Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light of the World (12/25/11)

The Light of the World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Day 2011
John 1:1-18 (Scholars' Version)

Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true?   
Is that true for you?
Is that true for our world?

We all know about darkness in our world and in our own lives.  You can fill in the blanks regarding specifics.   We know the darkness is powerful.  Whether it be the darkness of greed, war, cruelty, or our own personal sadness and loss.    We can feel lost in the dark and without hope. 

We can even make a religion out of darkness.  Apocalyptic religion is based on the belief that our world is a lost cause.   It believes that the forces of darkness are so powerful that they control the world and that to destroy the darkness, the world must be destroyed with it.   It is a tempting religion for those who have lost hope or who have had engrained in them the belief that humanity is fallen, sinful, and evil. 

I don’t think that was the belief of Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or of other great spiritual leaders.  They saw instead that there is light in this world and that it shines and that it shines in you and in me.   This is not a matter of will or of moralizing or of claims that some people are more special and enlightened than others.  It is a matter of promise and hope and trust.  It is a matter of being in a position to see, of letting our eyes adjust so that we can see enough light to take another step.

During the season of Winter that started a few days ago, we will find each day get progressively longer.  More light each day.   Christmas borrowed from more ancient traditions and placed the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice.     Jesus took on the role of the sun god who brings light to the world.   It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that symbols change and that our sacred stories are borrowed.    It is only when we get literalistic about it and think our symbols are facts or historical events that we develop a tin ear. 

When we allow symbol, myth, and legend to become a kaleidoscope of light, we can see that our ancient stories and symbols are true in a deeper sense than we previously thought and that our various religious traditions are more alike than different.     The symbol of light shining in the darkness is a universal symbol that is as old as the old star watchers who had enough time to spend figuring out the patterns of the night sky and the rhythms of Earth.    

Our modern era based on the magic of fossil fuels gives us light 24-7.  With that we have lost the need and the skill to watch with eyes adjusted and open to the patterns of Earth and sky.   Those who have insight are alerting us that we may be needing those skills again.   

I have borrowed from theologian Matthew Fox and his four paths or four vias.   For each season of the year we honor a spiritual path.  
  • During summer we travel the path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.  
  • Fall is the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.
  • Spring is the way of compassion and justice making, the via tranformativa and 
  • Winter is the path of creativity and imagination, the via creativa
There is nothing absolute about any of that.   I just decided to arrange our celebrations and rituals that way.   I have chosen for this season of Winter, the via creativa, to read the Gospel of John in a new way.    For the next thirteen weeks we will be reflecting on scenes from the Gospel of John from a naturalistic or mystical perspective. 

The Jesus Seminar who looked through all the traditions of Jesus to separate what they thought went back to the historical person of Jesus found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John to go back to Jesus.  That doesn’t mean the Gospel of John is bad or doesn’t have value, it is just that it is a creative, imaginative reconstruction.   

In the Gospel of John, Jesus the historical person was transformed into the cosmic Christ.  This process happened before John, but you really see it in John.     What that means to me is that the author of John felt that he had permission to cast the Jesus story in this way.    If he had permission to tell the story of Jesus in a way that made sense, inspired, and told his truth, maybe we do as well. 

Since it is Christmas it is a good time to tell the truth, or at least to be honest about what we think is truthful.   To regard Jesus in a first century way as a supernatural being who comes to Earth, dies for sins, comes back to life, and goes back to heaven in the sky with the promise that he will come back again, is less than compelling for many of us.    If we don’t find it compelling it isn’t because we are bad or that we don’t have faith.  It is that we don’t live in that world and the symbols of that world don’t translate easily. 

That supernatural story fits the Gospel of John’s world.  He lived in what he thought was a geocentric universe and he saw the gods inhabiting the heavens and breaking into the world.   The scandal of John’s gospel is not that Jesus was a supernatural being and so forth, but that all of that elevated language was attributed to Jesus, as opposed to say, Augustus. 

Jesus was a nobody who was executed by the government as a criminal.    The elevated supernatural god language and miracles and what have you is not the scandal or the interesting part.  That all of that was applied to Jesus is the interesting part.  That is the scandal.  It can be life-changing if we let it.

I have been a minister for nearly twenty years preaching on these same texts and talking with people.  I find the same thing again and again.   We have been told all our lives that faith is about believing stuff, virgin birth, miracles, Jesus dying and rising, and that God is a supernatural being.    We end up wondering what is the least amount of stuff we have to believe and be OK.   I say none of that stuff matters.    Defining faith as belief in impossible things misses the point.   At least I think so.     

I see Jesus as John presents him as the myth of the authentic human.   Jesus 'shows us the Father" which I take to mean Jesus shows us how to become human, how to become real and authentic, how to live a life that matters.    That we can live a life that matters takes a great deal of faith. 

Here is the deal.  If Jesus represents the light that comes into the world at Christmastime, a light that the darkness does not overcome, what kind of light is that?   Further, if Jesus said that we are that light, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean to be light in the world? 

What I know of the historical person of Jesus is that he stood up for people who were put down.  He was accused of eating with sinners.   He knew that sinners were more fun.   He lived courageously.  He saw the wool that was being pulled over people’s eyes by those who were in charge.   He challenged the pretensions of the elite, and he told people who were nobodies like him, that they mattered.

“You are the light of the world,” he said to them.   

He talked about sharing, giving your coat and your shirt, going the second mile, turning the other check.   He said to give to those who beg from you.   He said live life as a passerby and travel lightly.    He talked about loving neighbors and loving enemies and forgiving people who wrong you.  He congratulated the poor.   He valued fairness, mercy, and compassion. 

The world said that is no way to run a government.  He said it is in my world.    He got on the wrong side of somebody and ended up being executed along with thousands of other “disturbers of the peace”.   

