Lilly Project Program Associate
Genesis 32:22-33:4 ; Hebrews 6:9-12
When told that the theme of the conference was covenant, to be honest my first thought was back to my ordination exams. There is much talk in seminary about this extraneous hoop we maneuver. But there is an equally universal experience when you’re actually confronted with the four session members who all misunderstand the most primary concepts of baptism. You don’t need to be in ministry long before you encounter your ordination exam question in real life and see your worship professor mouthing ‘I told you so.’
Well, I passed my ordination exams writing on covenant, but this morning to my theology professors’ chagrin, you will probably hear little of my answer. With great theologians and biblical scholars in our midst, I thought it best to stick to my greatest knowledge base – the realm of the pastoral and how covenant is uncovered amidst fresh challenges faced by this new generation. In our achievement-based culture, today one’s place in God’s chosen community fights for relevancy with one’s position in society’s chain of command. Within this new generation there exists “a vulnerable but promising self” that is being fought for daily. Beyond the place where integrity wrestles with the will to win, there is a self that is ever searching for a fitting home.
This might be why I was so drawn to the story of Jacob. Throughout this conference we will surely hear of the great patriarchs and matriarchs who were the earliest recipients of the promissory covenant. The covenant made before Sinai where God first performed the very radical act of choosing a people. It was here a stoic Abraham and unwavering Isaac faithfully respond to this divine gift. Jacob, though, is the new generation. Equally chosen, his life is riddled with conflict, uncertainty and betrayal. Jacob is this new generation living with great vulnerability and promise. He holds onto an immense calling laden with moral choices that will brand him faithful to some and to others seriously depraved.
One of these vulnerabilities is Jacob’s precarious place within the tradition. As you will recall, in contrast to his brother Esau who is described as “a hairy, skillful hunter and a man of the field,” a sort of Todd Palin kind of guy, Jacob is “a quiet man with soft skin.” Not a man of the fields, but a man “living in tents.” Just as many cultures organize public and private spheres by gender, “tent space” in the ancient near east was domestic space dominated by women. A Presbyterian homiletics professor suggested naming a sermon based on Jacob, “Not a God for Sissies.” But Jacob is a sissy of sorts. The text suggests that he does not conform to traditional gender roles.
Though even beyond this cultural taboo, Jacob knew that it was not just his fundamental nature that might keep him outside of the promise; categorically it was beyond his reach. Human life at this time was structured so that the older child received the blessing, and his brother Esau was that child. Walter Brueggemann states that j“primogeniture is not simply one rule among many. It is the linchpin of an entire social and legal system which defines rights and privileges.” Jacob has two strikes against him. Perhaps if he was not “a man of the tent,” he would be able to prove he was the stronger son. Or, if only he was born first and was older then Esau, then even if he was not masculine he would be given the privileges bestowed by society. But neither scenario is real, and therefore Jacob must live with this great insecurity that he is sitting on the margins of something great. At the bottom of his gut he worries he sits just outside of God’s inheritance.
Humans will go to ridiculous extremes to receive others’ affirmation, but we will go to even greater ones for confirmation that we are blessed by God. At his mother’s pleading Jacob dresses up as his brother, using animal fur to rough up his skin in order to steal the blessing from his brother.
In the GLBT community, we call this trying to pass.
And whether you identify as gay or straight, many of us have attempted this in our own lives. Allow me to use an example from my own. The day before my examination on the floor of Presbytery, I went to get my hair cut. For the very first time I walked into this expensive salon in my neighborhood and luckily there was an open chair. As the hairstylist was washing my hair, I shared with him why I was getting a hair cut. I explained what happens in an ordination examination, and why as an out lesbian I needed all the confidence I could get. Now as he sat me in his chair, this gay man took one look at me and shook his head as if to say, “You are not going up there like that.” What was first a hair cut ended up being my first ever eyebrow trim and an on-the-house head of $100 highlights. The day of my examination my mother dressed me in her prized Norwegian sweater, pewter buttons and all, and laced me in my grandma’s pearls. In back of all our minds was the unspoken idea that maybe even though I would say the word ‘lesbian,’ somehow like Isaac the Presbytery would be tricked by the disguise. I would look enough like one who is traditionally chosen that the word would soften to the ear in favor of what the eye confirmed.
