Lessons of Summer
Bless Me! audio to be added later
Genesis 32:22-29, Philippians 4:4-9
Pastor Marty Raths
We have begun a summer series of sermons entitled The Lessons of Summer. We are going to be exploring some common summer events, and activities, and occasions, while gleaning from them life and faith lessons. Donna introduced the series a couple of weeks ago, reminding us that these summer happenings provide us with opportunities to see God at work in our lives and in our world, and last week Abigail talked about one of the most important of these happenings in the life of the church, even as a group of us were ready ourselves to go on one, church mission trips.
Now today is Father’s Day, another one of these regular summer happenings, and in what I am going to say, I do also have in mind Mother’s Day, which we celebrated just last month. And the most important life and faith lesson that I want to glean from our celebration of these parental roles has to do with the biblical understanding of blessing, and its importance in our own personal lives, in the lives of our families, and in our relationships with others.
The importance of blessing, both our giving and receiving of blessing, is an overarching theme in the scriptures. From a biblical perspective the experience of blessing is essential to our becoming mature, healthy, whole, faithful, and loving people But unfortunately, we have lost some of the scriptures deep insight into the importance of blessing, though at the same time we have not lost the deep need that we all still have for it. And truth be told, this spells trouble for us and for our world, all sorts of trouble./
The Book of Genesis is like a case study in the complicated dynamics of blessing. From beginning to end Genesis is a book about our need for blessing, and when we do not receive it, the lengths to which we will go to try to secure it. It begins in the very first chapter with God’s blessing upon the whole of creation, with God declaring the goodness of all that God had made. This is life’s original blessing, this blessing from God, and we are meant to rest secure in it, but for all sorts of reasons we find it very hard to do this.
And the underside of this restless insecurity that so many of us experience in life, the chronic doubts that we have about our own sense of worth as persons, the conscious and unconscious efforts we make to try to come to some acceptance of ourselves as blessed and beloved children of God, the shadow side of all this, is conflict and violence. We may not have thought of it in this way before because it is in the Bible, but the painful truth is that Genesis is a violent book, filled with conflicted relationships. Cain kills Abel. Sarah deals harshly with Hagar, until Hagar flees from her, a victim of domestic violence. Out of jealousy Joseph’s brothers leave him in a pit to die.
And then there is the relationship between Jacob and Esau. Pat read just a portion of that story, but throughout their lives they were at odds with each other and with their parents, Isaac and Rebekah. And what drove Jacob especially, at his best and at his worst, is what drives all of us, our deep need for blessing.
Now by blessing I mean in part the experience of unconditional love and acceptance. Not unconditional approval. That is different. As parents, we are responsible for raising our children in the way that they should go, and they do not always go that way. So we may not approve of all that our children do, and when they are young, we need to be parents, giving direction, setting boundaries, determining consequences, but we must love and accept them no matter what they do. Parental approval can be withheld depending upon behavior, but the scriptures warn us that when parental blessing is withheld, there is sure to be troubles. Guaranteed.
Jacob and Esau were twins, and Esau happened to be born first. In the social order of the time, this meant that Esau, as the older brother, was entitled to receive their father Isaac’s blessing. Though not in such a formal way, this experience of favored blessing is still with us. Remember the old Smothers Brothers routine, when Tom would say to Dick, “Mom always liked you best.” That was funny because it touched upon a very common family experience, the actual or perceived favoritism of parents toward their children. The truth is that some children experience parental blessing, and others do not, or at least not in equal measure. And though that is humorous on one level, on another level, at a much deeper level, the level of the heart, that can be a very painful experience that can lead to conflict within a family until it gets resolved.
It led Rebekah to deceive Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. But this did not turn out to be an experience of blessing for Jacob because it was rooted in deception and not in grace freely given. In receiving this blessing Jacob did not experience love and acceptance, but rejection from his father and his brother and inner turmoil. He was forced to flee for his life, and he spent the next 20 years of his life living as a fugitive, driven by his own unmet need for blessing.
Like Jacob many of us are driven by an unmet need for blessing, for the unconditional assurance that we are loved and accepted. Far too often we parents, and maybe especially we fathers, make our blessing conditional, subject to certain expectations. But that is approval not blessing. Blessing has to do with being not doing. It is dependent not upon what our children do but upon who they are. It separates love from expectations and achievements and accomplishments.
I can still hear the words of a man who told me once years ago, “I have spent my whole _____ life trying to please my old man.” And many more times in my 30 some years of ministry, I have had grown men and women tell me in as many words, “Just once I wish that my father or mother would have told me that they were proud of me, or that they loved me.” This is what I mean by our need for blessing. Giving our blessing is way of saying, “You are my child, and I will do all the parental things that I must do, but none of that will threaten my love and acceptance of you. That is unconditional. That is a given because you are my daughter or my son.”
