Rev. George Miller
“The Story That Everyone Should Know”
July 31, 2011
A few days ago I was driving north on 27, thinking about how I could possibly preach on this particular scripture, when a song came on the radio.
The song was called “Who Wouldn’t Want to Dance with You?” and it was from the Broadway Musical Grand Hotel.
In it, a beautiful woman asks Mr. Otto, an elderly man to dance with her. Surprised, Mr. Otto says that he’s never danced before.
The woman takes his hand and says “Who wouldn’t want to dance with you.” As they move, he makes apologies in a frail voice. She feeds him compliments calling him “light as a feather!”
With new confidence, Mr. Otto’s voice becomes bolder. “You make a man feel 10 feet tall,” he sings. “I’ll make you proud!”
The rest of song is a jubilant number that brings a smile to your face and a reminder that our interaction with others can affect how they act and perceive themselves.
This song has given shape to one way to perceive today’s scripture, a scripture I believe that everyone should know.
It features one character that may or may not be God and another person that starts with one name and limps away with another.
It’s a story that delights in a lack of clarity, provides no easy answers and insists that each person do their own dance with the text.
But before we even think about dancing with today’s reading, let’s review who this Jacob fellow is.
Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. His life seemed to be one wrestling match after another. He was born clutching his twin brother’s heel. His brother was a man’s man who loved the outdoors and liked to hunt.
Jacob, whose name literally meant “Heel Clutcher” was a quiet mama’s boy who preferred to stay inside and cook.
Jacob was not the best of role models. He tricked his brother, deceived his father, and manipulated his uncle. Whenever a problem came that caused fear, he fled.
There were some positive traits. Jacob was shrewd, he learned how to work hard, and he was capable of falling in love and being loved in return.
And through it all, the downs and the scams, the ups and the lies, the feelings of unworthiness, Jacob knew that he was a recipient of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
As we heard in today’s reading, Jacob, the heel clutcher is about to have an experience that will leave him changed forever.
All grown up, with a family of his own, Jacob is returning home to face whatever consequences there may be for disrespecting his father and brother.
He sends some of his flocks as a peace offering. Then as a precaution he sends his wives and children and all that he has, away.
And the once quiet boy who liked to stay inside is left to face the night, alone.
And we don’t know how, and there’s a debate about whom, but a man engages Jacob in a wrestling match.
We are talking a direct, skin to skin, hand to hip encounter. This is no ballroom dancing at the Grand Hotel, this is complete mano y mano. And Jacob holds his own.
All night the two wrestle, Jacob and this unknown man. When Jacob refuses to give in, the man strikes him on the hip, throwing it out of joint.
Yet the heel-clutcher refuses to let go.
And this time, instead of trickery, instead of running away, he, as a man, takes a stand “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
His sparring partner says “You shall no longer be called Heel Clutcher. You have struggled your whole life with humans and with God, and you are still here! From now on you will be called The One Who Wrestles with God.
The sun rises.
We are not told who won; if anyone won. We’re not told who let go first or how the wrestling match ended.
All we know is that Jacob walks away with a new name and with a limp.
If I was to add my own interpretation, I’d say that just as Mr. Otto needed a pretty woman to dance with to remind him of his worth, Jacob needed a sparring partner to discover just what he was capable of.
Jacob needed to discover that he didn’t have to resort to deception to receive a blessing.
He could get it from standing his ground and demanding what he wanted, all without the help of his mamma or running away.
Through the means of a wrestling match, God provided him with that opportunity.
So why make the claim that this is a story that everyone should know?
On one level it’s about how the people of Israel got their name, and as their spiritual descendants it’s important for us to know.
On another level, this story is about what it means to be a strong person, regardless if you’re a woman or you are a man.
On another level, this is a story that everyone should know because ultimately, it’s a story about us.
It’s about how no one can have a true encounter with the living God and not be forever changed. And sometimes that encounter will leave us wounded.
It did Jacob. It did Paul, and it will with us.
The limp that marks the rest of Isreal’s life is the same limp that each and every one of us will develop at some time if we truly engage with God.
That can be hard for some people to hear, because we often think of our faith as being something that is healing, but anything that is worthwhile, anything that is right, will often involve some type of struggle.
Scholarship can’t come without study; birth can’t come without pain; change can’t come without sacrifice.
That’s why this story is one that everyone should know, because it removes the cozy view from our eyes and puts us bicep to tricep with God.
In another way, this story can also prepare us for our Global Mission Fair.
As we heard today, ShelterBox is an organization designed to help people who are facing struggles of their own, families who have lost their homes due to catastrophe.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes. Events that enter into people’s lives and can take away the very things they treasure most.
Some of these things are tangible: walls and furniture.
Some of these things are what we need to live healthy lives: clean food, safe water.
Some of these things are intangible but still important: sense of self worth, ability to provide, your name on a mailbox.
These are difficult things to deal with; those who find themselves unable to may become despondent, turn to acts of deception or find ways to run away.
ShelterBox finds a way to give some hope; hope through temporary shelter; hope through tools needed to survive; hope through items that can allow a man or a woman to feel like are able to provide.
A $1,000 donation from our church will be enough to help a family of ten to have a place to live, eat, cook and to hold on while they wrestle with the devastating affects of what they have just gone through.
One of the kits is enough to allow a family to walk ahead, even if it is with a limp.
It can even help to change their name, from homeless to sheltered, from dependent to independent, from hungry to full.
In conclusion, we are in the beginning stages of our Global Missions Fair because just like Mr. Otto from Grand Hotel, we all have the right to feel light on our feet, 10 feet tall, and able to make others proud.
Today’s reading reminds us that at some point in our life, we will all feel as if we are alone in the world, struggling and susceptible to pain.
Because we share that common bond, we are being called over the next 2 months to find a way to reach out and to help someone who is going through their own wrestling match.
We do this to assure them that they are not alone, that their name is of importance, and that although they may forever be left with a limp, they still have much of life’s journey up ahead.
Who knows just how this interaction can affect how others will act and perceive themselves.
May the Spirit call us each to dance, may we be unafraid to wrestle with God and may Christ show us how to find strength in our wounds.
Amen and amen.