A Room Called Remember 7-6-17

Genesis 32:22-21 In the course of the night, Jacob arose, took the entire caravan, and crossed the ford of the Yabbok River. After Jacob had crossed with all his possessions, he returned to the camp, and he was completely alone. And there, someone wrestled with Jacob until the first light of dawn. Seeing that Jacob could not be overpowered, the other struck Jacob at the socket of the hip, and the hip was dislocated as they wrestled. Then Jacob’s contender said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” Jacob answered, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “What is your name?” the other asked. “Jacob,” he answered. The other said, “Your name will no longer be called ‘Jacob,’ or ‘Heel-Grabber,’ but ‘Israel’—Overcomer of God’s—because you have wrestled with both God and mortals, and you have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked “Now tell me your name, I beg you.” The other said, “Why do you ask me my name?”—and blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel—“Face of God”—because I have seen God face to face, yet my life was spared.” At sunrise, Jacob left Peniel, limping along from the injured hip.

As I sat with my mother toward the end of her life, I talked with family members often to give them updates and relay their best wishes to my mother. I enjoyed in particular talking to my Aunt Helen Thompson, who was married to my mother’s brother John Thompson. She the one surviving member of that generation at the age of 96 and she has an interest in genealogy. So I asked her about my ancestor Archibald Johnston. That question led to this sermon, reflecting on the importance of our ancestry and knowing we are. The search for our true deepest Self is the same as or at least part of our search for God. I’m also particularly interested in those of us who identify as white learning to complicate our history a bit, so that our primary identification is not to differentiate ourselves from Black people, but to know our own history. From that history we connect in more authentic ways with other people’s history.

My text for this morning is the Genesis text which Rick and Lisa read. I ask you also to listen to the second assigned text for this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. May the Word of God reach all of us this day.

Matthew 14:13-21 When Jesus heard about the beheading, he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone.  The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick. As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “this is a deserted place and it is already late, dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.” Jesus said to them “There is no need for them to disperse.  Give them something to eat yourselves.” “We have nothing here,” they replied “but five loaves and a couple of fish.” “Bring them here,” Jesus said, Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and give it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill.  The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

August 6, 2017

A Room Called Remember

Archibald Johnston was my grandfather of a dozen generations or so ago – on my mother’s mother’s side. A judge and statesman, he became Lord of Warriston, Warriston being a town, now a suburb on the edge of Edinburgh the capital of Scotland. As a staunch Presbyterian, Archibald was one of the leaders in the opposition to King Charles I attempts in 1637 to impose the Anglican/Catholic faith on Scotland.

He was one of the leaders of a group called the Covenanters and had some significant victories and defeats during his short 52 years of life. They had some initial success at keeping Scotland Protestant, enforcing what was called a Solemn League and Covenant which made the Presbyterian Church the official church not just of Scotland, but for a few years, the church of England as well. Archibald also had some significant defeats. As a leader of Kirk party, the party of the church, he advised the army to get rid of soldiers not loyal to the church, even if they were experienced soldiers. He did this on the eve of a battle, which they subsequently lost.

For a time things settled down and Lord Archie served in Parliament under Oliver Cromwell, but under the Restoration, things turned around again. As Charles II came back to power Anglicanism was once again imposed on people. There was a general pardon for all the people who had fought or opposed the king, but 4 people were condemned to death as an example to the others. Archibald fled to Holland, but was captured in France. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and hung in Edinburgh, and beheaded.

One of the reasons this story is so interesting to me is that when we do the genealogy of my family, we for the next hundred years see a slew of people named Archibald Johnston or Thompson, obviously named after Lord Warriston. And some of them, it seems were Presbyterian pastors in Pennsylvania in the 1700’s, people of strong Reformed faith.


I’m still trying to understand what happened back then and what effect it has on my life as a pastor in Pennsylvania in the 21st century. I wanted to preach this sermon to dig a little deeper in those reflections and I chose as the basis of my reflection from our assigned readings the Genesis reading about Jacob wrestling in the night. I find that juxtaposing scripture with personal reflections sometimes helps both to come into clearer spiritual focus.

So the story is of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious adversary. He seems to think it was God; some interpreters say he was wrestling with an angel. The passage just says he was wrestling with a man. The larger context of the story is that Jacob is just about to meet up with his brother Esau, who you may remember, Jacob cheated out of a blessing from their father, so you might think that Jacob was wrestling with Esau in his dream, wrestling again for a blessing.

The fight goes on all night, a true dark night of the soul, and neither party gains the upper hand. Finally, as they tire – you can imagine them holding each other in check – panting out to each other terms for a truce. At first in the following negotiation, Jacob takes the upper hand as the wrestler says, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” It seems that this spirit or dream or contender will go away when daybreak comes. Hmmm.

Jacob answers, “I will not let go until you bless me.” The mysterious one answers, “What is your name?” And when Jacob says, Jacob, the stranger has a new advantage because knowing someone’s name gives you some power over them. Not only that, but the being changes the name, saying, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, “God-Wrestler.” (so there’s another reason for the God connection.)

Then Jacob/Israel tries to take back the advantage by asking the wrestler’s name and the answer is ambiguous – “Why do you ask my name?” but then adding a blessing. So Israel does get the blessing after all.


Knowing who we are is a blessing in itself – knowing our history, knowing where we come from. Roots was a popular TV show years ago, because it helped African descended people in our country learn more about their history, about the wrestling in their past that brought them to the present day. This process is just as important for European descended people – to relearn and reclaim how our ancestors wrestled with adversity, difficulty, and oppression.


I’m pleased to reclaim Archibald as my ancestor who was a person of faith willing to die for his beliefs, who was willing to contend with kings and Parliament. And one other thing I’m really interested to learn – about his faults and shortcomings. They say he was pretty hard to get along with. Just as Jacob comes out of his encounter with the stranger with a limp, all of us who take on any kind of battle in the world find ourselves wounded in some way. And God is with us even in our wounds.

Jacob/Israel leaves his encounter with the angel/God/man with a pronounced limp that he’ll have for the rest of his life. He leaves to go on to find his brother, whom he is terrified to meet because of how he stole his brother’s blessing years earlier. He sends gifts of cattle, and livestock ahead to try to appease Esau’s anger, but when he finally meets him, Esau turns down the gifts but gives Israel a great big forgiving reuniting hug.


Lydia Muñoz sings a beautiful Mark Miller song, called “I Won’t Let Go,” which provides a lovely interpretation of our passage, saying that God will never let go of us, that God knows our names and blesses each one of us, no matter who we are or what wounds we carry. As we come to the table this morning, may that confidence that God will never let go of us, give us confidence in who we are as God’s blessed and wounded people, as particular people called to be part of God’s work in a beautiful, wounded world.

Communion Hymn 3174 Christ, We Are Blest