Longing to Belong – A Prodigal Prequel, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-31

[Sermon preached at Northwest UMC, October 8, 2017]

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought you would die? I certainly do. The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. But homesickness is not just a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken and alone in a strange world where we wonder what we’re doing here? This week after another horrific massacre of innocent people in Las Vegas I’m very homesick for a world with less violence and hate.

Some homesickness is quite normal. As teens or young adults we are the ones who think we want freedom and our own space. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public because we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK because we learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That’s where our friend Jacob finds himself in our Scripture for today. What we have in Chapter 32 is just a snippet of the story of Jacob that takes up half of the book of Genesis. It’s a fascinating saga so full of deception, incest, polygamy, fake murders and kidnapping that it could be mistaken for a modern day soap opera. I’d recommend taking the time to read or re-read the whole story because we can only deal with one brief but very dramatic episode today. The bad blood between Jacob and his twin brother Esau that is the impetus for what we read today begins back in Genesis 25 when Jacob, still in utero, grabs the heel of Esau and tries to pull him back into the womb so he, Jacob, could claim the prize of being Isaac’s first born.

As a young adult Jacob, true to form, tricks his near-sighted old father into giving him the blessing that by custom belonged to the eldest son Esau. And because of his underhanded tactics Jacob has to flee from his angry brother to the land of Haran where he lives and prospers with his Uncle Laban. The details of how Jacob and Laban take turns deceiving each other and have a falling out many years later is fascinating – but that will have to be a teaser for another sermon. Except to say that it sets the stage for why we find Jacob in our text today heading back to Canaan to finally face the brother he cheated.

Anyone here have any conflicts in your family? Sure we do, we all do so much that there are times when I think the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant. Conflict in human relationships is inevitable unless we choose to keep our relationships superficial. Some of us are like comedian Ron White who says, “I had the right to remain silent, I just didn’t have the ability.” And introverts like me are often so quiet nobody knows what we’re thinking. Neither extreme is satisfying because both leave us feeling inauthentic and homesick.

We live in a time of terrible isolation and loneliness. We live in houses or apartments in close proximity to other people but don’t really know our neighbors. The Las Vegas shooter was so much a loner that none of his neighbors or his own brother really knew him, maybe not even the woman he lived with. And tellingly his brother said they never really knew their father either. We may never know the reason he killed and maimed so many innocent people, and it’s even less likely that we will ever know the depth of the loneliness or homesickness that drove him to do the unspeakable.

None of that is to make any excuses for mass murder, but it is a call for all of us to come clean about our own homesickness. Where in our lives have we alienated ourselves from others? Where have we failed to love our neighbors because we simply don’t know them? What guilt or disagreement has driven us to move away from family or friends, or to withdraw within ourselves? I heard a great quote from James Baldwin this week on NPR. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jacob was homesick. In his message to Esau he says, “I have lived with Laban as an alien.” He is heading home and dreading the inevitable confrontation with the brother he has wronged. Jacob is imagining the worst – that he will get his just desserts; and so he does everything he can think of to appease his brother. He sends Esau enough gifts to rival the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In one section of Chapter 32 that we skipped today for brevity there is an inventory of all the livestock Jacob sends ahead to Esau with his messengers, and the list totals 530 head of livestock. Jacob also bows and scrapes by addressing Esau repeatedly as “my lord” while referring to himself as Esau’s servant. To his credit Jacob is very transparent about what he’s doing. He concludes his message to Esau by saying that he has sent these gifts “in order that I may find favor in your sight.” The only thing missing is an actual apology for cheating his brother out of his birthright, but that may be expecting too much.

Jacob’s messengers return from their mission to report that Esau is coming to meet him. That sounds promising, but then the messengers add the kicker – he’s got 400 men with him. That’s like challenging your big brother to a game of basketball and being told he’s bringing LeBron James and the Cavs with him!

“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed,” verse 7 tells us, and he devises a clever plan to save his hide, even if it means putting others, including his wives and kids at risk. He divides his large company into two groups, thinking that if one group is destroyed by Esau and his army the others will be able to escape.
Finally as a last resort Jacob does what he should have done first – he prays. Anyone else ever forget to pray until things get tough or is that just me? We didn’t read this part either but in his prayer Jacob does two things. As we would expect he prays for God to deliver him, but before that he does something even more important that we can all learn from. Listen to what he says in verses 9-10: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”

Jacob acknowledges all that God has done for him and his ancestors in uncharacteristic humility, but then he reminds God of the promises God made to him that convinced him to come back home and face the music. Why would he need to do that? Surely God doesn’t forget his promises! No, Jacob is reminding himself who he belongs to, he’s claiming his blessing from God, and we’ll see how he does that again in much more dramatic fashion in the best-known part of this text.

After Jacob prays and sends his family across the river we are told “Jacob was left alone.” He is really alone. Jacob is like you and me. We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating social media friends who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? But when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.

