August 6, 2017 | Genesis 32: 22-31 | Nancy Talbot
We’ve all heard the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” If you’ve ever been called or called yourself fat, or stupid, slow or old, or any number of derogatory names referring to your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, you know just how hurtful names can be. Beyond the momentary sting caused when these words are first heard, we sometimes end up carrying them around with us for years and years on end. Along with all the other names that exaggerate our inadequacies or herald our failures, expose our weaknesses or pay tribute to the poor decisions we’ve made in life, the names we are called and call ourselves can form deep seeded identities, which can do us and others significant harm.
In the ancient world names were rarely simply names, they were descriptors of a person’s character. This morning we gather around the story of how Jacob, whose name literally means heel, was given his new name, Israel meaning one who has wrestled with God and has prevailed.
Some of you will be familiar with the story of Jacob. He’s the one who, with the help of his mother Rebecca, stole his twin brother Esau’s birthright by fooling his elderly, blind father Isaac. After his brother found out he had been tricked out of his inheritance, Jacob then fled to his mother’s brother’s place to escape the wrath of Esau. There, for 15 years he goes head to head with his equally devious Uncle Laban. They double cross each other and fight over everything from livestock to wives. Until, once again, Jacob decides to skip town once again, and that’s where we find him in this morning’s reading.
Having heard God tell him to go back home, Jacob is now heading to the place where his story started, with him he is bringing his family, servants and all the wealth he can carry. There he is, out on the road and suddenly a messenger arrives to say his brother Esau has heard of his impending arrival and is coming out to meet him. With him, is an army of 400 men. Jacob is terrified.
Thinking quickly, Jacob sends ahead of him gifts to appease his brother and secure his favor. Then he divides his camp in two so that if his worst fears are realized, he won’t lose everything. Once his wives and children are as safe as they can be on the other side of a stream, he stays back to spend the night and contemplate his fate. There he has the strange and mysterious encounter we heard described for us in today’s reading.
Anyone who has experienced what we call a “dark night of the soul” will recognize the archetypical nature of this story. There in the nighttime of his fear, as Jacob ponders what he believes is his impending death, as he cries out to the God he has never really had much to do with in the past, Jacob comes face to face with what seems to be a demon but turns out to be God.
It’s one those moments with which many of us can relate, when life suddenly catches up to us and the chickens come home to roost. Those moments when we are confronted with our shortcomings and inadequacies while at the same time holding onto them for dear life because if we let go, heaven only knows what will become of us. Those moments when we know we need help beyond ourselves but we wonder if we really deserve it.
All night long Jacob wrestles with his demons and his desires with what the scriptures tell us is God but what seems more like his deepest, darkest shadows until finally, just as dawn is breaking, wounded from the struggle, he asks his opponent for a blessing and in reply, the human like God figure asks Jacob a question, tell me “what is your name?”
In every spiritual journey, there always comes a time when we have to look ourselves in the mirror and own up to what we see. What’s really being called for in this intimate encounter between Jacob and his God is a confession. What is the name by which you have lived your life?
For Jacob, he has certainly lived up to the name given to him at birth. It’s no coincidence that today in professional wrestling, the bad guy, the villain, the antagonist is called “the heel.” The word Jacob in Hebrew means “the heel” and this name is said to have been given to him because he was born grasping the heel of his twin brother. For most of his life Jacob has been a liar and a cheat. Finally, after wrestling all night with God, he is ready to own up to the name by which he has lived his life.
I don’t know how closely you can relate to Jacob, but I know I can, at least to a certain degree. I’ve never thought of myself as a “heel” but I have certainly done things in my life of which I am not proud. I have, from time to time, identified myself with those aspects of myself I find least flattering. I have certainly allowed the negative names by which others have called me directly or indirectly to shape and form my image of myself. I have most definitely lived my life at times as if I was in control when I knew deep down inside that I wasn’t.
So it’s important to notice what happens when Jacob confesses his self-identity that night beside the river Jabbok. When God holds a mirror in front of him and asks “tell me what you see.” God doesn’t respond by saying “that’s right, you’re a scoundrel and you’re always going to be one” God responds by saying “yes, that’s right, that’s who you’ve always known yourself to be, but from this moment on, I’m going to give you a new name by which to live.”
Here, after all the wrestling and the struggle is the God of grace, the God of second chances, the God of love.
A long time ago I heard Rev. Janet Wolf, who was once the pastor at Hobson Methodist church in Tennessee tell the story about a woman named Fayette who one day found her way into Janet’s church. Hobson was one of those downtown churches that attracted PhD’s, sex trade workers and everyone in between. Fayette, who lived on the street, struggling with both her mental and physical health, decided to join the new members class at the church. When it came time to talk about the sacrament of baptism, Janet described the ritual as a holy moment when we are claimed and named by God’s grace with such power it will never come undone.” This really grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Over and over again Fayette would interrupt the new members classes and ask “when I am baptized, what will I be called?” The group would respond “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh yes!” she’d say and everyone would return to their discussion.
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. Fayette went under the water, came up and cried, “And now I am?” and the whole congregation responded “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh yes” she shouted as she danced around the church.
A couple months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was in the county hospital. Janet immediately drove to the hospital and there was Fayette. As soon as she saw Janet she turned to her and said “I am beloved, precious child of God” and then catching sight of herself in the mirror, her hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face she began again “I am beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.”
The morning after Jacob was given his new name Israel, meaning one who has wrestled with God and prevailed, he went back across the river to collect his wives and slaves in preparation for his reunion with his brother Esau. Although he may have looked the same on the outside with the exception of his limp, inside he was a different person. Instead of seeing his brother Esau as someone bent only on revenge he discovers Esau is a man longing for his long lost brother. Jacob begins to change his ways. He has been transformed.
There was something about an encounter with the holy and there’s something about coming face to face with who we really are that makes us more open to love, more open to grace, more open to being who we were first created to be.
As the bible tells it, Jacob’s life from that day forward wasn’t always easy. There comes a time when his sons engage in the same old deceptive behavior with which he was once so familiar. There’s lament and sorrow and loss and in the midst of that Jacob hears the call to go back to the first place he had a powerful encounter with his God, to remember the promises he made to God and God made to him and to remember once again, who he really is.
That is why, still today we too are called to return to the places in our tradition we are reminded of our truest and most beautiful identity, the table and the font, the places we are named and claimed by love, fed and nourished to be God’s love in the world.