No Longer a Trickster – Sermon

In honor of the day for tricksters; First preached at Christ Church, Cooperstown NY, around October 2010.

“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.’” Genesis 32:28

Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight. My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.
When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock. In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.” This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories. The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game. A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time. In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother. Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important. After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town. That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.
No wonder Jacob was so nervous. He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man. Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong. This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself. The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act. A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one. In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people. We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.
Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now. In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling. We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God. This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules. Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again. This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles. We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others. These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.
In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name. What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called. In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.” The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face. For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching. They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing. Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”” Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction. As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed. Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again. Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past. Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.
Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.

The Israelites, My Bros & Sises

Deuteronomy 5:23-27

23When you [Israelites] heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me [Moses], all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24and you said, ‘Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. 26For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.’

The people feel like they can’t bear to listen or to be near to God’s voice.  They’ve got a healthy respect–even fear–of God, which is sometimes missing from our modern understanding of the Creator of All That Is.  They’re convinced that God’s presence will consume them, burn them up.

Isn’t that what we should desire?

And yet, I feel just like the Israelites–“let me have my little life in my tent at the bottom of the mountain (Deut 5:30), leave me alone to my regular, everyday stuff; don’t upset everything I know now by the all-consuming flames that are part of experiencing you, God.  My reality right now is bearable, I don’t really want to know what would happen if it was all burned up.  I don’t even really want to know what would happen if it all rose from the ashes again.”

They ask Moses to go and listen for them, so that God’s presence and voice isn’t quite so close, so that they themselves don’t have to go through the agony of truth and transformation–someone else can do it for them.

We see and know from Scripture as well as our daily lives that no one else can transform for us–we’ve got to go through the changes ourselves for them to have any real power in our lives.

Shouldn’t we want God to be near?  Shouldn’t we desperately desire for the transforming heat to melt away the extraneous parts of our lives?

The problem is that when the heat comes close, when God starts burning things away in us, it’s uncomfortable.  Any time something hurts, whether it’s stretching us, or poking us, or singeing us, there’s an opportunity for growth.

Though I want to close my eyes and hum real loud and drown out the invitations to grow, the only way to be close to God, to be transformed, to get out of the little, narrow, grey everyday lives we live, is to let the difficulties wash over us, to let  God come close to change us and to pour his strength into us–that’s what Moses let happen to him.

NBC’s Parenthood. and Jesus.

Shouldn’t we all live in Berkley, California?

Watching last week’s episode, as the four adult siblings gather to support one of their ranks who’s found herself unexpectedly alone, I felt a twinge–my adult siblings live spread throughout the United States, a sad reality for many modern families (though a happy opportunity for each one of us in our life paths).  The many seasons of this television show have always focused around familial support–the kind of love that’s harder to show from far away, since it’s more centered around sitting together in waiting rooms, showing up unannounced with pizza, and struggling through everyday life together.

Though we often do a bad job of it, there’s a reason God calls Jesus Christ his “Son,” and why people are referred to as “co-heirs,” “brothers and sisters,” and “family” throughout Scripture, we all belong to each other (as Glennon Doyle Melton often puts it).  So whether or not we were raised in the same house, we’re now continuing to grow together in the same house–God’s–and we’re called to be brothers and sisters to each other because we all belong to God.

The glorious freedom of Christianity is that we aren’t limited to bloodlines or last names; our family is everyone who belongs to God (which is everyone. period).  Often, I feel a little sheepish or tentative about reaching out boldly–as a sibling might–to offer love, support, a shoulder, to someone; the only way to change our communities is to change ourselves.

Sometimes all we need is some take out and a bottle of wine.

You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel

Preached 17 October, 2010, Christ Episcopal Church, Cooperstown, New York.

28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’

Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight.  My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name.  In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.

When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.”  Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock.  In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.”  This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories.  The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game.  A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time.  In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother.  Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important.  After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town.  That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.

No wonder Jacob was so nervous.  He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man.  Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong.  This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself.  The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act.  A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one.  In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people.  We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.

Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now.  In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling.  We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God.  This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules.  Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again.  This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles.  We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others.  These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.

In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name.  What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called.  In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.”  The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.

In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face.  For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching.  They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing.  Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.””  Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction.  As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.

In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”  Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed.  Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again.  Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past.  Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.

Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.

the blessings of brothers (and sisters)

On Wednesday, I told the story of Jacob/Israel during my school’s chapel service (I am the chaplain of the St. Michael School of Clayton)–it was the first time I ever saw the first through sixth graders absolutely silent and absolutely still (now I thank God that I loved theater as a little girl and know how to tell a good story–I’ve got ’em!).