Then something strange happened.   His life and teachings touched a nerve, warmed a heart, transformed a mind, and people who remembered who he was and what he stood for wouldn’t let him go.   They decided to live his vision of a life that matters.   They felt his presence with him when they decided to live counter to values that they saw as darkness and injustice.     They felt empowered by the light of compassion and hope for the least of these.     They collected what they remembered of what he said and did.   They made a bunch of things up, but in many cases they were good things.  They attributed miracles to him because that is how they honored people then. 

After years had passed his life was put in story form.  The gospels were written including the Gospel of John.  The scandal of John’s gospel, like the others, is that they saw in this counter-cultural figure, this social prophet, this teacher of a strange kind of wisdom that the elite called foolish, they saw in him the way the world could be and really is at its heart.   

They decided that this is the light. 
This is the light that is in the world. 
This is the light that darkness cannot overcome. 
It is the light of joy at every child’s birth.   
It is the light of compassion for those who hurt in mind, body, and spirit. 
It is the light of concern for those mistreated.
It is the light of truth for the lies that are told to keep the powerful in power. 
It is the light of laughter. 
It is the light of delight in simple things like lilies and sparrows. 
It is the light of friendship. 
It is the light of simple decency. 
It is the light of Christ.  
It is in us.  
They decided to live the light.
It will never go out as long as we never forget who we are. 
That was their faith.  

That is the light we celebrate at Christmas. 
Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true? 

My faith says yes it is true.
That light may be little more than a single candle.
But it is enough light to take the next step. 

A book about Christmas that I particularly like is Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  I have taken a number of passages from it during this season as prayers and reflections for the bulletin.    Howard Thurman died in 1981.  He was influential in the life of Martin Luther King.    Thurman understood Christmas and its symbols as well as Christmas as a symbol.     I will let him have the last word on this Christmas Day.
The symbol of Christmas—what is it?  It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding.  It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live.   It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life.  It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.    P. 3  
Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Myth of Power (12/18/11)

The Myth of Power:  Two Josephs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Today I finish my sermon series on the myths of Genesis.   We have been working our way through these patriarchal myths through Fall.  We finish with the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favored son from his favored wife, Rachel.     It is a long story in terms of Biblical space.   It spans 13 chapters.   It took only eleven chapters to get from the creation of the universe through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the scattering of the people at Babel up to Abraham.     But it takes 13 longer chapters to tell the saga of Joseph.

When we get to Joseph, God, who is a literary character in our text, becomes more removed from daily life.    He doesn’t swoop in sending fire and brimstone down on bad cities.  He does not negotiate like he did with Abraham, or wrestle with people like he did Jacob, or walk in the garden in the cool of the day as he liked to do with Adam.   By the time we get to Joseph, God is distant.   He is not directly involved in human affairs.   He acts behind the scenes.  He communicates through dreams.

Joseph dreamed that his brothers would one day bow down to him.  They didn’t like his dreams.  So they sold him to some traders and told their father he had been killed by an animal.    Joseph’s dreams came true.  He became the most powerful person in Egypt next to the Pharaoh himself thanks to dreams.  

He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh about the seven skinny cows eating the seven fat cows.   Joseph said the dream meant that there would be seven fruitful years followed by seven lean years.  So he engineered a plan to store up grain when the sun shined and sell it to all the poor saps who didn’t get in on the dream.    Those saps included his brothers who during the lean period came to him to buy grain.  They bowed down to him, not recognizing who he was.  After a lot of manipulation, Joseph finally revealed himself to them.    He said to them:
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
This is the heart of the patriarchal myth, brothers reconciled.     Patriarchal mythology is not all negative.    It resides in the hope that brothers will make amends and live in peace.    Joseph has his father and brothers all come to live with him in Egypt.     The irony is that Joseph is the one responsible for buying up all of the land and the wealth in trade for this grain.  Through this process the people lose their land and become slaves.   This eventually leads to the slavery of his own descendants.     That is the setting for the next series of stories, with a new hero, Moses.

We are familiar with another Joseph in our scriptural tradition.  He takes the stage at Christmastime.  He is Joseph the wife of Mary and according to the mythology he is the surrogate father of Jesus.     In Matthew’s gospel, angels communicate with Joseph in dreams.    The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as a wife.   Later when Herod kills all the boys under two years old, angels communicate to Joseph to escape to Egypt and then to return when all is safe.   This is an echo of the Exodus story, where Pharoah tries to kill the Hebrew boys and Moses is hid in the bulrushes.   

These are birth of hero stories and divine providence stories.    It is more than coincidence that both characters are named Joseph and that they are dreamers.    They both participate in this divine plan of salvation.   The dreams are about providence, destiny, and power.    I am going to talk more about power in a bit.

I should say something about the virgin birth.    As far as the gospels are concerned, it is a minor event really.   It is like the pagan birth of the hero stories.    Miraculous births were common in mythology.      Why was Augustus such an incredibly gifted and powerful ruler?  Well, he must have been born of a god.   Stories were created of his miraculous birth.

In the Hebrew tradition as well, a miraculous birth indicated the hand of God’s providence.     The birth of Isaac was miraculous.   Isaac was born to Sarai who at 90 was long past child-bearing age.    Moses, too, was miraculously destined to be a hero.   The whole point of these myths is to call attention to the hero or to divine guidance.    The storytellers, Matthew and Luke in particular wanted folks to know that Jesus was important and used the storytelling device of miraculous birth to make that point.   

Christianity made much more of the virgin birth than was warranted in the texts.  It became a doctrine of faith.   The reason it was important for Christianity is because of the sin of Adam and Eve.    According to the dogma, because they disobeyed God they brought punishment upon themselves and the entire human race.  Their sin is passed down through procreation.     

The Virgin Birth allows the hero, in this case, Jesus, to save the world from sin because he is not tainted by sin.  He is the seed of God who is planted in Mary’s womb.   This is pre-modern patriarchal procreation.   In this understanding, the woman contributes nothing to the child.   She is the fertile ground, the vessel, the oven.   Jesus is thus the son of God in a literal sense.

