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Becoming a Blessing

Becoming a Blessing

Date:8/2/20

Series: The Season After Pentecost

Category: 2020 Sermons

Passage: Psalms 17:1-7

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

There’s a poem that came out when the pandemic hit. The writer, Kitty O’Meara, said she wrote it as an example of how it could be – it’s a poem of hope.

You may remember the poem, because it got a lot of press, but here  it is again.

And the People Stayed Home 
by Kitty O'Meara

And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games,
and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant,
dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.

I remember reading this when it first came out, and it made me feel hopeful. And then I read it again this past week and I teared up, with sadness, because I’m not sure the vision she paints is congruent with what I see happening.

If you adjust the numbers for population, Americans are dying from COVID-19 at roughly 10-15 times the rate of the European Union or Canada, according to two different sources (John Hopkins and Oxford University). The US hit over 150 thousand deaths. I’ve read at least three stories of people using guns and a knife over the debate around wearing a mask, and I’ve heard stories of gun owners telling their neighbors to gun up in anticipation of the November election. I don’t need to go on, you all read the papers.

Most of us here today are doing well, either retired, or still employed, have a home, are healthy and haven’t had anyone in our immediate family get sick or die from COVID-19. Nor have any of us experienced hunger because of unemployment. That’s good news. 

On the other hand, unless we are without empathy or awareness, we feel the weight of what’s happening around us. Even if we’re not fully aware of it, many people I know are asking themselves, “What’s the matter with me?”

Because if everything in our own life is relatively fine, we think we SHOULD feel good, have energy and be able to do what we used to do. But we no longer live in a world where we’re able to do what we used to do, so where is it written that we should feel as we used to. We’re bound to feel weighed down by the suffering of others. That’s the very definition of compassion, to suffer with others.  And it’s part of our call as Christians, and whether we choose it or run away from it by numbing the affects, we are nevertheless experiencing life in ways we’ve never experienced before. So please, if you keep expecting to feel like your old self, but can’t seem to and are then surprised by that, let me give you permission to stop trying.

On those mornings when I don’t have energy and would prefer to pull the blankets over my heard, the dog looks at me and practically demands I get up and get out of the house. And I’m fortunate that I can walk across the street to the bay and walk back and forth a million times on a short beach listening to music, watching pelicans. 

But this doesn’t always do what you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily calm me down, at least not at first. Instead, I find myself, in dialogue with God, aware of the beauty before me, and the suffering around me, which leads to a kind of tension between gratitude and anger at the injustice of this virus. I wrestle with the tension of knowing I should be grateful for what I have but feeling instead exhausted and fearful both for myself, family, neighbors in the canal. I wrestle with the impulse to yell at the person jogging on the beach without a mask, or waving to the innocent toddler with a shovel completely unaware of the mess around her. And in my wrestling, I turn to our most powerful God and essentially like Jacob, begin to wrestle with God, asking what kind of lousy design is this? What’s the plan here? Is there one, or is it up to me and all of us to fix this mess? And without blueprints, where do we begin?

In this morning’s scripture, Jacob wrestles at night, in darkness, with a man who is later revealed as God, but before Jacob knows this is God, Jacob is struck and hurt but refuses to let go of this man without a blessing. 

For those who may not know or remember, Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his blessing and birthright. That was 20 years ago, and now fast forward 20 years and Jacob is convinced his brother Esau is threatening to “kill us all, the mothers with the children,” (Gen. 32:11) and hears through the grapevine that Esau is on his way with 400 men.

Jacob places his trust in God and decides to reconcile with his brother. To do this, he first sends a series of peace offerings to Esau, hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls and donkeys. 

Which beings us to our scripture this morning,  Jacob is fearful, to say the least. 

Science tells us that when we’re fearful we go to the part of the brain that causes us to freeze, flight or fight. Jacob chose to fight, whether it’s a dream or not, Jacob wrestled, Jacob fought with God, refusing to let go.

And Jacob didn’t come out of the experience without being scarred. It turns out that his old name and identity, (Jacob which means heel, trickster or cheater) will forever be with him. Jacob limps now, like an old war injury and constant reminder of who he was, before he received the blessing he so desperately wanted. Jacob was renamed Israel. (Israel, which translates one who contends with God.) The death of Jacob the trickster and the birth of Israel the nation. The death of individual selfishness and the birth of the collective chosen people, chosen and blessed by God, with a collective purpose for the good of the whole. The death of the expectation to feel like your old self, and the permission to let God do something new with you.

***

As we enter the middle of the halfway point (at best) of the pandemic, O’Meara’s poem and this scripture are narratives of hope for what we can become on the other side of this mess. If we are willing to, as Jacob did, “contend with God,” the more we can understand this time as a wake up call, the more likely we are to come out of it changed, with a new identity.

If the reality of this time is that it’s a mess like we’ve never known before in our lifetime, then perhaps the truth of what will come lives in our renaming. This new identity being formed for us by God will bring new ways of being we can only imagine.

As I mentioned in my weekly email, when I stood in line at the market and read the same old titles of articles about how to lose weight, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. What I’d prefer to see is a magazine that reflects a changed value system, one that reflects back to us a culture that has surely grown in ways because of this life changing event. I don’t know what the articles should say, but I trust in a God who does. If we’re willing to engage and contend with God and face our shadows as O’Meara says, than maybe we can let ourselves die to the old selfish ways of living, and be reborn into becoming the very blessing we search for in this dark time.

In the end of this part of Jacob’s story, the part we didn’t hear, Jacob is reunited with his brother Esau and Esau embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses him. Jacob, now a changed man, recalls the experience the wrestling experience that changed him, and sees his brother entirely differently now, saying to Esau, "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God" (33:10).

Jacob has become the embodiment of the blessing he received from God, now able to see the face of God in the one he betrayed and once feared. Can we become the blessing the world around us so in need of?

Becoming a blessing doesn’t mean life is easy now.

Biblically speaking, the blessing given to the "chosen" one in each generation, is not an easy thing.

Abraham waits a lifetime for God's promise of a son to be fulfilled, and then he is asked to sacrifice that son. Isaac endures that near sacrifice. Jacob, too, goes into a kind of death as he is exiled from his homeland for twenty years. Blessing brings with it great responsibility and, often, great pain.

Israel is the nation that wrestles with God. She holds on to God fiercely, even when God seems absent or uncaring. Israel holds God to God's promises because she is the nation that bears the great responsibility of being chosen, and blessed, by God.

There will be times we feel we’re wandering in the dark, times when the country we once knew seems unrecognizable. Becoming a blessing comes with a responsibility that often feels like a burden when the focus is on the collective good over the individual satisfaction. But in the end, blessing overflows into blessing.

May this be so for you as you discover who you will become, and may it be so for us as a nation as we wrestle with the God who blesses us into becoming the very blessing we search for.

Or in the words of O’Meara:

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.

Amen

 

1https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=116