First, I said I was going to tell a story about a person whose character changed when he put “God in his thinking; God in his speaking” (this is a phrase from a prayer we pray to close chapel every day).  Two hands shot up–I didn’t realize they’d try to guess who!–the first said, “I’ll bet it’s Paul!”  I was so sorry to say that it wasn’t (but believe me, I’m bringing in my huge drop cloth next week to talk about Paul); the second hand said, “It’s Jacob, right?”  And we were off–I talked about how he’d fought his twin brother right out of the womb, how he deceived his brother and father and stole the special oldest-son blessing, how he ran away and was subject to an unfair master himself, and then realized the error of his ways and repented.  He was so sorry, I told them, and he’d been so changed by his experience, that God changed Jacob’s very name (i preached on this passage a year or two ago, text forthcoming).  God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and Esau, his brother, forgave him when they met the next day (the chapel at the Church of St. Michael and St. George–where we hold chapel–has a stained glass window depicting Jacob’s dream and the name change).

I think I ended the story weakly–something like, “And so, when we have God in our thinking and in our speaking, we are kinder, and more honest, and more loving to each other.”  Learning, as I am, that ministry is mostly about asking questions to encourage people to think (duh–the most revelatory moments of my own journey have been the direct result of (Holy Spirit movement) gently-asked, probing questions), I wish I’d asked a question instead.  Following this train of thought, I wondered, “what’s the question I should have asked?”  “Who are we in the story?”  As Newton’s apple, the answer dropped into my head, “we’re Esau.”  I remembered the way that I’d opened my arms wide at the front of the chapel, showing the children what Esau did when he saw his long-lost, double-timing brother.  Some audibly gasped (what joy that these stories hold such power!  it’s been so long since I didn’t know the story that I’ve become inoculated to its shock value).  “Can you imagine being like Esau?  Can you imagine forgiving your brother or sister or friend for something like what Jacob did?”

Our culture does quite the job of telling us that we’re okay–we’re fantastic, even–just the way we are.  We don’t need forgiveness, we don’t need help, we don’t need to be told how to do things–we’re quite capable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  Esau teaches us that the way we are–grudge-holding–is not okay, it is not the way that makes more of us.  Deceit, in the long run, makes less of us.  Holding onto the (bad) past makes less of us  (the old saying goes, it’s like drinking rat poison yourself and being sure that this will kill the other person).  Think of the story of Jacob & Esau next to the story of the Prodigal Son.  Have you heard, “the real question of the parable of the Prodigal Son is, ‘did the older son come into the banquet?'”?  We know that Esau did, we know that Esau’s story challenges us to do the same, and we wonder, as we, the older brother, stand on the edge of the threshold, whether we can let go of the words or actions (or lack of words or actions) that hold us back from opening our arms to our siblings (friends, spouse, parents…).

a truth about relationships

I’m speaking broadly here–not specifically about marriage or romance, which is what immediately pops to my mind when i hear (or read) the word “relationship”–just any level of intimacy with another person, or even with some animals, I’d argue, but that’s another discussion.  The truth which dawned on me today, at a totally unremarkable moment, is that though I may wish and hope and even pray for a relationship to be what it once was, once a relationship is changed, it is never the same again.  Now that I’ve written it, it looks like a simple redundancy.  Duh–once something is changed, it is never the same again.

I’ve been mourning changed relationships.  Ones that used to be close, and i’m not sure why they’re not close anymore–phone calls just stopped being answered one month, and then invitations for dinner were demurred, and now the “relationship” is reduced to (probably one-sided) facebook stalking.  Others ruptured somewhat dramatically, over life choices, and for whatever reason, haven’t recovered.  I keep praying and hoping and wishing and plotting for a recovery.  Today I realized that though “recovery” in the medical sense might be possible (because medically, no matter what happens to you, you’re never quite the same again–heart surgery, serious illness, whatever–your body has scars and adjustments), but a restoration isn’t ever possible, at least this side of Glory (right.  “this side of Glory”, whatever that means–also for another post).

A changed, ruptured, cooled relationship can of course come to a new “better” or at least “different” place, but hoping to get back what has been lost is just sentencing oneself to disappointment.

Therefore.  let us hope & pray for restoration in Christ, and hope & pray for recovery and renovation in our hearts & relationships.