Christianity ran with that.   From the Apostle’s Creed to the Fundamentalists at Princeton in the early 1900s, belief in the virgin birth was an essential of the faith.    Fundamentalists today still insist that unless you believe that the virgin birth is an historical event (as opposed to a legend) you can’t be a true Christian.    O.K.  Others of us think the whole notion is rather silly.   Although we still like to sing Christmas carols. 

The other day my Lovely asked me if I experienced the magic of Christmas.  I lied to her and said I didn’t.    But I really do.   I love it.  I love it all.   I do love the stuff of it and the busy-ness of it.   I love the music.   I love the mythology and the legends.  There really is something magical about it.  There is a feeling that something might break in to our mundane existence at Christmas.   

At Christmas, if we allow ourselves to get beyond our “bah humbugs”, we notice that maybe people are nicer than we give them credit for being.    And maybe we are not so bad ourselves.  Perhaps there is hope for humanity after all.   There is something beyond us that we cannot see or touch that is on the side of goodness.   Therefore we can trust.

I also like the radical message of hope for the powerless in the Christmas texts.    Mary when she learns she is pregnant sings a song with some very radical lyrics.     Listen to this:

My soul extols the Lord,
Ad my spirit has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name,
And his mercy will come to generation after generation
Of those who fear him.
He has shown strength of this arm,
He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
  
--Luke 1:46-55 Scholars' Version

Sounds like she was part of the Occupy Nazareth movement.

The scandal of Christmas is not that Jesus was son of God.    Images of the son of God were seen everywhere.  The Roman Imperial cult was filled with son of God propaganda.   Lest there be any doubt, Caesar was the son of God and he had the standing armies to prove it.    That is what a son of God has—power.   Power to fund armies.  Power to move populations from one place to another.    Power to build.  Power to destroy.  Power to feed and power to let starve.   

The scandal is not that Jesus is son of God as if that is something supernatural.  No, the scandal is that Jesus, the nobody,
the one without any army,
who wrote nothing,
who held no office,
who owned no property,
who was nobody in his own lifetime,
whose legacy is
welcoming and offering dignity to the marginalized,
pointing out and poking fun of the hypocrisy of the elite,
and resisting evil with non-violent transformative love,
that nobody who was tortured and executed by authority of Caesar, the son of God,
was the son of God.   

That is what the gospel writers claimed.  And everyone laughed at them for making up such preposterous stories.   These stories  weren’t preposterous and scandalous because of the legendary material, such as the virgin birth or other miracles like walking on water, turning water to wine, and rising from the dead.   Those stories in that culture were a dime a dozen.   Those stories were preposterous and scandalous in the gospels because they were attributed to a peasant not a king—to Jesus and not Caesar—to the 99% not the 1%.

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.   It asks us where is divine power?  Which side will we take?  Where is the sacred?  Where is the holy?  Is it found in the powerful, the wealthy, and the 1 percent?    Are the powerful ones those with the most weapons?  Are the powerful ones those who control buying and selling?   Are the powerful ones those who have the politicians in their pockets?   Are they the sons of God?

In a world in which divine favor was seen as power over, it would be obvious who the son of God was.  It sure wasn’t Jesus.     The scandal of Christmas says no, not Caesar, not the 1%.  It is in the 99% that we see holy, sacred, liberating, transformative power.    It is power with.     I am not making this up.   If you think it is not seemly to be political at Christmas then listen to Mary, the virgin mother of God:

He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.


You know those politicians who love to court the “Christian vote” and wear their Christian jewelry and hold up their Bibles while they allow corporate greed to destroy our mountains, I say to them, “Merry Christmas.   By the way, whose side is the son of God on?”

The scandal of Christmas is a choice. 
The choice is not whether or not to believe that Jesus was historically and biologically born of a virgin.    
The choice is where do we want to put our energies. 
To whom do we want to share our lives?    
It isn’t about judgment and heaven and hell.  
It is about what is sacred for you and what matters.   
Where will you put your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? 
Where do see sacred power?  
Power that shares, strengthens, liberates, and sustains. 
Power for everyone including Earth and our more than human relations.   
Christmas is that magic time.
It is time to allow that sacred power to be born in us.   

It is in the interests of the powerful to turn our religious texts and traditions into superstitious trivia.       That is why I sound so critical of Christianity.    Much of it is superstitious trivia.   Despite that, I find that its message, its scandalous message is far deeper and far more interesting than believing in life after death or supernaturalism.  It is about the possibility of living a life that matters here and now.  Not a big life, just one that matters.  In fact, Jesus, more than anyone, was one who didn’t matter in the scheme of things.   The story of Jesus is the story of a non-person who is every person who was no person.    

Historically, we know virtually nothing about him, but his legacy is the legacy that giving your life to good things is a good thing.   Jesus, the son of God wasn’t great.    Augustus was great.   Jesus was instead good.  

That is the calling isn’t it? 
To be decent. 
To be good. 
To be on the side of those who are hungry and without health care. 
To be on the side of our mountains, trees and streams.  
To value intelligence over greed.  
To think of the future in terms of generations of lives not just next quarter’s profits. 
To provide a decent wage for decent work. 
To not blame the poor for being poor.   

Being good is a powerful force.

The two Josephs have a common theme.   That is providence.    Through their dreams both are guided by Divine Providence.    I don’t always know what to make of Divine Providence.  I am suspicious because it is so trivialized.   God led me to score this touchdown.   It can be used to justify the status quo.    In the Christmas story, in Joseph’s story, in Mary’s story, and in Jesus’ story, Providence is on the side of the poor and the hungry.    Providence is on the side of those who have been put down.  

Providence means that there is something beyond us that we do not know and cannot touch and see, but yet it guides.   Intellectually, I am not sure I know about that.  But my heart says, “Yes.”  There are times when we feel urged, called, and guided.   There are times that I know what I need to be doing and that it wasn’t my own doing that put me here.    Most of the time I don’t know.  I don’t have a clue.   I just show up.

