My younger brother John tells me that I was quite a mean big sister. He claims that in our early childhood years, I was always beating up on him. For instance, he says, I would hold him down on the ground and rub his face in the snow. I, of course, have a different very of the facts. I will admit, though, that I love to get the best of him, even now that we’re grown. One summer, when he was in his late teens and I was in my early twenties, we were at a lake standing on a dock. Maybe he said something to me? Maybe I said something to him. I don’t remember what the provocation was. But I do remember the satisfaction I felt in surprising him with a hard shove that catapulted him into the water, clothes, shoes and all.
Wrestling—as a physical, emotional, and spiritual contest—is at the center of this morning’s big story from Genesis. Of course, we have the iconic scene in which Jacob wrestled all night long with a mysterious stranger. But the reality is, Jacob’s whole life was one long, drama-filled wrestling match. From the day he was born, clutching his brother’s heel, he was obsessed with competing and with winning. After he stole his brother Esau’s inheritance and blessing, he ran away to live with his uncle Laban. There, he became entangled in struggle immediately. Laban gave Jacob a taste of his own trickster medicine, deceiving him into marrying Leah after he had promised that Jacob could marry Rachel instead. After that, Jacob and Laban continued to spar over the proper wages for Jacob’s work as he cared for Laban’s flock. Jacob once again gained the upper hand, breeding Laban’s animals so that the stronger ones were added to Jacob’s flock while the weaker ones remained with Laban.
Jacob was not the only wrestler in the family; however. The condensed version of the story we heard this morning skips over the bitter rivalry between the sisters, Leah and Rachel. Rachel, the wife Jacob loved, was unable to conceive a child for many years. Meanwhile, Leah gave Jacob several sons. When children were finally born to Jacob through Rachel’s slave, Rachel gloated: “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” And yet, the drama continued because Rachel still longed to bear a child herself.
Professor Tikva Freymer Kensky explains:
A turning point comes when Leah’s son Rueben finds mandrakes. A mandrake root, which looks like a newborn baby, was often considered a fertility charm and an aphrodisiac. Rachel wants the mandrakes, and she has something that Leah wants even more than mandrakes. She has occupancy of Jacob’s bed and trades a night with Jacob or the mandrakes…. Finally, after eleven children have been born to Jacob, Rachel bears a son and names him Joseph [meaning] “he adds.” Her two explanations for the name reveal her state of mind: “God has taken away my reproach.” and “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen 30:22–24). In the very moment of relief and joy, she is not satisfied: she wants more.
In this week’s Bible study, we noted, on the one hand, how much cultural distance there is between ourselves and the big stories we’ve been reading. Men had multiple wives. Slavery was an accepted institution. Science didn’t exist as we know it. People had ideas about God that just don’t make sense to us anymore. On the other hand, as members of the study remarked, after reading the dramatic saga of Jacob and Laban, Rachel and Leah, all the many chapters through, that “we struggle the same struggles.” “I feel humbled,” one person said, “recognizing that we have all this in us.”
A faithful life is a wrestling life. This week, as I led a graveside service, made a hospital visit, and received news about the sudden illnesses of your loved ones, I was reminded of how we wrestle together in this community with the fragility of life, the reality of death, the long, hard journey of grief.
A faithful life is a wrestling life. Yesterday, several of us knocked on doors with ISAIAH, talking with neighbors on the north side of Minneapolis about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Chatting with strangers is really outside of my comfort zone. I don’t really like to answer my own door when someone bearing a clipboard appears. Each time we approached a house, I had to take a deep breath and force myself to knock or ring. I wrestled with my reluctance, and I wrestled with the possibility that we might create a world in which all have enough to live.
A faithful life is a wrestling life. A call has gone out, this week, for faith leaders to come to Standing Rock, and I’ve decided to go. I’m proud to represent the church, to stand publicly, as a clergy person, for native lives and for the water that gives life to all of us. And at the same time, in that context, I wrestle with this identity of clergy person. I wrestle because I know that my tradition has been used to justify white greed and to baptize genocidal policies, and I know that this history is not in the past, but that it lives on still.
A faithful life is a wrestling life. Today we dedicate our pledges for the ministry of First Church in 2017. Today, we wrestle with how, in each of our individual lives and circumstances, generosity might win over greed, how love might be stronger and deeper than fear. We wrestle with the call to make our faith real and concrete as we relate to our money and possessions, our talents and time.
Jacob wrestled all night long, terrified with the thought of meeting his brother Esau, who he assumed still wanted to kill him. He wrestled with his life, with all that he had done. He wrestled with the name Jacob, meaning “cheater,” and the identity that had come to define him—liar, thief, and trickster. He wrestled stubbornly, even when his hip was thrown out of joint. He refused to let go of his opponent until he could claim a blessing: a new name, a new story. Jacob, so flawed, so full of fear, nonetheless met God face to face in his struggle. In the light of a new dawn, Jacob could even see the possibility of reconciliation with his brother. He had wrestled his way, over a lifetime, toward this moment, toward the truth that, as he put it to Esau, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
The life of faith, modeled by our spiritual ancestors, and fulfilled in Jesus, is a wrestling life. It is in the midst of struggle that we become reconciled to God, to ourselves, and to our neighbors. Let us fight for a blessing. Let us fight to see the face of God. Let us fight to become the people we are called to be.