When our blessing is withheld, or given only under certain conditions, we place a terrible burden upon our children. We are expecting them to earn what by its very nature cannot be earned. It can only be given. For finally blessing is not about merit. It is about grace, and the peace that comes from this.
But many of us are not at peace with ourselves. And I believe that some of our most driven, compulsive, and destructive behaviors have this as its root: we are not at peace because of an unmet need for parental blessing. As children we so want to believe that, if we just try hard enough, if we just live up to all the expectations, if we just make ourselves worthy of a parental blessing, then it will be forthcoming. But that is not always the case.
Then what? What do we do with this deep sense of rejection and unworthiness? Often we resort to some sort of violence, either towards ourselves, addictions, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, depression, suicide, or towards others. As we all know, so much of our news is just a litany of violence in our world. Just in our own nation, we are awash in violence. Verbal violence, ideological violence, violence in the media, violence in our homes, violence on our streets . . . Not too long ago I read a statistic that stunned me. In the past 50 years more people in America have been killed by guns than soldiers have been killed in all the wars in our national history. It is as if we are at war with ourselves.
Now I know that violence is a very complicated issue, and we need to respond to it in many different ways, and at many different levels. But I also know that the biblical understanding of our need for blessing, and the violence that can ensue when it goes unmet, reminds us that one of our responses must be a spiritual one because more often than not violence is a matter of the heart, and in these circumstance only a deep healing of the heart can end the cycles of violence, which brings us back to our story.
Jacob is returning home after 20 years away, when he hears word that Esau is coming out to meet him, with 400 men. Here is that specter of violence again. Why is Esau coming? Is he still holding a grudge against his deceptive younger brother? Sometimes we never really let go of our grudges, and family grudges are often the longest lasting. “We may bury our grudges,” goes an old saying, “but far too often we bury them in shallow, well-marked graves.” In other words, we do not really let go of them. We keep them close at hand, just in case.
So Jacob does not know why Esau is coming. But he spends the night alone, and during the night he is accosted by a mysterious figure, and Jacob wrestled with this figure as if his life depended upon it, and in a way it did. For what does Jacob ask for from this figure? He asks for what he has been seeking all of his life. “Bless me!” he says. He asks for a blessing, and after a night spent struggling for it, he finally at long last receives it.
And only then is he ready to go and meet Esau. Now secure in his own self, assured of his own worth by the blessing that he has received, Jacob is able to go and meet Esau not in a spirit of conflict, but in a spirit of contrition. Secure in his own self, assured of his own worth, Jacob does not have to keep up the fight with his brother, and he no longer needs to manipulate things to serve his own insecure sense of self and his own shaky sense of worth.
For only when we have this assurance of blessing are we willing and able to risk reconciliation because we know that our self is not at risk. God has already secured that by assuring us that we are loved and accepted. And assured of that, Jacob goes and bows before Esau, which was not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Few things in life take more courage than doing the things that make for peace. Keeping up the fight is a whole lot easier than trying to reconcile and make peace. So Jacob bows before his brother, and in one of the most poignant moments in all of scripture, Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, and kisses him, and together they weep, having been reconciled as brothers after so many years apart.
Though we are never told this in the scriptures, Esau too must have experienced blessing somewhere along the way in those intervening 20 years, for him to be able welcome home Jacob after what he had done to him. And because both had secured a sense of blessing in their own lives, they could become a blessing to each other, which is what we are all called to be for one another, as difficult as that can be sometimes. But then Jesus never said, not once, that it would be easy for us to follow him, to be in our troubled world bearers of blessing and instruments of peace.
I know that the horrific shooting in Orlando this past week is weighing on many of our hearts. I know that when I first heard the news as we were driving home from our attendance at the Northfield UMC anniversary celebration last Sunday, my first reaction was “No, God, not again.” And I know that like many of us I feel the pull of the shadow emotions of fear and anger and hatred, but I also know that we have a higher calling, and that we need to encourage one another to walk in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not always easy to do this especially in times like this, but again, Jesus never said that it would be the easy thing for us to follow him. Only that it would be the faithful thing. Donna has a very insightful article in our upcoming newsletter that speaks to this present moment, about the brush strokes that we tend to use to paint our perceptions of one another, and I encourage all of us to read and reflect upon it. And I want to end with a word from our bishop, Bishop Ough. He sent this out to all of the pastors this past week, but it is a word for all of us Methodists, and I believe it is more than just a word, it is one of the most important words that we can speak to one another, a word of blessing.
As the people called United Methodist, let us not lose heart, but redouble our commitment and efforts to fulfill God’s vision of the Beloved Community throughout the world. As we combat evil, let us not let evil fill our hearts. As we struggle to end violence, let us not let violence become our way of life. As we battle terrorism, let us not become terrorists in the process. As we seek to be vigilant, let us not let fear curtail our hospitality. And as we pray for peace, let it begin within our own spirits. Amen.