A Sermon by Louise F. Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
19 September 2010

Text:  Genesis 32:22-31
Listen to Podcast

Cheating. . . swindling. . . lying. . . .

committing adultery. . . attempted murder. . . .seduction . . .getting drunk. . . thievery… scheming. . . revenge . . .

No, this isn’t a list of charges in the corruption scandal plaguing Cuyahoga County right now.  Instead, it’s a short list compiled from the Bible describing the activities of the heroes of our faith, our spiritual forebears, the men and women through whom the Judeo-Christian religion developed.  And we’re not even out of Genesis! 

Probably every family tree has some branches about which the less said the better, but our faith family tree is notable for the high incidence of bad behavior by its leading stars.  On this day when we ordain and install and dedicate leaders for our congregation—please don’t draw any parallels!  Marvel first of all that God calls human beings to do God’s divine work in the world.  We celebrate the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs for their faithfulness and brave deeds, but we also do well to recall the ways they “blew it”—their mistakes and misjudgments and clumsy attempts to fix them.  Otherwise, these characters become little more than one-dimensional, air-brushed and sanitized figures whose faith has no meaning or relevance on ours today. Perhaps by digging into their stories we may discover a deeper truth, a more important understanding of how they offer us a living legacy of leadership –—one which can help guide the church effectively and authentically in these challenging times.

Today’s text profiles one of the “big three” patriarchs of the faith, one who is always mentioned in the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – to describe the covenant relationship God made with them and their progeny, and their prominent role in its establishment.   But before we read the morning text, a little backstory is in order to give flesh to this very human hero.

Jacob is the twin son of Isaac and Rebekah, and enters the world minutes after the first-born twin Esau.  However, the midwife notices that baby Jacob has a firm grip on Esau’s heel, which turns out to be a sign of things to come.  The name “Jacob” means to “supplant” –and he does replace Esau as both the inheritor of his father’s blessing and the one through whom the patriarchal leadership descends.   And what a trickster he is!  What devious means he uses to get Esau out of the way!

The Bible contrasts the twins: Esau is strong and ruddy, skilled with a bow and arrow and the favorite of his father; Jacob on the other hand is something of a mamma’s boy, preferring the quiet of their tents and helping with domestic chores.   An encounter during their teenaged years sets the stage for Jacob’s pre-eminence.   One day Esau returns from the fields famished, and smells a savory stew being prepared by his brother.  He demands a bowlful and Jacob replies, “Sure—for the price of your birthright.”  The birthright was bestowed upon the first-born son and conferred blessing and the greatest portion of the material wealth of the father’s estate. At that moment, any benefit from the birthright was a long way off and Esau’s growling stomach dominated, so he consented.

Fast-forward years ahead.  Their father Isaac is old and frail and as was the custom, ready to confer the first-born blessing to Esau.  But these plans are thwarted by a clever ruse planned by mother and son.  They even dress Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and put hairy goat skins over his own smooth skin so that blind Isaac will be satisfied it really is Esau.  The plan works, and Jacob receives the blessing.  When the truth comes out, Esau is enraged and vows to kill Jacob, and would have, except that their mother sends Jacob safely away on the premise that he needs to find a wife from among his own people. 

It’s on that journey of exile that Jacob has his famous dream—a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder stretched from earth to heaven.  God appears to him in the dream and extends covenant promises to him:   I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. . . . Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…  It must have been something, because even Jacob is filled with awe and exclaims:  Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!

Jacob’s adventures finding a wife and building a fortune are chronicled in detail.  Over the years, he occasionally ends up on the receiving end of the treachery he has dealt, and the lingering unease over the broken relationship with his brother takes a toll.  He’s in a bind, caught between his fear of Esau’s revenge and his trust in God’s promise of nation-building through his lineage.   Once again revealing his scheming soul, he hits upon a plan: to send waves of servants before him and his entourage bearing gifts to Esau with which to soften any remaining fury, while he hangs back in safety just in case.   Night descends and if the plan works, he will see his brother face to face the next day.  Perhaps Jacob hopes he will be encouraged by another dream, some sign that it will go well.  Instead, something very different happens.  A reading from the book of Genesis, in the 32nd chapter at the 22nd verse. Listen for God’s Word.  [GENESIS 32:22-31]

