September 29, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
At long last, we reach the end of the Book of Genesis this week. And here, at the end of our Genesis stories, we are confronted once again with the nature of blessing. Its power and its precariousness. This blessing that has traveled down through the generations. The blessing upon humanity that was first uttered at Creation.
Now the blessing has traveled to Jacob and it is his to pronounce on the sons of Joseph.
Jacob asks for the sons of Joseph to be brought before him. His are eyes dim with age, which should remind us of Isaac’s clouded sight when Jacob stole the blessing from Esau. But despite Jacob’s obscured vision, he knows exactly what he is doing. He will not be manipulated as he manipulated his father. But even so, he chooses to invert the blessing. When Joseph brings his sons before Jacob…placing the elder son, Manasseh, at his right hand, the place of blessing reserved for the firstborn, and Ephraim at his left, Jacob crosses his hands to place his right on Ephraim.
Our story tells us that Joseph was displeased with this reversal, even though he surely knew his father’s history. Knew that the blessing could not be controlled and would not necessarily land where tradition and the usual protocols stated that it should. Joseph, now very much part of the world of the Egyptian hierarchy, valued order, but Jacob refuses to stay in line, replying to Joseph’s objection with these words,“I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”
We are never told if Ephraim is somehow more deserving of the blessing than his older brother. Similarly, the Genesis writers didn’t seem concerned that the scheming and often morally questionable Jacob stole the blessing from his older brother. Most often, the blessings don’t seem to be either earned or deserved. And where God bestows them sometimes defies explanation.
But these blessings do appear to come in two parts. They seem to be both gift and obligation. If we go back to God’s first promise of blessing to Abraham and Sarah, we will see this dual nature. God says to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” In other words, Abraham was blessed by God so that he might be a blessing to others. Receiving the blessing requires a commitment to bless others.
And that’s not always easy. We can see that even the characters of our Genesis stories don’t always get it right…that “blessing others” thing. They listen for the voice of God. They try to be faithful. They wrestle for their blessing. But they also get caught up in their own desires and in those very human emotions of jealousy, greed, and insecurity. They are imperfect, to say the least. But maybe that’s just the point. We are also imperfect, and it’s important that we can see ourselves in the flaws of these characters. One of my favorite lines from Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, made this point when he wrote, “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.” Any story that isn’t truthful about human imperfection will not feel true and therefore will not have power.
These Genesis stories contain plenty of human imperfection and so we cannot deny their power for our own lives. We have to remind ourselves of how they came about. They weren’t written down as they were happening. These heroes and heroines of Genesis weren’t keeping journals. They were written down by the people of Israel hundreds of years later, in order to say something about who they had been and who they had come to be. They were stories that said, “This. This is where our people came from. This is who we are in our glory and in our messiness. Here is where we see what God desires for us. And the ways we have fulfilled that desire and the ways we have failed.” It may not be a family values manual, but it does speak to us, as it did to those Israelites, about navigating a world too often distorted by our own desires instead of the will of God.
Stories are important because we can hear things in them that we can’t always hear in other ways. The biblical prophets of the Old Testament can be harder to hear. They often come off as shrill and depressing. “Watch out, Israel, they proclaimed…your demise is coming if you don’t change your ways.” And as we know, Israel didn’t change their ways. And they were captured by Babylon—some dispersed, some taken into captivity. Their great nation fell. But in their captivity, they began to write down their stories. Of who they had been. Of the blessings promised to them and how they had squandered them. How they had failed to be a blessing in return.
Stories are still important ways for us to make meaning of our lives today. But unfortunately, prophets are still not appreciated in their own time. They most often get eye rolls and disdain. I was struck by how annoyed so many people were this week with the 16-year-old environmental activist, Greta Thurnberg. In her speech to the United Nations, she said over and over again, “How dare you?” She called us to account when she reminded us, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”She also accused us of not being mature enough to tell it like it is, to speak the hard truth. To confess that our relentless consumption, our striving for the accumulation of wealth, and if not wealth, convenience, have had devastating effects on God’s creation.
And she’s right. Her words are prophetic. But, of course, we don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to name our own complicity in the environmental disaster that is likely facing our children and grandchildren. Thurnberg’s prophesy sounds to too many of us like just a string of shrill and depressing words. Yet to close our ears means our own ruin and the ruin of those who come after us.
Her words must become part of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the good and the bad. Perhaps we can hear Greta and other modern prophets better in the form of a story. As I sat in the theater last night watching the previews before “Downton Abbey,” I was struck by how many movies in those previews told stories of our dark past both personal and collective. Movies that people will pay money to see, even though they reflect upon a darker side of our humanity.
The first preview I saw is for a movie coming out about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. A movie that will educate and remind us of our shameful past of slavery. Another preview for the movie, “Dark Water,” exposes our complicity in supporting corporations that are poisoning the ecosystem and harming people’s health. And then there was the preview for “Western Stars.” If you are a Bruce Springsteen fan, you’re going to want to see this one. It’s a movie of his new album and reflects upon his life journey and all that he has learned about himself over the years. In it he confesses to his own destructive past, but then shares this wisdom and hope, when he says, “Life’s mysteries remain and deepen. Its answers unresolved. So you walk on through the dark because that’s where the next morning is.”
These movies, just like our Genesis stories, remind us that we have to walk through the dark to find the light of a new day. They encourage us to acknowledge the sins of our past but also to look for a better way. To proclaim that our past will not have the last word.
As Walter Brueggemann wrote of the Genesis narrative, “These ancestral stories, particular, peculiar, and problematic as they are, keep insisting, ‘Don’t forget, don’t give up, don’t capitulate.” (39*). After all, we are blessed. And called to be a blessing to others. We must find a better way forward. Find the promise in a world that too often looks like despair.
But will we really hear these stories? And will we allow them to change us? Can we be honest about the past and still turn our hearts to a promise of the future? The hope proclaimed in the Christian faith is that we can find a better narrative than the one in which we live. We heard in our Gospel this morning the story of a narrative that gets overturned. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we first hear of the world as it is. Where the poor and suffering lie just at the gate of the wealthy, only to be ignored. But then the parable shows us a reversal of fortune. The Rich Man who knew only luxury in his life on earth, is forced to suffer in the afterlife. And when he asks for mercy, he hears that he has already received his good things. All the while Lazarus was suffering. So now in this new order, it is Lazarus’ turn to know comfort. It seems that the Rich Man squandered the blessings he had been given. He forgot the other part of blessing—the obligation that we use our blessings to bless others.
Our faith presses us to believe that by being intentional about using our blessings to bless others, we can begin to see a better world than the one in which we live. And understanding the ways in which we have been blessed means being honest with ourselves and hearing in our stories the ways in which we have strayed from God’s dream for God’s people and creation. It means insisting on a different narrative, a different reality, than the one in which we live. It means not allowing the usual way of doing things to win out.
So just as Jacob inverted the blessing to Joseph’s sons, “We [would] do well to cross our hands when we bless.” (40*) To seek a new order of things. To tell stories with narratives of justice and compassion. That may be our only hope for a better world. Amen.
*Walter Brueggemann, Preaching from the Old Testament