Sermons

The Desire of my Desire

The Jacob Cycle, Genesis 25 – 33

January 22, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

You probably know the story of the pastor who lied to his congregation about what he did on his day off. He told them that each week he went to a nearby town to serve the poor but in truth he went to play a leisurely 18 holes of golf. The deception had gone on for years but eventually it came to the attention of some angels. They were furious at his lies and reported the situation directly to God. God came up with a punishment plan that couldn’t be beat. On the very next Monday, God caused the pastor to play a perfect hole of golf. All 18 of his shots were holes in one. The angels were furious. We thought you were going to punish him but instead you gave it the object of his heart’s strongest desire. “Yes,” replied God but who is he going to tell?”

Many of us know this problem as the problem of grief. “Imagine that most painful of experiences, the loss of our beloved. Most of know what it is like to be scorched by the black sun, to lose someone we would gladly have given anything to save. When we reflect on these kinds of losses, we realize that when we lose the one we love, we do not lose something that we simply desire but we begin to lose the very ability to desire. Thoughts of promotions and vacations lose their appeal. …our beloved is not simply the object of our desire but the very source of it. Thus we understand how the perfect golf game could turn us into despair. We are all dependent on spectators…people to tell the story to. When we get the feeling that no one is watching us, we plunge. In light of all this, we find ourselves wanting to imagine that someone loves us unconditionally and absolutely. Many of us project that onto God. Regardless of whether or not such a being actually exists, the desire is a perfectly normal one. The thought that our cosmic golf game, no matter how beautifully played, is being observed by no one can prove too much for us to bear.” (Peter Rollins, Insurrection.) Most of us live right here, in the land of too much to bear.

People imagine that God is this “someone to watch over me” and she isn’t. Thus many Christians argue that what died for Jesus on the cross is actually the idea of God being there, always for us. This point of view is often called “religionless Christianity” or God without the dependent projections. This religionless non-dependent Christianity plunges us into enough loneliness to find God. The God we find in religionsless Christianity is a partner to loneliness but one who refuses to bear our projections and flings our humanity back at us.

Let me use Jacob to show you what I mean. I have no fantasies that such an understanding of Christianity is easy to get. Jacob is a fascinating biblical character. It takes a while to get to him, because he comes by way of Abraham, the one in whom the whole story was to conclude, in whom everything was to be perfect. Abraham got the big promise of the big land, only to realize that he didn’t really have it. God promised the Israelites freedom, once and for all, and instead they had to keep wandering. God’s promise proved false – and the generations of Genesis realize it. Jacob is the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham. Resident in Isaac was the knowledge that his father didn’t really get the Promised Land. He knew what his father didn’t have. Jacob also knew what his grandfather didn’t have. Isaac married Rebekah who was barren. Again imagine Isaac’s suffering here. He was to have the land and the family and the children – the whole package – but his wife was barren. He prays to God who finally gives Rebekah a child. Only it’s not just one child, late in life, it is two. Rebekah is pregnant with twins. One is Esau, who comes out red and hairy, and the other is Jacob who comes out smooth. Esau becomes a hunter and a kind of Wildman, Jacob stays home, “in the tents” with his mother. Rebekah is warned: there are two nations within you. One will dominate the other. Imagine a mother hearing this from God. Sure enough Jacob tricks Esau into selling him his birthright, goes on to trick his father, Isaac, into thinking that he is giving Esau a blessing. Again, God the unreliable, the not only politically and economically unreliable but the psychologically unreliable, comes to Isaac during a great famine in the land and tells Isaac to move the whole misbukah, which is Yiddish for the extended family. For a good read, go through all of other chapters in Genesis, starting in about chapter 25 to get the full picture. Jacob tricks Isaac, the son of Abraham, and then Isaac becomes aware that his son has tricked him, while there is a great famine in the land and while he still comprehends why the promises of God have not been realized in him. By the way I forgot to mention that the trickery for the blessing and the birthright was Rachel’s idea. That’s right: Rachel told Jacob to trick Isaac. Rachel sided with one of our sons against the other. She then used that one son against her husband in a kind of Oedipal adultery that usually gets people really going. Where is a good therapist when we need one?

Esau, of course, is livid and vows to kill his twin brother. Rachel intervenes again and tells Jacob to leave home, to go to her brother Laban and to hide out. Jacob has several very important dreams, imagining that God is still with him, even after what he has done, he goes on to make a big fortune, is very successful, amasses extraordinary numbers of camels, goats and sheep, and confronts a kind of loneliness still and all. Let me gather a few strands: the combination of political and economic unreliability in a God, coupled with psychological temptations and trickeries and lies, is the best definition I know of a spiritual and a religious problem. Note that I said spiritual and religious, not one or the other. Only from the threshold of a spiritual and a religious problem can we truly confront the loneliness on the cross of a Jesus. On our insides we doubt the truth of God’s promises. In our tribe, we doubt the truth of God’s promise. We have a spiritual and a religious problem. Only from there can the great turning arise, sufficient to bring us back to the floor and foundation of our existence. We face into our desire to have a God who takes care of us and realizes we have a God who does not. Dare I say the minister who tricked his congregation understood this? Who could he tell about his perfect golf game? Who could Jacob tell about his enormous success but Esau? How could he come back to himself if not by way of Esau? Esau was the desire of Jacob’s desire. When we face into the failure of God to have yet given us the land or the harmony or the good stuff, and also face into our own complicity in it not having arrived, then we are ready for a spiritual awakening. Not before. Only after. God has to die to us on a cross in order for us to find God.

