Sunday, August 17th, 2014 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
Hymns: “How Great Is Our God”, “How Great Thou Art”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
Special music: “Below My Feet”, by Mumford & Sons (vocals: Caitie Smith Gawne; piano: Jimmy Gawne; guitar: Anna Musser)
“Below My Feet”
Mondays used to be my day off.
Now, when I say that, I’m talking about nearly nine years ago. November of 2005. Back in those days, I was working 65 hours a week between two jobs that each paid me $8.00 an hour. For a single 24 year old with a minimum of debt and no car payments, back in 2005, $520 a week wasn’t anything to sneer at – unless you lived in Los Angeles, which I did. And so, I was living in a one bedroom apartment in North Hollywood with a roommate (his living space was the bedroom, mine the living room), and occasionally having to purchase low-income food boxes from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Six days a week, I was at the Glendale Galleria mall, either at the guest services desk or at the stationery store Papyrus.
But Mondays – those were my blessed day of rest. And that was why I was still asleep on the morning of Monday, November 14th, 2005, when my phone rang, lifting me into wakefulness. Groping around for my phone, I eventually answered it, casting a groggy, “Hellowriwhat?” toward the caller on the other end.
As it turned out, it was my youngest sister, Elisabeth, calling me. “I don’t know if anybody’s told you yet,” she said, “but Mrs. Marcus died last night. Her funeral is on Thursday.”
In the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, you’re sometimes unsure of what is real and what isn’t. As I lay there in my bed the next few minutes, processing the news, I found myself trying to decide if that had actually happened, or if I was imagining it. So I got up, turned on my computer, went to the website of the Arizona Republic, and pulled up the obituaries page…
And there it was.
That liminal space, between sleep and wakefulness, played a significant role in today’s Scripture. As Jacob lay sleeping, dreading the encounter to come the following day with his long-estranged brother, Esau, he was confronted by a stranger. They wrestled and wrestled, with Jacob seemingly holding the upper hand. Even after the stranger wrenched Jacob’s hip out of its socket, Jacob refused to release him until he had been given a blessing.
Whether or not Jacob actually physically wrestled with God is hard to know. One would think that had this been God, there is no way that Jacob could have overcome him. And as far as the injury Jacob received, well, had he been sleeping on the hard ground and thrashing about in his restlessness, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility to think that he could’ve hurt himself in his sleep. I don’t know about all y’all, but I’ve certainly woken up with unexplainable aches and pains before after restless nights.
And it’s not as though Jacob particularly changed his behavior after this encounter, either. Before his encounter with the stranger, Jacob was an arrogant, brash man who showed distinct favoritism (specifically, his preferential treatment of Rachel and her sons over the rest of his family); this behavior continued after the encounter – basically the very next thing he did was give Joseph, the older of Rachel’s two sons, the legendary Technicolor Dreamcoat.
So we’re left with the mystery of what exactly happened that night at Peniel. Did Jacob wrestle with somebody, or did he just imagine it? And if he actually did wrestle with somebody, who was it? Was it God? Was it an angel? Was it just a particularly strong man?
We’re really left with a mystery.
Or are we?
Audrey Fox was born in March of 1935 in Omaha, Nebraska. She began learning how to play the piano at a very young age. This would, as she grew older, lead to her studying piano with a woman who had herself studied piano with Clara Schumann, widow of romantic composer Robert Schumann, and with Johannes Brahms, himself a student of both of the Schumanns. In 1953, Audrey began studying for her bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Indiana University, graduating in 1957. While there, she would meet and marry Alvin Marcus, and then go on to the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music to continue her studies.
Audrey later returned to Indiana, teaching piano there, before accepting a faculty position with the School of Music at Northern Arizona University in the 1970s. After about ten years at NAU, she stepped down from the music faculty and moved to Phoenix, where she began concentrating on teaching piano to children, working with Phoenix College. It was there that a certain precocious five year old met her for the first time in 1987.
You see, when I was born, my grandmother Maureen Gawne had given to my parents her own piano – a 1938 Steinway & Sons upright, made of mahogany, with a real ivory keyboard. Having been a piano teacher, she was most insistent that I learn how to play, and believed that this piano would be a great help to me in that regard.
