God goes by the name “The Fear” in several Frederick Buechner novels, including The Son of Laughter. The blessing I stole from Esau was The Fear’s idea, Jacob says in this memoir posing as a novel (read from page 86-87). I have no idea upon what Bible page the story of the blessing ends or if it has ended yet. But Genesis 33 is where our Sunday morning time with Jacob ends, with this reconciliation, such as it is, between Jacob, his brother Esau and The Fear, apart from whom there is no reconciliation to speak of.
First, let’s pray. Perhaps we have feared you too little, O God, treated this life too casually for the frail and fleeting gift it is. Perhaps we could do with greater reverence for the breathing sacredness of life that surrounds us all the time. Perhaps then we would be more receptive to the courage you offer, to tend the irreconciled places in our lives, in our relationships, the still so tender bruises in our memories. May your word offer us new hope, O God, that we might find new healing. Amen.
He might have left the lot of them a mile or two behind when he went out to meet his brother. Or even taken a company of grown men with him. That’s what Esau himself did. But from his nose to his toes, Jacob was a coward. He brings his women and his children with him, counting on the decency of other men not to attack him in their seeing. Lining them up according to his own favoritism, Rachel and Joseph furthest back, concubines up front, Leah and her kids in the middle.
Jacob bows seven times to Esau. Esau falls on Jacob, hugging him, kissing his neck. Both of them weeping great, big, snotty weeps. The tenor changes once the crying’s over. It’s slow and tense and guarded, a negotiation wherein neither trusts the other. When it’s over Jacob has conceded nothing. Esau accepts Jacob’s terms, almost without comment. Esau goes home to Seir. Jacob limps off to Shechem where he buys a plot of land. And right there, as the Bible story goes, that is the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau.
Every grown-up human being I ever met has at least a handful of broken relationships. One that doesn’t work right; one that is still estranged; one that is festering and tender, just begging to be picked at and squeezed; or one so full of battery and abuse, you now wish you hadn’t started listening to this sermon. I do have a good word, if you can try to stay with me.
Church – religion – has led some of us to confuse Hollywood with heaven, and heaven with this world, to imagine that biblical reconciliation looks like the ending of the movie The Notebook. No, it doesn’t. It looks like this, two brothers negotiating like they are Kennedy and Khrushchev and reconciliation is nothing more than détente. Religion has also, at times, led to believe that reconciliation is entirely on us. No, it isn’t.
Jacob has to deal with his God before he deals with his brother. And even then, he gets them mixed up, remember? Twice in a day he says, I have seen the face of God: when he wrestled with God and didn’t die, and again when Esau welcomed him instead of killing him. When it comes to reconciliation, The Fear – that is, God – does the heavy lifting. Jacob wouldn’t have gone, save on orders of The Fear. He would have run away, except The Fear caught him by the collar and made him stay. The Fear, I would offer, had already worked on Esau. And it only took twenty years to get them both in the same place.
Think what we know of God, friends, that which is hard to know when our minds are on those itchy, broken and bruised relationships of ours. The work of reconciliation is done by God in Jesus Christ. Remember – once and for all? Once and for all doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Once and for all dealing with our own brokenness and estrangement from God. Once and for all removing fear of death from our lives and from our life together. Once and for all relieving us of doing for others what God has already done for them.
It is not all on us, friends. God has done the heavy lifting. We need to take that with us into our memories and into the work of real time reconciliation, the lesson for which I suggest we look to Esau. I’ve no idea what went on with them those twenty years before. But when his abuser shows up, I see evidence of healing. He had a message, “Jacob is on the way,” and so goes out to meet him, taking an army that he hoped he didn’t have to use. But he didn’t take his family. Because a wise father wouldn’t do that. A responsible, grown-up adult human doesn’t barter with his children. Now Esau does fall to weeping when he sees his gray-bearded twin. But his broken heart doesn’t cloud his judgment for a minute.
