Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2013
What do you know about your name? Some of our names have stories or come from ancestors. Some of us love our names. Some, not so much. Some of us choose names for ourselves that fit us better. Some become known by a beloved nickname. Our names are important. They are rarely random. We know what it feels like when someone who loves us calls us by name. We also know the feeling of being called by our full name usually meaning we are in trouble.
My father adored his mother. She died while he was in college and he never talked about her very much. My grandfather remarried a woman before I was born. I loved her deeply so I didn’t think much about my birth grandmother. I remember stopping in my tracks in the Chapel at Emory University on All Saints day while I was in seminary and realizing that the grandmother I did not know was also Sue Joiner. I had never really thought much about my name. My given name is Sue, just Sue. My grandmother was named Effie Sutah but everyone called her Sue. I found a deep connection to this woman I knew very little about when I realized we shared the same name. I felt that there was power in my name because I shared it with a beloved ancestor.
There is power and hospitality in knowing someone else’s name. Some of you may remember the old tv show Cheers whose theme song said:
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
It’s funny that this song is about a bar in Boston. I’d say it could well describe a church. A church is a place to be welcomed as you are. A church is a place where each person makes a difference. At church we discover that we are all carrying burdens. A church is a place to care for one another and share the journey. We heard that St. Michael’s is that kind of church through the stories David Hardy, Marty Jacobson, and Jason Davis. A church is a place to learn one another’s unique names, but also a place to remember our shared name – God’s beloved child. A church is a place to remember who we are and to whom we belong.
The book of Genesis reads like a soap opera. There are deceptions and twists and turns. A name in Genesis revealed one’s essential character and sometimes one’s destiny. Knowing someone’s name meant knowing something of that person. The name Jacob meant to follow. Jacob and his brother Esau were twins who were fighting while they were still in the womb. Esau was born first and Jacob came out holding Esau’s heel. He trades Esau his birthright for a bowl of soup. Jacob deceives his father Isaac into blessing him by wearing a goatskin and pretending to be the first-born son. Esau finally reaches his limit and threatens to kill Jacob. In the story today, Jacob is running for his life. He leaves his family and possessions on one side of the stream, and then crosses over to spend the night alone. He is incredibly vulnerable.
Things get really interesting when a man comes in the night and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. It is clear that it is not a one sided wrestling match. Jacob’s opponent strikes his hip and leaves him with a limp. The match reaches an impasse as day approaches and Jacob will not loosen his grip. Jacob is wrestling with God. In this moment in the story, they desperately need each other. God needs Jacob to let go before daylight. Jacob needs to be blessed. The blessing he got from his father was stolen. He needs God to bless him and validate him. Yes, even this guy who would steal from his father and brother needs a blessing.
Before blessing Jacob, God gives him a new name… Israel. Israel means God strives. This new name was a form of blessing for the one who valiantly wrestled with God. The story goes on to say that God blessed Jacob.
We all need to be blessed. I’m guessing most of you have never covered yourself in goatskin to steal your brother’s blessing. But I’m also guessing that you have done something you are ashamed of and wish you could have erased. It is here that we recognize our shared vulnerability. It is here that we acknowledge that this is what it looks like to be human. Our shared humanity is less in our strength and more in our vulnerability.
It is more than a little strange to think of an all night wrestling match with God in the physical sense. But late night spiritual wrestling with God is something many of us have experienced. We may feel a little put off by the idea that God wrestles with us. When I think of common images of God, the wrestler never makes the top ten. Yet there is something to it. God hangs in there with us when we struggle. God keeps vigil with us through the darkness of night whether it is eight hours, eight months or eight years. God stays with us through it all. God blesses us even when we have made bad choices. God is persistent in relationships and NEVER walks away. When I let that sink in, it takes my breath away. There are some wonderful humans who walk with us in our darkest nights and who don’t abandon us when we are lost or afraid. These folks embody a God who will stay with us no matter what we have done, no matter who we have hurt, and no matter how selfish we have been. In Jacob’s story we see a God who will not with hold a blessing from anyone.
This blessing from God is transformative. The next scene in the story is the meeting of Esau and Jacob. They are reconciled and Jacob is forgiven. Jacob no longer runs from his brother as a scoundrel, but walks beside him. Jacob sees the face of God in Esau who graciously receives him. This story could have ended badly. Instead, Jacob is given a new start with God’s blessing. Jacob no longer runs in fear, but meets his brother and is profoundly transformed by grace.
What about you? Do you know this story as your own? I am deeply humbled by this story of blessing and transformation. I reflect on the times in my life when I have felt vulnerable and exposed. In the dark, it is even more lonely and scary. Somehow in those places of utter despair, God comes to us and stays with us. I suppose it looks like a wrestling match at times.
The church is in the blessing business. It is what we do in ways that are public and ways that are almost invisible. Last summer, Judith spent a week with Philip Newell and she came back quoting him, “We should be blessing each other all the time.”
I think of the many people who have blessed me on this journey. Two people who have walked with me through those dark nights and accompanied me in the most difficult places of my life have birthdays this weekend. I have offered these two saints my brokenness and they have blessed me and sent me back out stronger and more whole.
I keep thinking of you and the ways you bless each other each day. I think of Nancy Core who blessed so many kids… especially the ones others had given up on. The Core family told me about a kid who was really tough. He was a drug dealer and most everyone was afraid of him. Nancy cared about him and he knew it. Andy said that when they showed up at the prom, this tough kid and his gang walked into the prom first to create a wide berth for Nancy as if to say, “Don’t mess with her. She’s a good one. If you mess with her, you mess with me.” You can be sure no one wanted to mess with him. I don’t know what happened to that kid, but wherever he is now, he knows that this woman loved him. It changed him.
It changes us to be loved; to be blessed. Jesus blessed those who were closest to him. He blessed those who were on the fringes and rejected by society. Jesus understood the power of blessing to transform. In blessing, we are conformed to the image of God. In blessing we are strengthened for the journey ahead. Jacob’s story isn’t ancient history. It is true for us in our darkest nights. God meets us in our vulnerability and keeps vigil with us. God calls us by name, blesses us, and prepares us for the path that lies before us. In blessing we are liberated to bless others. Blessing means an infusion of holiness. It is something that cannot be contained. It flows through us and out to all that we meet. We are indeed blessed. May we open our hearts and pour out blessing to the world.