Struggle's Long, but Hope Is Longer. August 2, 2020

Struggle’s Long, but Hope Is Longer

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Matthew 14:13-21

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church, and online.  August 2, 2020

 

Jacob is coming home, home from twenty-some years away, home to the land promised to his grandfather, home to the land promised to him in a powerful dream on the journey away from this land, running from the wrath of his brother Esau those many years ago.  With no cell phone to call ahead, not even a Pony Express to send a note to expect him, Jacob comes back to Canaan.  His household is larger than it was; he left with nothing; he returns with two wives, two more women by whom he has children, at least twelve children and an impressive flock of goats.  On the way home, close to his final destination, he comes to the river Jabbok.  Not quite home yet, but it begins to feel familiar, like passing Kingston on the Thruway on a long ride home from New Jersey or North Carolina (Raleigh, NC, is almost exactly as far as Haran from Canaan).  Jacob figures that Esau may have heard of his approach, and though he has not come home to fight, he is ready to fight if necessary.  It's not clear why he sends all that he has across the river before nightfall and then returns.  The general understanding is that he is guarding against an ambush by his brother, and wants to be away from his family if it comes.  We assume that at least a few of his older boys can be trusted to protect the family and livestock from attack without Papa close by.  With his household already across the river, it makes it clear to Esau that Jacob is not looking to attack; Jacob is instead alone, vulnerable, and ready to face his brother peacefully.  Like most of the stories in Genesis especially, we are not given all the particulars we might choose to know.  What we are told is simply that Jacob ends up back across this river before sundown so that he is left alone. 

He doesn’t sleep.  Not a wink, not that night.

Jacob pulls an all-nighter.  I used to do that now and then in college.  It’s not fun.  Jacob’s all-nighter is difficult.  Christian author Philip Yancey tells the story this way.

Someone bumps him—a man? an angel?—and Jacob does what he has always done. He fights as if his life depends on it. All night the two wrestle, neither gaining the advantage, until at last the first gleam of daybreak brightens the horizon. "Let me go," the figure says, reaching down with a touch so potent it wrenches Jacob's hip socket.

Staggering, overpowered, scared out of his wits, Jacob still manages to hang on. "I will not let you go unless you bless me," he tells the figure. Instead of wrenching his neck with another touch, the figure tenderly bestows on Jacob a new name, Israel, which means "God-wrestler." At last, Jacob learns the identity of his opponent.

God-wrestler.  The rest of the story of scripture is the story of the people of Israel. The people named for this man who struggles with God.  He doesn’t quite win.  He doesn’t quite lose.  He leaves the fight wounded, but he holds on long enough to leave with a blessing.  Jacob started this journey, many years ago, and his blessing on the way came easy.  He slept and dreamed of a ladder of angels and God speaking to him and promising to go with him always.  Tonight’s blessing is not as explicit, nor does it come easy.  But Jacob is determined not to leave this experience unchanged, unblessed. 

 

This story continues to be compelling because Jacob isn’t the only one who struggles with God, who rails against what is and pleads for a way out with blessing, with a touch of goodness to start tomorrow with a better perspective.  I know what it’s like to wrestle with God.  You probably know it, too.  I know what it is to be awake at 2 am, twisting and turning, looking for a blessing in what seems like a miserable situation.  And I am inspired by Jacob’s determination not to let go until he can come out of it changed.  Struggle’s long but hope is longer; I stole the title of this sermon from an extra verse to Jacob’s Ladder, not in our hymnal, but sung by Christians who have known its truth.  Hope for a blessing is longer than any struggle.  Hold on.

 

Jacob’s blessing comes with pain.  He is permanently injured and limps for the rest of his life.  After this encounter, however, he is ready to face his brother, ready to be humble in the presence of what could be deep anger.  Jacob comes home to an unknown with a deep confidence that he’s going to make it through.  It won’t be smooth sailing. But he’s going to make it if he holds on.

 

We’ve been holding on for months now, haven’t we?  We haven’t been hit hard with this virus like many have just down the river from us.  Westchester County and New York City were devastated by the corona virus infection a few months ago.  Here in Greene County we have a few cases of Covid-19, but not many.  The hit we’ve taken has been primarily economic, at least so far, though we’ve mostly managed a limited re-opening of businesses and our churches without increased cases.  It’s not easy, and it’s not over yet.  We still have to figure out how to teach our kids safely.  We’re still safer if we don’t gather to watch movies together; we’re better off seeing loved ones outside instead of inside, and masks are now a necessity, whether or not they’re beautiful.  Dawn after this long night of isolation is still a few months ahead of us. 

 

We’ll keep holding on.  We’ve already received a blessing or two.  We’ve pulled together a Blessing Box, offering food and basic supplies to people in our community who need them and offering those who can give the opportunity to love our neighbors by giving, remembering that we’re all one in love. We’re sharing our worship beyond our walls; we have people praising God with us whom we haven’t seen in years, or haven’t ever seen before. And it’s good.  We also have the blessing of realizing how precious our life together is as the body of Christ.  We miss each other.  We need each other.  And we meet God and know God more completely when we are together, even together electronically.  

 

We will emerge from this long night of struggle and loneliness changed, if we’re willing to stay in the struggle.  It’s not easy; it’s not fair; and it’s not going to go away quickly.  We won’t go back to where we were, as a church, as a society, or as individuals, anymore than limping Jacob was the same person he was when he headed off to Padan-Aram those many years before. 

 

I pray we hold on long enough to find grace and hope at the end of our struggle.  I pray we stay in the struggle with enough honesty and vulnerability that God touches us deeply, that we grow in compassion towards others in their own struggles, that we are slower to judge and quicker to care.

 

A pandemic isn’t the only difficult time most of us have been through.  It’s easy to talk about it, because we’re experiencing it together.  I hope that this suffering reminds us that people are going through their own long nights of pain and struggle, many of which we don’t know about. 

 

I don’t recommend all-nighters.  Sleep is a wonderful healer.  But if you are spending time in the middle of the night wrestling with God, struggling to find your place in this world, don’t let up until you’re blessed, until you see your way through, until you know that God’s love is holding you, even in the roughest hours.  Don’t give up until you come through the pain to the last verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn, until you know that God’s name is love – for you and  for all.  Remember that. Remember, too, that God is not angry or dismayed by your insistence on staying in for the long haul.  Hold on.  And claim that blessing as yours when it comes.  Amen. 

Genesis 32:22-31

22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

 

 

Psalm 17:1-7, 15

 

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer

    from lips free of deceit.
From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.

 

If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,

if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.


I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge
  from their adversaries at your right hand.


As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.

 

 

Matthew 14:13-21

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

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