Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gifted or Grifted

Sermon preached July 10, 2011

Text: Genesis 25:19-34

A good story bears repeating. So here goes. When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. For God created humans because God loves stories. (The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham, 7-8)
That story is itself one of my favorites. I enjoy stories for the way they engage and entertain. Stories do more than entertain however. They shape our lives. Psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell writes: We are our stories, our accounts of what has happened to us…. No stories, no self. (Can Love Last?, 145) As Christians, the stories that are intended to shape our understanding of ourselves and our world most are the stories in the Scriptures, particularly the stories of Jesus.
Today we have before us a story from the Scriptures – a wonderful, wild and strange story. How might this story, or these stories, shape our lives? What can we learn? How can our hearts be engaged, shaped, changed?
Let’s begin by admitting that these are a rather strange series of events. There is less here of classical piety than of the afternoon soap opera – an uncomfortable pregnancy, brothers who are very different, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry and trickery, human short-sightedness. It is all very entertaining. So what is here for us? Plenty.
Are you Jacob or Esau? I don’t mean to ask whether you are a hunter, a person of the field, like Esau, or whether you are hairy like Esau. Nor do I mean to ask whether you are like Jacob, a quiet person. The Hebrew can mean quiet, mild-mannered, even innocent and upright. There may be a bit of irony here as neither Jacob nor Esau seems to be completely pure. Jacob holds his brother’s hunger against him. Esau cannot see beyond his hunger pangs. He willingly gives up his important position as the first born son for some bread and stew. While Jacob may not seem completely upright, the story clearly favors him, but why?
Maybe this. Jacob understands and uses the gifts and abilities he has been given. He is not the man’s man his brother is, the wild, hairy hunter. He is quieter, more settled. In the story we see him preparing a stew. He carefully cultivates his skills and talents. Esau, on the other hand, falls short in using his abilities. A good hunter knows how to fix the food he takes. Not to know how to do that is to starve. Esau is depicted as inarticulate. “Let me eat some of this red stuff.” He is in a rush – “He ate and drank, and rose and went his way.” The Hebrew strongly suggests his inability to develop a modicum of human communication. It also suggests that his eating and rushing off is not befitting his status. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses). In short, he despised his birthright. A commentator in a Bill Moyers led panel discussion on this story says that Esau “participates in the squandering of himself” (Moyers, Genesis, 259).
Maybe that’s key. Esau participates in the squandering of himself. Jacob understands his gifts, understands that he is gifted. Esau squanders himself, he is grifted by his own action as much as by anything his brother does. Gifted or grifted?
There are countless ways we squander ourselves. One common and insidious way is that we accept partial explanations for our lives – we are consumers, we are the economic human seeking only to maximize our own good, we are bodily creatures seeking physical pleasure, we are really spiritual beings whose bodies are incidental to who we are, we are our DNA, we are our family history. Buying into any of these partial viewpoints as the whole truth about our lives squanders something important and valuable about who we are and the gifts we have to share with others and with the world. We are really the synthesis of our biology, our history – including family history, our choices – including our economic choices, our spirituality, and the stories that help us bring all these together. Esau could not see beyond the red, red stuff. He could not feel beyond his stomach, he could not imagine tomorrow. He squandered himself, despised some important part of who he was.
Maybe that’s enough for one story, but the beauty of stories is that as you live with them, they share new angles, offer new lessons. Are we Jacob or Esau is one great question to ask in this story, but as I have read and re-read and pondered and imagined this story this week, another character came to the foreground, and she offers insights for our lives as well.
Rebekah. Rebekah has within her two struggling children. The struggle is so intense at times that she wonders if this is what life is about, why? Robert Alter translates the passage this way: And the children clashed together within her, and she said, “Then why me?” Life can be a painful struggle within our hearts and bellies – those deep places inside. The struggle may be so intense that we ask why and/or why me?
Rebekah inquires of God and is told she has warring factions within. Not much help, or is it? Sometimes just to be told that life can be difficult, can be a struggle helps us with the struggle. One of the things I have not appreciated about certain religious broadcasts – radio or television, is the stories they tell which seem to say that once you find Jesus, everything is just great. Once you find Jesus, addictions cease. Once you find Jesus, weight loss is a breeze. Once you find Jesus, debt disappears – money finds its way into your mailbox. Now please understand me. I believe Jesus helps. I believe sometimes a powerful encounter with the Spirit of God in Jesus does help someone overcome a powerful addiction. I believe Jesus helps us live better. But I also know that for many of us, in at least some areas of our lives, the struggles continue. Our faith gives us strength and hope to move forward, but struggles don’t just disappear.
Maybe the choice posed in the story is not simply Jacob or Esau, but perhaps like Rebekah, we have both inside of us, and we struggle to let the gifter inside of us – that which helps us recognize and use our gifts well, overcome the grifter inside of us – that in us which would squander who we are.
On-going struggle is not the most hopeful word, and I believe the stories of the Scriptures are ultimately hopeful stories, because the God of the Bible is a God of hope. Is there any here? What gives us hope, even when we struggle?
This - - - God is with us in the struggle and God works in and through our very human lives even amidst the struggle. One commentator on this Genesis passage said that the set-up of the story, where one parent, Isaac, favors one child, Esau, while the other parent, Rebekah, favors the other child, Jacob - - - well that speaks “dysfunction” (New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary). This family set-up would provide fodder for hours of counseling. Psychoanalytic case studies could be written. Family favoritism. Parental disagreement. Brother taking advantage of brother. It’s all there. Yet the message is that God remains at work in this mixed up family. God is with us in the struggle always at work to help the gifter inside of us get the better of the grifter inside of us. In fact, if we are waiting for some magic time in our lives to be a little more loving, to pray a little bit more, to care more about our neighbor, if we are waiting until such time as we have worked through every last issue we have, well we are squandering our lives. God is with us to work with us even now. We steal from ourselves, we sell our selves short, if we wait for some other time for God to be with us and to work in and through us.
God loves stories and so do we. God speaks through stories to form us in the image of the Christ. One good story deserves another. This is an abbreviated version of a story from Martin Bell’s The Way of the Wolf.
The story takes place in a forest. Joggi is a near-sighted porcupine, an exceedingly cautious creature.
Joggi stood before the mystery of his own life much as any other porcupine might have. That is to say, he was exceedingly cautious in the face of it…. Joggi lived and loved, laughed and cried – tentatively.
Joggi was cautious in the face of the mystery. So cautious, in fact, that almost nobody knew his name. Most of the animals in the forest has seen the near-sighted porcupine moving slowly about…. Few had spoken to him…. When asked what his name was, he would answer, “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what my name is! Can’t you see? What difference does it make? I won’t tell you what my name is, because it doesn’t matter!”… The result was almost always the same: the other animals avoided him.

