Saturday, August 30, 2014

What's Your Calling?

Exodus 3:1-15
Jazz Communion
William G. Carter

   "So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Here is a question worthy of Moses, musicians, and the rest of us: how did you get into the work that you do? If you stay with the question, you hear a lot of stories.

I have a college classmate by the name of Sherrie Maricle. She has become a famous musician. She leads a big band, plays Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic, and travels the world with a pair of drum sticks. How did it all get started? Was it because she had Al Hamme as a college professor? No, it started a lot earlier. When she was a young teenage girl, somebody took her to a jazz concert and she saw Buddy Rich play drums. She didn’t only hear him, she saw him. In those days, Buddy was a hurricane of swing, a force of nature in every way. For no rational reason, that teenage girl blurted out, “I want to do that.” The unlikely decision shaped her life. And that’s what she is doing today. Call it a “burning bush moment.”

Or there was that professional piano player, Bobby, who couldn’t keep a gig. His father was a famous singer, an opera singer. But the talent didn’t seem to translate. So this kid was scuffling around for work and landed in Salt Lake City. He was 27 years old, newly married, playing accompaniment piano for the dance department at the University of Utah. One day in January, he was walking home for a lunch break when he heard a voice – The Voice. The Voice said, “You are a singer now.” Bobby McFerrin said he suddenly knew it in his bones. He didn’t expect it, anymore than he believed someday he would get ten Grammy awards and a number one hit. But he had a “burning bush moment” sometime between 12 and 12:30 p.m. on a January sidewalk in Salt Lake City.[1]

It’s not a moment unique to musicians, although I would surmise that each of these talented musicians had a moment – or a series of moments – and suddenly they knew: this is the reason why I am on the planet. I have known school teachers who feel this way, plumbers who believe they are called to their vocation, social workers who believe they have found life’s purpose, to say nothing of retired people who doing precisely what they have always wanted to do.

It’s all part of our calling. As someone says, “God can call us in many directions, to different people and different places. Vocation is rarely one single, clearly defined role. Instead it is usually a blend of relationships, work, activity, obligations, and passions. Vocation involves the ways we are sent out …to serve those who hunger and to share the gifts, skills, and opportunities we have been given.”[2]

Sometimes it is a special opportunity. A young woman told me about her pregnancy. It was not expected, especially since she and her boyfriend had not set a wedding date. But then the baby was coming, and it threw off the schedule a bit. A simple wedding was held, a bedroom identified as a nursery and painted. “And when my daughter was born,” she said, “and I looked into her eyes for the first time, I knew that nothing else really mattered. Loving her was going to be my daily work. It was through loving her, I could love the rest of the world.” I can’t think of a more powerful story of a burning bush moment.

Moses was minding his own business as a shepherd. He wasn’t looking for anything else to do. He had a wife, he had a son, he had a flock of sheep to watch on behalf of his father-in-law. It was enough. Then came the revelation, the moment, the Voice: “There is work for you to do.” He resisted the invitation. He didn’t think he was qualified. He could not imagine the whole thing at once. “Lord, you’ve dialed the wrong number. I have no standing before Pharoah. I am not known for being a religious guy or a good moral example. Unlike my brother Aaron, I don’t talk so good.” God listened for a while, tapped his fingers and waited him out, and then God said, “Now listen, Moses, this is the work that I need you to do.”

It’s one of the great moments in the Bible, the true-blue burning bush moment. Other Bible characters have their big moments too, just like the rest of us. Prophets are summoned. Leaders are beckoned. Love is awakened. Truth is revealed. Moses is called by God to an enormous task. Actually it’s a series of tasks, or actually an unfolding lifetime of one thing after another. If we pay attention to his burning bush moment, we learn something about the ways God continues to call us into the work of our lives. There are many things to say, but I notice three clues.

The first clue is the call is like a river. There are many streams contributing, many places of entry, but it all feeds into the main course. Take note, Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace. He already knows the family of Pharoah. He was originally the child of a Hebrew priest. He has spent a long time out of sight, some say forty years in the wilderness of Midian. He knows how to tend a flock. None of this is wasted when God gets his attention.

Like Bobby McFerrin said, “The biggest inspiration to me was my dad.” His father dubbed in the singing voice when Sidney Poitier filmed “Porgy and Bess.” Bobby says, “He had such gratitude for his gift and was very humble.” There was a time he said to himself, “I’m not going to do what my dad did.” But later on, everything began to fit together.

