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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
November 5, 2017

Thought as the Service Begins

Jacob’s Blessing by Jan Richardson

In order to really understand today’s reading, we need to remember the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I will tell you a lot more about the story later but it is from the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, and it takes place among the early days of the Jewish people. The much abbreviated version is that Jacob had cheated his twin brother Esau out of a very important blessing from their father and ran away in fear. He has been gone 20 years and has decided to come home again and is traveling back to Canaan with his family and all his people and flocks because he is wealthy now but he is not sure if his brother will forgive him or kill him. He learns from his messengers he has sent on ahead that his brother is coming out to meet him with a large company of 400 people — it sounds like an army and Jacob is very, very afraid.

That night, a stranger comes to Jacob and wrestles with him until daybreak. Genesis chapter 32 says: Jacob was left alone And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his 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 has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Penuel, which means the face of God saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Here is Jan Richardson’s poem “Jacob’s blessing”:

If this blessing were easy,
anyone could claim it.
As it is,
I am here to tell you
that it will take some work.

This is the blessing
that visits you
in the struggling,
in the wrestling,
in the striving.

This is the blessing
that comes
after you have left
everything behind,

after you have stepped out,
after you have crossed
into that realm
beyond every landmark
you have known.

This is the blessing
that takes all night
to find.

It’s not that this blessing
is so difficult,
as if it were not filled
with grace
or with the love
that lives
in every line.

It’s simply that
it requires you
to want it,
to ask for it,
to place yourself
in its path.

It demands that you
stand to meet it
when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know
you could move,
that you agree
to not give up.

So when this blessing comes,
borne in the hands
of the difficult angel
who has chosen you,
do not let go.
Give yourself
into its grip.

It will wound you,
but I tell you
there will come a day
when what felt to you
like limping

was something more
like dancing
as you moved into
the cadence
of your new
and blessed name.

The Difficult Angel Who Has Chosen You

(Audio of this sermon – partial)

Some of you know I am teaching a Bible study class over at the new Prescott community center — It is called Bible Study for Seekers and Skeptics. Teaching is a different role for me and I like it a lot, even though I am frantic trying to keep marginally ahead of the students so I actually have something teach them. We are really wrestling in the class. We are wrestling with the Bible, with what is in there and what it might mean; wrestling with what we thought we knew and are finding out we were wrong about; wrestling with how different interpretations, even a single mistranslated word, can change the meaning of things so profoundly.

This week we were talking about what in the world of Biblical scholarship is called a hermeneutics of suspicion, which simply means a method of interpreting the biblical texts which includes skepticism. A hermeneutics of suspicion means bringing the assumption that we are not getting the whole story, as well as the assumption that the authors and translators made editorial choices and had their own reasons to include things or leave them out. A couple of the students had a kind of epiphany this week, realizing they did not have to accept my interpretations either or those of the Biblical scholars I was quoting. They were bringing a hermeneutics of suspicion to the hermeneutics of suspicion I was teaching them about, which I thought was truly excellent.

In the four sessions we have had so far I have said one really helpful thing: which is that I believe the bible tells us very little about the nature of God. What it does tell us is how the people who wrote these stories thought about God, what they believed or hoped about God. It tells us about them as they struggled and tried to figure out how to be a religious people. It tells us about power and fear and family relationships and conquest of land, the desire for safety and security and to leave a legacy. It tells us about who these people were, who they were trying to become and how they understood themselves. It is an incredibly human book, full of messy, complicated, unresolved, confusing and very human stories, which is why I think it is still so worth reading. Today’s story about Jacob wrestling with the angel is one of those messy complicated human stories.

Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah who are considered the founding mother and father of the Jewish people. Jacob is also the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the twin brother of Esau. Jacob is the younger twin though we are told he came out holding onto his brother’s heel, wrestling with him in the womb, because he was trying to get out first, which is what Jacob means, supplanter. Esau grows up to be a fine hunter, a man of the field he is called and he is his father’s favorite because his father loves to eat the game he brings home. But Jacob, we are told, is a quiet man, living in the tents, which was the realm of the women, and is most definitely his mother’s favorite. This makes sense in that she probably knew him much better than she knew Esau. The story makes it pretty clear that we are to understand Jacob and Esau in contrast to one another. Esau is a man of action, physical, strong but easily deceived. Jacob is a thinker, smarter and definitely more complicated than his brother. He willing to use whatever means necessary to get what he feels he deserves.

