O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ancient Testimony ~ Genesis 27:1-29

February 05, 2012

by Rev. Michael Ellick

The story read so well at the top of our service is part of the epic Origin Story of the entire Judeo-Christian world that we live in. Humans had been alive and thriving on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years before that, but the Genesis stories represent the beginning of our modern historical memory, and as such I believe they both reveal and conceal some of the deepest spiritual mysteries of our lives. Now I love the Jacob stories in particular, and here at Judson we will be reflecting on these in our Wednesday and Sunda¬¬y services through the end of Lent. But there can be no better example of what these primal myths offer us, than the story today of Esau and Jacob.

And it’s like a soap opera, or a reality TV show: on the surface of it, Jacob and his mother Rebekah steal a blessing away from Esau – Jacob’s older brother, his father’s favorite son, and the true cultural heir to the family legacy. And in the story that’s a really big deal – because the blessing is not just a well wishing, it’s the transmission of God’s sacred plan from one generation to the next. As the story goes, God had made a pact with Jacob & Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, and the idea was that God was going to use this family to build a whole nation, and to shape the destiny of the entire world. So when Abraham dies, the promise is transferred to his first-born son Isaac, and now that Isaac is dying, his intention is to pass it along to his firstborn son Esau in the form of a blessing.

Well I love these stories, because even though they get used in all these crazy moralistic ways, they completely defy our traditional ideas of ethics and morality. In this case, everyone reading the story would know that Jacob would end up as God’s chosen one. And you’d think this would make Jacob a special person, some kind of a saint, or at least someone just or fair or any of the other things we have come to expect from a holy person. But on the surface of it, Jacob doesn’t look like any of those things. The story seems to goes out of its way to show Jacob (and his mother) scheming, and plotting, and manipulating their way to success inside God’s master plan. To a modern reader, Jacob is almost a villain, or at the very least a shady trickster. But there is a far more disturbing subtext: because the reader knows that it is ultimately God who is orchestrating these events, there is a direct implication in the book of Genesis that God is the real villain of this story, or at the very least its shady trickster. To my mind this is one of the questions at the center of the Jacob Cycle: is God’s plan good for us, or bad for us? Would we even know what good for us or bad for us looked like, and not knowing, how do we make right relationship with God, with each other, and with the world?

Well stick around in the weeks ahead and we will explore some of these big questions, but today I want us to look specifically at this idea of a blessing and to think about what that means for us. What is a blessing? Walter Brueggemann describes it is the special words and gestures that bind our lives to a precious past and a promised future. For Jacob it was a mystical transmission that fused him into a cosmic plan for human redemption. But what is it for us? What would it even mean for us to be blessed, or to pass along our blessings to others?

Two examples of a blessing: the first comes from when I was 25. Fresh out of Union Theological Seminary, I felt so completely unblessed, that I was willing to travel to the other side of the planet to find the most “legitimate” source of blessings that I could find. I traveled to Rajpur, India, to meet His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism, the Holy Guru of my own teacher the Venerable Lama Pema Wangdak here in New York City. And it was a very large honor for me to meet the Sakya Trizin, and it was very difficult for me to get to where he lived, and when I finally was shown to the very regal throne room where I was to meet him, I was terrified. I had worked myself up into this whole tizzy about who he was and what he could do, and I was convinced that he could see through all my bullshit to the very core of who I was (and for all I know he could), and somehow this was horrifying to me – I felt completely naked and defenseless – and it was almost more than I could bear to be in the same room with him. But when the time for the blessing finally came, it was a very formal and to my mind a very sterile affair. Some kind of rote mantra was repeated, they sprinkled me with water, they tied this ceremonial red string around my neck, and then they showed me the door. Well I was entirely underwhelmed. The whole thing seemed like an empty ritual – I certainly felt no different – and in my mind, a slow resentment started to build against this particular spiritual master. On that same trip I would hear a rumor that he kept mistresses all over the place, and my own moralizing just compounded my resentment, which would continue to build for years and years, entirely undermining my training.

