(sermon audio did not record, but here is the full manuscript)
1The lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
Everyone wants to be blessed
Everyone wants to be blessed and why not. To have someone desiring, praying and working for your well being. Blessing a person is seeking the well-being of a person. God says to Abraham, I will bless you and make you famous. Who doesn’t want to be famous in the right way, for the right things?
One of the earliest memory I have is my father sneaking into my bedroom after a late visitation. He would place his large hands on my forehead covering nearly all my face and bless me. The weigh of his hand always woke me up but I never opened my eyes because I was afraid if he knew he woke me uphe won’t come in again. I wanted him to interrupt my sleep to bless me. So I always pretended to sleep through it.
We all want to be blessed and why not.
We want to be blessed so much that we would do almost anything for it.
Even steal it, as Jacob did. Jacob stole the blessings of Esau, his older brother, by going through all sorts of stratagems.
Covers his baby skin arm and neck with goat’s hair because Esau was that hairy.
And when dad Isaac, going blind, calls Jacob to his bedside to bless him thinking he is Esau, Jacob drops his soprano voice a register and says, “Here I am.” All so he can get a blessing. We all want to be blessed. You do too!
Esau wanted it so bad that when he was done with the hunting and brought it to Isaac to get the blessing that belonged to him and learned that Jacob, that selfish prick, stole his blessing, Esau didn’t go, “Oh well, it’s just words anyways.” He started plotting revenge. But before sweet revenge, there was a more pressing need. Esau placed his father’s hands on his forehead and begged to bless him.
- My son Esau, blessings are all gone, I am sorry.
-Whatever is left, give me whatever is left.
We all want to be blessed.
Why? A blessing is just words.
Just words? Just words? As if our whole human life is not based on words?
Two perfect strangers become husband and wife because they say two words, “I do.”
Words create relationship and relationships are our identity. We all want a blessing. Abram became Abraham because God said I am going to bless you make you the father of many nations, and he did.
Just words? To us, creatures bearing the image of God, words are our worlds.
So How do we get a blessing?
Now usually, I give you the stops ahead of us. This time, I’m not going to. You have to come with me one step at a time.
You can only be blessed as you, and no one else.
You can only be blessed as you, and no one else. You can’t be blessed as another person because another person’s blessing won’t stick on you. This is the lesson Jacob learns, the hard way. Jacob seems to only learn in the hard way. So he reminds me a lot of myself. Anyone else see themselves in Jacob?
So he got the coveted blessing:
“From the dew of heaven
and the richness of the earth,
may God always give you abundant harvests of grain
and bountiful new wine.
But it didn’t stick with him. Yes, from one perspective, it seems he got that blessing because he got rich, filthy rich while staying with his uncle Laban at Paddan-Aram. When he returns home 14 years later he’s got a mile long caravan, of his wives and concubines, of his workers and slaves, of his sheep and goats, of his Ferarris and Lamborghinis. He did well. He was rich but he didn’t feel blessed.
His wives, who were sisters, played with his heart. Slaves snickered behind his back. No one understood him. He was terribly lonely. He hasn’t seen his parents for ages. His brother wanted to kill him. He didn’t feel blessed at all. In fact, he felt cursed. He remembers his father’s hand on his head. It didn’t feel warm. It felt hot with guilt.
He remembers how his brother Esau never talked to him again after that and anytime they saw each other, Esau’s eyes were flaring with pure hatred. Jacob saw that if they were ever alone, Esau would snap his neck.
So he is at the ford of Jabok, and sent his whole family up ahead of him, to meet Esau first. His mind says, “to appease him with gifts,” but really, he is buying time to run away. So he sent first those he loved least. Jacob is a coward. He is cursed.
He stole the blessing. Stolen blessings never stick.
We do that. Pretend to be somebody. Pretend to be like our older brother, our younger sister. If I was a bit better than them then surely dad would bless me, surely mom would be proud of me. Pretend to be that pop star, that preacher star, that teacher star, our neighborhood star. We think if I was like that person then our life would be better. We are seeking stolen blessings. And stolen blessings don’t stick. Worse. They rotten into a curse.