So when reflecting on your life’s work, one of the clues is that it often takes a while to discover the full picture of what we are called to do. Along the way there were probably moments of insight, bushes burning that arrested your attention, but you have to stand back and see the whole river with various streams contributing, and it is all moving in the same direction.

The second clue about calling is that it is always something that God wants to get done in the world. Did you hear the Holy Voice in the Exodus story? God says, “I’ve heard the suffering of my people, so Moses, here’s what I want you to do about it.” God pays attention to what needs to get done, and when the time is right, God puts us in the place to do something about it.

I reflect on my own sense of calling. When I was fifteen, somebody called from a nursing home a few towns away. The activity director said, “Could you come and play some piano music for the people here?” Well, I had never played for people anywhere. And I had never been to a nursing home. How difficult could this be? I was immersing myself in ragtime, so I bundled up my Scott Joplin books, got one of my parents to give me a ride, and went to make some music.

Nothing could have prepared me. There were people in wheelchairs who could not speak. An old man with crippled hands tried in vain to clap. A lady moaned whenever she enjoyed a song, and sometimes I was already into the next song when she voiced her appreciation. A couple of funky smells and sounds. I was fifteen year old. When I finished, they cheered, and I went out to the station wagon, sat there and cried. I was in shock from the suffering around me. I later learned they were completely ecstatic. In between my shock and their joy was the beginning of a tug to do my life’s work.
What is it that I do? Make music, care for people, spend time with those in need? All the above and then some. To this day, once a month I head over to lead worship in a nursing home, bang out some syncopated hymns, and serve communion to people who are hungry for joy and good news. It may be the most important thing that I do all month. It isn’t the only thing that I do, but it lies pretty close to what God wants to get done. And it isn’t the only thing that God wants to get done, but it is one thing that I can do.

A third clue about our callings: when we are doing what we were put on this planet to do, there is great freedom. I’m talking about Exodus Freedom, about Get-Out-Of-Slavery Freedom. Shake off the chains. Shrug off the doubts and self-criticisms. A good calling may involve a lot of hard labor - but you do it because this is what the work requires, and this is the work that set you free. A good calling is one when you are willing to make sacrifices to get the work done, but you are never willing to sacrifice the work itself. That’s one way to know it is a calling. Ever feel like that? And if you feel good about what you do with your life, chances are others are feeling good too. There’s a lot of freedom here.

Now, I know there are things we have to do to bring in the money. But there is more to our life’s work than bringing in the money. Moses tended the sheep for forty years up in the hills. It paid the bills. He didn’t show any signs of discontent. But the whole time he was being prepared for the next chapter in his life. I believe that. A good calling often involves a lot of time that is spent out of sight.

And life doesn’t always come together quickly. When God speaks up from the burning bush, Moses steps back. His life was settled, you know. It would take another chapter in the book of Exodus for God to talk him into leaving, and then another chapter for him to pack up and go back to Egypt. The God of the Bible is never in a hurry. But when the right moment comes to start moving, almost everything clicks into place. The current is strong in God’s river.

In one of her poems, Mary Oliver says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[3] It’s a good question for Labor Day weekend, a good question for anybody who is still breathing, still wishing to make a positive difference in a hurting world. What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

How you answer really does matter. You have the ability to take joy to others. To relieve human suffering. To help someone learn to trust again. To put food in somebody else’s stomach. To put a song in the air. To mend the broken-hearted. To set somebody free. There are burning bushes all along your path, and no shortage of invitations to offer to the world what God has specifically given to you.

One thing’s for sure: to take seriously your life’s calling is to stand on holy ground. It is the place where God meets you, where God invites you to make a difference, where God promises to set you free.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Laura Kelly Fanucci, “Called to Life”, Collegeville Institute, 2013, p. 23
[3] "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. Beacon Press, 2008.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lying to Pharoah, Truthful to God

Exodus 1:8-2:10
August 24, 2014
William G. Carter

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families... 

This summer, we have been working through the family stories of Israel. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven brothers. We haven’t told all the stories, but we have heard of God’s persistent blessing. God selected an old man named Abraham and said, “You and your children are mine, all mine!” Just to prove it, God gave him a son.