Joggi makes one friend however, Gamiel, the raccoon.
Gamiel had only to look at himself in the quiet waters of the forest pond to recognize why no one would come near him anymore. Everything had changed. He did not even look like a raccoon. The whole left side of his head was missing, he had no fur at all around his eyes where one the elegant mask had been, and he could barely pull himself along with his right front leg. Joggi found Gamiel about two days after the pain had stopped, and approximately three hours after the raccoon had given up all hope.
Joggi and Gamiel strike up a conversation. Joggi surmises that Gamiel has been shot, and the conversation continues.
Joggi’s heart beat faster. “Yes, I’m here. I was just wondering what to do now.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do anything! Honestly, I mean that! You don’t have to do anything at all. Just stay with me for a little while. Just be there. Just don’t go away. Please. You don’t have to do anything! Just stay with me. I’m afraid. You won’t go away, will you?”
Joggi swallowed hard. “No… I won’t go away.”….
Joggi was with Gamiel for one full year before the injured raccoon finally died…. “You know, I’ve been expecting this for quite some time now,” Joggi said to the raccoon who lay there on the ground, no longer able to hear him. “I am surprised that you managed to stay alive as long as you did. I knew the day that I found you it couldn’t last. Not for long. You’d been hurt too badly. I never expected you to live this long. And yet… well, I hoped that it might have been a little longer. Do you know what I mean? You see, I never knew anybody very well before. Not that we ever talked much, or anything like that. But I felt like I knew you anyway. Even without talking. I have a really hard time talking to anybody, or getting to know anybody. And nobody ever wants to get very close to me because of all these spines that I have sticking out of me. I don’t suppose you ever knew that I had spines sticking out all over me, did you?... I hope you don’t mind my talking so much. I really don’t know why I’m talking to you now. I suppose it’s just that I had a little more to tell you before you died; I have been wanting to say this for almost a year and never quite found the right time to do it. It’s too late now, I realize, but I’ve been wanting to tell you that it has been an honor to meet you, and that you are indeed a very handsome raccoon, and that I would like to consider you my friend…. Oh, and by the way, I’d like to tell you what my name is. It’s a funny name I suppose. But I’d like you to know what it is…. It’s Joggi.” Without another word, the tiny porcupine turned away from Gamiel’s lifeless form and began to cry.
We all have gifts, prickly as we may be sometimes, conflicted inside as we may be sometimes. When we are unable to recognize and develop our potential and share our gifts, we are self-grifters – stealing from ourselves the joy of life. Failing to recognize and share our gifts we short change others who may just need a friend. We fail to recognize that God works in and through us even now.
God tells a different story about us. We are God’s own people created for love, for doing good, for creating beauty, for relationship, for friendship. Quite a story. Amen.

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