“True Blessedness: A Gift of Loss, Not Gain”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
“I feel so blessed.”
“You’re such a blessing.”
These affirmations, as well-intended as they may be, are often as hollow as most of what one hears on religious broadcasting. The very idea of blessing has been co-opted by the moralizing and self-serving distortions of the prosperity gospel in which blessing is synonymous with possessions or personal security and happiness. Getting used to that mindset is understandable, but it can all-too-easily become our truth, even when it’s far from true. To white landowners in the south, slavery was once blessing and truth. To the robber barons of the late 1800’s, so was child labor. So are the greedy and violent conquests of nations driven not by national defense, but by the Machiavellian siblings of divine right of kings and Manifest Destiny. Before the dust settles on those battlefields, the victors turn their backs on the desecration and say, in the name of some god or gods, “We’re so blessed.”
When blessing gets reduced to wealth or power, when it gets reduced to the preservation of one group’s privilege, it inevitably gets twisted into entitlement. It belongs only to those who deserve it, those who earn it, because God helps those who help themselves. That distortion breeds a callous vanity that is antithetical to everything Jesus teaches and lives.
All this makes me wonder if First World cultures in general, and First World Christians in particular have the spiritual, moral, and ethical courage to recognize and embrace true blessedness.
So, what is blessing?
Today’s story has to do with Jacob in his later years. At first glance, he may remind us of Job. He has a large family – two wives and eleven children. All his livestock and other possessions place him among the elite of his day. Looking at Jacob through First World eyes, one might say that he should consider himself “blessed.” He has lots of stuff.
Jacob is on his way to meet his brother, the firstborn twin, Esau. Remember, through premeditated deceit, Jacob stole the family birthright and Isaac’s blessing from Esau. Jacob’s trickery landed him in the lap of luxury, but as he prepares to face his brother, Jacob feels anything but blessed.
Reaching the Jabbok River, Jacob sends his family and all his possessions across the river, into Esau’s territory. Not only do the women, children, sheep, and goats go first, Jacob stays behind, terrified of Esau. Jacob is alone, vulnerable, and completely divested of everyone and everything for which he has either worked or connived. He has sent his whole life, his very identity across the river. That’s when it begins.
“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
All night long, Jacob and “a man” are locked in a kind of struggle for which words like wrestling match, or fight, or combat seem inadequate. At the Jabbok, Jacob experiences a fierce spiritual and existential crisis. To me, this scene feels descriptive of someone weeping through the night, or someone raging at God, casting questions and curses for hours. At the Jabbok, we all confront our brokenness, and that of the creation. The Jabbok where we face the truth that the stuff we had once considered blessing has been revealed as fleeting and empty, maybe even a burden.
Jacob makes a curious demand. “I will not let you go,” he says to the man, “until you bless me.” Jacob seems to realize that he hasn’t been struggling to win or protect anything. This long, dark night of the soul is revealing Jacob’s true self. The man blesses him with a new name: Israel. You will be called “Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”
“Prevailed.” That word does not convey a sense of victory over anything, but of having survived. Through this experience, Jacob dies and rises to a new and different way of being alive in the world. Jacob prevails because, at long last, he accepts defeat. He has been humbled into his deepest and truest self. Only when he has lost, only when stripped of his stuff, and of his inflating and inflammatory ego, is Jacob ready to recognize and embrace the fullness of blessing.
Richard Rohr calls this the path of descent.1 Over the centuries, sages in the Church have called that narrow and lonely path “the way of the cross.”
“The path downward,” says Rohr, “is much more trustworthy than any path upward, which tends to feed the ego…[On some level,] Authentic spirituality is…about letting go…letting go of our small self, letting go of our cultural biases, and letting go of our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things, and it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is…letting go of…our need to be right.”2
Referencing the stories of the prodigal son, and of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Rohr writes that, “Those who are proud of how they have done everything right – but also feel superior to others – are not open to God’s blessing…Fortunately, life will lead us to the edge of our own resources through…[pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general absurdity of life]. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. That’s where faith begins. Up to that moment it has just been religion!”3
Rohr could have used the story of Jacob, as well. Jacob, meaning all of Israel, and by extension all of us, discovers true identity, purpose, and blessing not by gaining, but by losing. Jacob prevails not through victory, but through what Frederick Buechner calls The Magnificent Defeat.4
Recently, a friend emailed me at 4:00 in the morning. She was struggling with the imminent and untimely death of a long-time friend. She’d been up all night crying, yelling at God, questioning, praying. I wrote back trying to say that I understood. I asked her to consider the possibility that her tears, shouts, and questions were the prayers that really mattered. Maybe they were even prayers the Holy Spirit was praying for her, “in sighs too deep for words.” I told her that grief was a process that always changes us.
It seems to me that she was on the banks of her own Jabbok, hanging on for dear life, and crying out for blessing. She was on a path of descent where the blessings of a deepened and deepening faith were possible.
I don’t know how much I helped. But I do trust that for her, as for all of us, true blessedness is the gift of loss, not of gain. Only there do we really learn to trust, follow, and love the one who “emptied himself…humbled himself…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
As we come to his table today, may we come as a community who is willing to lose all for the sake of true blessing, for the sake of receiving and sharing the unearnable welcome of grace, and the eternal belonging that is the household of God.**
**While preaching this sermon, I knew that it was not complete. (They seldom are.) So as the charge, I added something similar to the following:
Guilt is not a good place to start on the path of descent. Guilt sends us on journeys of resentment, not of discovery and transformation.
Having said that, without thinking critically as well gratefully about our material/physical situation, we may become complacent and self-satisfied. We may associate what we have with our efforts alone and interpret them as God’s particular reward for good behavior. And those who don’t have enough must not be as diligent in their faith and work as we are. At that point (and please pardon the cliché), we don’t own our possessions, they own us.
The path of descent is most certainly the way of humility, of letting go. And along this path, we discover that all we have and all we are is gift from God. We discover that for us to recognize and embrace such things as true blessings, requires sharing them. Only when gratefully and freely share do they reveal their lasting value. Only then do they transform private enjoyment into interactive discipleship. AH