Regardless of whatever happened after that, God had a family, one generation after another. The family grew. This was God’s original promise: “Abraham, look into the sky and count the stars, if you can. So shall you descendants be!”

But as we heard today, there was a reaction to the promise. God’s family grows, now many of them in Egypt, so many that the new Pharoah gets nervous. This Pharoah didn’t know Joseph. All he could see were Joseph’s children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The Hebrews were not from there. They were immigrants. And now there were so many of them, they were taking over the land!

Pharoah says to his court, “As long as they stayed a minority, we could keep them out of the way. We could give them menial jobs. They could be cooks in Egyptian country clubs and domestic servants in the Egyptian homes. They could shine our Egyptian sandals and clean our Egyptian toilets.” That’s where we want them to stay, said Pharoah, “but there are just too many of them. Too many of these immigrants. So we have to deal shrewdly with them, lest they take over what we have…”

Wow, that’s some story, isn’t it? Some might say it’s the kind of story that repeats itself over and over again. I think it’s the kind of story we can interpret a number of different ways, depending on where we stand.

Maybe you saw the newspaper cartoon. A blustering white American in a suit and tie yells, “It’s time to reclaim America from illegal immigrants!” The Navaho next to him says, “I’ll help you pack.”

Or did you hear the angry man in suburban Saint Louis? This week he was overheard to say, “Our town was fine before those people moved in.” He has conveniently forgotten the ancestors of “those people” did not choose to come here; they were dragged from their African homes to be slaves in a foreign land.

That’s exactly what Pharoah does out of anxiety and fear: he enslaves the Hebrews for the sake of his economy. He didn’t know about Joseph, didn’t care about Joseph – all he wants is “those people” under his thumb, and while he’s at it, he will build an empire on their broken backs. Twice in two sentences, the Bible calls him “ruthless.”

We cannot handle these matters lightly. Anybody who is paying attention that racism is an issue. Immigration is an issue. Exploitation is an issue. Fear and violence -- these issues are with us every day.

What is fascinating about our Bible story is that it offers a woman’s perspective on some of these matters. The men might think they are running the world, but the women see the men running it into the ground. Pharoah forces the Hebrew slaves to build entire cities out of bricks and mortar. If Stephen Spielberg is to be believed, the Hebrews built a few pyramids, too, although the Bible doesn’t make that claim. No, what the Bible says is that some women stood up to Pharoah. They refused to go along with his brutality.

It’s a remarkable story. Rather than be robbed of dignity, there are a lot of women who find ways to resist, to push back, to stand up for themselves.

Years ago, Maya Angelou wrote a poem. She said it’s about an old Black woman she noticed on a New York City bus. The woman was a domestic maid who rides the bus every day. When the bus goes too fast, she laughs. When the bus picks up somebody, she laughs. When it misses them, she laughs. Maya said, “What is that? She looks like she’s smiling, but she’s not smiling. She is wearing a mask as an old survival apparatus. And Maya writes a poem for her:

When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke,
a dance what’s walked, a song what’s spoke.
I laugh so hard I nearly choke, when I think about myself.

Sixty years in these folks’ world, the child I works for calls me “girl.”
And I say “yes, ma’am” for workin’s sake.
I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.
So hmph, humph, ha, ha, humph, I laugh until my stomach ache,
when I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side. I laugh so hard I nearly died.
The tales they tell sound just like lyin’. They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh so hard, I start to cryin’ when I think about myself.[1]

Have you ever put on the mask? The mask “that grins and lies / it shades our cheeks and hides our eyes”? When some people are put down, this is what they do: they hide what’s really going on inside them. It’s a way to survive, a way to stand up to Old Pharoah, a way to say, “I may work for you, but you don’t own me.” For some, it’s the only way they know to claim their God-given dignity.

There are other ways to resist, of course. I recall a memorable scene from the movie “The Help” involving a chocolate pie. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie for a rainy day, although you may lose your appetite for dessert. “The Help” is the story of house maids in Jackson, Mississippi, telling the truth about their servitude.[2] Some essentially enslaved women stand up to the people who oppress them – and their weapon is telling the truth. Telling the truth.

But here’s the thing about Shiphrah and Puah, the two woman who are heroes of the Bible story of the heroes: they lie. That’s what their weapon is. They lie – and the story goes like this: Shiphrah and Puah were midwives, Hebrew midwives. Pharoah called them in, and said, “Now, when you are delivering babies for the Hebrew women, if you see it’s a boy, get rid of it; if it’s a girl, that’s OK – no threat to me.”