When Isaac is very old and dying and cannot see well he asks Esau the eldest to bring meat for him to eat and tells Esau he will give him his birth right blessing as the eldest son. Death bed blessings like this were hugely important in ancient Israel; they were believed to transfer a kind of sacred power upon the receiver that could not be undone once given.

So Rebekah comes up with a plan to get Jacob the blessing instead; she and Jacob cook some meat for Isaac to eat and find goat skins to put over Jacob’s hands so he will seem hairy like his brother. Jacob puts on Esau’s clothes so he will smell the way Esau smells. It works and Jacob receives the blessing meant for Esau from their dying father. Esau is enraged and vows to kill Jacob. (This was actually the second time Jacob had done something like this to his brother, which is another story but explains why Esau was so murderously angry.) Jacob runs away to mother’s brother’s in a neighboring land where he ends up marrying two of his cousins Rachel and Leah and has many children. There is a lot of Biblical drama in the Jacob’s life but ultimately Jacob prospers and grows wealthy with flocks of his own but he never stops missing his home land. After 20 years in exile, an angel appears to him and tells him it is time to go home. So Jacob gathers his whole family and his household and all the animals he now owns and starts walking them all toward Canaan even though he still has no idea if his brother will forgive him or kill all of them.

He sends ahead scouts who report back that a huge company led by Esau is coming toward him, 400 hundred people, and he prepares a gift of a large number of goats and ewes and rams and camels and donkeys to be sent ahead to his brother. He crosses his family, also 400 in number we are told, and the animals over the river Jabbok presumably because they will be safer on the other side of the river. And he divides his people into two groups, setting them at some distance, hoping that if Esau’s army kills one group the other might survive. He then returns to the other side of the river Jabbok completely alone to spend the night on the riverbank. He prays hard that Esau will accept, not just his gift but him and his family and he is very afraid.

The story is extremely unclear, maybe deliberately so, about who Jacob is wrestling that night on the river bank. Is it a man or an angel? Jacob believes it is God as he says in the morning I have seen the face of god and that is what he names that spot. The rabbis are full of theories of course but my favorite is the the theory that Jacob is wrestling with himself. He is wrestling with his own conscience all night, with his past, with the person he was and the things he has done and there is no one else there at all. As Bill Moyers commented on this story, I often don’t know whether I’m struggling with God or with myself. And if I’m struggling with myself, I’m struggling with both the demonic and the divine in me.”

Moyers says “The confusion and ambiguity in this story accurately reflects the confusion and ambiguity that we often face in our struggles. We often think we know who our opponent is, only to find out later that we were mistaken. We sometimes think that we are struggling against someone else, when we are really struggling with ourselves.” So we don’t know. We do know that by morning, Jacob has a limp and a new name, Israel, which of course becomes the name of the entire Jewish people. Israel means “one who has struggled with God and with humanity.”

Later that morning Jacob sees Esau coming with this vast group of people and he lines up his family and goes out first alone, ahead of his family, bowing himself to the ground seven times, prostrating himself like the lowliest of servants, as he comes near his brother.

But Esau runs out to meet Jacob and embraces him and kisses him, and they weep together. At first Esau does not want to accept the huge peace offering that Jacob has given him, the numerous animals which was a form of wealth, but Jacob is deeply humble, begging his brother to accept the gift, saying, “Please accept it because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have everything I need.” Though apparently the more accurate translation for the phrase I have everything I need, is I am complete. I am whole.

