Sunday, July 31, 2011


St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 31, 2011

Year A: Proper 13 - The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21


For seven years before I went to seminary I was a history teacher at my alma mater, an all-boys Catholic school. For the most part, I loved teaching there. The students were bright and eager to learn. I taught alongside fine colleagues, some of whom were also close friends.

One of my favorite parts of the day was homeroom – which we had first thing in the morning. Always having a freshman homeroom, I tried to help these boys get acclimated to the challenges of their new school. Each year I tried to create a little homeroom community – a place where they could feel safe and welcome at the start of their four years of high school.

I have to admit, though, that starting the day with a roomful of 14 year-old boys could sometimes be too much. One of the things that drove me up a wall was when the boys would come into my classroom and talk with great excitement about the wrestling matches they had watched on TV the night before.

Remember, this was the peak of so-called professional wrestling. Night after night my students would watch mostly men in outlandish costumes with silly stage names exchange insults and toss each other around the ring.

The kids were savvy enough to know that for the most part the cartoonish violence they were watching wasn’t real – but they still loved it and loved retelling the stories in my classroom first thing in the morning.

It got so bad that eventually I issued an “executive order” banning any discussion of professional wrestling in my classroom.

Meanwhile the school had a wrestling team. Its matches against students from other schools couldn’t be more different from what the kids were watching on TV. This wrestling wasn’t flamboyant. The wrestlers really were vulnerable to their opponent. This wrestling was much more subtle than what was on TV. If you weren’t paying close attention you could easily miss how exactly one wrestler ended up pinned to the mat. And in this kind of wrestling the lasting effects were all too real.

Living a life of faith requires wrestling – wrestling with ourselves, wrestling with Scripture, wrestling with the Church, and even, as we heard this morning, wrestling with God.

Although I haven’t mentioned Jacob in a couple of weeks, we’ve continued to hear the highlights of his story. You may remember that so far we have seen Jacob for the most part as a dishonorable person – as a trickster and a fink who cheats his slightly older twin Esau out of his birthright and out of their father’s blessing.

Yet, God has big hopes and plans for this unsavory character.

Two weeks ago we heard the story of Jacob dreaming of a ladder bridging the gap between earth and heaven – a ladder that allows angels to travel back and forth.

At the end of the dream God appears to Jacob and says, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

Last week we glimpsed some of the goodness in Jacob when we heard the story of his love for Rachel – and his willingness to work seven years for her father in order to have her as his wife.

Now Jacob and his entourage are making their way back to Canaan. There is, however, a shadow over what might have been a joyful homecoming – Esau. Jacob knows all too well that his brother remains furious at him because of the betrayal.

Jacob has tried to reconcile with his brother by sending gifts ahead. But, he knows that Esau has a real grievance against him – and that Esau may very well kill him and his family.

Like many of us, when feeling guilt and fear, Jacob just wants to be alone.

Yet, like all of us, Jacob is not alone. God keeps the promise to be with Jacob.

And God isn’t only with Jacob. God is willing to wrestle with Jacob – God is willing to challenge Jacob in order to transform him – to transform Jacob into the person he was always meant to be – to transform Jacob into his true self.

Transformation is not easy. And so we have this ancient, powerful and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a man, a supernatural being, maybe an angel or maybe even God.

Regardless of the exact identity of Jacob’s opponent, there’s nothing cartoonish about this wrestling match. The stakes are real both for God and for Jacob.

Jacob proves his strength and persistence not to God - but to himself. Jacob is marked forever by the encounter. He is marked both by his limp and he is marked by his new name. Before he was Jacob – the supplanter – and now he is renamed Israel “the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed.”

Early commentators streamlined the meaning of the name Israel into simply “the man who saw God.”

The rest of Jacob’s life was transformed by this mysterious divine wrestling match. But, that doesn’t mean that he always had an easy time of it or that he and his family lived happily ever after.

His reconciliation with Esau will be only partial. His daughter Dinah will be raped. And his son Joseph will be sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery.

But throughout all the trials to come I’m sure Jacob remembered the night he saw God and knew that God would be with him through it all.

We Christians see God most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if we take seriously the teachings and example of Christ, then we’re likely to wrestle with ourselves, with Scripture, with the Church and even with God.

It’s going to take some wrestling to really love and trust God.

It’s going to take some wrestling to resist evil and, when we sin, to repent.

It’s going to take some wrestling to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

It’s going to take some wrestling to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

And it’s going to take some wrestling to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

The first disciples did a fair amount of wrestling as they tried to absorb the message Jesus was teaching them through his word and example. We hear a little bit of that wrestling in the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.

We’re told that many thousands of people have followed Jesus and the disciples to a deserted place. Now, it’s evening, and the crowd is hungry.

How do the disciples respond? They tell Jesus to, “…send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Obviously they still don’t get it. But now the disciples are challenged to wrestle with what it means to trust God and to follow Christ. Jesus tells them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

On that night, one miracle was Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, providing more than enough for the many thousands of hungry people. But, another miracle was the wrestling challenge given to the disciples – the challenge that transformed the disciples from selfishness to self-sacrifice.

Like the first disciples we are challenged to wrestle with what it means to trust God and to follow Christ.

We are challenged to wrestle with our selfishness, our small-mindedness and our fears.

For us today, the miracle is seeing the face of God in Jesus Christ and seeing the face of Christ in one another and the people out there – the people who are hungry for a good meal – the people who are hungry for the Body and Blood of Christ – the people who are hungry for healing and reconciliation – and the people who are burdened by fear and guilt.

Just as God was willing to wrestle with Jacob long ago, fortunately God is willing to wrestle with us – to mark us forever and to transform us into the people we were always meant to be – to transform us into our true selves – to be, like Jacob, the people who have seen God.