Well, these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, ignored him. They paid no attention to Old Mister Pharoah. If you have eaten a Kosher hot dog, you remember the Hebrew National ad campaign: “We answer to a Higher Authority.” So did Shiphrah and Puah. They honored God, and so the boy babies kept coming.

Old Mister Pharoah kept seeing little boys, and called in the midwives. “Why have you done this? Why are you letting the little boys live?” The Hebrew midwives said, “Well, Mister Pharoah, you have to understand. Hebrew women are sturdy and vigorous. They’re not like the delicate flowers of Egypt. Those Hebrew Mamas pop those babies out and we don’t even know about it.”

Old Mister Pharaoh didn’t know what to say. Shiphrah and Puah bowed dutifully, slipped out of the palace, gave one another a high-five, and started having some babies of their own.

Now, wait, you say: they lied. Yes they did. The Bible makes no apology for that. Nineteen chapters later, God will chisel out a series of Ten Commandments, one of which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” Apparently that’s not the same thing as lying in order to save lives, especially the lives of the children of God’s own family.

This is an ethical matter. We teach our children to tell the truth and we should expect as much of one another. For too many people, words are cheap and promises are broken. Our economy sells products that are supposedly “new and improved,” and you buy it and it’s the same old junk they sold before. And then there is politics, a noble work until you get into it.

Throughout the Psalms, we are warned away from those with a “deceitful tongue.” Mark Twain may have said it best: lying is our “most universal weakness.” We should never tell a lie, he said, “except to keep in practice.”[3]

So what do we do with Shiphrah and Puah? They lie to Pharoah to save the children. For them, it is a matter of civil obedience, in the most extreme and necessary of circumstances. I can only imagine the campfire as the Hebrews told this story years later, laughing at Old Mister Pharoah as their tribes increased.

But Pharoah’s cruelty is no laughing matter. He’s still out there, you know. He goes by different names, but he’s still out there. Pharoah is still wherever women are put down, wherever children are endangered, wherever strangers are feared and immigrants enslaved. And when we see him, we have to stand up to him. That’s what the Bible is teaching us here. We answer to a higher authority. We answer to God.

When I was a college student, one of my teachers said, “You should read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Nobody told me about him in the church where I grew up, but in college I started poking around. Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. He earned his Ph.D. by the age of 21. To the shock of his highly cultured parents he became a Christian and a theologian, at a time when cultured people thought that was passé.

He was a Lutheran pastor, but what fired up my imagination is that he stood up against Adolf Hitler. One day immediately after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer made a radio address, criticizing the political changes in Germany. His broadcast was shut down in mid-sentence. Clearly he was the real deal.

So when I went off to Princeton to study for the ministry, and learned there was a course in the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I signed up. We learned he began an underground seminary up on the Baltic Sea, where ministers were trained to speak the Gospel and resist the Fuerher. We read his lectures on the Sermon on the Mount, titled The Cost of Discipleship, where he wrote, “When Christ calls someone to follow him, he calls that person to die.” We read his reflections on what means to live together as the church, in a book called Life Together. We read his sermons; they were direct, biblical, truthful.

And then, in my shock, I discovered he not only stood up to Hitler; he was involved in an assassination plot to get rid of Hitler. The plot failed. When the conspiracy was uncovered, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price. Admittedly Hitler was a bad guy, one more ruthless Pharoah determined to get rid of Hebrews. But I wondered: how could a Lutheran pastor get involved in an assassination plot? In fact, I wondered so long that I wrote a paper about it for my class.

Bonhoeffer never gave a direct answer; it would have incriminated him if it was discovered. But at least twice he referred it to it indirectly. Once was in a stack of papers hidden at the time of his arrest. After his death a friend edited them into an unfinished book on ethics. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The penultimate concern is not as important as the ultimate concern.” That is, the next-to-last matter is not as important as the final matter. And what is the final matter? God’s justification by grace and faith alone.[4] So, to quote Bonhoeffer’s hero Martin Luther, “Sin boldly, but believe in Christ more boldly still.” Sin boldly – because we’re going to sin anyway – but trust even more that the mercy of Christ finally covers us all.

