Monday, October 21, 2013

Jacob wrestles

Gen. 32:22-31; 22nd Sunday after Pentecost C, October 20, 2013/Bread for the World Sunday

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jacob’s story begins long before he wrestles with God. When Rebekah was giving birth, Jacob grabbed onto his twin brother Esau’s ankle. Even his name, Jacob, means heel-grabber. From then on, he tricked his brother into giving him everything that the firstborn rightfully receives. With his mother’s help, Jacob, although second-born, received the birthright and the blessing of the first-born.
Jacob first tricks Esau when they were teenagers. Esau comes home after a very long day hunting. He has not eaten all day, so he is starving. When he walks into his home and sees Jacob stirring a great pot of red lentil stew, he asks his brother for a bowl of it. Jacob responds, “Only if you give me your birthright.” Although a silly reason to give up all of the land and property that a firstborn is due to receive, Esau’s hunger overwhelmed his sense of reason. He gave his word, and Jacob gave him a bowl of stew. Only later did Esau realize how severely unbalanced a trade that was.
Esau’s hunger blinded him from comprehending all that he was giving up. Intense hunger can do this. Studies have shown that children who are hungry can have shorter attention spans, lower test scores, more aggression, and more time away from class. Their bodies react to the physical and emotional stress of hunger in extreme ways. Hungry adults have these problems, too. Constant, underlying hunger changes people into mere reflections of themselves. Even if they do not want to be less attentive and quick to anger, they cannot help how their hunger impacts them.

We are all at risk of experiencing this. Over half of all Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives. Each of us is only one life event away from being hungry. A house burning down, being fired from a job, or losing in the stock market all can eat up investments. Even going to graduate school can send someone into hunger. I know from experience.
My senior year in seminary, I miscalculated how much I would need in student loans. Without loans to cover my expenses, all of my savings went straight to school. I worked fifteen hours every week, but that wasn’t enough. I don’t know how I would have fed myself if my seminary didn’t offer a food pantry. I could eat each day only because of the generosity of strangers.

We are like Esau. When we experience times of great, persistent hunger, we cannot help but be quick to anger and quick to judge. When one’s income doesn’t fully cover the cost of living, one needs to take matters into her own hands. Esau would give anything to fill his belly, even his birthright. Esau was a victim to Jacob’s trickery. So many in poverty today are faced with similar, difficult decisions – giving up future hopes of retirement and financial security to feed their hungry families now.
As much as we can relate to Esau, we also can relate to Jacob. Jacob was tricked by his mother Rebekah into believing that he truly deserved Esau’s birthright and blessing. Societal expectations told him that he only was due one third of his father’s property, yet Rebekah told him that he deserved twice that much. With his mother’s help, Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the firstborn’s blessing, too. When Esau found out, he was so angry that he wanted to attack Jacob. Scared, Jacob ran away to his uncle Laban. There he stayed for almost two decades as he married Leah and Rachel and started his family.
When he wanted to return home, he gathered his family and his livestock in the night. On his way back to his father’s land, he discovered that Esau was approaching. So, he sends his family and all who were with him across the stream. He waits on the far side of the river for his brother. Alone, he spends the night, worried for how his brother will feel after all these years.  
During the night, a man attacks Jacob, and they wrestle until dawn. Neither is able to overcome the other, so the man asks Jacob to stop. He replies, “Only if you bless me.” Once again, Jacob is looking for a blessing that he doesn’t deserve. Even so, the man of God does bless him, after he knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. This person of God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning, “One who strives with God.” The next day, Jacob and Esau meet, and they reconcile their differences.

Indeed, we are like Jacob. We have our times when we do not realize how vulnerable the hungry are. We have full stocks of food in our own homes, yet we are shy to give generously to our neighbors. Sometimes, this is not entirely our own doing. Like Rebekah, we are inundated by ads and our consumer culture that tell us that we always need more. Our neighbors are going hungry, but we don’t notice. As long we have enough, why do we need to worry about others?
As we struggle with our guilt that we are not hungry, we strive with God. We pray that God might feed the hungry, yet God won’t do this without us. God can only feed the hungry when God works through us. God works through us as we fill our shelves in preparation for Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets. God works through us as we prepare for the Harvest Feast.

Social ministry comes in two forms, charity and justice. We are good at charity. We give food to the hungry through the Princeton Presbyterian food pantry and through Virgil Grissom. We feed the hungry during the holidays. Our government is also good at charity. It has the SNAP and WIC programs. Our government feeds children lunch and sometimes breakfast.
Charity is just one half of social ministry, though. Justice through institutional change is the other half. This is where Bread for the World comes in. Bread for the World advocates for social change so that the poorest in our country and around the world can be fed. Bread for the World advocates for government and social institutions to encourage living wages, affordable education, and other important means for people to get out of poverty.
We can help Bread for the World. Our donations of money help keep this organization running. Even more important than our money is our help in advocacy. Even just signing the bulletin insert can make a difference. Sign the petition on the back underneath the letter encouraging President Obama to fight to feed the hungry. Then put that piece of paper in the offering plate. We will mail those to Bread for the World where they will be combined with thousands of others from congregations across the country. Then Bread for the World will take them directly to the president. Each of our signatures combined together will make a difference.
This is a small way that we can fight for justice for the hungry. I encourage you to call your representatives in local, state, and national government. Each phone call and each email matters. Persistence matters. The man of God blessed Jacob because he never gave up wrestling with him.

Jacob stubbornly refused to let God leave him, and God rewarded him for it. May we also be as stubbornly persistent in our work against hunger. God will bring about justice and deliver the poor and oppressed through our work. May it indeed be so. Amen.

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