You may wonder what your life is to be about, what it is you want to be.   It could be a transition time for you.    Enter the magic of Christmas and the magic of the Winter Solstice.  It is one of those times when the fabric between the divine and the human is thin, and that we might get a notion, a dream, a nudge, a word that all will be well and that the Sacred is guiding us,
so we can trust,
and try to be on the good side. 

Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Icons of Sorrow (12/4/11)

Icons of Sorrow
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

Genesis 35:8,16-20; Jeremiah 31:15-17
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”

Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.


We are nearing the end of our series on the myths of Genesis. Next week our choir will present an Advent musical celebration. On the 18th we will look at a tale of two Josephs, the dreamer Joseph in Genesis and another dreamer named Joseph who according to the gospels was the husband of Mary who was in turn the mother of Jesus.

Today we are going to honor Rachel and the other women of Genesis, but particularly Rachel, because she is the icon of sorrow. She is mentioned again in Jeremiah and in Matthew as one who weeps for her children and refuses to be consoled. Sorrow is the work of the via negativa, the way of letting go and letting be. It is appropriate, or to use liturgical language it is “meet and right” to make space for sorrow during Advent. Advent is about hope, but the first word is longing for what is not. It is recognition that things are not as they might be, that a future of promise awaits.

As we move to the end of the via negativa and into the via creativa with the coming winter solstice there is a coming together with these myths of Genesis--these the sorrows of patriarchy--and Advent.

With Advent we can become conscious of patterns of living that we need to let go so that a new creativity might be born within us. It is no accident that the myth of the birth of Jesus is placed near the winter solstice. In the northern hemisphere at the darkest time of the year, Divine Creativity dispels the darkness in the cry of a tiny babe.

Before we get to that cry, we have to journey through some other tears first.

As I have been saying during this series of sermons, the myths of Genesis are patriarchal myths and that fact should not be understated. Patriarchy or father-power is based on a particular theory of procreation. It is a pre-modern theory to be sure, but it is not just pre-modern as if all pre-modern societies had the same theory.

The patriarchal theory of procreation is seen in the myths of Genesis and in the myth of Jesus in the metaphor of the seed. In this theory of procreation, the male possesses the seed that contains the identity or the creativity of the human that is planted in the womb or “the ground.” The ground or womb does not contribute identity to the new life that is formed. The womb, like ground, nurtures the seed.

The seed belongs to the father in a way it does not belong to the mother. Thus father has father-power, that is power-over the seed and the womb. Thus Abraham is allowed to “sacrifice” his own seed, Isaac, without even needing to consult Isaac’s mother. It is a deal between the males, Father Abraham and his Father God.

This Father God promises Abraham seed as many as there are stars in the sky. He also promises Abraham, land, ground, in which he might plant his seed. This promise is extended to the other patriarchs, Isaac, and Jacob, and their sons. When you own both seed and ground you own the world. Just ask Monsanto.

It is a patriarchal notion that the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs is land and plenty of seed. This is the promise of a patriarchal god. One could imagine other versions of hope and the good life other than the males of a particular tribe owning all the land and seed. 

Genesis
 is not the way it has to be or the way it always has been everywhere. It is the way of a particular and peculiar patriarchal way of understanding and organizing life that ended up becoming the basis for three monotheistic and patriarchal religions and the dominant mythology of western culture. (Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial)

The myths of Genesis and the characters that are constructed in these stories including "God" have an agenda. That agenda is to sustain father-power and make it sacred. Now I do think that at times these stories transcend that and at least offer a self-critique. Nonetheless, these stories on the whole serve to make father-power or patriarchy normative. The god of Genesis and of pretty much the whole Bible is a male god. As theologian Mary Daly pointed out in her book, Beyond God the Father, when god becomes male, the male becomes god.

It is important to say here that this isn’t about males being bad and females being good. We are talking about patriarchy or father-power which is a particular way of organizing society. While father-power can give some males privilege and material advantage, father-power ultimately is sorrowful for men and women alike as well as sorrowful for Earth and its creatures. Advent hope, in my view, is about re-ordering power. If we can provide a critique of power structures we can also imagine and create new power structures.

Where might we begin? The myths of Genesis contain interesting subtleties that challenge this father-power agenda. These subtleties are seen in the cracks of the stories, at the seams, in what appear to be throwaway verses or asides. These subtleties appear in some cases in the stories of the women. When we read the stories of the women of Genesis we might ask ourselves some questions.
  • Do they have voice?
  • If they have it, how do they use it?
  • How do they exercise agency?
  • How do they exercise and manipulate power?
  • What are the limits of their autonomy?
  • How do they access the sacred?
  • How do the storytellers utilize them and view them?
  • To what extent are they stereotypes and part of the storyteller’s agenda?
  • To what extent do they speak back and undercut the storyteller?
  • How does the overarching promise of seed and land relate to them?
One of the critiques in the father-power agenda is found in the epitaph of Deborah, Rebekah’s maid. Another is in Rachel’s naming of her son, Benoni. Peter Pitzele, in his book, Our Father’s Wells, does a magnificent midrash of Deborah. He creates a story from her point of view that is his own critique of the patriarchal myths. Pitzele introduced me to these two verses.

Deborah’s first:
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”
That is it. That is all we know about her. Yet there is a sense in which that verse speaks volumes. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau had a nurse, a slave, that appears only here in her death, but has been with her throughout the whole narrative, including that of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and all the birthing of the 11 sons and one daughter, to Jacob, his wives, and their slaves.

What is the weeping? Who was Deborah? What is her story? We don’t know. We have to tell it.

The second series of verses:
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
Rachel dies in childbirth. Rachel previously had a son Joseph. This is her second son. She names him Benoni, which means, “son of my sorrow.” But that isn’t the name we know. Rachel’s husband, Jacob, re-named him Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand.”

I have two questions for these stories. Questions that I won’t get answers to except that I make them up. The first question is why the weeping? What are they weeping over? Why weep over Deborah, a character who we don’t know and who says nothing? What is Deborah’s sorrow? And what is Rachel’s sorrow, a sorrow so deep she wants it remembered in the naming of her son? The first question is why the weeping and the second question is why did the author include these verses?