The second time he referred to his role against Pharoah Hitler was right before his own execution. He turned to a fellow prisoner in the concentration camp and said, “Suppose you see a drunken madman hurling down the Autobahn toward innocent people. The Christian minister can do two things. He can wait and preside over a nice funeral. Or he can try to seize the steering wheel out of the hands of the mad man.” And so he did.

We answer to a higher authority. In the words of Psalm 2, God looks down upon the tyrants and bullies of this world and laughs. As God’s children, we do what we can, in the smaller places where we live, to declare that the God of Abraham and Sarah is the rightful Ruler over heaven and earth.

In fact, God is so supreme, that God will infiltrate Pharoah’s own house. That’s the end of today’s story that everybody knows. Pharoah had decreed the boys should be thrown into the Nile. A little Hebrew boy is born anyway and his mother floats him in a basket on the Nile to save his life. Then Pharoah’s own daughter finds him, sympathizes with his plight, claims him, and calls for a nursing woman to care for him until she can raise him as her own. The nurse happens to be the boy’s own mother. She calls him “Mosheh” - “Moses – which means, “I pulled him out of the water.” And that’s just the beginning of the story of how God will pull his family out of slavery in Egypt.

How appropriate that we should gather today at the baptismal font, to pull one more of God’s dear children out of the water! With the power of the Holy Spirit, we will tell her that she belongs to God, and not the counterfeit powers of Pharoah. And we will tell her what kind of God she has: a God who rejoices in her birth, a Savior who claims her from the powers of destruction, a Holy Spirit who calls her – just like the rest of us – to work for the justice of heaven on earth. Let it be on earth, as it is in heaven.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Maya Angelou, “The Mask.” One version available at
[2] I mentioned the movie in the sermon of May 4 and commend it to you.
[3]Mark Twain's Autograph," Atlanta Constitution, 9 September 1906, p. E3.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1949) 129-133.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's Like Seeing the Face of God

Genesis 33:1-11
August 10, 2014
William G. Carter

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.

Family reunions make a lot of people nervous. It’s not the travel that makes us uneasy, or the mutual menu planning, or the scheduling of activities. No, it’s the anticipation of being around those people. You are related to them by blood or adoption. Instinctively you know you are family. But the prospect of being in the same place at the same time makes us nervous.

Most family reunions are modest, of course, maybe a three hour picnic on a Saturday afternoon. The kids twitch about being around all those strangers, and grumble how they are not allowed to escape to their iPhones. The meal is potluck, somebody makes the meat, somebody else brings the watermelon. Sometimes they fuss about one daughter hasn’t spent as much as the other daughter, and that’s not fair; maybe next year she can bring the chicken. It’s hard work being a family, especially a family that has dispersed and spread out, and now convenes for a reunion.

As a young boy, I used to think, “I’m so different from these people.” They would bring six variations of red Jello and talk with their western Pennsylvania twangs. Our household would sit by itself at one picnic table, another household would sit over there. We’d glance at one another and try not to get caught. In such moments, I felt very close to my sister, thinking we had so much more in common than those odd strangers we were supposed to be related to.

And then my uncle would pull out his guitar and play “Winchester Cathedral,” and my aunt will start playing her accordion, and I was mortified. She would turn to me and say, “I think you got all your musical ability from our side of the family,” and I wanted to go hide in a tree.

Family reunions. They can make you nervous.

Our Bible story is a family reunion. Jacob had good reason to be nervous. It had been twenty years since he had laid eyes on his brother. When last they saw one another, Esau wanted to lay his hands on Jacob’s throat. If you know the story, you know why. Jacob was the family con man. He swindled his older brother out of the legal rights of being the first-born son. There are opinions about that, that Esau was just plain stupid and thinking with his stomach, but the truth is Jacob got them out of his brother for a bowl of soup.

And then their mother Rebekah, who always liked Jacob more, offered a plan for Jacob to get most of the family business. They would dress him up like his brother, go to his old blind father Isaac, and trick him into giving the family blessing that really belonged to Esau. It worked like a charm, and it set off Esau like a heat-seeking missile. He made it pretty clear he was on a search-and-destroy mission, looking for his brother.

That was a long time ago. Twenty years had gone by. If you know anything about families, you know that everybody still remembered what happened.

