One of the best parts of being your pastor is the time with young worshippers right before a baptism. Those are the times when I get to stand in front of the chancel with our young people and bless the water that we will use to claim someone as our own, our privilege and our responsibility, the precious child of a loving God.
Well, not exactly. In better theological terms, those are the times when we ask God to bless the water that we will use to recognize the claim that God has made on someone, and the call—the privilege and responsibility—that God has placed on us to nurture that person in faith as a precious child of the God who is love.
And I get to be a part of a lot of blessings: the waters of baptism and the humble feast of communion, the funeral meal and the marriage covenant, the food we send to the Referral Center and the shorts we send to Jamaica, the people who make those gifts possible and the people who receive them. But that blessing, that water, that is an amazing moment.
Because we are asking God to shower favor on that water and make it holy. And then we use that water to water a little seed of the Kingdom, that God has planted in someone.
And I believe that each and every one of us has one of those little seeds, whether or not someone ever stood in the chancel with young people and asked God to bless some water.
And I believe that the blessing matters. All of those blessings matter. But I also believe that we should know what we’re doing when we ask God to bless something or someone. We should know that we’re doing when we ask for a little piece of the Kingdom in this world. Because blessings are good things, but they are not safe things.
In today’s reading, we meet Jacob in the middle of things. There’s a long story here, but years ago Jacob stole from his brother Esau. He stole something so important that Esau was prepared to kill him. And Jacob was afraid, so he left his country and his kindred and settled down elsewhere.
And time passed. And he got married to Leah… and Rachel… and Bilhah… and Zilpah. And they had children, and Jacob prospered, and his family grew rich.
But then God said to Jacob, “Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good. I will make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.”
And now Jacob is on his way home… and he’s afraid… because his brother Esau is gonna kill him.
So he prays, “God, y’know that thing you said about making my offspring as the sand of the sea? Well, I think Esau’s gonna kill me and my wives and my offspring. And I’m not worthy of even a fraction of the love you’ve shown me. But if you could make it so that Esau doesn’t kill me…well… amen?”
And then he goes off to be alone.
That night—the night before Jacob is going to meet Esau—a man appears to Jacob and they wrestle. And it’s a weird little moment.
But as morning comes, and the sky takes on the blues and purples and oranges of dawn, the man sees that he’s not going to win, so he says, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob will not let him go, and says, “I will not let you go… until you bless me.”
And I don’t think that Jacob knows what he’s asking for. You see, the thing that Jacob stole from Esau was his father’s blessing. And that got him in plenty of trouble. And now he is asking this stranger for a blessing. And you would think that he would know that blessings are good things, but they are not safe things.
And so the man does two things. First, he gives Jacob a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob,” he says, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Second, he blesses Jacob. And there’s this startling absence of a moment. We don’t get to hear the blessing. We don’t get to know what it is. We only know that the man blesses Jacob. And Jacob lets him go. And after the man leaves, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
And these two things are tied together. Jacob is blessed; Jacob is changed.
And the story goes on… there is a long story here. And today we only get to see Jacob in the middle of things.
One of the things that I do as a pastor is bless stuff. I mean, I don’t really bless stuff, but I ask God to bless stuff. And these two things are tied together: blessing and change. Asking God to bless something is asking God to transform something.
Asking God to bless someone is asking God to say, “This is who you will be.”
And, as you’ve probably noticed, God rarely seems to say, “You will be safe.”
God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their country and their kindred and settle in a new land. God called Jacob to return to his country and his kindred and face the brother who he is afraid will kill him. God calls Moses to defy a Pharaoh and lead his people out of slavery. God calls prophets to confront the powers-that-be and call them to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with their God.
And God lays aside glory and becomes one of us, and confronts the powers that be, bringing good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the captive. And he does not run from death or exempt himself from the grave. God risks loving us, and endures the cross and the tomb, only to get up again and keep risking loving us.
And I’m not saying that being blessed means leaving country and kindred. And I’m not saying that being transformed means risking arrest and imprisonment. And I’m not saying that being called means facing death.
But being blessed does mean taking risks. And being transformed does mean becoming the people who God intends for us to be. And being called means feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, delivering good news to the poor and freedom to the captive, and being the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
And in a world as broken as this one, that is not safe. It means leaving the comfort of thinking that there is nothing we can do or nothing that we have to do. It means risking our reputation and our self-image. It means facing our own sins, and repenting of them, and asking for forgiveness, and allowing God to make us new.
And that is scary. I know. But there is good news.
You see, blessings are good things, but they are not safe things. And that’s okay.
Because when I say that they are not safe things, I mean that they are not safe things in a broken world. But the truth is that we are blessed to be perfectly safe in the sanctuary of God’s enduring love. That is not a safety that is found in comfort or a pristine reputation; it is not a safety that is found in wealth or power. It is a safety that is found in the promises of God and the hope of the resurrection.
And because we are safe in the sanctuary of God’s enduring love, we are free to be wild and dangerous and full of grace in the name of God’s relentless love.
And that freedom is a blessing.
One of the best parts of being your pastor is being part of the blessings we receive. And one of the best parts of being your pastor is seeing the results of the blessings that you have received. And one of the best parts of being your pastor is imagining the blessings that are yet to come.
Because we are free to be wild and dangerous and full of grace. We are free to love recklessly. We are free to let God change us. We are free to let God take that seed that is planted in us and grow it into something we cannot imagine, something that is yet unrevealed, something that God alone can see in its fullness.
Thanks be to God!