Esau can love Jacob without trusting him. He can feel his feelings, twenty years of grief and rage, without letting Jacob’s craziness breach the boundary of his healing. And Jacob tries. Esau loves his brother but he does not trust him. Love and trust are not synonyms. Esau doesn’t trust Jacob. Neither does he argue with him. Offers are made. Counteroffers too. Jacob gets everything he wants. Esau nothing, yet does not seem disappointed.
No satisfying happy ending. Just Esau going home, Jacob limping into the sunset with his four baby mamas and their children. Twice more they are mentioned in the same paragraph: “Esau settled some distance from his brother Jacob because their possessions were too great for them to live together; the land could not support all their livestock.” And then, “When Isaac died at 180 years old, he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob.”
Who’s to say they weren’t as happy as they could be, this side of heaven, friends? And who’s to say that can’t count as reconciliation, where every one of us is broken and in need of prayer? My four takeaways from our last look at the story of Jacob are these, friends:
First, The Fear is always, always in the mix. (Jacob had it out with The Fear before he met up with his brother, but only because God got in the way. Jacob was going the other direction – remember? – because it was hard and scary.) That’s because we can make much bigger messes than we can clean up. Jacob is the father of the nations who were to be a blessing to the world, except the nations are always trying to annihilate each other. So God has to intervene, so we don’t self-destruct. God has a stake in our reconciliation. We might use that to our own advantage, friends – fret less about what we have to do with the enemy; spend more time seeking God’s wisdom and courage, since we know God is on the side of reconciliation.
Secondly, forgiving someone, even to their face with witnesses all around, does not require us to trust them. Especially when they have a rap sheet like Jacob. Reserving our trust for people who treat it faithfully is a faithful way to live.
Third, this side of heaven, expectations about reconciliation are best kept low. Reconciliation is not fairness. It is not the offender getting what they deserve. And reconciliation is not the evaporation of all that happened that was sad and hurtful or wrong. Jacob and Esau might have met and talked it out, had they been twentieth-century westerners. Instead, Jacob brought lots of presents that Esau didn’t want and took anyway. Esau offered help Jacob wouldn’t take and Esau didn’t push. Then they lived decades more as neighbors. And sometimes that’s what reconciliation looks like, friends, this side of heaven: two broken human beings doing the best they can with a truth too hard to speak between them.
There’s a lot that we don’t know, because there is a lot the Bible doesn’t tell. Who knows what The Fear might have been doing in those later decades? Maybe they started over there and became good friends who never spoke of the past. Maybe when Rachel died, Esau stood by Jacob while he cried. Who knows what The Fear is doing in each other’s hearts? Who knows what The Fear might do in mine, should my past come ‘round asking for my favor like Jacob asked for Esau’s? The reconciliation we need most is business already taken care of. What taste of it we get this side of heaven is peace we make mostly make with ourselves and on our knees, ready to receive whatever the Fear has for us. Would you pray with me?
In Will Campbell’s novel Brother to a Dragonfly, the preacher explains the gospel to his alcoholic, drug-addicted brother this way: “We’re all bastards, and God loves us anyway.” It is a truth that both saves and cripples us. It saves us, in that God’s unconditional love is the foundation, the very floor of our existence. In Christ Jesus, we are saved. Once. For all.
It is our incapacity to accept our unworthiness of this truth that cripples us. We want to be good enough. We believe we’re capable of being good enough to have this salvation, if you will; that we can work hard enough to earn it. We can’t. And not because we haven’t tried. It’s because the love of God is just too big. The love of God bends time; it shifts nature, it drives nature; we could work a thousand lifetimes and not earn it. Most of us don’t, of course. Most of us are selfish brats. Our greed and fear leave us oblivious to the banquet God has prepared for us: just like Jacob. Jacob the Liar. Jacob the Trickster. Jacob the Fugitive, again, still in pursuit of what he already has, what he has always had.