That’s what families do: they maintain the stories. They remember the old tales. One of the aunts pulls out an album of black and white photos, people gather around the picnic table, and the stories begin again. “This is Uncle Tommy who was shot down in the war. Here is Grandma who always wore black after that day. Aunt Eloise is holding a baby; I don’t know which one, she was always pregnant. This is your grandfather, who would only allow his picture to be taken if he stood in front of the blue Buick.”

The family story for Jacob and Esau went like this: they hated one another. They were fighting while they were still in the same womb. Of the twins, Esau came out first but Jacob was grabbing his brother’s heel. That’s who they were, until Jacob ran away. After all these years, how do you think it’s going to go?

It would be interesting to pause that story and chew on it for a while. We know the plot can spin any number of ways.

I think of that memorable episode from the Simpsons. Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb. Herb has made it big as a car manufacturer, and Homer gets in touch. Herb invites him and his family to his mansion in Detroit. There is some anxiety before the meeting, but it goes well. So well, in fact, that Herb invites Homer to design a new car for his company. Bad idea. Herb’s company falls apart, his mansion is sold off, and he regrets ever meeting his half-brother.

So who knows what is going to happen when Jacob and Esau meet? Jacob the Heel Grabber hedges his bets. As we heard last week, Jacob gets wind that Esau is nearby, and he has four hundred men with him. Oh no! He sends an enormous gift of livestock to Esau before can meet. After wrestling in the dark and considering what to do, he limps to meet his brother. Maybe his brother will go soft on him since he’s a cripple.

Again he hears Esau is close by, with four hundred of his favorite thugs. So Jacob decides to line up his family. He puts a couple of his kids with their mother, then a couple more of the kids with their mother, then the kids he has produced with Leah go next, followed by Leah. Finally, at the end of the line is his favorite wife Rachel with their son Joseph. He puts them all in a long line. And I’m guessing the reason he does this is that, if Esau is going to battle him, he has to plow through the women and children first.

But then Jacob moves to the front of the line. And he leads his family in a choreographed move, formally bowing seven times before his brother. He will show honor to Esau for the first time in his life. He will not run away; no, he’s a hobbling man sixty years of age. He moves formally toward Esau.

Do you remember what Esau does? He cuts through the formalities, runs toward his brother, raises his arms, embraces Jacob, kisses him, holds him close --- and the two of them descend into sobs of joy.

Does any of this sound familiar? Ken Bailey, the Bible scholar, says this story is so important it is spun again. Know what he is talking about? Jesus said, “There were these two brothers. One got his share of the inheritance and took off for the hills. He was gone for a good long while, doing God knows what. And when the time came for the two to reunite, the younger one came to his senses and traveled toward the other . . .” It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s the family reunion story of Jacob and Esau.”

The difference in the story, as Jesus spins it, is that the father is the one who breaks Middle Eastern custom and runs toward the returning son. It’s the father who falls on him, embraces him, kisses him, and says, “Welcome back!” The older brother, the Esau character, stays away in the field, arms crossed, refusing to acknowledge he even has a brother. Sadly, that’s how the story often goes. Older brothers resent the younger brothers who return. They want to perpetuate the hurt and the division. They want to maintain the grudge at all costs.

But a miracle has happened in Esau. He has let go of the bitterness. He has cancelled the bad memory. He has forgiven the lingering hurt. “Look,” he says, “you don’t need to win my favor. You are my brother.” He calls him brother. And then he says, “I have everything that I need.” That is code language for grace: God has graciously provided for Esau. Jacob may have taken the family blessing, but both sons have the holy blessing. They are loved and provided for by heaven.

Do you know what that’s like? That’s like saying you don’t have to grab for what is not yours. You don’t have to resort to aggression. You don’t have to prove yourself over your brother or your sister. You don’t have to manipulate or pull the strings or maneuver behind the scenes. You don’t have to send a big gift to get somebody else to love you. You don’t have to grab anybody’s heel any more. Simply lean back into the arms of God and say thank you. “I have everything I need … because everything I need comes from God.”

Have you ever said that? It can change your life. Look at what it does to Jacob! He looks into the red hairy face of his brother, now turning gray, and says, “This is like looking into the face of God!” This is as generous, as patient, and as abounding in steadfast love as if I was looking directly into the eyes of our Creator.

It’s a hard-won victory for God, you understand. Sixty years after the brothers’ birth, twenty years after their parting. It has taken a few key moments – a midnight vision of angels going up and down the ladder, the voice of God promising a future beyond all dreams, to say nothing of a painful wrestling match just last night – but Jacob knows what kind of God we have – a God who creates us in abundance and calls us to live in peace.

