Several years ago, as a farewell gift, my former congregation in Rancho Santa Margarita presented me with a signed and numbered lithograph by the Russian-born French artist, Marc Chagall, whose work I have long admired and who is one the most celebrated artists of the twentieth century. As an artist, Chagall drew deeply on the resources of the unconscious and the dreamy, surreal world of Jewish myth and fable, where fiddlers dance and livestock drift above the earth and where tiny offspring hang upside down in their mothers’ transparent wombs – all depicted in rich tones of color which, as Picasso once said, no one but Chagall could fashion.
Chagall was a Jew, and the Bible in particular was fertile soil for his artistic inspiration. Chagall believed that the Old Testament was not merely the story of God’s work in the world, but a human story of love and faith and relationships and community, a story of fidelity and intimacy and betrayal and violence – all of which, Chagall believed, was infused and held together by the providential love of God.
Above the mantle in my home hangs a lithograph from Chagall’s series of etchings on the Bible. It depicts the scene from the book of Genesis, which happens to precede the story that we have just read this morning. Last week we heard the story of that fateful day when Jacob cuts an astonishing deal with his half-starved brother, Esau: “I’ll give you this bowl of SpaghettiO’s,” Jacob says to his older twin brother, “and in return, you give me the birthright.” It’s a ridiculously unfair proposal, and yet, overcome by hunger, Esau is convinced that it’s a reasonable trade.
Shortly after that deal is brokered, Jacob dresses in disguise, kneels before his dying, blind father, Isaac and, pretending to be Esau, he receives the blessing that can never be revoked – the honor of the family name, a double share of the inheritance, and the future of the whole nation. Jacob the shrewd schemer, the double-crossing con artist, steeling the family blessing that rightfully belongs to his brother, Esau. “May the shield of Abraham bless you with the dew of Heaven,” says Isaac to Jacob. “May the God of Isaac bless you with the fatness of the earth. Let all nations bow to you and serve you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you forever.”
I’ve often wondered why my former congregation gifted me with that particular Chagall piece. It is, after all, a scandalous, shameless story of betrayal and deception and treachery: Jacob the con man, pilfering the blessing from underneath his dim-witted brother’s nose; Jacob the deceiver, pulling the wool over his dying father’s eyes while his mother, Rebekah, stands off in the distance, watching it all unfold. This is the stuff of afternoon soap operas and The Sopranos, the ultimate depiction of family dysfunction. Of all the Chagall etchings they could have chosen – Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying the giant Goliath, Isaiah receiving his vision in the temple – I’m given the one piece that depicts an embattled family torn apart at the seams by greed and duplicity and human scheming. Hanging on the wall, from a distance, it looks like a tender moment between a father and his son. But if you know the backstory, it’s a very troubling image.
And what’s troubling about that story is that there is, in every one of us, a character named Jacob – a hustler, a striver, a schemer who’s determined to make something of his life, who refuses to settle for second place. Some people, by virtue of being born in the right place at the right time, like Esau, seem to have it made from the very beginning; but most of us, like Jacob, believe we have to make it happen. Convinced that nothing will ever be handed to us, we’re determined to go out and make our dreams come true. But as Jacob will illustrate for us, that’s the surest way to really mess up your life.
We all have dreams. We dream of being loved, of having a family, of discovering our purpose in life and finding meaning in our work and having people in our lives who’ll stick with us through thick and thin. But have you ever noticed that those dreams, the things for which we yearn most in life, are rarely fulfilled by human scheming? You can’t barter for these dreams; you can’t steal them; you can’t buy them for a bowl of soup. In fact, the more you grasp after them, the more elusive they become. Why? Because more than anything, these dreams are gifts, blessings, and blessings can only be received.
Only Jacob isn’t about to wait around for a blessing to fall into his lap. He has dreams and he’s determined to pursue them, at any cost. He is, as we would say, a ladder climber, and he’s willing to climb over anyone, stepping on heads, to get to the top.
But I hope you won’t judge Jacob too harshly, because we are all of us Jacobs. If you’ve ever found yourself compromising your values in order to get ahead in life; if you’ve ever hurt, or even neglected, the people who love you most in order to climb the social or corporate ladder; if you’ve ever blurred the thin boundaries between doing what is right and doing what you’ve got to do, then you know something of Jacob’s story. We all have the Jacob gene. It may be more subtle, but there’s a striver in all of us. We’re all on our way from one place to another, from one rung to the next.
Bob Benson tells of his custom of never going to bed without kissing his kids, whether they’re awake or asleep. One night he bent over and kissed his son Patrick on the cheek and quickly stood up and started out of the room. He was in a hurry, tired but still working. He said that just as he was about to close the bedroom door on his way out, his son’s question stopped him cold and brought him back to his bedside. ‘Why do you kiss me so fast?”