We might say, there you go, Jacob the heel, doesn’t even honor his dying wife’s freedom to name her own son. Yes, that is right. But, why does the author tell us that? Why does the patriarchal storyteller keep that detail, or create it?

I don’t know. But my answer is the point of my sermon. I think the weeping, the sorrow that is seen in the epitaph for Deborah and in Rachel naming her son is sorrow over the wound of patriarchy. The storytellers include the weeping, perhaps in spite of themselves, because something is not right about patriarchy and they know it.

The women of Genesis, Eve, who gets blamed for original sin, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, Deborah, Dinah, Tamar, are windows into the wounds of patriarchy. They show us the dark side of father-power in large part by what they don’t say.
As her soul was departing she named him ‘son of my sorrow’.
That sentence is enough to unravel all the pretensions of patriarchy. Rachel becomes the icon of sorrow. In the period of Exile, she is used by the author of Jeremiah as a symbol for the reality of exile and defeat and the symbol for hope for return and restoration. In Matthew’s gospel, she is used in the story of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. That is a fictional story. But I think Matthew is using that story and that icon to reflect on the sorrow of the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred just a decade or so before he wrote his gospel.

The sorrow and the weeping is not weakness. The sorrow and the weeping of Rachel is strength. You cannot save, you cannot advocate, you cannot give your life for that which you cannot weep. When we stop weeping, we stop caring.

When I am talking about father-power I am talking about power over. It is not just about gender. It is about a way of living that owns, controls, and ultimately exploits, abuses and destroys. It is about who gets to speak and who must remain silent. It is about who controls the land and the seed and who gets slaughtered and removed from it.

I joked earlier about Monsanto and the seed and land. But it wasn’t really a joke. It isn’t about Monsanto alone. It is about father-power, empire-power, corporation-power, militaristic-power, exploitative power that wants all the land and all of the seed for itself. That is patriarchy and women can be patriarchal as well as men.

Our hope is in the weeping.

About five years ago, in March, I remember waking up in the middle of the night sobbing. For several months previous to that night, I felt like had taken a crash course in everything that was wrong with the world, from Peak Oil, to oceans filled with plastic crap, to species going extinct by the thousands, to the religious sanction of prejudice, and wars without end, amen and amen, and it overwhelmed me. I wept. Through it all I was anxious about my own self. And I felt ashamed for being so self-absorbed. But that is what depression is. I struggled with this depression for some time.

Slowly, I have come to regard this depression and this weeping as a calling. It is an invitation from Spirit to compassion. It is an invitation to use my voice while I have it to speak for Rachel and her son, Benoni, son of my sorrow. If we cannot weep, we cannot care. If we cannot care, we cannot act. Sometimes even when we care we cannot act. That is when we wait and we watch and we let our mortal flesh keep silence. We allow Rachel to weep for her children and put off consolation.

I also know there is a light. I have felt it and seen it. I see it in my fellow weepers, who weep for our mountains, for children, for justice, and for the 99 percent. I see that light of creativity, courage, and compassion. I know no more and probably no less than the experts know what is coming in regards to the foundations that are shaking. But I don’t lose hope. My weeping has made my hope stronger, not that everything will turn out as I want, but that the light, the light of creativity that we honor and anticipate in Advent will shine in us and in our world.

That light will change us. That light will open up ways of living and sharing power that we had no idea were possible. We will find ways to share and care beyond our imagination.

Unexpected things happen.
That is the Advent hope.

In Jeremiah, to the weeping Rachel, the Holy One speaks:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
That to me is a hope embedded in these patriarchal texts that transcends patriarchy. There is hope for our future and for our children that will come as we care to weep and to allow those tears to open our minds and hearts for the creative, life-giving, Earth-sustaining, dignity-granting, peace-enabling power of the Sacred.

May this Advent season transform your tears into a calling and into hope.

Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas (11/27/11)

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2011

Infancy Gospel of James, 1-5

Genesis 29:31-30:24 
When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.
 

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali.
 

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher.
 

In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But she said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ Rachel said, ‘Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, ‘God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband’; so she named him Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, ‘God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons’; so she named him Zebulun. Afterwards she bore a daughter, and named her Dinah.
 

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’


Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent.

It is a season “pregnant with possibility”. One of the leading metaphors for Advent is pregnancy. Pregnancy is a condition that lends itself to metaphor as shown by Sylvia Plath’s poem, Metaphors:
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
The hope of Advent traditionally is realized in the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was considered to be Theotokos or the Mother of God. The Divine Spirit passed through her womb. She was pregnant with God. The spiritual life is conceived (conceived!) as re-birth. We are to be like Mary, a vessel, or in the words of Sylvia Plath, “a means, a stage, a cow in calf” for Christ to be born in us. The spiritual life is not mine, but Christ in me.

“Not my will, but thine be done,” so goes the expression.

The early Christians were clever enough to appropriate Winter Solstice as the time this divine birth occurred, making Jesus the Light of the world, born in the darkest hour. Wombs, babies, and Christmas. Advent is full of it.

During Autumn we have been exploring the myths of Genesis. These myths are patriarchal myths. You may wonder why I keep bringing up patriarchy. The reason is that if we don’t acknowledge that these stories are patriarchal stories, we may conclude that they are universal human stories, or even supernatural or divinely created stories. They are human stories created by human beings within the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy literally means father-rule or father-power.

Patriarchy is one answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?” That is an important question. How that question is answered determines how power is managed and who manages it. Who has control over babies and birthing? Whose womb is it? All of these debates that we are having regarding abortion are about power. Who controls the womb? Christianity’s answer is that the Holy Church controls every womb. Christianity, Islam and Judaism were formed, birthed, if you like, in the context of patriarchy—“father—power”. That is based on a particular answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?”

“Father-power” influences our contemporary discussions on sex and marriage. Who gets to have sex with whom? Who gets to be married? Who decides what marriage is? Who decides what the appropriate living arrangements are for human beings? Who decides gender roles? Who is responsible for reproduction? In short, who controls the womb?