Imagine if every family reunion was like looking into the face of God! Imagine if you would see the eyes of those people to whom you are related, and you could say:

  • Reconciliation is the face of God.
  • Forgiveness is the face of God.
  • Unexpected mercy is the face of God.
  • Undeserved grace is the face of God.
And dare we say it?
  • Family peace is the face of God.
This is what God wants for us: for brothers to get along, for sisters to flourish side by side, for generations to care for one another, for no one to be cast off and forgotten.

“How good it is,” says the Psalmist. “How good it is when kindred live in unity!” (133:1) Unity doesn’t happen without a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of forgiveness, and sometimes a lot of time.

But it can happen, because this is the will of God for every family under heaven, beginning with yours and mine.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Limping Toward Dawn

Genesis 32:22-31
August 3, 2014
William G. Carter

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This is a story for anybody who tosses and turns at night.

Often the Bible speaks in broad daylight: “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.” We cannot see them after dark. Only when the sun is up do we see the birds and lilies, admire their beauty, and reflect on how God takes care of them.

A large crowd gathers around Jesus, hanging on every word he speaks. They are so enchanted with his sermon that they lose all sense of time. When their stomachs start growling, the Lord decides it is time to feed them with loaves and fishes. Breaking what they have, he blesses it and gives it away. Everybody is fed and there is plenty left over. To observe all that, it must happen during daylight.

But this story of Jacob, it’s a night time story. It happens in the shadows when nobody else is around. He has sent away the women and the children, delivering them across the Jabbock River. And while he is alone, he wrestles all night in the dark.

It doesn’t take much imagination for Jacob’s story to become our story.

The child lies in the crib, whimpering with pain. Medication won’t help. The fever won’t break. She begins to cry again, and it’s four in the morning. What do you do? Wrestling in the dark.

You toss and turn in bed, can’t sleep. The rumors are out there and you can’t do anything about them. You thought those people were your friends, but they have made up a story about you, lied about the details, and show no remorse about doing you harm. Should you confront them? Or should you tell the truth, and risk looking as small as they are? You don’t know what to do. Wrestling in the dark.

The news comes about the person who works with you. He’s been arrested. You can’t believe what people are saying. The reporters are looking for a quick story to jump start the evening news. There is no proof of his crime, just one person who accused, and conspirators who were ready to jump on the case. You worry about him. Will he crack under this unfair situation? You sit in the shadows, turning over the matter in your mind.  Your wife taps on the door. “Are you OK in there?” she asks with concern. Wrestling in the dark.

When was the last time you had a sleepless night? Then you can understand this story.

Here is Jacob, totally on his own. He has been trying to outrun Laban, his father in law. That man turned out out be more trouble than he was worth. Jacob put in twenty years of hard work for him, gained a couple of wives and a truckload of kids. He tried to get away from the guy, but Laban kept chasing after him. What a pain in the neck! They finally shook hands, made mutual gestures at one another, and parted ways.

Then Jacob discovered his twin brother Esau is not far away. Running away from Esau was the reason he got stuck with Laban for twenty years. The report is not good. Esau has four hundred men and a long memory. He’s really looking forward to seeing the brother who stole his blessing. What will Jacob do? Well, he is a schemer, after all. He pulls an impossible number of livestock out of his herds, gift wraps them, and sends them ahead to Esau. Maybe he can soften up the old warrior.

This is when he sends away his women and children. After twenty years with them, he decides to think about somebody other than himself. Get them out of the combat zone, he figures. No reason to put them at risk too. Especially when Esau has four hundred men. No reason for one of his own kids to act like a hero. He sends them off, along with everything he possessed. No defenses, no more bribes, no more con jobs, no more anything.

Jacob is alone. Completely alone. Except as we heard from the story, he isn’t alone at all. There’s Somebody Else in the dark, somebody who is never named. And he wrestles with Jacob all night long. Each of them holds his ground. Neither one of them has the advantage. They are evenly matched.

Now, before anybody rushes off to name the unnamed wrestler as “God,” consider what that would mean. That means that when people wrestle with God, they are evenly matched. Each one tries to get his own way. God desires to do his will. Jacob wrestles to win.