There’s a Jacob gene in all of us. We’re always on our way to somewhere else, running down a dream. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it depends, of course, on whose dream you’re chasing.
I recently read that fathers spend, on average, about four minutes a day in conversation with their children. They spend about nine minutes a day in conversation with their spouses. As a father of three I understand how this happens, and I’ve found myself repeating that mantra we’ve said from time to time: “It’s not quantity, it’s quality.” But do any of us really believe that? If we did, we wouldn’t have any trouble going to work on Monday morning and telling the boss that we’ll be in the office for just four minutes today because it’s the quality of our work and not the quantity that counts. I don’t advise that you give that a try.
There’s a Jacob gene in all of us, though it’s often more subtle.
But in Jacob’s case, all that striving has led him to crossroads in his life. As a result of Jacob’s deception, he has to run away from home because his brother seriously wants to kill him. And as he runs away from all the trouble he’s caused, he falls to the ground in exhaustion. But maybe there’s a blessing even in being a depleted and exhausted failure, because as he falls asleep, Jacob can receive the dreams of God.
While Jacob is sleeping, he dreams about a great ladder stretching down from heaven and touching the earth. Angels are going up and down the ladder. God is at the top saying, “I am the Lord, the god of Abraham your father, and of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants….”
Before this night Jacob dreamt that if only he could climb the ladder of achievement, he would make his dreams comes true. So he climbed and climbed, but the more he climbed, the more his dreams eluded him.
You know what it’s like to spend so much time, doing whatever it takes, to get up the ladder only to keep slipping. Or worse, to climb to the top of that ladder only to realize that it was leaning against the wrong building and all that hard work has led you to a place you never intended to be.
But this isn’t Jacob’s dream, it’s God’s dream. And in God’s dream, Jacob isn’t even on the ladder. He’s not climbing. The angels are the ones going back and forth. The angels are doing the work. God is above it all, directing the angels on what to do next. And Jacob is given to rest from all his striving, to just receive the blessing, by grace.
That’s hard for us strivers – to just rest and receive. But this is how the grace of God comes to us. After we have spent our fleeting time and energy trying to achieve a dream, only to fall exhausted and defeated, it comes to us, it is given to us, freely. If you make achieving your primary goal in life, your constant companion will be restlessness and exhaustion, because you will never achieve enough. But if you make receiving your goal, your constant companion will be wonder, and rest, and deep, deep gratitude for what God is doing in your life.
In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle describes his ministry of redemption and restoration with the thousands of gang members that make up LA’s most violent neighborhoods. His message is that God’s dream can enter the heart of anyone, even the most undeserving.
Boyle can preach that message because he has experienced it in his own life. As a young, ambitious priest he spent a year in Bolivia ministering among the poor and indigenous people who worked in the flower fields. One day he was asked to visit a small mountain community that had been without a priest for many years. He was driven up the steep dirt roads into the hill country to celebrate a mass for the people in an open soccer field. Just before he arrived at the village he discovered that he had forgotten his missal—his book of liturgy that included the words for the Eucharist. As a young priest just out of seminary, he didn’t know the words of the mass by heart.
When it came time for him to speak, he was a complete mess. He hobbled and stumbled and faked his way through the liturgy. He felt the sudden pain of failure and imperfection. The mass was a liturgical disaster. He was humiliated.
As the people cleared out and he was left alone, an old man, seemingly out of nowhere, approached him. He appeared ancient and wrinkled, dressed in tethered wool pants and a frayed white shirt, a rope for a belt about his waist, a suit coat coarse and worn. He was wearing a fedora on his head, huaraches on his feet, caked with Bolivian mud. And he says to Boyle with deep affection and sympathy, “Tatai, gracias por haber venido.” Father, thank you for coming.
Before Boyle can speak, the old campesino reaches into his coat pockets and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. He stands on his tiptoes, signals for Boyle to lower his head, and he drops the petals over Boyle’s head. He reaches into his pockets and drops two more fistfuls, and does it again and again. The supply of yellow, pink and red rose petals seems infinite. As Boyle looks down, he sees his own tears falling on the petals; when he finally looks up, the old man is gone.
And Boyle writes, “More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and approval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up… Behold the One who can’t take his eyes off of you.”
That’s a hard truth for us strivers – to live with open hands, rather than grasping hands, ready to receive what God desires to give us freely. But there’s no other way to claim the grace of God. We can either spend our fleeting years striving to achieve a life, or we can slow down, opening our hands to receive it with gratitude.
God has already blessed you with abundant, purposeful life. Now it is your time to choose what to do about it.