August 6, 2023

"What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”

Rev. Scott Landis

Genesis 32:22-31

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (or God as the context suggests) is one of my favorite narratives in the entire bible. In fact, the picture on the cover of today’s bulletin is a photo of a chalk drawing given to me by a former parishioner after I preached on this passage many years ago. The drawing hangs right in front of me above my desk at home so, I see it every day. It reminds me of just how challenging life can be and how difficult, at times, to be a person of faith. But more on that later.

It’s important to note the backstory leading up to today’s lesson from the book of Genesis. You may remember, prior to this incident, Jacob was running for his life. Years before, he tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright by deceiving his father (Isaac) and receiving the blessing that should have rightfully gone to Esau – the firstborn. To make matters worse, their mother Rebekah (who favored Jacob) was in on the deal. Esau was furious and vowed to destroy Jacob who ran and sought the protection of his uncle Laban (Rebekah’s brother). While his time with Laban was miserable and seemed a fitting punishment for what he had done, life in Uncle Laban’s compound was not all bad. He married two of Laban’s daughters and between them had a dozen children including 11 sons. 

But Jacob didn’t seem to learn his lesson. Using his old tactics, he also deceived Laban by swindling him out of much of his fortune which necessitated his need to flee once again – this time with his wives, family, and a whole lot of livestock. Here’s where we pick up the story. 

Poor Jacob was in a world of hurt. Still running – from those he deceived – but more importantly – he was running from himself. Unable to return home and having swindled his uncle out of a great deal of his property, he tried to use his resources to buy him some grace. So, he sent ahead some of his servants, an enormous number of livestock, and lots of money to his brother Esau – gifts, yes, but really a bribe – a buffer of sorts. You see, he thought he might be spared any further humiliation or wrath if he sweetened the pot a bit prior to their imminent encounter. 

To ensure the safety of his family, he separated himself from them and went on his own — what some might call a “vision quest” as traveled further all alone. That night he encountered what he had been avoiding his entire life. He wrestled all night with that which had eluded him. His assailant, a complete mystery to Jacob, brought him face-to-face with Truth, Integrity, Honesty. That night Jacob found himself in a one-on-one wrestling match with pure Divinity as he met face-to-face with God. 

It's what happened in that encounter that I find so intriguing and necessary for each one of us if we want to live  our lives with integrity and desire a mature spiritual life. Call it repentance, a mid-life crisis, or an experience of transformation – what Jacob faced that night was an encounter with Truth – his own truth – which was a reflection of God’s Truth. He knew he could not let this opportunity go – not until he received God’s blessing.

But notice, when he engaged in this work – that is, when he faced exactly who he was and what he had become – he didn’t walk away unscathed. When we wrestle with God (who opens our eyes to our True Selves) we will emerge with a sense of wholeness and completion, a true sense of our own integrity – but we will likely be broken in one way or another. In the case of Jacob his hip was knocked out of joint, and he emerged, walking away limping.

  When we wrestle with God and with humans, or when we struggle with the reality of who we are and whose we are, IF we are persistent, we will prevail, AND we will be blessed, but we will be different. In other words, it will not kill us. In fact, it will make us stronger. It’s a reality we must all learn – sometimes the hard way. I sure did. 

I was bouncing along through my life and career and thought I was at the top of my game. I had climbed the ecclesiastical ladder from smaller  to larger churches. I had been given major responsibilities on important committees in the national setting of the church. My tall-steeple church in Denver was growing by leaps and bounds. But I realized that my life was little more than a hollow shell – a house of cards – built on charisma and hard work, but I was fulfilling everyone else’s expectations for my life – ones that were honorable, but I wasn’t being true to myself. 

One day I looked into the mirror, and I no longer recognized the person staring back. You see, I was really good at preaching the love of God for all God’s children. Words that I fully believed and rolled effortlessly off my tongue, but I did not believe they included me. Struggling with a sexual orientation that would not fit my ongoing success I realized I was living a lie. And like Jacob, the wrestling match was on. 

It went on for quite some time. I did not want my world to change. I did not want to give up all that I had worked so hard to achieve – all that I loved. But I also knew I was staring at the Truth – my truth – and if I was to live with integrity, I had no choice. 

Many will tell you that coming out results in a feeling of liberation – celebration – freedom. But for me it was the beginning of the end of so much: my marriage, my family, and eventually my job which I was asked to leave. I walked away from my own wrestling match with integrity. I felt the blessing of complete honesty with self and all others – but I was deeply wounded. 

I don’t tell this story (and there are so many details I will spare you) for pity or any admiration. I tell it because I now know just how important it is to live your truth – which even Jesus said, would set me free. You see, when you are living your truth, even though you are broken and limping there is nothing that can prevail against you. Because in so doing, you have received the blessing of God. I know that now in ways I could not possibly have known had I not wrestled with God. 

But there is an important caveat. Having done this work does not mean we get to live happily ever after. Not at all. The storms of life will continue. Disappointment and near defeat are part and parcel of being human. But you do so now with God’s blessing – that you have been honest and embraced your true self – it may be broken and broken badly — but you are whole and that makes all the difference. 

The Eucharist reminds us of that and today we are given a chance to remember that blessing. As we break bread and drink the cup, we lift up the paramount symbol of brokenness. Our Savior lived his life – and gave his life – as a testimony of love. As we share in that sacred meal today, I invite you to sit with this symbol of brokenness – and before you eat and drink ask yourself, “What struggle is God inviting me to consider or to enter into today? What needs some further examining in my life? What Truth is mine to embrace and to live?

“I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob cried out in his struggle. What blessing is God longing to give you today? You just may have to fight for it. 


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