Named and Marked

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Lectionary 29 Year C – October 17, 2010
Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Tim. 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
    I come from a wrestling family. My dad coached for over 30 years and both my dad and brother wrestled in college. I also had my crack at it as well until I picked up basketball and track and field. I witnessed many injuries over the years: a broken clavicle, a collapsed lung, 2 hyper extended elbows, mono, staff infection, a broken ankle, various bumps and bruises, weight management, and simply exhaustion. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Yeah right. I still witness the after affects of their injuries even years later because I know they carry the scars, stiffness, and marks of battles lost and won.

    Perhaps this is why I resonate with and love the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling.

Here is how it gets set-up: Earlier in Genesis we read that Jacob tricks his father Issac, who is blind and old, out of his brother Esau’s legal birth right. This means that Jacob, who is younger than Esau, gets all of his father’s possessions and Esau gets nothing. As you can imagine, Esau is pretty ticked and Jacob has to flee or his brother will kill him. So Jacob has been on the run for years and years and finally he gets word that Esau has found him and is coming to meet him. Jacob is certain that his brother has accumulated a band of thugs and is going to kill him and his family and take all he owns.

    So what does Jacob do? He divides up his possessions and sends them and his servants ahead of him in order to appease his brother. Jacob figures that by the time he reaches Esau, Esau would have mercy on him because Jacob has been giving him all he has, including his wives and children. This is where our story for today begins and what a strange story it is.    

    There is much speculation about who the ‘man’ is who wrestles with Jacob. However, it is clear from the end of the story, that it is God that wrestles with Jacob. It is a strange thing that Jacob can hold his own and ultimately prevail. It is interesting that God takes a cheap shot and injures Jacob. It is also surprising that Jacob won’t let God go until God blesses him. These are just a few of the strange things but none of these things are the point of the story even though they have meaning in it. The primary point of the story is that this is where Jacob gets named Israel. The word, Israel itself, means “one who strives with God,” or “God strives.” This story is where the name Israel, the chosen people, comes from. The people of Israel’s very identity are a people who struggle with God. As Christians, we believe as Paul said in Romans, that we are grafted into the tree that is Israel. We are not the Jewish people, we are gentiles, but we have been included as God’s people for God’s vision of bringing in the Kingdom of God.

    This is wild stuff and it parallels the story of the widow and unjust judge in the Gospel of Luke. The common thread that runs throughout our texts today is the persistence of those who are in relationship with God.

    It is my experience in life and witnessed to in the Bible that in times of intense or long suffering, there is no shortage of prayer. Shortage of prayer comes when things are going pretty well, or when we think we don’t need God, or that God simply doesn’t care what’s going on in our lives. I am sure that many of you have experienced this as well. When one receives word of an illness or death there is a deep need within us to cry out to God for hope. When one can’t pay all the bills or is in an abusive relationship with a person or an addiction, we cry out to God for a way through the darkness. When war and poverty seem to have the loudest voice in the world, we cry even louder to God for justice and peace. There is a deep need within the well of our soul to pray and actively cry out to God for justice. Sometimes our suffering and darkness is so deep and real that we have no words and then our every breath is prayer because we can do no other.

    To pray is to be in relationship with God and it also means we often struggle and wrestle with God.

        Once “in a large gathering of people concerned about certain unfair and oppressive         conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable” of the widow         and unjust judge in Luke, “and gave a one-sentence interpretation.” He said, "Until         you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do         not really know what prayer is." –

    We all know that answers to prayers don’t come quickly enough, or if ever, at least the way we see it. It is no secret that we rarely get what we ask for, but perhaps we get what we need, not always knowing what that is. I wonder if Jacob received what he wanted when he asked God to bless him. Jacob received a new name, a new identity…Israel. A name that carries the weight of an intimate relationship and struggle with God, yet the name also holds the reality of God’s commitment and striving to be near and real to God’s people. The name change is one of the blessings in the story, but I also think there is another one. At the end of our reading, Jacob says, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved (Gen. 32:30)." Jacob’s life itself is a blessing. But these blessings and encounter with God did not come without their mark. “The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip (Gen. 32:31).”

    We are given a new name and marked too in our encounter with God. This is no more apparent than in the waters of baptism. Baptism is an event in which God promises to act and be present with us now and forever. We are named and given the identity of “child of God,” and we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Everyone take your finger and make the sign of the cross on your forehead like this. This is your mark; Child of God is your identity and this is good news. This means that God will never abandon you even when it feels like it. It means that God beckons and draws you in to a life of faith filled with the richness of relationship and prayer. Prayer draws us in to the life and work of God. When we pray for ourselves and for one another, we become a part of God’s story and the stories of one another. It summons us to engage and enter into the suffering of those we care about and this is why we struggle so much.

    We can pray our heart out for the things we see that are wrong and hurtful, and not see any apparent change. We can become frustrated and want to quit, but it is then that I ask you to not only look at what you are praying for, but also pay attention to what is happening inside you. How is prayer shaping you, changing the way you feel about something, or giving you strength for another day? How is it helping you hand things over to God that are not in your control? When all of our security and falsities are stripped away, there is nowhere else to turn to receive life but to God.

    I recently heard from a retired pastor. He said that one night he was feeling very sorry for himself because things weren’t going the way he wanted with the congregation he was working with. So he went over to his friend’s house to complain. His friend’s mother was there and she had been suffering from multiple-sclerosis for some time and was confined to a wheel chair with little or no movement. The pastor asked his friend’s mother: “Don’t you ever pray to God to heal you?” She looked up at him and said, “No. I pray to God each day to give me strength.”

    Heart River, prayer is no joke, nor is it a waste of time. Be persistent. The mark of the cross we bear is a deep calling to and struggle in a life of faith embedded in prayer. It is precisely in this struggle in which we find and receive new life. And sometimes we might get surprised like Jacob when he met his brother Esau. Listen to what happens between them after Jacob wrestles with God and receives a blessing:

        “Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. Jacob went         on…bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But         Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and         they wept (Gen. 33.1, 3-4).

    Sister and brothers, may you be persistent in prayer, knowing that your prayers are not in vain. Amen.