First, let’s pray: The raccoons have been on the deck again, O God, and the chipmunks in the garden. Tearing up my tomatoes. Ripping up my flowers. Like they don’t have enough already. I’m forever clearing up their plunder and destruction. We know that we are hardly better, tearing up your creation for no better reason than our cravings. Striving to silence the sins and traumas of our past. A reckoning will come one day, according to your word. May we be ready for you and the word you bring. Beyond the reckoning, O God, may we wear our scars as boldly as we now wear our vanity and pride.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Jacob spent the next decade-and-a-half making babies and trading dirty tricks with Laban. After a complicated scheme of crossbreeding sheep in which he essentially steals from Laban outright, the Lord conveniently tells Jacob it’s time to go back to Canaan. So Jacob packs the livestock, and the women pack the kids, and on the way out of town Rachel hides her dad’s idol-gods in her apron – unbeknownst to Jacob, or so he says. Laban doesn’t find out for three days. It takes seven more for him to catch up with them. By then Jacob’s caravan was across the Euphrates and south in the hill country of Gilead, less than halfway to their destination.
God told Jacob to go – though not like a fugitive, it seems to me. God also told Laban not to stop them. But he does want his gods back. That’s a good story. He kisses his kids and grandkids goodbye, and thus ends an entire section of the biblical narrative.
Jacob turns his face to Canaan – and Esau. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know he’s coming; that his wives and children and all his property are with him; that he comes in peace, seeking Esau’s favor. The messengers return with news from Esau. “He’s coming to meet you. He’s bringing 400 of his men with him.” Unable to imagine Esau might be a better man than he himself has ever been, Jacob is terrified. It’s an army, come to slaughter them all!
First he marshals his family into two camps some distance apart, hoping to fool Esau into thinking one or the other is everyone, thus only sacrificing half. Then he prays – prays God will get him out of this mess. Then he slaps together a complicated bribe wherein 580 animals are to be delivered one drove at a time and presented as gifts to Esau – droves of camels and goats and bulls and calves that the men will have to wrangle, burdening their ranks and slowing their march toward Jacob. Once the camps are set and the bribe is organized, Jacob and his immediate family bed down in their camp.
But apparently Jacob can’t sleep, so he gets everyone up and moves them across the Jabbok, it says, and I for one cannot shake the sensation that there is a significance in the text right here in verse 24: “And Jacob was left alone.” Anyone who has spent any time with this rascal can guess what he’s up to. He’s about to “slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; drop off the key, Lee” … anything to get himself free. Hit the trail, set sail, take a hike, fly the coop, beat a retreat, take flight, cut and run. Anything, anything at all, rather than face the consequences of his own choices and decisions. Including, believe it or not, placing his own children between himself and the enemy.
At which point, into Jacob’s life there comes a reckoning. A moment when he is finally able to hear God say, “Enough, Jacob, enough.” Have you ever seen a daddy wrestling with a child, how the kid is fighting so hard and the daddy is being so gentle? It’s over when the little one is worn out. Or the little one is getting too rough and the daddy says, “Okay, that’s enough.” Jacob never wears out, even at daybreak when God says, “Enough.” Jacob keeps fighting. “Jacob, enough!”
My mom’s favorite story to tell about little me was really about my dad. About how I was just like him. How once when I was three he was determined that I pick up some toys. I was just as determined I wouldn’t. He asked me to. He told me to. He put me in time out. He spanked me. He finally put me to bed. But I never picked them up. My mother said she never saw him any angrier than when he lost an argument with a three-year-old.
I won the battle, not the war. Jacob lost a hip and won his very own soul. Even after God dislocated his hip, a devastating injury, he kept on fighting God. Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, been that desperate to disbelieve our own helplessness?
Have you ever seen a big kid crying from some hurt or humiliation – crying all the harder because they believe they are too big to cry? I expect Jacob cried like that. I expect he cried for the pain in his ruined hip, but even more so for the decades of consequences he’ll never outrun now. I like thinking he cried a long, long time, and God just sat with him while he cried.
