have to remember.  But this gift of life isn’t meant to be only about the wonderful days.  All our days count.  The bad days don’t separate us from God at all, but ignoring them does separate us from ourselves, our whole selves.  The challenge of this odd story is to place ourselves in Jacob’s sandals, to be willing to face all of our lives, to embrace the good that we’ve done and the evil we’ve been a part of, to offer it all to God in thanksgiving.  Only then can we engage one another with integrity.  Reconciliation with God and with one another has to happen in order for relationships to go forward, but it cannot happen until we are honest with ourselves about who we really are.  Esau, it turned out, had mellowed and was ready to forgive Jacob.  He’d found a life of goodness and love; he’d learned to live as a child of God in his own place and time. 

We come to this time together as siblings who have been apart for a long time.  Forty-five years ago we were one church; we are now two churches, both communities of faith where Jesus Christ is honored and worshiped and where his love and grace are lived out with joy and welcome.  It has not always been an easy journey, for either community.  But God has been with each of us, guiding our steps and our decisions, filling our lives as gathered communities with love and caring.  We have only just begun a practice of gathering to be together in worship; it is good to be together, to continue the process of reconciliation.  We talk of churches in relationship, but in truth, it’s the personal relationships that lie at the heart of our connection.  We are here at the river, but it is morning.  No late night wrestling matches are likely right now.  Some of you have already engaged in such struggles; many of us are in the midst of them.  Can we own our own part in the broken relationships that exist?  Can we believe that those from whom we were estranged have moved on and may be ready for reconciliation?  Are we ready for reconciliation, or are there still parts of our own behavior we need to face down, to wrestle through, and finally to claim a blessing for? 

Jacob leaves his night of wrestling with God, with his past, his present and his future, with two permanent memories.  He has new name, Israel, by which he is remembered to this day.  And he has a limp, a permanent scar in the depth of his body.  Our lives and our encounters with the holy change us; we emerge out of our struggles, out of our passionately lived lives marked by what has happened to us.  My brother is a life-long wrestler.  He started wrestling in sixth grade, was a state champ in high school, came close to making the Olympic team years ago, and is now the head coach at Franklin and Marshall College.  He loves the sport.  He also has no cartilage in either of his knees and really funny-looking ears – cauliflower ears are a common disfigurement for wrestlers.  The cartilage in the ear breaks down and never really heals.  They’re his limp, and he’s actually kind of proud of them.  Our limps may not be as prominent as disfigured ears, but we bear them nonetheless.  We need not bear them in shame.  Women often speak of the importance of the day when they transformed their attitude toward the stretch marks of pregnancy on their bellies, embracing them as beautiful reminders of one of the most loving things they’ve ever done, instead of trying to hide them as ugly and imperfect.  Living fully, loving completely entails embracing our own lives, all of them, limps and stretch marks included, and then moving on to face the world with love. 

The table at which we gather is the table where Christ accepts and welcomes us as we are, wherever we are on our journey.  It is his table, and he invites us all, in love to come, with our whole lives, the proud moments and the shameful ones, to gather with the saints at the welcome table.  We are blessed that we can be at this table together, after many years, welcomed and welcoming each other in love.  Amen.


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