As legend has it, one day shortly before I began studying piano, I was in the fellowship hall of Phoenix Central Christian Church following Sunday worship, and as kids often do, I began messing around on the piano. However, unlike most kids, when the organist heard me, he realized that I was trying to play the melody of one of the hymns that had been sung in worship that day. He told my parents, recommending that I begin piano lessons.
That impetus, combined with the gift from my grandmother, led them to enroll me in youth piano lessons at Phoenix College when I was in kindergarten. And so it was that I began studies – and indeed, a twelve year period that often seemed like an unending struggle – with Audrey Marcus.
Sometimes, though, our struggles are purely the result of our own refusal to stop fighting. The other isn’t fighting at all, but allows us to work out all of our anger, all of our energy, and then when we are sapped of our strength, they reach out and push us out of our comfort zone – and that is when we can begin to live anew.
That is perhaps a more apt way of looking at the night that Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel. Yes, I am now saying he wrestled with God, because if we consider the wrestling match from our new perspective, it makes sense. Jacob had struggled for years with everything and everybody around him. He had manipulated his brother, had deceived his father, had butted heads with Laban, had raised up a family that brought a whole new definition to familial dysfunction, and now found himself face to face with a stranger. And Jacob’s nature, by this point, was to confront the unknown aggressively, and head on.
And so he wrestled with God. But God didn’t wrestle back. No, God just let Jacob go about his business, and when God realized that Jacob was just going to keep going, and he wasn’t going to quit, God said, “Enough.” With a touch to Jacob’s hip socket, the wrestling match was over. But never content to just give up, Jacob said, “I will not go unless you bless me.”
And there was God’s chance to push Jacob out of his comfort zone. Jacob had grown accustomed to being the bull-nosed, aggressive, usurping, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead, never-give-up-never-surrender man that his mother, Rebekah, had raised him to be as a child. He plowed through life, identifying what he wanted and taking it, and when he couldn’t take it, wrestling with those who had what he wanted until it was given to him. So God basically said, “If you won’t stop struggling with me until I give you a blessing, that’s fine, but it’s not gonna be what you think.”
So it was that there at Peniel, Jacob was renamed Israel – the one who has struggled with God and man and has overcome. But in that name there was a charge – a charge to be not an instigator, but a leader, a father, a protector. And Jacob would not take on that mantle right away – it would take years. Indeed, the very next day, when he encountered his brother Esau, and Esau offered to help provide for Jacob out of his own wealth, Jacob refused out of his stubborn sense of pride, preferring instead to be blessed by the Lord even as he struggled with his own life. Jacob’s emergence as a true leader would not come until years later, when his land was under the natural oppression of famine, and he took it upon himself to take his people to Egypt, where they were provided for by his son, Joseph.
My own struggle with Mrs. Marcus was certainly not borne out of a desire to take everything and be all-powerful – no, it was borne out of a reluctance on my part to accept that I could be better than I was. In spite of that reluctance, though, Mrs. Marcus pushed me and pushed me. Never content to let me just sit where my achievements had taken me, she whipped me through the Edna Mae Burnam piano curriculum, assigned me an entire book of advanced finger exercises by Aloys Schmitt, and when I was in the second grade, tossed me headlong into the first movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s 11th Piano Concerto, in D Major.
I was able to do all of it, and do it all well. That’s not spoken out of arrogance; rather, it’s spoken out of contrast to my actual feelings on the matter at the time, which were that I didn’t care. I didn’t want to spend all my time practicing the piano. It made no difference to me that I was able to play the vivace movement of a piano concerto at the age of eight when it meant less time to ride my bike and do other typical kid activities. I wanted to quit, and I made that known to my parents at the same recital at which I played the Haydn concerto.
Thank God they listened to Mrs. Marcus instead of me. She told them that to take me out of piano lessons would be a huge mistake, both detrimental to my own development and an enormous waste of my gifts. And so, they left me in piano lessons, and I continued to struggle, pushing back against Mrs. Marcus, even as she patiently developed my talents, one piece, one measure, one note at a time.
When I reached middle school, I began taking part in young musicians competitions put on by the Phoenix Symphony. I was required to prepare and memorize one movement of a concerto from any of the four musical eras – baroque, classical, romantic, or contemporary – and prepare a separate piece from each of the other three eras. Beginning in eighth grade, I entered the competition each year, and slowly got better with each passing year.