When it was finally time for God to go, Jacob sounds a bit like Esau back in chapter 27, after Isaac gave HIS blessing, his birthright, to Jacob instead of him. “Daddy, don’t you have anything left for me? Please don’t go until you bless me!” says the birthright boy, the one favored from his mother’s womb. “Please don’t go until you bless me!”
How does a human being forget something so fundamental as a birthright? How does one with so much end up so empty? It might be a mystery, were we not so much like Jacob is right here, all red-eyed and snot-nosed from crying over getting blamed for what we did.
Exhausted and feeling like exiles and fugitives, never quite admitting that our aloneness is built from the denial and dodginess and divorce we have used to distance ourselves from the messes we ourselves have made, be they personal or marital, familial or professional – not from malice so much as fear, ironically the fear of being alone, of not having what we want. And the failure to trust what we say we believe. That’s the big one, of course.
We may not be as bad as Jacob. But the difference is in scale, not quality itself. What Jacob calls blessing, we call grace. Grace is OUR fundamental birthright as God’s beloved. The truth of the universe, remember?
And all that is just what’s going on, on the inside. Every bit of it has consequences on the outside – in our relationships, in our work, in the creation, in our life together. Until, if we are very, very lucky, we have our own reckoning; until there comes a day, or a moment in which for whatever reason or for no reason in particular, we are ready to hear God say, “Enough. Enough. Enough of living your life apart from what you believe.”
The story is almost over when God asks Jacob, “What’s your name?” Jacob answers, “Jacob.” The name itself means trickster, supplanter, someone trying to be someone else. “No more,” God says; “from now on you will be called Israel, for you have striven with God.” To be rid of the name Jacob amounts to being forgiven everything.
Other people might have said thank you. Not Jacob. Notice the text does not, in fact, call him Israel from now on. God love him, Jacob simply HAS to argue, HAS to have the last word. “What’s YOUR name?” he wants to know. Can’t you just see God closing her eyes, rubbing her temples for a minute and then smiling, “Sweetpea, you don’t need to know my name,” and then blessing him again after all. Just like every parent who ever said, “I’m not reading one more bedtime story.” And then did read one more bedtime story.
Jacob had the last word. And then, he limped into the day, less crippled than he’d been in a very long time, to face his brother and his past knowing, maybe for the first time in his life, that God loved him no matter what; God had redeemed him from death; and God was with him as he went.
God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us now. Believing that, we have all we need to be okay for as long as this current crisis lasts. Or any crisis, for that matter.
It was March 22nd, the last time I preached to live human beings other than my husband. For 21 weeks I’ve preached to birds and flowers and dogs and chickens, but mostly to my iPhone. Preaching to people is easier. And faster. I’d go back in a minute if it was necessary for our life together.
But what is necessary is that we testify to the spirit of Jesus, that spirit which is always giving life and nurturing life in a world so terrified and full of death. What’s necessary is that we testify to Jesus’ life-giving Spirit, even when it’s inconvenient; even when it’s costly; even when it takes a long, long time. “When is your church going back?” I get asked all the time. As soon as it’s safe, I say. Twenty-one more weeks? Maybe. A year? Maybe. As soon as being together doesn’t put a single one of us or our neighbors at risk of contracting this terrible, incurable disease. “We can’t control every risk, you know.” True that. But we can control this one.
And doing so, we shall describe as keeping faith; as loving one another and our neighbors as Jesus first loved us; as laying down our own wants and wishes for their very lives for as long as need be. And not stoically either, friends. Not morosely as if we are martyrs spilling blood upon the ground. But cheerfully, with the same good humor we muster for Vacation Bible School. It’s hard work, sure. But hard work worth doing, knowing that we gain more than we give, find more than we lose. Amen? Amen.
