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"Rooted in Struggle" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on August 2, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Rooted in Struggle


Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Rooted in Struggle

In our scripture passage for this morning, Jacob, the patriarch whose story we have been following for three weeks now, receives a new name: Israel—the name by which the Hebrew people will henceforth be known.

If you have been following along with Jacob’s story these past few weeks, then it might strike you as odd that Jacob is the biblical character after whom the Hebrew people will eventually be named—Jacob, the one who conned his hungry twin into selling him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, tricked his old and blind father into giving him his twin’s blessing, cheated his father-in-law into giving him the best of his sheep and goats, and will eventually come to favor his son Joseph to such an extent that his other children will sell Joseph into slavery and tell their father that he has been killed by a wild animal.

Jacob’s life, all by itself, seems like it should be enough to strike him from the list of potential namesakes. But even apart from that, Jacob seems like an unusual choice when you consider the other options available—there’s Abraham, the literal father of the faith. The one with whom God makes a covenant, the one to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars. Abraham, who defined for everyone after him what it looks like to be faithful.

Or if not Abraham than surely Isaac, his son, the child of promise, the one who learned at an early age that being a child of the covenant was not going to be easy. The one who knew the cost of sacrifice and yet remained faithful. The one who is remembered for his fear of the Lord and his courage.[1]

Or we might even skip ahead and choose Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son, who saved the Hebrew people from famine, or there’s Moses, who led them out of slavery, Joshua who led the people into the promised land, David, who became their greatest king, or Solomon who built the temple. Surely almost anyone would have made a better choice than Jacob—the one who lied and stole and tricked. Why this patriarch? Why is the Jewish and then the Christian faith founded on the legacy of this character when there are so many others whose lives were far more faithful, moral, remarkable, and even memorable?

I think the reason can be found in the name Jacob is given, the name ‘Israel,’ which means one who has struggled with God and with humanity and prevailed. Because this is not the first time that we have seen Jacob struggle. Indeed, nothing has come easy for Jacob, the twin who we meet first when he is still in his mother’s womb, wrestling with his brother. If Abraham’s life is characterized by faithfulness, and Isaac’s by sacrifice, Jacob’s is characterized by struggle. What began in utero continued as he is born grasping his brother’s heel, as he grows up struggling to be his older brother, tricking  him into giving away his birthright, as he struggles to earn the love and favor of his father, deceiving him into giving away his blessing, as he struggles to marry the woman he loves, struggles to keep his family together, and eventually will struggle to love his children equally.

All of these struggles, then, are embodied in this nighttime wrestling match with a divine stranger. A wrestling match that Jacob should, by all rights, lose. He is, after all, the human in this divine/human showdown. But Jacob does not lose. Even after his hip is put of out joint, Jacob does not let go—he will not yield. And as light begins to dawn, the first words are exchanged when the divine stranger asks to be let go.

In a wrestling match between God and Jacob, God is the one to say “uncle” first. And still, Jacob does not let go. Jacob, who deceived his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing, refuses to let go until he receives a blessing that will be his own. And what blessing is he given? A new name. No longer will he be known as Jacob, “the one who follows,” someone defined solely by their position relative to someone else. Now he will be known as Isaac, “the one who has struggled with God and humans and prevailed.” Jacob no longer needs to be his older brother, he has been given a name and identity that is all his own, and it is a name he earns because he is willing to struggle; it is a name that acknowledges all that Jacob has already wrestled with and all that he will continue to wrestle with—it is a name rooted in struggle.

As is our faith.

Karl Marx once famously characterized religion as “the opium of the masses,” arguing that religion’s function is to reduce people’s sufferings and provide them with pleasant illusions so that they might carry on in a world that is frequently harsh. But that is not the religion of Judaism, nor of Christianity. Ours is a faith rooted in struggle. Ours is not a faith that will relieve us of the burdens of this world, but rather one that asks us to not only carry those burdens but to pick up the burdens of those around us as well. Ours is not a faith that provides easy answers to life’s hard questions, but one that requires us to struggle for answers, and then ask hard questions of our own.

One of the privileges of being a pastor is getting to know some of the burdens you all bear, and so I know that a number of you are overwhelmed right now by the history and reality of racism in our country and in our lives; I know some of you are angry that it still exists and some of you are angry that so much of it was whitewashed until you went looking for it. I know that some of you are worried about your ability to support yourself or provide for your family, about jobs that have been lost or salaries that have been cut because of the global pandemic. I know that some of you are bearing the burdens of significant health struggles or fears—fighting diseases or cancers, worried about the health of your parents, your children, yourselves. I know that many of you are wrestling with decisions about school in the fall—what it will look like, how your kids will manage, you will manage as a teacher or as a parent, how your family will make it work. And I know that a number of you are carrying the weight that comes with bearing witness—as the people around you lose jobs, their health, their sense of security, as our country struggles with diseases both physical and social.

And what I hope you will hear in this morning’s scripture passage is that the faith we proclaim is a faith that is rooted in struggle—that you are not alone, that struggling is not an indication that your faith is weak, but that your faith is strong, that is working hard, just as it is meant to at times. I hope you hear that one of the most faithful responses is often simply to hang on—that faith doesn’t require that you wrestle your problems to the ground nor solve the problems of the world. Jacob did not prevail against God, he simply refused to let go. You might walk away with a limp—faith rarely leaves us unchanged and it is not without its costs, but if you just hold on, our faith affirms that the dawn will come, and you will walk (or at least limp) away with a blessing.

But it is not just God with whom Jacob wrestles, and it’s not just God with whom our faith calls us to wrestle. Those of us who are Christian sometimes misunderstand Jesus’s statement that it is the peacemakers who are blessed as an indication that the highest goal of our faith is a sense of peace. But Jesus didn’t say “blessed are the peacekeepers,” he said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” As one pastor put it, to make peace, you first have to go and find the war.[2] You have to engage in the conflicts of the world before you can begin to make peace. Indeed, sometimes, being peacemakers requires us to get into some “good trouble,” as the late John Lewis so famously put it.

In his eulogy for John Lewis, Former President Barack Obama began his remarks with a quote from the Letter of James in the New Testament: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).[3] The God who wrestled with Jacob, whose people came to bear a name that means those who strive with God and with humanity, is a God who also calls us to strive with humanity—to put ourselves in places where there is conflict so that we might help create peace—not the easy peace that comes from conflict being swept under the rug, but the deep shalom that comes only when all people are free, valued, and loved.

We don’t need to prevail, we just need to continue the struggle, to expect the blessing, and to know that we might walk away with a limp—not because God isn’t in the wrestling, but because God is. Thanks be to God.


[1] Jonathan Sacks, "Vayishlach (5768)—Jacob Wrestling," November 24, 2007, accessed July 28, 2020,

[2] Emmanuel Acho, “Race vs. Religion—Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man Ep. 7 with Carl Lentz, Hillsong Church.” Youtube video, 19:28. July 28, 2020.

[3] EuBarack Obama, "Eulogy for John Lewis," July 30, 2020, accessed July 30, 2020,

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