“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket.” Robin Mattison, who was for years a professor of New Testament at Philadelphia Seminary, taught her students a little song about the Bible: “A hip is not a hip, a foot is not a foot, a thigh is not a thigh.” The Bible at times uses euphemisms for certain body parts. A hip is not a hip. Yes. Today’s First Reading tells the story of the night God kicked Jacob in the crotch. If your experience with God is anything like mine, you know this is right in character with God. Nonetheless, why would we read this story? We read it because Jacob—who God renames Israel—is our faith ancestor. He’s Abraham’s grandson, Jesus’ forbear. When we hear Jacob’s story, we hear our own.
I’ve heard my story unexpectedly from people I don’t know. I’ve long known the story of Johan Leitzke, the first Leitzke in America. But I heard that story again from complete strangers. I was away for nine days in the Rio Grande Valley as part of my continuing ed program. There was a lot (and you’ll hear about it more, trust me). But I was caught off guard—perhaps metaphorically kicked somewhere I hadn’t expected—by people who had far less than I do but saw it as abundance, and who in telling their stories told mine. I met people who left impossible situations and came to America, sometimes as unaccompanied minors. People who built what makeshift dwellings they could, improving them as funds permitted until they had full-fledged houses. People whose children were bilingual and whose grandchildren understood the old language but only spoke English.
And I realized I was hearing how Johan Leitzke was sent as an eight year old child from Naugard in Pomerania, riding a steamship, landing in New York with instructions to use the trains to get to Milwaukee and find a family friend who had decided Wisconsin was better than Germany. I’m hearing about how Johan’s son, Andrew, worked himself to an early death providing for his children in the land his father chose. I’m hearing Andrew’s son, my grandfather, talk about growing up understanding German but only speaking English. I’m hearing my family history. We Christians have a similar experience when we hear Jacob’s story. He’s our faith ancestor. Scripture portrays the Church as the renewed Israel. We, the Church, should know something of Israel, formerly known as Jacob.
Let’s look at Jacob. As a young man Jacob gets in enough trouble with his twin brother, Esau, that he has to flee. He travels to a faraway land and finds shelter with a man named Laban. Laban’s name is the Hebrew word for “vile” spelled backward, and Laban is vile to Jacob. He keeps changing the rules of Jacob’s living agreement, tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters, rigs Jacob’s farm work so that he never gets paid. Jacob always manages to be okay because God keeps thwarting Laban. Finally, God tells Jacob, “This guy is not gonna change; you need to get out of here.” Jacob packs up his family and all he owns and he runs. Laban pursues him, catches him, ransacks his stuff and accuses him of kidnapping his daughters (the ones he tricked Jacob into marrying). Jacob finally tells Laban he’s so vile that only God could’ve kept Jacob alive this whole time. Laban builds a stone marker and says, “Stay on your side of this.” Jacob can leave, but never return. He’s headed in the direction of his estranged brother, Esau. Understandably nervous about this, he sends messengers to Esau offering presents. The messengers return saying, “Esau is coming to meet you with four hundred armed men.” Wow, Okay. That’s the runup to today’s First Reading.
That night, at the Jabbok River, Jacob wrestles with this…man. We realize as Jacob realizes that this man has the face of God or is God or something. It’s a haunting story because God does not just win. Why? Is Jacob that strong or God that weak? Like a parable this story is impossible to explain definitively, but we know that God has been with Jacob since Jacob was born, that God has provided abundantly for Jacob throughout his life even when Laban was cheating him. So, with Esau’s army facing Jacob across the river, Jacob’s got to have some questions for the almighty just about now. “So, what’s going on, God?” He questions, he pushes, he hits, he wrestles. And it’s fine with God. Argue with God. It’s good for you. It won’t scare God off, and God doesn’t just shut you up. Life continues, though. You can wrestle with God for a while, but Esau and his 400 armed men are coming and Jacob must face them; God’s not an escape route. That reality hits Jacob…well, like a kick to the crotch from God.
God gives Jacob one more thing, though, a blessing with a new name: Israel. Genesis gives us a classic false etymology, saying, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” The name Israel probably really meant, “Let God rule.” This is Jacob’s new identity: wrestle with God, let God rule. Let God rule. Sounds easy. It isn’t; it’s a wrestling match. Sometimes God hits you in places you weren’t expecting. And—it sounds obvious but it isn’t so I’ll say it—it takes God for God’s ruling to happen. Let God rule is not “whatever, who cares.” Let God rule means God is in charge, God is around, God is providing. It’s the opposite of “Whatever, who cares.” God is providing, that’s important. God is giving us stuff. Probably wants us to do something with it. In this wrestling match Israel realizes everything he has he has from God, even himself.
I said earlier Jacob is our faith ancestor. In his way he personifies for us being Christian. We have what we have from God, including ourselves. We have a strange relationship with the creator of the universe who lets us hit, argue, interrogate, and wrestle them and occasionally gets us somewhere we didn’t expect because there’s something important for us to do. The Church has been many places over the years. It’s been at the margins of society and it’s been at the center of power. It’s been beholden to the state, the state’s been beholden to it. We Christians do well remembering Jacob’s story. We should encourage questions about faith and God, not silence them: our God encourages debate, even physical struggle with God. We should be wary of portrayals of God as super polite and inoffensive: our God sometimes gets our attention with a, uh, “kick to the hip socket.” And, God invites us to see abundance, going so far as to give us a new identity that is all about God: what we have, we have from God.
And, we have a lot. That’s something I heard from the people I met in the Rio Grande Valley. They didn’t tell me I have a lot. They told me they had a lot. On our next to last day there we visited families who are sponsored by the network of Mennonite churches in South Texas. One woman had fled gangs in Honduras (they’d killed her son because she couldn’t afford the protection money on her tortilla business). One Haitian couple had been seeking a home since the earthquake twelve years ago destroyed what they had. These people who had been living in their current dwellings for five days invited a bunch of English-speaking-only pastors from Indiana to come over for lunch. The tortilla maker wanted to show off her tortillas. (She had good reason.) The Hatian woman wanted to show off her cooking. (My heart and my stomach are still in her kitchen.) As far as they were concerned, they had plenty. Life was abundant.
Jacob tells us that story, too. Jacob is on the run; he is in danger from Laban the vile father-in-law. When he realizes he’s headed toward Esau and needs to try to butter up Esau, he pulls from among his possessions a small present for Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milk camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. That’s a lot of animals! For all the difficulty and danger Jacob faces, he enjoys God’s abundance. For all the cheating and stealing that Laban did to Jacob, Jacob still enjoys God’s abundance.
Jacob’s story is our story. We enjoy God’s abundance, starting with ourselves. In Holy Baptism God identifies us as children of God, kinda like how God tells Jacob he’s now called “Let-God-Rule.” Just as “Let-God-Rule” means God is providing, Children of God means God is providing. God provides enough. Laban doesn’t think there is enough. Laban only thinks of scarcity. Laban unloads a daughter he doesn’t want to feed, Laban cheats Jacob out of wages and food, Laban tries to stop the departure of this worker for fear it’ll cut into his profits. Let-God-Rule crosses the river, trusting that God will provide. It’s not easy. This is the story of the night God kicked Jacob in the crotch. But it’s part of a story of God’s abundant love for Jacob and for us.