That said, I want to pray and look at our next Jacob text. As our friend Donna used to say, nothing in a movie, show, or book was ever as funny, sad, terrible, or outrageous as what happens in a real-life family. The story happens in one geographic place – a difficult place for each character, for his or her own reasons. They are stuck; confined, if you will, doing the best they can in a world they cannot control.
Let’s pray. Quarantine, O God, not our favorite. We aren’t used to being equalized with every human on the planet. To being so bossed around by a power so unwilling to negotiate. A force that plays by no rules at all. Perhaps, O God, our wants and wishes for ourselves exceed your intentions for our lives. Perhaps contentment is the mark of faith these days. If so, may we consider contentment worthy of our effort. In your name we pray, amen.
Jacob loved Rachel from the first. So much so, apparently, he wasn’t thinking with his brain. Because nobody in his right mind would have agreed to the deal he struck with Uncle Laban –essentially seven years of slave labor, or so he believes, not a clue that Laban has tucked seven more up his sleeve. So for love, off to work Jacob goes, herding sheep. 7 years – 84 months – 364 weeks – 2,555 days. Notice, Laban wasn’t counting. But Jacob was.
On Day 2,556: “Uncle Laban; my time is complete. I want to go in to my wife,” says the New Revised Standard Version, the only one I can quote with a straight face. It’s daylight the morning after before Jacob figures out the prank. It’s horrible. Horrible to men imagining Jacob’s humiliation. Horrible to woman imagining Leah’s degradation – and Rachel’s – by their own dad!
Or, it’s impossible. It’s hyperbole, exaggeration for storytelling effect. And, thus, hilarious. Bawdy. The trickster finally gets tricked. Jacob is furious, “What have you done?” Laban is cool as a cucumber. “This is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn.” Oh the irony. Don’t you know that always being the smartest guy in the room is as good as it gets, until you aren’t?
A prank seven years in the making and Jacob fell for it hook, line, and sinker. If he wants Rachel, he has to take Leah too. He’d never have agreed to it but there ain’t nothing he can do about it now. So he has a two-week honeymoon: seven days with Leah, immediately followed by seven days with Rachel. And hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s back to work he goes, waking up for the next 2,555 mornings knowing he is the dumbest in all the land.
Throw in two more baby-mamas, Zilpah and Bilhah, and the result is a story of rivalry, envy, and dispute that bleeds into the next generation and even, I would say, into the DNA of Israel herself. Jacob fought with Laban. Leah fought with Rachel. Rachel fought with Jacob. Rachel and Leah fought with their dad.
No doubt each of them, in their own minds, believing they were doing the best they could. Laban had no sons and a daughter no one would marry. As awful as his trick was, by it he secured a future for Leah. He made sure she didn’t starve once he was gone. Using Rachel for bait, also terrible. I suspect it’s partly why she is so ready to abandon him later. But she also lived to hate him. And maybe Laban figured those costs in too – the cost of saving his girls was that they’d hate him for it. Being a parent is really, really hard.
Rachel and Leah had no decisions to make. Their choices were their father’s business until it was their husband’s. And marriage was business. Daughters were wages, as the text says. Bought and sold like the sheep in Laban’s pens. Their agency comes with motherhood and is limited even there. And Jacob. Jacob, Jacob, Jacob – people love to name their son Jacob, but hope he doesn’t turn out like this guy.
Do you know the Mark Twain short story “The Million Pound Bank Note”? Two gentlemen in London bet that a poor person with nothing but a banknote worth $1M will either be rich or in jail within thirty days. So they give it to a sailor and he carries it around, trying to spend it.
That’s Jacob in Haran. He has a fortune and a blessing in his pocket he can’t cash anywhere but home. It’s just 200 miles, here to Chicago, more or less. But he can’t go home, remember, or his brother will strangle him on the spot. So he too is stuck. Laban, Rachel, Leah, and Jacob, every one of them is stuck in their own way. Quarantined, if you will, by rules and consequences they can’t change.