We ought to be reading these stories, these myths of the Bible with great care. Not just the myths of Genesis, also the myths of Jesus. We ought not on one hand appropriate their spirituality into our lives without discernment. Nor should we on the other hand dismiss and ignore them. Because they have power, we need to understand them.

The church is obsessed with sex and wombs. Why is reason, rationality, and equality met with so much resistance by the church? The power structures of the church have advocated for a certain power arrangement, namely, father-power. These defenders of “traditional marriage” and “family values” claim that God is the one who set all of these laws in His Bible.     When we begin to actually read these stories in the Bible and we begin to unravel these claims we discover that at least in part, probably in large part, the “God” who supposedly made up all of these rules is a projection of patriarchy itself. It is patriarchy writ in the heavens.

Patriarchal spirituality is taking human power arrangements and projecting them onto the heavens as if these arrangements were absolute, divine truth. So Jesus being born of the Father to a virgin is most definitely a story only patriarchy could create.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Where do babies come from?

In pre-modern societies, that is before the modern science of reproduction, there were and are many theories. Anthropologist, Carol Delaney, in her book Abraham on Trial suggests a few:

In Australian aboriginal society the male opens the passage for a fetus to come by other means. Repeated intercourse is a process by which the male feeds the fetus. Delaney writes that in “China and some African societies, the male contributes a particular substance such as bones.” P. 27

Only in patriarchal societies, is the “male imagined as the primary, engendering, creative agent.” P. 27

That is the way Genesis and the Jesus mythology understand procreation. The male has the seed which is the identity and creative agent or the life that is planted in the womb, like a seed is planted in the garden. The womb or ground nurtures the seed.

In this theory of procreation, the father owns the seed, and ultimately, the child and the womb. Marriage was the process of trading wombs from one man to another. The key here is that the male has the life-giving role and the male is symbolized as divine creativity. (Delaney, p. 28)

In this very odd story of Rachel and Leah, we can see what is at stake for these two sisters competing for the affections of their husband by having as many sons as possible. The story assumes that wombs, like ground, can be barren as opposed to fruitful. There is status on behalf of the women to be able to nurture the patriarch’s seed. Jacob owns these two women. He controls their wombs for the most part.

But there is also a hierarchy of control. For instance the slave women of Rachel and Leah have children on behalf of their mistresses. Rachel and Leah have some control over “the ground” or the wombs of their slaves, so the seed planted in the slave belongs to the owner, as much as the seed can belong to the female.

God in this view is imagined as the ultimate Father, the primary patriarch. He speaks for the most part to the men. He makes promises and establishes covenants with the men. He has the men be circumcised as a sign of this covenant. The sign of circumcision reminds everyone that all seed belongs to him. All seed belongs ultimately to God the Father. Not only that, but God the Father owns all the wombs. He opens them and closes them as he is wont to do.

It is a set up for conflict. The sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Rachel and Leah is about who will win the Father’s favor. The stories are written such that God the Father simply chooses who he will favor and who he will not. The power arrangements are seen as “the way it is supposed to be” and divinely ordained. I find this story of Rachel and Leah to be comically depressing. That is it? The value of your whole life is to please a man?

When we get to the New Testament and then into the speculations of the early church, not much has changed. Jesus comes to be seen as the Divine Son of God, the Divine Seed that passed through and is nurtured by Mary’s womb. Mary, even though the church bestowed upon her the title of Theotokos or Mother of God, did not contribute anything to Christ’s identity. Jesus is not part Mary and part God. Her role was to be a pure, receptive, vessel.

The story in the Infancy Gospel of James, created likely in the middle of the second century, is concerned that Mary was pure enough to be the ground so it tells the story of Mary’s birth as miraculous. The “barren” Anna gives birth to Mary. This makes Mary pure enough to be the holy ground that nurtures the divine seed. Now, Jesus is absolutely "untainted" by humanity. Still, Mary contributes nothing to the creativity or identity of Jesus.

This is all mythology, of course. Jesus would turn over in his grave if he were to know the religion that was made about him. Nevertheless, the mythology is what captures our interest especially during seasons like Advent and Christmas. I am not suggesting that we do away with the mythology. What I am saying is that the mythology might be richer if we challenge the patriarchal assumptions behind it.

Christians are called to the spiritual life of being a vessel for the divine. We are to be like Mary and give birth to divine creativity. We are to deny ourselves so that Christ lives in us. As Mary says to the angel:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
That comes from a patriarchal understanding of God that is not necessarily bad. But before we jump into it, before we decide that our wills and our identity ought to be replaced, we should consider what we are doing.

There is an assumption in this spirituality that human beings are by nature sinful and bad and that our salvation requires a total replacement of our will by God’s will. We have nothing to contribute except to be a vessel. I grew up with that and my guess is that you have as well and to challenge such a notion might be seen as arrogant or rude. As always, you have the freedom to accept or reject anything I say.

My spirituality is changing in that if God and I are going to have babies together then I will contribute equally to this birth. My life or my identity is important and it is part of me and it has value. I will be a partner with Christ but I won’t merely be a vessel. I am playing with metaphors, of course. But metaphors shape who we are, how we live, and what we value. Humans created these metaphors. We can create new ones.

The consequences of human beings giving up their identity, saying that we are all bad and in need of replacement, are not always so good. Think of the whole Christ vs. Culture thing. In this view, culture is bad and is in opposition to and inferior to Christ. This has led to the aggressive nature of Christianity that needs to take everything over. In this view, the secular and the material is nothing but inert ground, barren, lifeless until the divine seed of creativity, male creativity at that, impregnates it.

One of the insights of science and reproduction is that we might imagine spirituality in a different way. As men and women can be equal partners in reproduction, we are co-creators with the Divine, not just vessels. A spirituality that imagines the Divine not just as a seed or a spark within us, but as totally mixed with us is far more appealing to me. Everything is divine.   All is sacred. Every cell is holy.

