For these four and a half months since Joe’s death I have been slowly going through his things, deciding what to keep and what to donate or throw away.
Joe was, to put it politely, a bit of a packrat, so there is a lot to sort through. Sometimes in the sorting I find things that make me laugh. Sometimes I find things that make me cry. And sometimes looking at all the stuff makes me curse, and ask him out loud, “Why the hell did you leave me with all this mess to clean up?”
I was in the latter mood one evening this week, going through boxes of paper, wondering why in the world he had saved all this stuff. And then, at the very bottom of a box I found a treasure — a sermon he had preached in March 2004. at the seminary where he taught.
The sermon began with a story about Joseph Henry and me — one that I had forgotten. I shared it with Joseph Henry, and he said I should use it in a sermon some day. So I am.
Here’s how Joe tells the story:
“Our soon-to-be three-year-old son, Joseph Henry, and his mother were playing the listening game last week — you know, trying to keep very quiet and still and listen to what they might hear.
“After a while, Joseph Henry said he heard something. ‘What?’ Tricia asked.
“‘I hear Jesus,’ he said.
“‘What did Jesus say?’ Tricia asked.
“‘He said a blessing to me,’ was the reply.
“‘Well,’ Tricia said, ‘that’s wonderful. When you receive a blessing from Jesus it lasts all your life.’
“After a little more silence, Joseph Henry announced. ‘She’s gone.’
“‘Who’s gone?’ Tricia asked.
“‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘She’s gone back to her cave.’
“Now there’s no accounting for either genius or goofiness in a three-year-old,” Joe continued. “Certainly, Joseph Henry will be a feminist. He may even be reading The Republic and Plato’s allegory of the cave, for all I know.
“Or then, he may just be confusing Jesus with Puff the Magic Dragon.
“But in any and all events, the little guy is on to something, and I will try to preach about it this morning: ‘He said a blessing to me.'”
* * *
By happy coincidence today’s reading from Genesis is also about blessings.
The recipient of the blessing in this story is Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob has a twin brother, Esau. From the time they are in the womb, the twins are in competition.
Esau was born first, but Jacob was born holding on to his brother’s heel, apparently trying to pull Esau back so that he could be born first. In Hebrew, the name Jacob means “he supplants.”
In today’s world twins may joke about which one was born first. But in the age of Genesis the birth order was no laughing matter. The oldest son, even if only oldest by a moment, was the inheritor of his father’s birthright, meaning leadership of the family and a double share of the inheritance.
Jacob resented his brother’s status and plotted to steal it from him. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field famished. Jacob told him he would give him a bowl of the stew in return for Esau’s birthright.
Esau agreed. (It should be noted that Esau was an easy target to trick.)
Years later, Jacob stole from Esau once again.
The twins’ father, Isaac, told Esau that he knew death was near. He asked his first-born son to go hunt game and bring it to him, so that he could eat his favorite food, then bless Esau before he died.
Death-bed blessings were of great import. It was believed the blessing released a power that brought goodness and privileges to the recipient. Only one such blessing could be given, and once given it could not be retracted.
The twins’ mother, Rebecca, who favored Jacob, overheard the conversation between her husband and oldest son. She ran to Jacob and told him to take Esau’s place.
Isaac’s eyes were failing, but Jacob knew that his father would realize he was not Esau because Esau was, as scripture says, “a hairy man,” and Jacob was not. So Rebecca covered Jacob with a sheep’s skin and sent him to his father.
Isaac fell for the deception and gave Jacob his blessing.
When Esau heard what had happened he was enraged and threatened to kill his brother. So Rebecca sent Jacob away, fleeing from his brother, hoping to save his life.
Today’s story begins here, on Jacob’s first night as a fugitive. He stops in a deserted place for the evening, using a stone as a pillow.
And then he has the famous dream we know as Jacob’s ladder, with angels moving back and forth between heaven and earth.
The angels on that ladder are really just a backdrop to the appearance of God, who stands beside Jacob and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac.”
Then God declares that the divine covenant, first made to Abraham many years ago, was now being passed on to Jacob. Jacob receives God’s promise of many descendants and a land of their own.
“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring,” God declares.
It is an astonishing statement. Jacob, fleeing for his life after stealing his brother’s blessing, is now the one through whom the entire human family will be blessed.
Jacob’s experience is one of scripture’s greatest stories of grace.
“In choosing to appear to this scrappy, conniving young man, God made it abundantly clear that access to the divine is not reserved for moral purists,” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says.
“It is the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one,” he says. “The miracle is the way the sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive.”
God makes it clear that God is now bound to Jacob forever.
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” God says. “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
In today’s world the word blessing is tossed around fairly casually. “Have a blessed day,” a grocery store clerk told me the other day.
“Bless you,” we say after someone sneezes.
Blessings are often thought of as material possessions, or family, or health. And certainly we can be blessed by those things.
But a divine blessing means God’s favor is poured into our lives, giving us the power to do what we were created to do — no matter how grand or seemingly small that may be.
To be blessed is to be in tune with God — to bring blessings to those around us, to move the world toward God’s kingdom on earth.
If we think we are unworthy of God’s blessing, remember the thief and scoundrel Jacob.
And if we think we cannot do God’s work in the world, remember God’s promise to Jacob.
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
That promise is extended to all of us.
God is with us, even when God has ascended back to heaven.
Or gone back into her cave.