Finally, in January of 1999, my junior year of high school, I walked into Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University fully locked and loaded. All I had to do to receive a scholarship and potentially play with the Phoenix Symphony was be one of the top three performers in my age bracket – 15-18. And I was READY. The third movement of Beethoven’s First Concerto, in C Major. Bach’s Second Prelude and Fugue in D Minor. Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor. I could play those songs in my sleep – and probably did, drumming my fingers on the bed, more than a few times.
I played my heart out that afternoon, and then I waited. Several hours passed before the scores were finally posted.
I was fourth.
The judges were quite consistent in their praise for me, with one exception. The damning score came from a judge who had a long-standing feud with Mrs. Marcus. My chances had been dashed by a dysfunctional relationship, well outside my control.
I was furious, and I had had enough. I wanted to live the life of a normal teenager. I wanted a car. I wanted a job. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted to be able to actually prep for the SATs and get ready for college without having the Damocles’ sword of more piano pieces hanging over my head. And I was sick and tired of wasting my time preparing for competitions in which I was doomed to fail because some prima donna couldn’t get over his hurt feelings.
I went back to Mrs. Marcus’s house and told her that, though in not quite so many words. And she calmly accepted it. “Alright,” she said, “you don’t have to do the Symphony Guild competition anymore. But we are going to do something else.”
Something else is exactly what God had in mind for Jacob after that encounter at Peniel. Though one encounter would not change Jacob, in changing his name to Israel and giving him a new purpose in life, God had given him a way to keep the earth below his feet. No matter how strenuous or weakening each event in Jacob’s life might be from that point forward, God would see to it that he would learn from where he had been. Encountering the generosity of Esau, dealing with the treachery of his sons Simeon and Levi, the death of his wife Rachel, the death of his father Isaac, believing his son, Joseph, to be dead, even the famine over Canaan – each of those events would push Jacob and shape him, turning him more and more into the leader, the father of nations that he had to be, until finally, in Genesis 46, God appeared to Jacob once more. “No more struggling,” God told Jacob. “Be the leader I have made you to be. Go down to Egypt. Take your family. Settle with them in Goshen, and provide for them.”
The something else that Mrs. Marcus had in mind for me was a little different. Her something else involved music theory, chords, and lead sheets. For you see, Mrs. Marcus was one of those who, when I was in high school, identified in me a calling to ministry. To be certain, I struggled against that calling just as much as I struggled against her, but she knew that if she could but just open the door, a whole new realm of possibilities would flood in. And so, building on the foundation of classical training that she had constructed in me, she began to teach me the ins-and-outs of how to play music without actually being able to sight-read it.
A year and a half later, I was serving in a ministerial position for the first time, leading music off of those very same types of lead sheets at Lutheran Campus Ministry at Northern Arizona University – the very school that had brought Mrs. Marcus to Arizona in the first place.
I struggled, and I struggled mightily. But Mrs. Marcus always made sure that the solid earth was kept below my feet, making me learn from where I had been. She let me struggle myself out, and then, when I could struggle no more, she pushed me into a new and different direction.
The last time I saw Mrs. Marcus was just before Christmas 2004. By then, I had recognized that ministry was indeed my calling in life, even if it would take me another six years to arrive at seminary. I told her that, and she seemed quite pleased. “Your musical training will serve you well,” she said.
When she passed the following November, I wasn’t able to go home for the funeral. I couldn’t afford it, and even if I had been able to, there’s no way I would’ve gotten off of work on such short notice – and as anybody who has ever worked a low-wage, hourly job can tell you, a very quick way to being unemployed is to not show up for work.
But last May, just after my ordination, I got a call from her husband, Alvin. I hadn’t talked to him in years, but he just wanted to see how I was doing. When I told him that I had finished seminary, was now an ordained minister, and was seeking a call, he told me just how proud of me Mrs. Marcus would have been. And I told him that as much as I struggled with her when I was younger, the patience and insistence on doing GOOD work that she had taught me would serve me well in ministry.
Jacob wrestled with God. I wrestled with Mrs. Marcus. Each of us wrestles with something or somebody in our lives that will change us for the better. It is up to you to decide when to yield and accept the blessings that you are offered.