The second example of a blessing was ten years later, when I had the privilege of being ordained to Christian Ministry right here inside our Meeting Room. And it was a day of many blessings for me, but the one that really stuck out, both to myself and to most people, came from a guy named Steve Studnicka. Steven, after others had presented me with the traditional gift of liturgical stole that Ministers are usually given at their ordinations, Steven came up and wrapped a white feather boa around my neck. And as he did this, he kissed me, and whispered into my ear “never forget where you came from, or the people who love you,” and I remember being so moved by this, but thinking consciously to myself “my God is indeed a trickster God.” Later, Steven told me the idea for the boa came from Judson’s own Agape host and in-house drag queen Ruby Rims, who incidentally is the very same age as the Sakya Trizin.

So two examples, and no doubt all of you can think of many of your own, and we are left with the question: what is a blessing? Where do we find them, how do they pass between us, and because we ask in the context of the Jacob scriptures, what is the role of a trickster God in moving them from one generation to the next?

Here’s what I think: a blessing is not an intellectual thing, or a ceremonial thing, or even a metaphysical thing. It’s a metabolic thing; a kind of bodily, emotional vibration that can pass from person to the next at certain times, and when it does there may be words that get used while this is happening, and there may even be cultural forms and traditions that go along with these words, but neither the words nor the traditions are the important thing that is being transmitted. They are simply the carrier wave—the medium through which the real blessing is being passed. What is really being transmitted is a felt experience of faith and love and confidence in the face of our doubt about ourselves, about where we’ve come from, and where it is we’re going.

A blessing is the gut-level human affirmation that all life is good news – and the reminder that we can never be separated from that life. To put it in theological language, a blessing is any concrete example of the Gospel being passed from one person to the next, whether or not anyone actually uses the word Gospel, or Jesus, or Christianity, or any of the other words that have become so bogged down with baggage so as to often be counter-productive to their original purpose.

And this brings us back to the story of Jacob & Esau, where I believe that God is perceived as a Trickster not because God is actually looking to trick or cheat anyone; God is perceived as a Trickster because God necessarily defies our own preconceived words and ideas about where and how real love and faith move between us. In the time of Isaac, it was assumed that the father knew best how and where his spiritual legacy was passed. In the time of Isaac, tradition dictated that his blessing would go to the first-born son, the warrior/hunter Esau. But the story serves as reminder to us, that God does not conform to our cultural ideas, or our religious norms, or our habitual notions of how the world works. The story seems to warn us that these things are not what God’s cosmic plan is all about: and that if we hold on to these broken links too tightly, we will miss our chance at the living links altogether.

Now to my mind this is entirely relevant to us: because we live in a time where so many of our cultural links are broken. The Bible tells us that we’ve never really been able to trust organized religion, but today so many of our other cultural institutions are similarly held in question. Many of our old traditions and community links have turned on us. We see so many examples of parents not being able to connect to their children, of siblings growing alienated from one another because one lives in the city and one lives in the country, and I propose that the framing question for us this morning is, “where are we really being blessed in this life?” And where are we able to truly bless others? The answers are important, not only because our emotional and spiritual lives depend on these blessings, but because it is in this and only this that we are fused to God’s cosmic plan, and the real nature of the world is revealed to us, not through our theologies or identity politics, but inside our hearts.

Here at Judson we say at the end of each service, “the real service now begins,” but I put it to you that it only really begins when we claim enough faith and trust in the world to extend our love (and not just our ideas) outside these walls, and that beyond any of the money we might raise or any of the good ideas we might think up here at Judson Memorial Church, our ability to bless and be blessed is the only real currency we will ever have, and that we will remain a sacred and vital place and people, only to the degree that we release the Gods of our fathers and our mothers, and follow the Trickster God to wherever and to whomever it might lead us.

And to the Trickster God we pray, Amen.


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