Jacob’s own passing does not really pan out for him. Although he receives the blessing, his brother is totally outraged and vengeful; Jacob becomes estranged from his family and lives a life questioning his own credibility.
Jacob discovers what many of us do when we end up playing the part of the other brother. To prove this point, let me go back to my Presbytery meeting. At the end my successful examination, my friend and mentor Janie Spahr and I were playing back the examination and she told me that I had used “he” for God! We looked at each other in great horror! Having worked in the denomination’s office of women’s advocacy educating the church on inclusive language – I betrayed my own understanding of God and had absolutely no recollection of having done it. The danger of passing is that we not only become estranged from the self but from our deepest understanding of the divine.
So Jacob does not receive resolution and must continue to live with an insecure blessing. Has my family really chosen me, or is this just a loop hole? Does God really see me as a recipient of covenant, or am I just a trickster with a bad case of entitlement? Am I following God’s will or manipulating people and things for my own power?
Jacob ends up estranged from his family, and it is only when he is now totally bewildered and alone that God intrudes onto a scene which has until now been humanly orchestrated.
We know from the biblical narratives that there are very few encounters with God outside of messy lives and subsequent human heartache. Perhaps God realizes that when we are most vulnerable, there is greater probability we will open to the promise. And at these moments when we are in total anguish, God knows that we are to be approached with great care. Thus God often comes to us in the darkness, when the shock of God’s intrusion is absorbed by the night.
God first meets Jacob in a dream as he sleeps at Bethany, gifting him with a vision of a ladder to heaven, assuring him of his lineage. He is a grandchild of Abraham, an unquestionable heir of the covenant. There should be no doubt that the promise is extended to him. “I will keep you,” God says, in intimate language almost more persuasive than lineage talk. “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
And after this encounter with God, Jacob does go on to live into the wealth and family promised to him. But the covenantal promise does not end there. Years later the time comes when he must finally return to his homeland to fulfill the promise, and this requires a meeting with Esau. And even though Jacob has now encountered God like Isaac and Abraham before him, nothing can stop him from fearing this reunion. Jacob is still vulnerable to a belief that covenant assurance and blessings reside in the human sphere. His fear and insecurity are palpable as he divides up his family and sends ahead of him great gifts for appeasement. He knows that Esau could very well kill him for what he has done; and in the midst of his anxious preparations Jacob remembers the glorious and tender assurance of promise God bestowed upon him when estranged in Bethany. Again feeling totally bewildered, those divine memories show him where to go. He crosses over the river away from his family to once again sleep alone. Before meeting his brother, he goes searching for God, something experience has shown comes most easily in the cover of night.
And God does not come delicately approaching Jacob, knowing he is a frightened soul, but instead a stranger arrives assaulting him with unrelenting force.
The night before having to meet my session, after getting called back for yet another meeting because the church had been in great turmoil over the support of my candidacy, I had a dream.
I was hiking with a group of people; all with big backpacks, we walked in a line through a beautiful field. As I looked around me I started to feel a sense of familiarity. I realized I knew this place! I was with a woman and I ran up to the man leading the hike and asked if I could take her to some near-by small towns I knew. The guide said “No, two women are not safe going alone.” We continued walking and we approached a church where we would stay the night. As we entered the front hall there on the ground were the boots and clothes of two women piled up as though the women had combusted into thin air leaving just a mound of clothes behind. I asked the pastor what had happened and she simply said, “It is not safe for two women to go alone.” As our group shuffled into the church, the pastor explained how the perpetrator of this crime was unknown but that he would be among those welcomed into the church. As people flooded in to greet us, I became terrified. Not knowing what to do, I quickly hid under a table as each individual entered the fellowship hall. Then there he was, this stranger, this antagonist. In sheer panic a system deeper then fight or flight kicked in; I came to understand I would be safer if I was to stand. With every ounce of energy in my body I stood, and as he turned around I put my hand out smiling as though my life depended on it. Our hands touched. Our eyes met. And I woke up.