So when the angel of God comes as the sun sets, Jacob tackles this stranger. The stranger is more muscular than Jacob, but Jacob jumps him anyways. He is that desperate. They wrestle all night, seeming equal force and strength, arms locked, feet digging into the ground, they tussle, no has an advantage. But the stranger was just playing with him, the way a father does his five year old son. The stranger-God has been holding back. Jacob is fighting with every muscles, so hard his jaws hurt. The stranger-God isn’t fighting. The stranger-God is hugging Jacob, receiving Jacob’s pent up anger.
The dark horizon begins to turn purple, the sun is about to come up, the stranger-God hits Jacob on the hip, and Jacob crumbles like sand. The stranger-God starts walking away when Jacob, grabs the heel of the stranger-God. Jacob’s got no leg strength, his biceps are wearied but he musters strength enough to grab at the heel of the stranger-God.
The stranger-God turns to him, his face still hidden in the shadow, Jacob’s face reddening with the first rays of sunrise, and he is drenched in sweat.
“What do you want?” the stranger God asks.
“I want you to bless me.” Jacob answers.
All we want; we all want; a blessing.
“What is your name?” the stranger God asks.
And suddenly, Jacob is in two time lines. One right now. Another, 14 years ago, when Isaac asked, “What is your name?”
He has been giving another name all his life. He looks at the stranger. The red sun light is approaching the stranger’s face. Jacob can’t make out the details but he can see the smile, the strong but kind eyes. It is a stern face, unwelcoming to lies, but a loving face, welcoming the weak.
“My name is Jacob.”
Jacob means heel-grabber. The way he grabbed the heal of Esau as the younger twin when they came out of the womb. The way he pulled Esau out of his blessings. Heal-grabber is a figure of speech for supplanter, one who takes what is not his.
Now, Jacob is grabbing on to the heel of this stranger-God, not to take what is not his, but to finally receive what is his.
“You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, one who fought with God and won.”
When Jacob becomes Jacob, then he becomes what God desires him to be, Israel. In the acceptance of who we are is the life God chose for us. We are blessed when we accept ourselves.
You are Jacob, the supplanter, the one who overcame God.
Now of course, Jacob didn’t win. God let him win, the way a father lets his son win, and the son flexes his muscles and believes he can overcome anything now.
Jacob gets up and names that wrestling arena, Penial, “The face of God.” Then he crosses Jabok, rushes ahead of the families. He sees Esau and his bodyguard riding furiously towards him. Jacob rides furiously towards the Esau. Jacob kisses his feet, greets Esau and sees his brother’s face for the first time in 14 years, wrinkled, still red haired, and still handsome, the older brother who tried his best to teach him hunting, the old brother who found him when he got lost playing hide and seek, and says, “Brother, to see your face is like seeing the face of God!” And they embrace. And Jacob feels blessed for the first time.
What is your name?
To be blessed you must know you are already blessed.
The way to accept your blessing is to know that you are already blessed. We seek a blessing. But we will never find it because it turns out you’ve always had it. You are already blessed.
Jesus gathers his disciples to a mountain to teach them what it means to be his disciples. And he preaches the most famous sermon in the world. The Sermon on the mount. The inspiration for many Christian communities, the inspiration behind Gandhi’s non-violence, the inspiration of many lives dedicated to seeking God’s rule first. It is an amazing sermon. Read it for yourself, stripped of chapters and verses, then you will know why it lodged in Matthew’s heart.
How does the sermon begin?
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
How much light entered those gathered that morning and heard those words of blessings that said that they were already blessed. All their life they heard the story of Abraham. How God called him and said, “I will bless you. I will bless and not curse you.” All their life, in the synagogue, by their fathers and mother as they red them bed-time scripture when they were children, they were told they are children of Abraham, blessed. But as soon as they stepped out of the synagogue or their homes, all they heard were curses, and they believed they were cursed. Cursed because they were not religious enough, because they broke kosher, they broke Sabbath. And they were occupied. They had no control over their lives. They had to register when they were told, and give as tax whatever they were told.
They saw others who look more blessed and wished they were blessed like them.
And Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,”
And the peasant feeling horrible for not being able to give 3 square meals for his kids opens his ears and his heart, “that’s me!”
“For your is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn.”
And the mother who lost her son because she could not afford the second treatment opens her ears and says, “that’s me!”
“For you shall be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek.”
And the young man who wanted to fight back against the oppression and was pressured by the zealots to take up the sword, but knew that wasn’t right, and there must be another way, and his friends made fun of him, that he is a pushover opens his ears and says, “that’s me!”
