A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 18, 2012
Genesis 33:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 NRSV
In a recent issue of the Christian Century magazine, Frank Honeycutt relates a story involving his mother and her sister (who happens to be his favorite aunt). His mother and aunt recently spied each other across a row of exercise machines at their local YMCA. After not speaking to one another for almost 20 years, that day when they saw one another at the YMCA they agreed to meet for coffee. The details of the estrangement, Honeycutt explains, are too many and complex to name. But after years of praying for his mother and aunt to be reconciled, he had almost given up on their ever getting back together. But there they were meeting at Starbucks one afternoon enjoying coffee together. And now they meet there faithfully every week, catching up on the lost years. Honeycutt poses the question, “What were they thinking in the gym that day when they agreed to meet?”1
Well, Honeycutt sees in his family story a mirror of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Because, you see, twin brothers Jacob and Esau had not spoken to each other in about 20 years. In case you need a refresher, there had always been enmity between the two brothers. One was favored by their mother, and the other was favored by their father. Since Esau was born a few minutes before Jacob, he was considered the first-born, so to him the birth-right of the first-born son was supposed to fall, which meant a larger portion of the family inheritance. But Jacob, sly scoundrel that he was, swindled Esau’s birthright from him. Also, when it came time for their aged, almost-blind, and dying father to bless them, their mother conspired with Jacob and set it up so Jacob would get the blessing that should have gone to Esau. At least, that is how the story goes.
So, fearing for his life, Jacob left home and lived in exile for several years. But then after several years passed, he felt he should return home. But how would Esau feel about his homecoming? In advance of his own coming, “greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:7), Jacob sent great flocks and herds ahead to his brother Esau as a peace offering. Messengers returned and told Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him, along with 400 men. Jacob moved his immediate family (15 of them in all) across the river to a place of safety. And Jacob prayed what Frank Honeycutt calls a “foxhole prayer”: “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all . . . “ (32:11).
Then that night, Jacob lay down and tried to sleep. But he was restless. And Jacob tossed and turned, wrestled during the night. What was he dreaming about? An angry brother bent on revenge, perhaps. What was Jacob thinking in those pre-dawn hours just before he was to be reunited with his estranged brother whom he had so wronged time and again? Perhaps that this was this to be his last day to live. That his brother would kill him and string him up by his heels.
Well, the next morning, Jacob looked up and saw his brother Esau approaching, along with 400 men. But instead of marching toward him with sword drawn, Esau came running with outstretched arms. Esau fell on Jacob’s neck and kissed him and they both wept like children. This is one of the most beautiful and poignant passages in the entire Bible. After they have reacquainted themselves with one another and Jacob has introduced his family to Esau, they discuss Jacob’s gifts of livestock that Jacob had sent ahead. Esau tries to get Jacob to keep it all, but Jacob insists that Esau take it, saying, “Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me” (33:11). The word “graciously” is a key word in this passage. In its original Hebrew it means just what it says: “to be gracious.” Grace proper is undeserved, unmerited favor. Grace isn’t something that we can earn for ourselves, but it must be given to us, either by a divine power or another person. Grace creates a dependence. In order to receive grace, we depend upon another to give it to us. Maybe it was that God had been gracious to Jacob. But if you ask me, the hero in this particular story is Esau, who shows grace to a brother who had never done him anything but wrong.
Well, in concluding his story about his estranged mother and her sister, Frank Honeycutt notes that the same thing that brought Esau and Jacob back together had done so for his mother and aunt as well. And it was nothing other than grace. Grace had done its good work.
Perhaps we’ve all had those special moments in our lives when we’ve been the recipients of grace. When we felt like Jacob, that God’s grace had come to our rescue. When some blessing, some form of deliverance, some unexpected miracle almost, swept in and turned things around for us. In a past issue of UU World, Chance Hunter also writes about grace. And Chance asks the question, “What is grace? Grace is getting more than we deserve.” He goes on to say, in discussing grace from a Universalist perspective, “We receive grace, not because we deserve it, but because the universe is fundamentally a generous place.”2 And as theologian Paul Tillich put it, Grace equals acceptance. “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us, we experience grace.”3 And another one of my favorite contemporary authors, Anne Lamott, confesses, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”4 “Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”5 And then you might have guessed that I would have to include at least one thought from poet Mary Oliver on the subject. Oliver writes, “You can have the other words—chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.”6
And then there are those instances of grace in our human relationships. Perhaps each of us has had the experience when someone—a family member, a close friend, a co-worker, fellow church member—manifested grace toward us at a time when we had failed miserably and didn’t feel that we deserved it. Perhaps like Jacob, at a time when we were feeling our lowest, grace prevailed. To cite Anne Lamott again, “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks. . . . Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking.”7
But taking the idea of grace one step further, the extension of grace to others is a power that each of us holds within our heart. Just as we depend upon others for grace, others depend upon us for grace as well. Echoing the actions of Esau toward his brother Jacob, Chance Hunter says, “Grace isn’t just something we receive; it’s also something in our power to give. . . . We are most like God when we are being graceful to one another.”2 Perhaps it is that for humans to be gracious, we need to have experienced grace ourselves. I am inclined to believe that for Esau it would have taken an act of grace in his own life for him to be able to let go of the past with all its baggage and hurt and extend arms of grace in brotherly love toward Jacob. We might ask ourselves who in our lives—our families, our circle of friends, our associates at work, or some other sphere—may be in need of our grace during this Lenten season?
The truth is, the concept of grace is somewhat contrary to American culture where the focus is on the individual, personal achievement, self-sufficiency, and each one looking out for his own interests. But the thing about grace is it is the great equalizer—it equalizes everyone, since all of us find ourselves in need of grace at some point.
When all is said and done, grace—whether we are recipients of it or the one who gives it—is always a gift, a wonderful gift. May we, during this Lenten season, open ourselves to the grace that might be revealed to us. And may we also, like Esau, be willing to let grace do its good work as we find ways to extend grace to others. Amen.
1Frank G. Honeycutt, Christian Century, March 7, 2012.
2Chance Hunter, UU World, Spring 2011.
3Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, xxii.
4Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 143.
5Anne Lamott, Plan B, 54-55.
6Mary Oliver, Winter Hours.
7Anne Lamott, Grace Eventually: Thoughts on Faith, pp. 20, 50.