Doesn’t matter if they caused it, like Jacob; or not, like Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah; or if they manipulated this world’s rules and conditions to suit their own needs and ambitions, like Laban. They are all in the same boat now – a boat much too small for this many kids and sheep, this many meals and this much laundry, for so many Zoom meetings and on-line kindergarten classes. So little work; too much work. So much anxiety; so little information. Are you with me? I can’t tell if you are with me.
And in the story, nobody much speaks of God. Laban did once, remember? Way back when that servant of Abraham first came to fetch his sister Rebekah, and he saw all that gold they were willing to pay for her. Leah and Rachel do too, when they name their children. And then Jacob does, of course, twice when he dreams at Bethel which we’ve read already, and again when he wrestles with God on the way home. But that’s thirteen years away.
But theophanies and baby days – those are like High Holy Holidays. In Ordinary Time, the time when the days are long and the years are short, God doesn’t get mentioned. Ordinary Time is for surviving. In the story, over the next thirteen years of ordinary time, twelve baby boys and an untold number of baby girls are born into Jacob’s household. Only one girl is mentioned by name. Do you remember her name? Dinah. You can read her story in Genesis 34. That story probably explains how Jacob ended up moving his whole tribe to Bethel. Joseph is the next to the last boy. Through him, Israel ends up in Egypt, eventually in slavery there for 400 years, and then exile with Moses.
Over, over and over again, God’s people found themselves in a world where they don’t get to make the rules. Rules that bear down on them, push them around, quarantine them to certain places and situations, where they are forced to make a life out of the choices they do have. And no doubt, often it is a crummy set of choices. According to my missions professor, when times were really hard in his African village, people would joke with each other asking, “Would you rather be eaten by a lion or crushed by an elephant?” The answer: “I’d rather the lion eat the elephant and leave me out of it.”
For Laban, the question went like this: “Would you rather let your child starve to death or force her into the wedding tent with a man who doesn’t want her?” All of time is like that for some people. Ordinary time has become like that for people like us. The world offers us no good choices. And friends, there’s no use pretending that inside a choice like that we are going to find a golden ticket called “God’s perfect will for our lives.”
God didn’t work that way in scripture. I haven’t known God to work that way in the lives of saints I’ve known. In both I see God at work in the midst of the mess, among people doing the best they can in the mess. People who wake up in the daylight and finally realize what a mess this world is. Whether they made the mess themselves – which Jacob did, obviously, whether he wanted to admit it or not – or they were simply born into it, like Rachel and Leah, and also Jacob, weirdly.
Or, if it is some of all of that, like a deadly germ that jumped off a strange little animal onto a human on one side of the world. (The virus didn’t buy its own plane ticket.) And because humans do love our technology, and we love crisscrossing this world by the minute, that germ is now in every nook and cranny of human existence, utterly un-beholden to our wants and wishes, refusing to play by this world’s rules. Those rules which go something like: Life is a game of getting what you want by whatever means necessary. Other people are either assets or liabilities to be used accordingly.
Those were Laban’s rules. And Jacob’s. And governments’. And businesses’. Of every organization which prioritizes their own survival over the wellbeing of the human beings they supposedly serve. And maybe they have to. But church doesn’t. Believers don’t – because Jesus is our teacher and example. He prioritized his own survival over no one’s. Not even his enemies’. People who were wrong about him.
If the church dies in service to her people, what is more Christlike than that? But if she were to kill, risk and sacrifice their lives out of some misguided fear for her own survival hasn’t she just treated human beings as property, like assets or liabilities to be used accordingly? When Jesus saw his own religion doing business like that, he smashed their game tables and drove them from the place. Just sayin’.
So this, friends: there simply is no way to be the church according to this world’s rules. The rules of faith are and have always been small, simple, and pretty much impossible to live by. And yet they persist, plain as ever: God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us.
Just that. All that. And it’s enough. God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us now. Amen. Amen. And amen. Let’s pray.