After wrestling all night, Jacob finally prevails. He looks this antagonist in the eye and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And whether this stranger is the Holy One or not, I believe that Jacob, after years of wrestling with humans, now thoroughly believes he is wrestling with God. This divine force looks at Jacob and instead of giving him a blessing asks him his name. Jacob’s life long question – blessed or unblessed – is set aside by this One who seeks to address the core concern. In my mind’s eye, here is God crushed by Jacob’s weight, and that of his struggle, taking Jacob’s face gently into the palms of God’s hands. God looks him in the eyes, face to face with God’s chosen one and tenderly asks, “What is your name?” I would guess this is the moment Jacob comes to believe he is a bearer of the covenant. He does not say ‘Esau,’ ‘grandchild of Abraham,’ ‘tent sitter’ or ‘wealth maker.’ Jacob does not say ‘betrayer of Isaac’ or ‘undeserving one.’ For the first time, the human drama is peeled away and he looks at God and simply says, ‘Jacob.’ He sits in front of the one who has been for him both antagonist and promise bearer. He sits completely in his vulnerability and promise, and all that exists is pure blessing.
I was sweating and terrified when I woke up from my dream. And it was then that I too recognized God’s emergence. An experience we can not often put into words, but it was here in this unfamiliar dawn that all was changed. As I had equally felt that terrorizing dream, it was balanced with an equally powerful confirmation of God’s presence. This was not an imagined presence but a very physical one. My body at once hot and tense suddenly felt cool and fluid. In my mind, there was an image of a fountain, the water flowing up through my body, and then covering me. Soothing and consoling, I knew beyond a doubt that I was being bathed in the very water of my baptism. I had encountered God, and I knew at the depths of my being that my encounter with the church, in which at times I had felt so estranged, could not endanger me. It was baptism that confirmed my place in the covenant community. And it was to be with this assurance, I was to face not the enemy but my brother in what was not a heavenly struggle, but a very human one.
God then says to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Only when Jacob stands in front of God as pure Jacob does God verify that he is not only a part of the covenant community, but one of its truest reflections. The sun rises upon him and he immerges into an unfamiliar dawn, never again having to resort to meeting God in dark places, having now a faith that no longer distinguishes day from night.
It was the same sun that rose upon Jacob that surfaced this summer at our own reunion at the General Assembly in San Jose. And it was with this same resilient knowledge of being God’s chosen that 15 young adults of this new generation came to G.A. with That All May Freely Serve. Even as co-moderator, I was at first a bit skeptical with our organization’s idea to pour all our funds into bringing young people to G.A. In my work as a college chaplain I often hem and haw about bringing youth, especially GLBT students, to the Assembly. As they listen to the debate and experience distressing votes, it can be a time of deep estrangement.
But what occurred at this Assembly was an in-breaking of God’s abundant light. This welcoming generation came to G.A. not preparing for a clash, but focused on the ministry they could bring to this reunion. Protected by a deep security in their place within the covenant, they welcomed commissioners with hospitality. Morning and evening, they stood at the convention hall doors handing out coffee and cookies, supplying commissioners with a vision of what living into God’s promise might actually be like.
And as the sun continues to rise on this new generation – and we have seen it do so this week – so it does on Jacob. Jacob humbly stands before his brother with all of his imperfections enmeshed with God’s delight. And though Jacob in the spirit of hospitality brings extravagant gifts, ultimately it is Esau whose move towards reconciliation is reminiscent of God’s very own grace. Esau, with his own undeniable experiences of pain and betrayal, kissed his brother conspiring with God in shedding even more light.
So as we go out into a crucially important moment in Presbyterian history, let us heed the wisdom of Hebrews and be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Let us walk with Jacob and Esau into unfamiliar places. Let us rest assured we live a shared covenant that is beyond human meddling if we in fact believe in God’s abundant light.