So there you have it:  our scheming, striving spiritual leader, forever limping yet forever blessed!  The story of Jacob makes clear the gracious truth that God is God of human beings, who like every one of us, are simultaneously brave and terrified, generous and judgmental, large-hearted and small-minded, visionary and petty.  God’s faithfulness counters human fickleness, and provides a way to redeem what is lost, reconcile what is broken, and forgive what is wrong.  The main character of the story of Jacob—and the story of our faith—is God, continually reaching out to the people in ways they can’t ignore.  God intrudes in their lives, interferes with their choices, and even changes their names to reflect the changes God is going to produce in them.  Jacob illustrates perfectly what is the Church’s saving grace when it comes to leadership:  God does not call the equipped; God equips the called.

Jacob “the supplanter” becomes Israel “the one who strives with God,” and while that might not seem much like a promotion, I believe it does suggest a focus for those who want to be responsive to God’s call.

Become a striver for the Kingdom of God. That’s right—a striver. It’s more fashionable right now to call yourself a seeker; it implies that you haven’t made up your mind, you’re looking around, you’re weighing your options, you’re staying on the margins where you can easily slip away.  There’s actually not a lot of personal investment required to be a seeker, and there’s actually very little risk. If something doesn’t sit right with you, if the message isn’t what you expected, if the people disappoint you or if God doesn’t deliver in the way you think God should, you can easily disengage, and turn your attention to something else.  A striver, however, is someone who becomes personally committed; someone who cares enough to invest time and energy and one’s gifts and talents towards a larger purpose which may be only dimly imagined.  A striver risks real relationship to God— mind, spirit, and body.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the early Year of the Bible readings from Genesis is that people’s righteousness is described not as “they believed in God” or “they did most things right,” but rather “they walked with God.”  That is, they consciously and consistently made space for God in their lives.  They talked to God, they listened for God.   Elders, deacons, trustees—and you and me—please strive to walk with God daily.    Bring your true self, not just your churchy side to that walk.  Bring your doubts as well as your faith; the busy-ness and complexity of your daily life as well as the hour or two you carve out on Sunday morning.  The image of Jacob complaining to God, beseeching God, and even wrestling with God testifies to a vibrant, everyday relationship with the Holy One. Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize recipient Elie Wiesel echoes this honesty:  “Sometimes I love God and sometimes I hate God, but I am never without God.”

Loving or hating, we are never without each other either.  Become a striver for relationship with others; invest your time, talent, treasures to build and repair human connections.  Our human family as well as our faith family has been sliced and diced every which way, divided by difference, wounded and wounding by our common selfishness and sin, and we’re all limping as a result of it. The Church’s mission is one of reconciliation; that is, putting back together all that has been torn apart; healing the broken places and growing stronger in those places. Our baptism unites us to Christ’s ministry of love and justice and peace for all God’s beloved children.  Yes, that means reaching out to those in need, whether in Cleveland or Islamabad or Addis Ababa. It also means striving to welcome the stranger to our sanctuary, recognizing the hurts we all carry and supporting each other with compassion. And sometimes it means praying for grace in an estranged relationship; to seek forgiveness and receive it as well.   Living in exile from one another is not what God intends; God’s arms are wide open to welcome us home, together.

Finally, strive to discern God’s presence in even unpromising territory.  In many ways, it’s hard to be church right now.  The name “Christian” is invoked by many whose rhetoric and actions reflect hatred and prejudice.  To declare one’s allegiance to Christ’s church is to invite ridicule and disdain in many circles.  Novelist Anne Rice has famously declared that she will no longer call herself “Christian” or hold membership in a church (even though she describes herself as a believer), because she does not want to be associated with an institution whose adherents act so badly in the name of their religion.  On the one hand, who can blame her? On the other hand, I don’t think we have that luxury.  For better or for worse, this story; this faith; these people are what we have.  And sometimes it feels like a wasteland.   Like Jacob caught up in the drama of his own life, we may be hard-pressed to see God, or to realize that this is the stage for God’s life-giving work.  But God is greater than our doubts, our cynicism, our scheming, our discouragement.  Surely God is in this place too!    Friends, may we remember the blessing of wrestling with God.  May we commit to strive first for God and God’s Kingdom, trusting that all we need will be ours as well.     AMEN.