Sermon for Oct. 16, 2022 (beginning of Stewardship Season)
[The sermon began with a witness from parishioner Asher Tillman, reflecting on seeing God's healing love in action through other members of the choir caring for him enough to "give a rip," being present with him in tough times.]
All through this Stewardship Season, we’ll be reflecting on how we receive and share God’s healing love. Now, if you’re someone with a little history of church stewardship seasons, your first reaction might be, “OK, we get it. It’s time to write next year’s budget. Cut to the chase and make the pitch.” And you would be right that stewardship relates to giving. But the Church often goes too far and reduces the message of stewardship to little more than financial giving. By the same token, sometimes we overcorrect, and get a little too cute, and make it seem like stewardship really isn’t about money at all.
But here’s the thing: Stewardship is about nothing less than how we live our lives. It’s about looking to God’s model, especially as revealed in Jesus, and doing our best to live that model ourselves. It’s about tending all that God shares with us in the same way God tends everything else – with self-giving love. So, because money is part of how we live our lives, our Stewardship Season will include how we tend the gift of money. And because the Church is an instrument for sharing healing love, we’ll talk about how we support the Church’s work financially. But all that will be in the context of something greater: the project of seeking and sharing God’s healing love, which is what our Church and our lives are all about. In fact, you’ll see and hear love stories from parishioners over the next six weeks, here in person and coming to your inbox – stories of a variety of ways God’s love sets the direction for us day by day.
So, at first glance, you might think today’s Old Testament reading, about Jacob’s wrestling match, is probably the last story you’d pick for a season about sharing God’s healing love. Healing love? In this story, it’s love that leaves your hip out of joint after an encounter with God. The truth is, I didn’t pick this reading; it’s appointed for use today by the schedule of readings the Episcopal Church follows. But maybe there’s something worth exploring here after all – maybe a little uncomfortable love for us this morning.
I might not look much like a wrestler, but I am. And I’ll bet you, are, too – at least in the way Jacob was a wrestler. Let’s remember the backstory for this reading, what brings Jacob to his wrestling match. Jacob is the son of the Hebrew patriarch Isaac and grandson of the patriarch Abraham. He’s a twin with an older brother, Esau, who rightly should have been next in line. But earlier in the story, Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright of his father’s blessing, which of course has driven the brothers apart. God has assured Jacob that the blessing begun with Abraham and continued with Isaac will pass down to him because he’s the one who carries Isaac’s blessing into the next generation.
But practically, Jacob needs to skedaddle to avoid Esau’s wrath, so he heads to a different country to find a wife – north to Haran, in upper Mesopotamia. That’s a whole story itself, with Jacob the trickster being tricked by his father-in-law and ending up with two wives at twice the cost. But now, years later, Jacob has settled up with his father-in-law and is returning home, bringing both wives, their kids, and all his livestock and possessions back to the Promised Land. And as he’s crossing back, he’s about to be intercepted by Esau. Jacob spends the night alone, tortured by the fear that Esau will kill them all and, I imagine, tortured by guilt for having stolen the blessing that should have been Esau’s in the first place. So Jacob prays like never before, asking God to protect him.
In Jacob’s long night, “a man” comes and wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Now, we want to make sure we have the story straight, right, so we ask, “Who is this man?” And that’s the question, isn’t it? Is it a marauder, trying to steal from Jacob? Is it an angel, representing God; or a demon, representing … what stands against God? Is it Jacob himself, as he wrestles with his guilt and fear and failure in his role as inheritor of God’s blessing? It’s not clear – much like our own experience of the angels or demons or shadow sides that afflict us through our own long nights.
But eventually, the story tells us, the anonymous Wrestler isn’t prevailing, so he knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint, an injury Jacob won’t soon forget. Still, Jacob hangs on, refusing to quit until the Wrestler gives in and blesses him. The Wrestler obliges and offers a blessing, but not just that: He also gives Jacob a new identity. He’s no longer Jacob, a name that means “he supplants.” Now, he’s to be called Israel, a name that means either “the one who strives with God” or “God strives.” Which is it? I think the answer is, “yes” – Jacob strives with God, and God comes to strive with him.
This is a crazy story – maybe reminding us of dreams we’ve had ourselves. But this moment for Jacob begins to make sense when you see what happens next. Hobbled and exhausted, Jacob looks up and sees his brother Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Jacob is expecting annihilation. What he gets instead is reconciliation. Esau, the brother with every reason to carry a grudge, runs to Jacob, and embraces him, and weeps with him. Jacob tries to give Esau the goods he’s brought to buy him off, and Esau says, “No – let me help you instead, because you look like you’ve had a heck of a night.” And the story ends with Jacob, dumbstruck, saying to Esau, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” (Genesis 33:15). The word “lord” there is intended like “sir,” a mark of deference to his older brother. But the double entendre is completely intentional. Indeed, why should the Lord be so kind to Jacob the trickster?
Like I said, I’m also a wrestler with God. And I’ll bet I’m not alone. This dark, mysterious, ancient story still rings true because many of us have found ourselves in Jacob’s sandals. We’ve been carrying something heavy, and we’ve carried it a long time. It may have been our fault, or not. It may be a single thing, or more complicated baggage. But we’ve carried it a long time. And then, at some point, we find ourselves at the end of our rope, and we beg God to help us with this weight we’ve been hauling around. We ask for protection, or healing, or a fix. We probably have a pretty clear sense of what we’re asking for, thinking we know exactly what we need. But God the healer often doesn’t come back with the treatment we self-prescribe. In fact, the treatment may not make much sense, may not be anything we even wanted. But the outcome is so much more than what we asked: Not just pain relief, but healing. Not just safety, but a new start. Not just self-preservation, but reconciliation – a life, healed.
So, in this crazy story where God the physician knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint, where is this healing love we’ll be hearing about for the next six weeks? Well, here’s where I see it: God showed up. And I don’t mean just showing up in some sweet and gentle storybook way, like Glenda the Good floating down to comfort Dorothy in Oz. God showed up and gave it to Jacob just as hard as Jacob could dish it out. Because, in that moment, Jacob didn’t need Glenda the Good to come and heal him. Jacob needed The Rock to knock some sense into him. And so, a wrestler is what God became.
The divine thing about God’s healing love is that it comes in surprising forms. Some of the moments when I’ve known God’s presence most immediately were times I’d never have chosen – times of endings or injuries that seemed beyond repair. I didn’t want to be where I was, and I didn’t want the treatment I heard God offering. God’s blessing might have felt grudging in the moment, and I was certainly grudging in my receiving of it. But in the end, the outcome was indeed gracious, healing in ways I could never have asked for. For even in my wrestling match, I knew it was God who’d shown up. And just that was healing balm for my soul.