The sermon this morning comes in the form of two interlacing stories: one is about a youth in the Senior High group at the church I serve in Granby , CT, and the other is a story from the Hebrew Bible. But of course, in this sermon as in every sermon, I also invite you to listen for your own story—to pay attention to the places your heart is engaged, or the places your ego rebels, or the places that hit a little too close to home. Because we are all mirrors—and while the details change, all of our stories are ultimately intertwined….
I can remember the exact moment, almost two years ago, that I met Jamie. She was fourteen years old and moving quickly toward me with all the grace of a newborn colt as she navigated the church lawn in her high heels. She was moving the way only teenagers can—long limbs propelling her forward like a kid who has suddenly found herself in an adult-sized body and is still learning to drive this new contraption. She arrived with her mouth already moving a mile a minute as she asked her mom a question loudly and simultaneously chewed gum. With long brown hair and freckles dusting the bridge of her nose she was ADORABLE and I knew instantly that I was gonna love this kid.
A member of the youth group, as the weeks progressed I got to know Jamie better. One on one she was thoughtful, curious, playful and quick-witted. But in larger groups she was loud, dramatic, distract-able with a tendency to laugh just a little too emphatically. But, any of you who have hung out with a teen knows that this is not an uncommon mix for a 14 year old. In fact Jamie reminded me a lot of my teenage self.
Which is why it still surprises me that it was months before I noticed something interesting about Jamie: her left arm doesn’t fully lift or extend, and her hand can’t turn her palm all the way to face down. You see Jamie has a form of palsy as a result of having her shoulder caught while she was being born. The doctors had to literally rip her out before it became more severe. Her arm just hung there lifeless after she was born. Jamie received physical therapy through most of her younger years and has recovered a great deal, but she still does not have a full range of motion. Once I noticed this, I began to see that there are many activities that Jamie has to modify. I started to worry about her—what if there was something in youth group that she couldn’t do—should I point it out and help her or let her keep her arm out of the lime-light but get flack for doing things differently. So I checked in with her mom, expecting her to speak solemnly about all that Jamie has had to struggle with—but instead her mom brushed it off saying— “She is so strong and capable, I often forget that there is anything she can’t do.”
So I tried to let go of my fear and instead just remained curious: when I went to a local dance recital, I noticed that Jamie was among the most elegant dancers, when she worked on my partner’s youth farm-crew for an entire season she was among the hardest workers, when our youth group did a high ropes course, she was at the front of the line and wanted to try every element—even the ones she would have to modify. All the while Jamie would pop her gum loudly, sassily tossing her head, and drawing the attention to her colorful personality and away from her arm.
A couple of weeks ago our youth group went on their annual mission trip to Appalachia. Having gone the previous year, I had watched Jamie nonchalantly use her hand backwards to hold a nail, and use her wrist and elbow to hold tile as she meticulously cut flooring. I marveled at her innovation but I also knew that the other kids and adults who watched her attributed her funky handholds to her quirky persona—sometimes even seeming annoyed that she wasn’t “following instructions.” Then on Wednesday evening, as we were sitting in the girl’s dormitory, Jamie was responding to an email. As she typed she used her right as expected, resting on the keyboard with all five fingers typing, but on the left hand her fingers wrapped under the computer to stabilize her hand as her thumb flew along doing the work of the other four fingers. Another youth on the trip looked down and noticed Jamie’s typing and started to crack up, “Look at the crazy way you type! Everyone, come look!” And with everyone gathered, the youth asked, “It looks so weird, why do you do it like that? It is like you are texting with one hand! Do it again!” So with a blush rising up her freckled cheeks, Jamie kept typing and said something like, “Hi there Bree this is Jamie.”
Sitting behind her, I gently added, “Isn’t it crazy amazing? Jamie’s hand doesn’t fully extend or turn, and yet most people never notice.” Gathered around her, the four other girls started to ask questions in the open, authentic way that young people do. They asked her to show them how her hand worked, and marveled as she showed them her limited range of movement. One of the girls with wide eyes exclaimed, “How is it possible that I farmed with you all last summer and never noticed this?” And another asked, “Seriously? Has it always been like this? How have I never noticed? It is like you had a secret super-power!!” Jamie continued to blush, but also started to grin, shyly explaining the various ways she compensates. I chimed in mentioning that Jamie comes to my yoga classes and when we are in 3-legged dog with a leg up in the air, Jamie is actually balancing most of her weight on only two limbs—something that would surely make me topple. Eventually the conversation moved on, but I could tell that Jamie’s peers were genuinely surprised and impressed by what they had learned—and I could tell that having had her “super-power” received with so much love pleased Jamie.
And the thing is, Jamie is not the only youth with a story like this—quietly navigating the thing that makes them feel different. Some youth who have attended youth group and ASP have struggled with disordered eating and others have been hospitalized for depression. We have kids in youth group with stutters that make them shy, and kids who weren’t born in this country and are ashamed of the OTHER language they speak. We have kids being raised by a single parent and in complicated blended families. We have kids who have had a parent die, and others who are being raised by extended family. We have kids with learning disabilities, physical ailments, and a childhood survivor of cancer. It is a challenge to come up with a single youth who doesn’t feel as though there is something about them that keeps them on the periphery and leaves them squarely outside the “norm.” And if the youth at our church have these stories, it is pretty much guaranteed that the adults in our community are carrying equally intense burdens.