“For you shall inherit the earth!”
You are blessed.
You are already blessed.
Marianne Williamson – Our Greatest Fear
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
To be blessed is to bless
We are already blessed. But that does not mean the blessing is ours. It is not inherent. It is grace. A blessing is a blessing because it is given to us and not self-manufactured. It is God who blesses Abraham. It is God who blesses you.
But in the Abrahamic blessing, we see the fluidity of blessing. That a blessing is like a river, it flows. It comes to us to go to others.
Abraham was blessed to bless everyone on the face of the earth. Blessing cannot be hoarded. A blessing hoarded is like a blessing stolen. It is never ours. It is cursed.
It is easy to forget this part, that a blessing supposed to flow through us and to others. That whatever is given is to be given.
My missionary uncle always told me, the difference between a stale water and a living water is whether it flows. Our blessings go stale if it does not flow.
My aunt told me a story from their first year in Athens when they did not have much funding and even a fish was a luxury. And she had saved money for a month to buy three fresh slabs of tuna to cook for her husband, mother-in-law and newborn. She was quite excited. In the afternoon she heard a ring at the door. It was the poor neighbor across the block. She came to ask if my aunt might have anything to spare. She was thinking of giving some rice, but she remembered the fish. It was as if the spirit was prompting her. “No, not the fish.” She looked into pantry. But as she got a sack of rice, she could not pass the refrigerator. She opened it and took out the newspaper wrapped tunas and gave it to the neighbor.
At around 5 another door bell. She opened the door a little annoyed. It was a person from the Korean church few blocks down. She went shopping and thought of the new missionary family and bought them something too. Could you guess what it was? Slabs of tuna. How many? 3.
“Sam, God is not often exact like that. But God was exact with me that first year to say, you are going to do mission work by blessing and trust that the blessings will always flow.”
Bless with touch
A chaste touch but a touch. A hug, a deep embrace, a fist bump, a hand over the forehead, even when the children have children of their own and in their 40s.
Whenever I go up to New York, though I am 42 now and my father is 72, and his head is quarter bold, and his hand no longer covers half my face, before I drive off, I kneel before him, and ask him to touch and bless me.
We bless with the touch, because touch is a blessing, because touch is brings well being.
This is why we bless our children by reaching out and touching them.
We can’t bless others from distance. We bless others up close, through touch.
My wife started painting again. I encouraged her at first. But after awhile I got worried. Canvases are expensive. I said I will make them for you. Making canvases is hard. I should not have volunteered.
And acrylic paint is so expensive. And really, no one’s art is going to make money. Only few and those few only after they die. So there is no money in it. But my wife felt like she was becoming more alive.
And we had good neighbors who encouraged her. They really blessed us.
So she started painting and submitting. She submitted to three contests this past summer.
The first one, she really wanted it. She got an email and her name wasn’t on it. The second one, she thought she had the best chance. They told her, “The jurors just got back to us and they did not accept your work.” What does that mean? Can they be more vague? Was this to encourage her?
The then third one was supposed to come Friday 5pm. No email came. Not even a letter of rejection.
“I failed.” And her eyes became big and sad.
I called my wife to me, with a deep voice, like in a Korean Drama, “come here.” And I held her tight as violins played. And said, “Look at me. You are an artist!” And I blessed her.
That was one of my best husband moment.
She was still sad and couldn’t sleep after that but I did my best.
Saturday 11am. Her phone chimed. She opened the email. “Honey, what is this?”
“Here are the two selected. Suyun Son”. Misspelled.
I said, “You see, I blessed you and you won!”
She said, “Whatever!” She didn’t care. She won.
We bless by chaste touch.
Blessing with a touch means you have to get close. You can’t touch from a distance. You have to get close.
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who fights for people in death row. He graduated from Harvard, a brilliant young man. As soon as he graduated, he didn’t go to corporate America. He went to Georgia, for low wage and a dirty apartment with a roommate so he can fight for people in death row. Because growing up in a racially segregated ghetto where some houses didn’t have indoor plumbing, he knew that justice was not always fair. That some were more harshly punished.
He tells about her grandmother, born in the 1880s, daughter of a slave, with slavery a shadow that haunted her days and her parenting, how she would always greet her grandchildren, Bryan as a little boy, with a hug so tight that he could hardly breath.