The scholar and rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the offering is the equivalent of Jacob giving back the blessing he stole. Rabbi Sacks also says that the riverbank wrestling was about Jacob becoming himself. All his life he had tried to be Esau. He had taken what was rightfully his brother’s because he wanted to be his brother, but that night on the river bank, wrestling with something, with someone, he becomes himself, he becomes complete and whole as a human being for the first time. (

So Esau forgives, Jacob makes restitution and Jacob’s worst fears do not come to pass. He is met with compassion and love instead of the murderous rage he dreaded and may have actually deserved. It is this beautiful moment, this moving and powerful moment of reconciliation between brothers. But, in the way of humans beings, things quickly gets messy and complicated again. This is why these stories are so powerful, because we know that is how it is — we have these beautiful, transcendent moments and then we go right back to being human. We say something stupid or insensitive or our fear creeps back in and we are back to the struggle, back to the wrestling.

What happens is that Esau offers to stay with Jacob and has his people travel back to Canaan with Jacob’s people — one huge happy, reunited clan. But Jacob refuses; he makes us a story about how his children are frail and have to travel slowly. He lies and sends his brother away. Maybe Jacob, doesn’t quite trust his brother yet or maybe he is just not ready for what he thought he wanted all those 20 years in exile. But Jacob ends up taking a longer, slower way back to Canaan with lots more biblical drama before he finally arrives home.

The beautiful moment of reconciliation between the brothers in the desert reminds me of the 14th century Sufi poet Rumi’s words about the yearning to meet in a field, beyond any conception of right or wrong, winning and losing, opinions or arguments or even language at all. He wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Most of us yearn to meet in that field, beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing, to meet one another face to face, as human beings. There may be specific people we wish we could meet in that field — they may include some of the family members we are in danger of ending up in shouting matches with at the Thanksgiving dinner table in a few weeks. They may include our own parents or children or spouses when we misunderstand each other so completely, or hurt each other so deeply. They may include people whose opinions and beliefs and views we cannot even begin to accept. It could be a very crowded field! Or maybe, like with Jacob, it is ourselves we need to meet out there in the field; it is ourselves we need to reckon with, to wrestle with until, we are able to say, I am whole. I am complete.

But as in the story these moments come and go. This is the human condition. We extend trust and vulnerability and then get afraid again; we forgive and then get angry again; we have this deep and true connection and then we lose it. So we keep wrestling. An entire night is a long time to wrestle, think about the physical reality of how exhausting that would be but Jacob refuses to stop; he refuses to let go until he gets a blessing from this stranger he believes to be God or at least God’s messenger. The stranger says, “Let me go for the day is breaking,” and Jacob says “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Jan Richardson writes,

This blessing requires you to want it,
to ask for it, to place yourself in its path.
It demands that you stand to meet it when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know you could move,
that you agree to not give up.

So when this blessing comes, borne in the hands of the difficult angel who has chosen you, do not let go.

Think about your own difficult angels, the things or the people or the realities you have struggled with or are struggling with now. Maybe your difficult angel is a person you struggle to love. Maybe it is the absence of the beloved. Maybe your difficult angel is illness or addiction or loneliness. Maybe it is fear or some trait in yourself that you cannot seem to change. Maybe your difficult angel is the not knowing — not knowing if the kids will be okay or if the marriage make it, or what course will the cancer will take. Maybe it is the choices and decisions that others have made about which you have little control. Maybe there is no difficult angel to wrestle with right now and if that is the case we can consider ourselves lucky and rest up for the next match. No matter the name of our particular angel, wrestling is hard and it sometimes it hurts us in ways we cannot fully recover from. Jacob is wounded by his night long bout with his angel; he walks with a limp for the rest of his life. The angel blesses him but also leaves him with scars that never go away. This is a reality that most of us understand from experience.

But here is the good news of the story: the wound is not all Jacob emerges with; he gets a new name, Israel, one who strives with God and with humanity. Israel becomes the name of his people, this is where their very identity is born. It is an epic story and also a deeply personal one, complicated and beautiful, just like every one of our wrestling stories.

Jan Richardson writes:

I tell you there will come a day
when what felt to you like limping
was something more like dancing
as you moved into the cadence
of your new and blessed name.

This is the promise. Here is the hope: after the wrestling comes the blessing. After the wrestling comes that moment of grace, when we can stand on the riverbank, limping for sure, but knowing that we have what we need and we are whole.


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Created 2017-11-08