Sunday, March 23, 2014

Grabs the Heel

Grabs the Heel
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 23, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 27: 30-40

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?—yes, and blessed he shall be!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
39 Then his father Isaac answered him:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40     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.” [1]

I've always been a big fan of Kevin Costner as an actor. There was a period where every movie this guy made was just great. He made sports movies, he made funny movies, he made epics, and I just loved them all. One of my favorite movies of his is his epic, Dances with Wolves. It is a movie with such beautiful scenery, beautiful music, some funny memorable one liners, and a great story. One of the aspects of that movie that I've always liked the best was the way that the Sioux tribe depicted in the movie gave names that have meaning, and always based in on some great moment in the person's life, a character defining moment would then stick in the tribes memory by becoming the basis for their name. People would know them because of what their name was, know something about them, that their name was a story and told a story. My favorite, other than the title of the movie name, Dances With Wolves, for the Kevin Costner character, was his love interest, another white woman, who was kidnapped and raised by the tribe in a true to life ironic mix of cruelty and caring. . . she had to stand up for herself at many points in her life, but at one major moment she stood up for herself by punching a would be bully in the face, and stood over him, forever then to be named Stands with a Fist. Jacob, the character, that takes up the center of this morning's lesson is a character with a name like that, and of course a story like that. . . his name means Grabs the Heel.  
He earned that name, his first moment of his life, in the womb, Rebekah had some trouble the story tells us. . . that in the womb Jacob and his brother Esau were already fighting inside their mother. We get the story of their unique birth in Genesis 25: 22-24
The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.[2]

So Jacob gets his name day one, and from day one he was doing exactly that, grasping the heels of his brother. . . I remember back from my wrestling coaching days that there was a really simple take down move called the heel pick, you just reach down and grab your opponents heel and lift or stop its movement, and down the other person would go. . . this is Jacob, constantly doing things to trip up his brother Esau, or as some other translators take liberty to translate Jacob's name, as the supplanter. Jacob from his first moment in this world is looking for ways to supplant his brother, to be the  younger son, but have all of the older sons rights and blessings.
Two different times Jacob cheats his brother out of what is his due. It says that Esau loved to go out and hunt and be outside, and so was his father Isaac's favorite, but Jacob it says liked to stay around the house. . . idle. . . plotting. So this one time Esau has been out hunting and working he comes in and is starving, and while he was out Jacob took control of the food, so when Esau comes in Jacob makes him trade away to him his birthright. And so in that moment Esau does give him that birthright just to eat this one meal. . . hardly brotherly love. And then later when Isaac is getting old and looking to bless his favorite son, he sends Esau out to bring back some game to give him so that Esau can receive his blessing. But Rebekah favors Jacob, and she gets him to again play a trick, supplanting his brother. She tells him to go out and kill two of the goats to give to his father, pretending to be Esau, but Jacob is worried about his arms which have no hair, he says,
11 But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.”

That's his big issue, that's his big concern. . .

13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word, and go, get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; 16 and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob. [3]

So he pretends to be Esau. He lies to his father. Isaac, blind in his old age, even asks making sure that he really is Esau, and without hesitation Jacob says yes.
So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. 24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” [4]

Can a brother stoop so low? Can a father be so gullible to not know his own son? Can God bless such a person? It would seem the answer to all three of those questions, somehow is yes. . Jacob does realize that what he did to his brother is unforgivable. Very similar to the Cain and Abel story, murder is put on the table. Esau is planning to kill his brother in revenge, but Jacob gets wind of it and heads out to find his fortune and a bride. Rebekah sends him back to her homeland to stay with her brother Laban, and in Laban Jacob, the trickster finds his match.
All this week the song, "I am so glad that Jesus loved me" has been going through my head. You know, "I am so glad that Jesus loved me, . . . Jesus loved even me." Yeah even me. If Jacob, then certainly even us. . . Jacob is just one sharp rock away from being as bad as Cain. But then again, as bad as Cain was, God didn't completely abandon him either. It is right after all of this trickery that Jacob gets a glimpse of something few have ever seen. In a strange dream, he looks up and sees a staircase in the sky, and it is connecting heaven and earth and angels are going up and down.
And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” [5]