We are not at the end of the story, nor will we be after today. We will get only to chapter 33. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, his uncle Laban’s daughter, only to be told by Laban that he has to marry Leah first. First he works seven years, panting for Rachel, married to Leah. Then Laban says it has to be another seven years. On top of his exile from his family’s exile, he has romantic difficulties. Then Rachel proves to be barren. I will never know why we tell these bible stories to children with smiles on our faces, as though coming from these kind of catastrophes was sweet or kind or good. But we do. There is a deeper wisdom to our religion than we can bear.

Jacob comes to realize that he wants to go back home, sheep or no sheep, camels or no camels, children or no children, wives or no wives. And so he creates a plan to get Esau to welcome him back. It is a good plan. He flees from his Uncle Laban, who pursues him. He assembles “two hundred female goats, and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys” and tells his servants to go ahead of him with this peace offering for Esau. When Esau meets them, at the edge of the family property, they are to say “they are a gift from Jacob” for you. Sure enough Esau meets them, ignores the peace offering, finds Jacob, embraces him and throws his arms around him and kisses him, meets the wives and the children, and refuses the gift. “I already have plenty, my brother, Keep what you have for yourself.”

Lots more happens, as we will discover in the coming weeks, when we will look more deeply at these stories known as the Jacob cycle. For today, let me suggest a couple of meanings for us. The first is that loneliness for our twin, or our brother, or our sister, or our father, or our mother, or our partner, is not the end of any one’s story, but actually the beginning. From there we confront the desire of our desire, the way we want connection. We may think we want freedom or camels or for Abraham’s promise to be realized in us. We may want something big. We may want to win the golf game and to be able to brag about it far and wide. But we are probably not going to get that. Instead we are going to get a long term promise from the divine and the stars of land in which justice and freedom will prevail – and short term non delivery. We are going to have our own spiritual, religious, economic and political disappointments, which are the threshold to reunion with our selves and our twins, whoever they are.

One word about Gingrich’s victory and I will go to my second draw from this part of the Jacob cycle. Many of you know I lived in South Carolina quite a while and couldn’t be more convinced that what just happened there is truly Carolinian. South Carolinians represent many Americans – and many Jacobs and Esau’s – when they tell you what they really want is a victory for their team in football. They want moral victory too. They want to be right about things. They want their children to be right. They were defeated in the Civil War and have no intention of getting over it any time soon. So they elect a man who gives them some of what they want, which is the fiction of strength and the actuality of weakness. We have known a long time that Americans prefer strong leaders, even if they are wrong, to weak leaders, even if they are right. As one South Carolinian put it so well yesterday on the radio, we want a President who is “a bulldog not a poodle.” Rachel and Jacob thought they wanted that too. Strength, even if takes fiction. Righteousness, even if it takes trickery.

As we approach the threshold of God, we realize that we aren’t going to get the promises of God by camels or touchdowns, or even by moral victory or even by golf victory. Note that the very God who could have punished Jacob for his perfidy didn’t! That God gave him success and then gave him another chance to embrace his brother. And moreover, Esau, who had every right to hate Jacob, chose finally not to. We desire each other, not out of strength alone but also out of weakness. Better put, we desire each other. Period, the end.

So back to God, and I am done. If we worship God because God will provide us camels, touchdowns or perfect golf games, we are probably bowing down before the wrong one. God didn’t even give Abraham that. Nor did God give Jesus that. God had to die to Jesus on the cross for the fertile loneliness to set in. When we realize that we have political, economic, spiritual and religious difficulties, all balled up into one, we are ready to begin to understand the God of our tradition.

When we understand that we have marital difficulties or sibling difficulties or unresolved issues with our parents, we are close to the threshold of understanding who God is. God is not the solver of these problems, so much as the presenter, begging us to find our true humanity. I love the quote from Lily Barth in Edith Wharton’s novel, House of Mirth. There she says, “If only I could do over my aunt’s drawing room, I know I should be a better woman.” Oddly it goes to the heart of what Jacob’s mother was trying to do when his Uncle wasn’t. We keep trying to redo our drawing rooms, to become better people, when all along, what we have to face is the aloneness of a world in which God is not going to be bought off by our success, even at family values, even at the economy, even by our politics. When Harry Truman caught his wife Bess burning his letters, he was appalled. He said, Bess, what are you doing? Think of History! And she responded, “I am.” We are so full of ourselves. Apparently Mrs. Roosevelt was as well. Good activist that she was, she wrote so many memos to FDR on how to improve things that he finally told her he would only read three a day. Don’t get me wrong. I remain confident in history and activism. I have utter confidence in Occupy as a movement. And fantastic respect for the democratic processes and primaries of this great nation. I am intrigued by the election in Egypt and the extraordinary gains of the Moslem Brotherhood. I also like to win my games at tennis. But I don’t think these victories are the genuine desire of our desires. I think there is a peace which passes understanding, that has to do with brothers finding each other in a field and getting over it. Then the rest can follow. Until we get our picture of God and each other right, I don’t think we will either get over it or on with it. Instead we will trick the loneliness with camels and touchdowns and golf balls and be lonely no matter how much victory we have. Victory is something we actually want to give back to God. God is not the object of our desires. Nor someone to watch over us. God, as Jesus would say, is love. Amen.

 
55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844