The Business of Blessing

September 15, 2019
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Michah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-25

10Jacobleft Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder[b] set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him[c] and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed[d] in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel;[e] but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

The Business of Blessing by Sarah Brouwer

The Sarah’s I mention in this sermon refer to Rev. Sarah Wiles of Bethany Church in Tacoma, WA. She is a friend and wrote a wonderful paper on this text.

Jacob is a mixed bag. Just like we all are. You probably have a vague idea of his story. Jacob was the twin brother of Esau, the one who was born second, grabbing his brother’s heel. Jacob grew up riding on Esau’s coattails- he was smaller, weaker, and desperate to win his father’s approval- and Esau was the burly one, naturally good at everything, the apple of his father’s eye. We all have an Esau in our lives, right? The person who seems to float through life effortlessly, with no odds stacked against them, and well-loved by everyone. But, Jacob spent most of his life trying to make up for what he lacked using the other tools he had in his toolbox. He was a trickster, a cheat, conniving. And, that’s how he ended up in the middle of the wilderness, alone, sleeping with a rock for a pillow. He had fooled his dying father into thinking he was Esau, even dressing up in a hairy costume, so he could steal the firstborn birthright and get what he wanted all along. As we see from the story, though, Jacob didn’t get what he really wanted. What good is a birthright when you’ve given up everything?

Maybe it’s obvious, but this isn’t a moralistic story. “What would the moral be? Be like Jacob, a liar and a cheat, and you’ll get everything you want? God will like you?”

I’m pretty sure Jacob, if he hadn’t desperately wanted parental approval, would have been able to see from a rational perspective that tricking his dying father wasn’t going to heal the deep pain inside him. But, pain makes us do stupid things, doesn’t it? It clouds our judgment and convinces us to act irrationally, even to do what is bad for us. And this pattern of impulsive decision-making runs throughout Genesis. It’s not a book to open when looking for a strict code of ethics, but what it does show us is a series of unending affirmations that God loves us despite our worst efforts. It weaves a tale of complicated family dynamics and poor behavioral patterns and then upends all of our assumptions about how God should react.

But, that’s the whole point, God doesn’t react like we do. God’s responses aren’t retributive. God doesn’t even try to redeem Jacob. God is just there, beside him, as the story says, showing him a glimpse of heaven and promising him blessing after blessing. My friend Sarah says that this is the simple and hard part of the story to remember. Grace is always a gift. Goodness we receive is usually in spite of us, not because of us. And not only is divine favor unmerited, but when God is choosing, God’s choices almost always subvert our traditional power arrangements. God always chooses the younger brothers to bless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about blessings lately. But, blessings are a hard thing to describe, and unlike Jacob I’m not willing to camp outside in order to receive one. Truth be told, blessings in our culture are often used synonymously with privilege. For instance, if I have this car, or house, or smart kids, or tons of successful friends, I’m tempted to think I’m blessed. And, I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Health and access are blessings for which I should be grateful, but this definition of blessed gets problematic, at least for me, when I think about those who don’t move through the world as easily as I do. Are they not blessed as well? Jesus’ definition of blessed challenges ours when he says in the beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the persecuted. Something isn’t adding up if blessed is equated with stuff or social capital.

Here’s the thing. The people of Israel thought about blessings differently than we do. Jewish storytellers like to say that God’s blessings are not poured into us, but through us. In Jewish midrash they give the image of a vessel with a hole in the bottom- a plant in a pot with no hole just holds the water, and sometimes the plant can rot, but a vessel with a hole in the bottom soaks up only the water it needs and the rest flows out of it. In the same way, we are blessed and then those blessings not only stick with us, but run out, nourishing others.

About ten years ago, I woke up to a story in my facebook feed about a young woman I graduated from college with. Katherine Ann Olson was her name. She was a theater major, and I remember she had bouncy red curly hair, and a vivacious personality. I knew her circle of friends, though we didn’t hang out together much. Like it was yesterday, though, I remember reading what happened to Katherine. Like most of us, she was a couple of years out of college and still trying to make it in her chosen, creative profession, and was looking for side gigs to make ends meet. Without going into too much detail, Katherine responded to a craigslist ad for someone looking for a nanny and upon entering their home ended up being killed by this person who had a severe mental illness. It was an awful, horrifying situation. I couldn’t believe it. As it turns out, Katherine’s dad was a Lutheran pastor in Richfield, and so, over the years I have followed along as the story has unfolded, of the trial, and how he and his wife have chosen to handle everything. Looking at Katherine’s parents I’m not sure anyone would call them blessed, but in reading stories about their family I’ve been so impressed with how they have chosen to move on from this tragedy. Her dad Rolf has said, “we choose to stay in the light of Christ, because that is where Katherine is.” He has also continued to process his own journey toward forgiveness through preaching, saying that forgiveness is a release, a letting go, and it will be lifelong work. Family members being torn from one another is not the blessing. It wasn’t for Jacob and it certainly wasn’t for the Olson’s. For the Olson’s, Katherine was the blessing, and so was their faith and community in a time of great need. And despite the loss of her, they are still allowing her to bless others.

If anything, the Olson’s story and Jacob’s tell us that blessings are not uncomplicated, but they can move us toward wholeness. They can help us heal, by informing and forming our identity. And how we define them has an impact on our view of ourselves and our role in the world. If we only think of blessings as things we have, we will only respond to our own desires. But if we think of blessings differently, of how we are known and claimed by God and community, we get to perpetuate the blessing, and grow it exponentially like it was promised to Jacob.

And for Jacob, this moment at Bethel, as angels ascended and descended from heaven, this was the moment Jacob realized he was blessed despite all that had come before, or maybe even because of it. Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “there are no meetings with the Holy God apart from the realities of troubled human life.” And while that might seem a depressing fact, it is also wildly liberating. Because God’s emergence at this difficult juncture in Jacob’s life is proof that blessings can shape our future and disrupt age old patterns. The cycles that we and the world have been beholden to of self-loathing, trickery, and harm, can be broken by the intervention of God’s blessing. And if we allow the blessing to flow through us we can see it for what it really is. For Jacob it was a chance to live a different kind of life- one of promises fulfilled. Of course, Jacob’s life wasn’t easy after this. Real blessings don’t secure a smooth path. But they gift us with the chance to start over; with grace to begin again.

My friend Sarah writes about this passage saying that what Jacob experiences in realizing God’s blessing on him is collateral beauty. Blessings aren’t a zero sum game. Sometimes it’s the collection of all the bad stuff that makes us into a new creation. Collateral beauty is the real blessing if we are willing to lay down for a minute and let our dreams awaken us to them, and to the presence of God who has been right beside us all along.

Jan Richardson is a poet and artist, and her husband died a few years ago. She wrote this blessing for the brokenhearted.

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound,
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still,

as if it trusts
that its own
persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us
nonetheless.

May God’s blessings save you. May they disrupt the deep-set patterns of your life. May God’s blessings run through you, sticking to your heart and making you strong for the moment you can care for another. May the blessing of God be upon you when you cannot get it from anyone else.

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