And he called the place Bethel, which means house of God. It is quite amazing that God stands beside Jacob here, but he is about to get some of pay back, and show a very different side of himself. He finds his uncle, Laban, and it so happens that Laban has two daughters, the beautiful Rachel, whom Jacob immediately falls in love with, and her sister Leah, who is said to have nice eyes. Jacob wants to marry Rachel so agrees to work for Laban for 7 years. At the end of the 7 years Laban sneaks Leah into Jacob's marriage bed, in a switcheroo, worthy of Jacob himself, and so Jacob then works another 7 years and marries his beloved Rachel. Jacob and Laban go back and forth pulling tricks and swindling each other for many years, but you begin to see something in Jacob as the time passes. I'm not sure what it is because there really isn't any one event that redeems him, I kept looking for one, but rather you just start to get a different opinion of him. He becomes much more likeable when he is dealing with Laban. You start to get the idea that he is walking with God in some way. That faith has entered into his story, that he is dynamic as a character, and capable of change. . . I can only think of one thing that is the quality that I find in Jacob to admire, and that is perseverance. He just keeps going. No matter what happens he keeps going. He fights. He survives. He clutches. He grabs hold. He won't ever let go. This becomes the defining characteristic in him over time. The story becomes not about what he has been, but what he is going to do next. Not every step along the way has been pretty, and certainly you could say that most of them weren't pretty at all, most  you couldn't even say have been honest, but they have been perseverant, consistent, and with God. And maybe there is just something to that afterall, maybe that is what human life is. Maybe that is what it is like to be chosen. . . that the journey leads all over, that no matter what you do, God has plans and will work it to good, will work you to good.
Jacob gets a name change along the way, by the way. . . after his time with Laban, when he is heading back to the land where Esau lives, the land of his father. . . he has a new encounter with God.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 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.”[6]

And so Jacob becomes Israel, the trickster becomes the one who wrestles with God, and he becomes the namesake for the chosen people, the people of the story, the people who God will lead out of bondage and into the land again. They will, like their forefather, not walk the straightest of lines, will often go astray, will do things that are not great, will do things that are dishonest, will become stiff-necked and rebellious, will forget from time to time who they are and whose they are, but they will walk the path, will follow the way, and will persevere, will run the race completely, and wrestle with God, but never let go. . . and like Jacob they will wear the mark of their wrestling with God, and the entire world will see it. . . such is their legacy, such is our legacy. . . such it is that we do. . . like Jacob we try to make our own way by any means necessary, like Israel we wrestle God, trying to find our place in this world, and through it all we run the race, persevere, for God is working out our lives, and working through our lives, knowing that, we can really never get lost. Never too far, never too much, which is what I was thinking when I wrote the prayer of preparation in your bulletin. . .
I took what was not mine,
But it wasn't enough.
I exploited my brother's hunger,
But it wasn't enough.
I fooled my father to give me what was his,
But it wasn't enough.
I'm certainly no model man,
But nothing separated me from God's plan.

Paula read for us from Hebrews 12, it reiterates this notion of what the journey of faith is all about, it says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,  and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake ofb the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. [7]

God has called us through Jesus Christ, that though we be sinners, our lives mean something in relationship with him, though we wrestle with our faith, we are not the first, there is an entire cloud of witnesses who have wrestled before us, let us clutch to God as they do and never let go, no matter what, God has shown that he will do the same. All praises be to God. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 27:30-40). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 25:22-26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 27:11-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 27:22-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[5]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 28:13-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[6]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 32:24-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
b Or who instead of
[7]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Heb 12:1-2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.