Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, February 28th, 2021
Lent is a season that is always marked with sobering words. Every Ash Wednesday, we hear the same words, words that seem to have an even more poignant resonance this year: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We could have skipped Ash Wednesday this year, for there is no need to remind us about ashes this Lent. They are sitting on our mantle awaiting burial. They are scattered across our broken hearts. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Thank you, Lent, got it.
This season, though, is not simply a time to take a long, hard look at our own fragility and mortality. If Christmas is a season of gift-giving, I would argue that Lent, especially Lent 2021, is a season of blessing-giving. And, it is the act of Blessing-giving that leads us to today’s story from Genesis. For in the ancient Hebrew patriarchal tradition, the blessing, the berekah, of the father was given to the eldest male heir, conferring on him the promise of vitality, health, longevity, economic security, and numerous children.
Genesis plays with this ancient tradition by telling of the story of a stolen berekah. As the story unfolds, old Isaac’s long life is ending, his eyes are thick with cataracts and he is left with only his sense of touch and smell. The name, Isaac, means “s/he laughed,” but in this story, it is Isaac’s wife and younger twin son who have the last laugh. In a comical scene that includes Jacob dressing up in animal skins to make him as hairy as apish brother Esau and then lowering his voice to mimic Esau’s timbre, second-son Jacob asks for his Father Isaac’s final berekah.
The scene turns tragi-comic as old Isaac says, “The smell of my son is like the smell of open country blessed by the Lord” and he then pronounces his one, his only, final berekah on the wrong twin, on the surplanter, the Hebrew meaning of the name, Jacob.
The ill-gained blessing of Jacob by Father Isaac emphasizes the power of a parent’s blessing. Though we now largely reject the ancient Hebrew’s patriarchal and restrictive way of males alone conferring blessing, nonetheless, you and I know how hard we still strive for a parent’s or grandparent’s approval. The story of Jacob and Isaac draws attention to the power of caring adults to be instruments of God’s cherished berekah for both scoundrels and saints.
Dr. Rachel Renman learned the power of parental and grandparental blessing as a child. She offers this personal account of her grandfather’s blessing:
“On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house, [we would have tea.] After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.
“When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, `Come Neshume-le’. Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories – Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah – to watch over me.
“These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, `And what happened to the other two points?’ I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
“My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, `Neshume-le’, which means `beloved little soul’. There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first, I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever” (Rachel Renman, My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp. 22-23).
The God of which Jesus speaks in the Gospels resembles Dr. Renman’s grandparent, a God who is a blessing-giver. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the One in whom and by whom you and I are blessed forever, on our saint days and on our scoundrel days. And, people who follow this Jesus know that God gives us no greater stewardship than the stewardship of blessing, to pass on God’s blessing in heaping portions on our children and grandchildren and every child, no matter what their grades in school or their home address or who they love or the shade of their skin.
In our baptism, you and I are washed in God’s blessing and in turn, you and I are given the wonderous privilege of old Isaac – to be blessing-givers, but unlike Isaac, to do so with eyes not narrowed by myopic restrictions of society that tells us who to see and who to ignore. Seen through the lens of our merciful God, Dr. Renman’s words capture what I pray is conveyed in every baptism, when she writes, “For him, I was already enough” and “. . . that once blessed, we are blessed forever.”
Imagine what a difference we would make for God’s world if our first instinct were not to criticize but to bestow blessing. It does not take much energy to point out someone’s deficiencies, to tell them how far short they fall of their potential or of God’s expectations for them. I certainly need no extra help in knowing my own deficiencies; I live with them every day. What I do need help with, though, is seeing that despite those deficiencies, I am still God’s “Neshume-le,” beloved, embraced, forgiven. Fortunately for me, throughout my ministry, whether I was living in Wilmington or Newport News, in Old Town or Atlanta or now Covesville, I have been surrounded by blessing-givers who have shared those blessings richly with me, who reminded me that despite all that I do or fail to do, all that I say or forget to say, by God’s grace, I am still God’s “Neshume-le.”
Imagine the joy that people might discover in hearing not just from one of us but from all of us, again and again, “You are God’s Neshume-le. In God’s eyes and by Christ’s mercy and through the power of the Holy Spirit, you are already enough.”
I have a problem with calling this story from Genesis a story of the stealing of a blessing. Maybe in one way that is true, for in that ancient patriarchal system, a father’s blessing could be stolen – just ask Jacob, but in a fuller understanding of God in Scripture, there is no stealing of God’s blessing. God’s blessing is not only for Jacob but also for Esau, not only for Jacob but also for Rebecca.
Thanks then to the story of a Jewish patriarch, a Jewish carpenter, and a Jewish grandfather may our hands, our hearts, our very lives be instruments of God’s blessing in this world, of God’s loving reminder that by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, we are God’s Neshume-le.
Thanks be to God.