In our text for today we have our protagonist Jacob—who, like so many of the characters in the Bible is a bit of an unlikely hero. Early in his story he “bought” his brother Esau’s birthright from him in exchange for a bowl of stew in a moment of famished weakness. He then colluded with his mother to cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing—a blessing that rightfully belonged to the eldest son. From the get go it is clear that Jacob fears that he won’t be or have enough—and so he tricks and swindles his way into someone else’s abundance. Jacob’s deception is about covering up a sense of vulnerability—the vulnerability of being the younger child.
And then, having tricked his own brother, Jacob must flee his home, running away to his mother’s birth country to find a wife. But that old saying, “what goes around comes around” is born out as the story unfolds. In this new land Jacob immediately falls in love at first sight with the youngest daughter of his maternal uncle. He goes to Rachel’s father to ask for her hand, but his uncle Laban makes a deal: if Jacob works for him for 7 years, he can marry his daughter. But after 7 years of work, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter, only to have to work for yet another 7 years to finally marry Rachel. And then, with two wives and a mess of children, Jacob needs a livelihood and stays on for another 6 years to earn himself livestock. Throughout this whole process Laban and Jacob are trying to trick one another—and we see a family culture of trickery to try and mask a fear of scarcity.
Finally 20 years after his arrival in this new land, Jacob—who has now experienced being both trickster and tricked, sets out to return to his homeland. Because of the rupture in his relationship with his father in law, he has to sneak his whole caravan of people and livestock out of town. He had to run away from his childhood home, and now he is having to run away from his second home. And while the text does not say this, I would imagine that Jacob has begun to do some soul searching about the role dishonesty has really played in his life. So he journeys toward home to face his brother—and I would imagine that he is feeling truly vulnerable—after all, his brother could easily have him killed. In a final effort to protect himself he sends his servant ahead bearing gifts, hoping to quell his brother’s anger. When he and his family finally come to the river Jabbok, he sends them across—but that night he does not cross. Instead, he is left alone with his thoughts and feelings, with his vulnerability and fear bubbling up to the surface. And here is where it gets strange: left on the lonely banks of the river, we are told that Jacob spends the night wrestling with a man that I can only imagine is God or an angel.
Now I have to pause here to ask: How many of you have ever spent a night like this? Your life has taken you through a variety of twists and turns that have allowed you to see yourself more clearly—maybe even from an angle you would rather NOT see. And then finally there is no place to run to, no further distractions, and you are left alone with your fear and vulnerability and no option but to process it all. There is no escape—and so you wrestle with God—or some higher angel of your being—you wrestle for your life, trying to figure out who you are and what you are made of.
When morning finally breaks… there you are… exhausted, wounded, but alive. And if you are lucky, in the light of a new day you see something about yourself that you didn’t know was there before. You know that despite your vulnerability you are holy—and you deserve to be blessed, exactly as you are…. Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
So, Jacob spent the night wrestling with God—and in so doing wrestled with his deepest vulnerability—but in the end he prevailed, and saw for the first time that he did not need a stolen identity or any kind of trickery to win, he was enough all on his own—and he was worthy of his very own blessing from God.
And from this point on in the story Jacob is changed—his original name Jacob, which means supplanter- or one who is holding onto someone else’s heel, is replaced. His new name Israel means “He who prevails WITH God.” And, from that point on, his life focus shifts. He is no longer thinking only about himself but becomes the father of a nation of people. Previously Jacob gained power through dishonesty born of fear of scarcity. When he finally wrestles with this fear and accepts his vulnerability, he is finally able to receive God’s blessing and step into his greatness. Likewise, Jamie was confronted with her vulnerability (her fear of not being enough) when her friends noticed her unique typing style. And yet, through their witness, the nature of her “wound” was transformed into an acknowledgement of her strength—a strength that had been there all along, just waiting to be blessed….
And this type of transformation in not just possible for Jacob or for Jamie; it is possible for every single one of us. As humans we are vulnerable to desire and longing… for material wealth, external beauty, power, prestige, admiration or just simple acceptance. And we all struggle to accept these vulnerabilities—this sense of powerlessness, BUT I think what we are actually wrestling with is GOD. We are wrestling with a God who does not play by our rules—who doesn’t give us the life we think we would like to be living. And yet, as impossible as it sounds, this wrestling is vital work—for until we admit that we are vulnerable now and always will be, we cannot receive God’s blessing for the unique gifts we are already carrying into the world.
Author Brene Brown says, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerability is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—which are the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our own light.”
And so as you leave this place today and walk back into your lives, I encourage you to notice where you might be living in scarcity, tricking yourself into believing that you are not enough—or that you need something that someone else has to be happy. Notice if there is vulnerability that you are suppressing. Notice the parts of you that are wrestling with God for fear that your life and gifts are insufficient. Notice the pieces of you that you are sure don’t deserve to be blessed.
In the end, Israel finally has to face his brother—the brother whose blessing he stole and whose birthright he swindled—the person who has seen the very worst parts of him. He braces himself for disaster and rejection. But listen to what our text tells us: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…(in response to the gifts he had sent ahead of him) Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”
But Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.” And so our story ends, 20 years after it began, 20 years after Jacob ran away like a coward, sure he had to steal what he thought he needed. And instead he returns home to the open arms of his brother, finally able to see that he had enough all along—that they both did—and that despite his limp, he is finally whole and truly blessed. Amen.