It’s worth reflecting on what it means to wrestle with God in the dark. When you worry about your child, or your reputation, or your friend, or whatever it is that consumes your energy and stirs up your fear, could it be that you are really wrestling with God? Not the God who smiles on us in the sunshine, but the God who comes upon us in the dark. The God who has stayed in the shadows, observing us, but now steps into the ring.

Years ago, on retreat in a beautiful desert canyon, I came upon a grizzled young man. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a week. From the hills outside of Denver, he said. He went to the desert canyon every second week of July. “This is where I come to slug it out with God every year,” he said. I looked at him strangely and he said, “I come here to tell God that I don’t want to do what He wants me to do, and then God tries to convince me other otherwise.” I thought he was strange, and then about midnight I heard a shout from the direction of the man’s cabin: “No, not that. Not again.”

Do you ever think of prayer as a struggle? As a wrestling match? Do you ever pray that hard? Like Jesus in Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he dies. “No, not that,” he says. “Let that cup pass. But if it is your will, I will do it” The Gospel writer says when Jesus prayed like that, he agonized. He knew that God never makes it easy.

My good friend Jim - soft-spoken, kind-hearted Jim – on the anniversary of his ordination to the ministry every year, he goes off by himself to pray. He reads the same passage of scripture that somebody read to him. He stares at the shoreline and says, “Do I really want to keep doing this? Digging weekly sermons out of the Bible, visiting hospital patients who never get well, listening to one broken heart after another, coping with fools, testifying to God’s goodness day after day? Do I really want to do this?” He calls it the Annual Re-Negotiation. One of these years, I expect him to return with a limp.

That’s what happens to Jacob. In the wrestling, he is wounded. His Night Time Opponent reaches to touch his hip and sets it out of joint. Jacob will hobble now for the rest of his life because he has been wrestling with God.

Did you know this story is in the Bible? A lot of people are uncomfortable with it. They want a god who makes them feel better. They want a god who sands off the splinters from the wooden cross. They want a god in whom there is no struggle, no ambiguity, no incarnational weakness. What they want is a god who will give them success, a god who would never wrestle with anybody, much less wound them. They want a god who takes all the mystery out of life, a god who exists to help us without challenging us. They want a god to bless their hard earned opinions without pushing them beyond their prejudices. They want a god in whom there is no striving, only sunshine. Give us that old time, sunshine religion!

Well, that’s not going to happen.

I commend to you a brand-new book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.[1] I read it this summer on the beach in broad daylight. Barbara is an Episcopalian priest and she says, “I’ve had enough of sunshine religion, you know, the kind of yellow plastic faith where everything is easy. That always struck me a fake,” she says, “simplistic and innocuous.” To say God exists only to give you what you want - another piece of chocolate pie, for instance – that’s not the God of the Bible. It is something far less that we have invented as a way of softening what kind of God we really have.

So back to the River Jabbok. Jacob is wounded in the fight but has one more move up his tunic sleeve. He grabs onto his Night Time Opponent and will not let go. “Let me go,” bellows the shadowy wrestler. “No,” says Jacob, “not until you bless me.”

They banter about names. “What's your name?” screams Jacob to the Shadowy Wrestler, but he gets no reply. He asks again, but is ignored. So Jacob hangs on all the tighter. He will not let go. That’s when the Wrestler gives Jacob a new name. “You are Israel,” he says, “the one who wrestles with God and has prevailed.” Then he blesses Israel – and he is gone. The blessing, the name, the wound – all are strange gifts. They came because Jacob wrestled them down.

On the night before he faces his brother Esau, he is most vulnerable. He has no props, no armaments, no possessions, no community. But he has the blessing of God as stands up and limps toward the dawn. You can’t help but wonder that is really what God wanted all along. Jacob wrestles, holds on, is wounded, is blessed – and in the end, his struggle has made him a different person.

Frederick Buechner describes the scene this way:

The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all darkness of his days until at least he cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.

Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, [come to those ] who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight – God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, [God] demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives – our selves, our wills, our treasure.[2]

So here’s the picture of Israel, the one who wrestled with God. He loses the match, but hangs on to win the blessing. He begs for God’s name, but receives a new name himself. And he sees the terrible, awesome Face of the One who loves him so much that he sends him limping into the dawn. Jacob hobbles forth with nothing to protect himself and everything to gain. Because that’s how it is when you wrestle with God.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 2014)
[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966) 18.