When I think of Advent hope, I don’t think of myself as a lowly vessel giving birth to God. Rather, I am an active participant in this creative work. Each of us is an active participant in this creative work. Earth itself is an active participant in this work. We are less in need of a divine savior to take us over and to whom we must submit. We are more in need of taking responsibility for our lives and for our future.
Advent hope is not sitting around waiting for Jesus to come again and make everything right. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
This Advent we can take responsibility for the future we hope to see. We are giving birth and what is being born is a product of our intelligence, energy, imagination, and love as it interacts with divine creativity, or as the late theologian Gordon Kaufman called it, serendipitous creativity.

What are your hopes?
Advent is a good time to dream them.
--our personal hopes, hopes for our relationships, and our global hopes.
As we dream them we create them.
We, women and men both, are creative agents in this holy work.

Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wrestling With God (11/20/11)

Wrestling With God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

John Shuck
November 20, 2011

Genesis 32:22-32
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. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.


During the season of Autumn we are working our way through the myths of Genesis. If you haven’t recently, I invite you to take an hour or two and read Genesis. Skim the genealogies so you don’t get mired in them and move on to the narrative portions. They are our stories. When I say “our” I mean Western Culture’s stories.

All the way through the 19th century in academic circles (and it is still the case for most people) Genesis told the story of Earth and human origins. Since Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, we know intellectually at least, that Genesis has been replaced by science in regards to Earth’s and humanity’s story. Rather than the Bible telling the story of the universe and the human condition, it is now one part of a human story that is encompassed by a much larger story that grows larger each day through use of the tools of science.

Those of us for whom the Bible has been our book, the Word of God, wrestle with this. Like Jacob at River Jabbok, we have been wrestling with this new story and we are not going down easily. Why Creationism for example? There may be a number of reasons but I think one is the anxiety over the loss of the Bible as the grand narrative. Their beliefs will not allow that. "The Bible is the only book God ever wrote." So they try to fit the universe into the Bible.     That could go on for some time especially as the guardians of the texts, the church and its theologians, priests, and preachers, continue to operate as if nothing has changed.

Those of us who know this change wrestle too. We know the Bible no longer contains the grand narrative but it does say something about us. We wrestle with what it does say. We turn to the literary critics who tell us about myth, irony, and motif, and to the depth psychologists who can tell us about archetypes, shadow, and projection and to anthropologists who can tell us about patriarchy.

We turn to these stories as myths, not universal human myths, but myths forged from patriarchy that still have a hold on us, our values and our drives, regardless of whether we identify as religious or not.

When I read these stories and enter them I see myself in them in surprising ways, not unlike when I realize that I have become my father or my mother. You know that experience don’t you? Someone else might make the observation, “You are just like your dad” and it is not meant in a positive way. But it often isn’t good or bad, just what is. These stories, like our parents, are part of us. Even as much as we might like to move beyond them, we may find it is not so easy.

I also see my spirituality in these stories. Even in the stories from which I recoil, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, I see myself. What parent does not look back and ask “What have I sacrificed for my ideals or some code or script written or unwritten that I am compelled to follow? Who did I sacrifice for it?”

I see myself in Jacob, wily, charming, cunning, deceitful, and yet na├»ve, ambitious, needy, and in love. Reading Genesis can be therapy. We find here the stories of wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, siblings. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. These stories can be doorways into our own psyches. As we give these characters voice, our voice, we can recognize our wounds and perhaps even honor these wounds and allow healing.

We have to be careful. These stories are raw. They are not politically correct. They are patriarchal. Carol Delaney, author of Abraham On Trial, pointed out that patriarchy is based on a theory of procreation in which the seed belongs to the male and is planted in the female who is like the ground. The identity, the soul, is the father’s. Thus the father has control over the sons and daughters. They belong to him in ways they do not belong to the mother. This is a theory of procreation that belongs to patriarchy and it is not universal. Nevertheless, patriarchy is the dominant mythology in Western culture.

What about God? How does patriarchy imagine God? The sacred or the holy is presented as other. For Genesis and the myths of patriarchy, God is not Mother Earth. Not a She. God is not seen in every flower. I and God are not one. Those notions of the sacred and the holy are very different traditions. For Genesis, the sacred is wholly other. W-h-o-l-l-y as in completely and H-o-l-y as in set apart.

I am not saying that that view of the sacred is right or wrong, it is what it is. That Holy, that Other, that Sacred, intrudes itself, uninvited and unexpected. “And God said to Abram, “Go!” And after that, no communication for a long while. That is the myth of the call. The myth of giving up everything and following. The Holy intrudes when you don’t want it and is absent when you call for help. The spirituality of this is the constant struggle, the wrestling with this intrusive absence. That is the experience of the patriarchal sacred. God is on his own time. He has his own agenda.

And he owns your seed. That is the mark of circumcision. You, Father Abraham, your seed, your children, your sons and daughters belong to the Holy. Within the tradition that is the test of Abraham. Will he or will he not acknowledge that Isaac is not his but belongs to the Holy? If Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to the Holy and give him back to the Holy, then he is faithful to the Holy. In the story the Holy acknowledges the faithfulness of Abraham and gives him back his son. I provided a critique of that story last week. I won’t go into that again.

Now we enter into the sibling cycle. This is the story of Jacob. His story begins in the womb when he is struggling with his twin brother Esau. God tells their mother, Rebekah, that two nations are wrestling within her. When they are born, Esau is born first but Jacob grabs Esau’s heel. The name, Jacob, means “heel” and it also means “one who supplants.” Jacob, the heel, is going to take Esau’s position.

Jacob is the smooth man and Esau is the hairy man or the red man. Esau is an outdoors guy and he hunts. He is his father Isaac’s favorite. But Jacob is a smooth man. A smooth operator. He is his mother’s favorite.

One day Esau comes back from the hunt and is hungry and Jacob prepares some stew and Esau trades his birthright for the stew. That is where we get the image for making a bad deal.  Foolish Esau traded something valuable for a bowl of pottage. That isn’t the only trick that Jacob "the heel" will play.