“Jacob is alone” Genesis says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But this is no ordinary man and the wrestling match is not the WWF! These two combatants struggle all night long and the match is still a draw as morning approaches, although Jacob’s hip will never be the same. And the man says, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” That’s our first clue that this is no ordinary man. This is God and they both know that if any mortal sees the face of God he or she will die. God is protecting Jacob even as they struggle by warning him not to see God’s face. But Jacob refuses to let go unless God blesses him. Jacob realizes that God’s blessing is more important than life itself, and after God gives Jacob a new name “Israel” because he has striven with God and prevailed God blesses Jacob and the struggle is over as abruptly as it began.

It is after wrestling with God and only then that Jacob is ready to meet his brother. Like another prodigal son that Jesus talked about, it is an encounter with God that gives us courage to confess and face our human struggles. Jacob had to wrestle all night long, and sometimes those dark nights can last for weeks or years, but if we can hang on to God above all else, morning will come and with it the courage to carry on.

I slept in last Monday and as I got up I remember thinking that I had missed my usual breakfast with the CBS Morning News team. Unfortunately the news of the massacre in Las Vegas lasted all day. The cumulative effect of bad news stories recently, each one worse than the last, knocked me into a funk that lasted several days. I’d probably still be there if I didn’t have this sermon to prepare. Sermons are a constant reminder to preachers that no matter how we are feeling, Sunday’s coming!

That’s important for all of us, not just preachers. We Christians worship on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection; and that is our reminder that no matter how bad the news is or how dark the skies are – Sunday’s coming. I gladly borrow that phrase from the great preacher Tony Campolo who made it famous in a Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

When personal or national tragedies threaten to blow us away we can be like Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Lt. Dan got his legs blown off in Viet Nam and was angry at Forrest for saving his life. But a few years later he is reunited with Forrest and helps him run the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In one great scene Dan and Forrest are out on their shrimp boat during Hurricane Carmen. Double amputee Lt. Dan climbs the mast of the ship as the waves are crashing onto the deck below and he shouts at God, “Is that all you’ve got? You call that a storm?” This foul-mouthed atheist has learned in the school of hard knocks that life goes on if we just hang on till morning comes. Psalm 30 puts it this way: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Anyone here have trouble handling big changes in life? That’s homesickness. Because change, even positive change, is hard, and much of the division in our nation today is because change is coming at us at warp speed. We are so homesick for a simpler day that we resent those who represent change – immigrants, people of different races or faiths or political opinions. And on top of that this baby boomer is homesick for the things my aging body just won’t do anymore. We seniors are eager for younger folks to take over leadership of businesses and families and churches, but darn it the younger generation doesn’t always do it the way we’ve done it for years.

Being an itinerant United Methodist pastor has comes with built in homesickness. Like people in many professions and businesses we move a lot, and that makes it hard to know where home really is. I grew up in the small town of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. Wapak is where I’m from but I rarely go back there. My parents moved away from there while I was in college, and I moved away intellectually as I accumulated multiple degrees in higher education. I still have several aunts and uncles back there in Auglaize County, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been on a 50 year ego trip that has kept me away from that extended family. None of them went to college and as my theology and worldview changed over the years I felt like we just didn’t have anything in common. I don’t want to argue about religion or politics with them, and quite frankly I felt superior.

Over Labor Day weekend this year I went back home with my two sisters. I must give my sisters credit for initiating the trip. It was my one sister’s 50th high school reunion, and while we were there they suggested we visit our three uncles who live there.

It was a marvelous experience with all three of them but the priceless moment came when we visited the one we call Uncle Frog in the hospital. He’s just 15 years older than I; so when I was a kid he was a big strong athletic guy that I adored. He took time to play catch with me and made me feel like I mattered. Now he’s 86 and has a very bad heart. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. He called me over to his hospital bed and got very emotional as he tried to ask me something, but the words wouldn’t come. I knew he wanted me to conduct his funeral when the time comes because we had talked about that after another uncle’s funeral 10 years ago when Frog was still in good health. As I held his hand and assured him I’d be there for him I realized I was home.

We can go home again if we’re willing to struggle and cling on to God’s blessing which is always wherever we are on life’s journey. Beyond the beliefs and ideologies that divide us is a deeper human bond we all share. It’s love that bridges those divisions but we have to cross that bridge to get home.

There was a movie many years ago called “The Poseidon Adventure” about a group of people who were trapped in a ship that got turned upside down in a storm. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like everything is upside down and we can’t find our way home. The theme song from that movie captures the truth that Jacob learned wrestling with God. The song says, “There’s got to be a morning after if we can hold on through the night.” Whatever darkness or struggle you are facing – just hang on to God till morning comes.

Jacob refuses to let go till God blesses him, and in the strength of that blessing he immediately goes to meet his brother. What happens then is summed up in this description from Genesis 33: “He himself went on ahead of them, 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.” The prodigal was limping, but he was home.
Amen

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