After a long tight hug she would ask, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” If he said yes, she’d let him be. If he said no, she’d assault him again. Bryan said no a lot.
And she would explain to him often, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
It became a life principle for Bryan. To never judge from distant. That no matter how wrong you think the other person is, you have to hug, get close because only then you get to know.
To bless we must touch, be close enough to touch. And that is outside of most of our comfort zone. Even those closest to us we are afraid of being too close. But the Christian blesses those who are different from us. Bless those who curse us.
Luke 6:28, Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you.”
He is refining the call of the people of God. He knows the words echoing around the descendants of Abraham. “I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you.” And he changes it, scandalously, makes it more humanistic, you have the power to bless, and more extensive, even those who curse you. Christ’s blessing was already inherent in Abraham. It is in Abraham standing up against God to save Sodom, Abraham’s way of blessing the city that has been cursed.
Bless those who curse you. Bless the person you think is compromising the gospel. Bless the person you think hates you. Bless the person who is going to vote for the person you would never vote for. Bless the person you can’t even carry a conversation with, because of lack of common language or common values. Bless them. Bless those who believe differently. Bless even those who curse Christ.
This is where the real revolution is, when we go to places of discomfort to bless. We don’t know poverty but to go to the poor. We don’t know Muslims but to go to a prayer with a Muslim. We don’t know wealth but to eat at the mansion with the pool and bless them too who seem to be overflowing with blessing.
We are blessed when we bless
Here is the beautiful dance of blessings. It never flows one way. It is never just a giver and recipient. Both give and both receive. When you bless, you get blessed.
I had an interview with David Spickard, CEO for Jobs for Life. And he said an interesting thing. He said, “you can’t go in there thinking I have all this blessing and they don’t so I am going to give it. It creates haves and have nots. It is not a relationship. But if you go in not just to give but ready to receive, to know that you too are in need, then it becomes a relationship. That is the greatest blessing. I don’t work to help people get jobs for them, I do it for myself.”
The first time Bryan Stevenson met a man in death row was 1983, as a 23 year old student at Harvard Law interning in Georgia. He was driving to a death row prison outside of Jackson.
As he drove through farmland of rural Georgia, he rehearsed what he would say when met his man. He was nervous.
He was shown to the visitation room, a dull 23 feet square room with two stools bolted to the floor.
He wasn’t a lawyer yet. He couldn’t do anything for him. He was just sent because others were busy and all he had to say was they were working on his case. He was scheduled for one hour. He couldn’t think of anything to last more than 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes of waiting, a young, neatly groomed African American man came out. He looked like everyone Bryan grew up with. Bryan was nervous but so was the condemned man. Finally, Bryan walked over and offered his hands.
I’m very sorry. Those were Bryan’s first words. I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, okay, I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer…I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.’
The condemned man looked at Bran worriedly, “Is everything all right with my case?”
Bryan stuttered, trying to explain situation, that they don’t have a lawyer yet but Henry doesn’t have an execution date.
Henry interrupted Bryan’s chatter. “I’m not going to have an execution anytime this year?”
-Thank you,man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news.
Henry’s shoulders unhunched. He relaxed.
-You are the first person I’ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is not another death row prisoner or a death row guard. I’m so glad you’re here.
Then they got talking, about everything. Henry asked Bryan about his life, and Bryan asked Henry about his life. They kept talking until the guard snarled, “Time is way over. You have to leave.”
They talked for 3 hours.
The guard was upset so he handcuffed Henry tight. Henry grimaced with pain.
-I think those cuffs are too tight. Can you loosen them
-I told you, you need to leave. You don’t’ tell me how to do my job.
Henry gave Bryan a smile, “It’s okay Bryan. Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, okay? Don’t’ worry, Come back, okay?”
As the office pushed Henry toward the door Henry turned back to look at Bryan.
Bryan mumbled, “I’m really sorry,”
Then Henry began singing. A tremendous baritone voice, strong and clear, his head tiled back.
Lord Lift Me Up
I’m pressing on, the upward way
New height I’m gaining every day
Still praying as I’m onward bound.
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
Lord lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s table land
A higher plane than I have found
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Bryan finished his internship returned to Harvard, graduated and returned to GA and to Henry and to all the other condemned man.
Who blessed who?