Isaac is old and he can’t see. He is about to give his final blessing to Esau. Rebekah tells Jacob that he needs to get that blessing instead. She puts animal skins on him and he brings in some mutton and offers it to his father pretending he is Esau. Isaac has his doubts but is convinced enough to bless Jacob thinking he is blessing Esau. Here is the blessing:

May God give you of the dew of heaven,
And of the fatness of the earth,
And plenty of grain and wine.
Let people serve you,
And nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
And may your mother’s sons
Bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
And blessed be everyone who blesses you.

These words have power. These blessings are prophecies. The blessing is like an arrow that has been shot. Once it is sent, it is no longer under control of the sender. Isaac cannot take it back. When he realizes that he has been duped, there is nothing he can do for Esau except give him a second-rate blessing:

See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
And way from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother;
But when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.

Esau is pretty upset. He vows to kill his brother. Jacob heads for Haran.

One night Jacob camps out and he has a dream. He dreams of a ladder that goes to heaven and angels go up and down it and the Lord speaks and tells him that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and he will make Jacob a great nation.

Jacob’s response is tepid. He says yeah this is cool. He performs a lightweight spiritual ritual by pouring some oil on a small rock and says to himself:
If God will protect me and give me bread and clothing and peace at my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God.
We know enough about these stories to know that that isn’t what you do with the Holy. There are no conditions. We know that Jacob has some things to learn.

He goes to Laban’s home--his mother’s brother’s house--and falls in love with his cousin, Rachel, who is the younger sister to Leah. The lovestruck Jacob makes a deal to work seven years for Rachel. Jacob is the Bible's first romantic. Here is the text:

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
But on the wedding night, the cunning Laban who was even more cunning than Jacob, sends Leah to the marriage bed. How Jacob didn’t know I never could fathom. Maybe too much wine? Anyway, he is tricked and has consummated a marriage with Leah instead. Laban says you can have Rachel, too, but you will have to work another seven years.

Seven years and more and eleven sons and one daughter later between his two wives, their slaves, and plenty of loot that he tricked from Laban, Jacob leaves. He has a destiny. He must meet his brother, Esau. The dream of the patriarchal myths is brotherhood. One day brothers will live in peace. This is the dream of patriarchal spirituality. This is the hope.
Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
it is like the precious oil on the head, running down the beard of Aaron,
running down the over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
While on the journey, Jacob gets word that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and he has 400 men with him. Jacob sends him gifts and flattery and bribery, one bunch of them after another after another, and he divides his family and sends them on ahead in different groups so that if Esau attacks one the other might escape.

He waits alone on the River Jabbok. He does the one activity that is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He prays. He prays that God will protect him like God is supposed to and deliver him from his brother. Jacob, all alone, has what we call the dark night of the soul. Solitude is most certainly a centerpiece of patriarchal spirituality. You have to walk that lonesome valley. Ain’t nobody gonna walk it for you. You have to walk it by yourself.

Jacob is all alone. He has no more tricks left. Jacob is alone with his sins. Been there? That night a man wrestles with him until daybreak. Out of nowhere. That is how patriarchal spirituality works. It is dusty and bodily and sweaty. It is violent and erotic. Jacob wrestles a man until daybreak.

Jacob proves not to be just a smooth mama’s boy after all. He is a good match. So good that the man can only get away by wounding him. He touches his hip. The word for hip is yarekh. It also means loins. There is a sense in which the wounding is the wounding of the sexual power and drive, the source of the seed. It is another sign that the holy controls the seed.

Even when wounded, Jacob will not let go until he gets a blessing. The man will not tell him his own name, but he does rename Jacob. He calls him Israel, one who struggles with God. With the name Israel, he comes to represent in his story the people of Israel. His twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel. Christianity supplanted that tradition with its twelve apostles. Both traditions go back to the founding figure, Jacob, who wrestles with the Holy. Peter Pitzele in his book, Our Father’s Wells writes of wrestling:
Wrestling is a metaphor for the patriarchal sense—and my own—of the soul’s existential reality. Soul is made by grappling with ultimate things: with one’s own nature, with one’s kin, and with God. As a poetic image and as a way of life, wrestling seemed to me the unique contribution of the patriarchal tradition, its splendid excess. P 191
I identify in many ways with Jacob. He is not an admirable person. He is a chess player and a schemer. He calculates and deceives. The fact that God picks him makes me question God’s judgment. Adonai is not always a good judge of character. Adonai picks who he wants despite their character. I don’t think Jacob ever really trusts God like his grandfather Abraham did. Jacob always wants something. But that maybe is the point.

God is not easy for Jacob. This is why I identify with him. Jacob does things the hard way. God is a struggle. His spirituality comes from lonely nights wrestling. I am putting on Jacob things that aren’t in the text now. I am taking him over. Jacob is for me the one who simply won’t stop doubting and struggling. Faith is not simple for Jacob. It is not trust and obey. It is
Fight me all night long, God, and I won’t give up.
This spirituality, the myth of wrestling allows for putting it all out there. There is nothing to hold back. This is a spirituality to which you can give all of your doubts, all of your shortcomings, your anger, your battle with authority, your addictions, whatever you got. There is no place for being politically correct or pious or nice. The Sacred, the Divine Wrestler will take you on as you are. You wrestle in the dirt with this God and you don’t ask for permission. You take it.
“I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
You wrestle until you are wounded, even then you hold on. You will get renamed.

That is why Jacob gets the story and not Esau. Esau is a better man. Esau is a moral human being. He is simple. He trusts. He forgives. They meet and they embrace and Esau kisses him and hugs his neck. Esau is good. He doesn’t have that ambition. Jacob is not a good man. But Jacob is chosen because he is a son of a gun who will not give up. Jacob is the survivor. That is the heart of the patriarchal tradition that still lives with us and still has its value.

Life, the Holy, the Sacred, God, whatever you call it is a struggle.
You don’t have to love it.
But don’t let go.
Wrestle with it until you are blessed.
Wrestle with it until dawn.

Amen.