God Bless America... Said Jesus Never
The story of Jacob wrestling with and demanding a blessing from G-d is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. The wrestling match by itself is one of those stories in the Bible that just about everyone can relate to - struggling with G-d and still being blessed - and a story that when read in isolation makes for a pretty great Sunday school lesson. The lesson practically writes itself.
I remember leading confirmation and teaching on this passage. I had the confirmands write their fear and doubts on a piece of paper and then attach those pieces of paper with safety pins to a student wearing a Lucha Libre mask, the mask a professional wrestler would wear in Mexico, and then the Lucha Libre student, loaded down with the fears and doubts of the group, would wrestle G-d, another student dressed as a Lucha Libre. The point was that no matter your past (because let's be honest, Jacob had a past), your fears, and doubts G-d will still bless you. The winner would not only receive a legit WWE championship belt but would also give the benediction at the end of class.
That is part of Jacob’s story but it is not the whole story.
The beauty of the Biblical canon is that there is always more to the story.
The story of Noah did not end with a rainbow in the sky and the New Testament story of Saul did not end with him being one of the greatest persecutors of the early Church.
The story of Jacob wrestling with G-d is not the beginning or the end of his story.
The beginning, middle, and end of Jacob’s appearance in Genesis is a story of blessing.
Jacob appears on the scene in chapter 25 as he came into the world gripping the ankle of his older brother, Esau. His story continues in chapter 27 as he steals a blessing from his father that was intended for his older brother. There was no accident about this as Jacob and his mother deliberately masked Jacob’s identity, duping Isaac into giving to Jacob what was due to this older brother.
Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” - Genesis 27:29
Next, in fear, Jacob flees to save his own life and in the process is given land to live on and does not have the face the wrath of Esau. Life, a place to live, and safety.
Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel and has children and begins to prosper.
Not content with wives and children, Jacob steals from his father-in-law, Laban. Laban intended to do Jacob great harm for this offense but G-d spoke to Laban, protecting Jacob.
Next, our scripture reading, Jacob wrestles with G-d and receives a blessing.
Esau and Jacob finally reconcile and Jacob arrives safely in Canaan.
Ultimately Jacob was blessed again by G-d after he returned to Bethel.
God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” - Genesis 35:9-12
The entirety of Jacob’s time in Genesis is a story of one blessing after another. But up until the final blessing he received at Bethel Jacob was never satisfied with what he had been blessed with.
I would be lying if I told you I was not terrified about this morning’s stop in our sermon series “… Said Jesus Never.” When the series was planned and each saying assigned a Sunday I realized Pastor Ed had taken this Sunday off. Pastor Ed is a smart man because this week’s saying, G-d Bless America… Said Jesus Never, is loaded with anxiety from the preacher and many of those sitting in the pews. If you are not careful you can run the risk of coming off as unpatriotic, ungrateful to be living in a nation where people like me can do what I do without fear of physical harm coming to them. But the phrase and its frequent use requires us to consider what it actually means and how it is used.
I have heard this saying in three places: once a year as a hymn in worship on our around the Fourth of July or as an intermission during a baseball game and as a benediction to a political speech.
The hymn was written in 1918 and later revised in 1938 by Iriving Berlin. The baseball intermission began during the Vietnam War but became a mainstay in major league baseball stadiums after September 11th. It’s been sung during hockey and football games and at the Indianapolis 500.
In 2008 during a Red Sox/Yankees game a Red Sox fan was removed from Yankee Stadium by the NYPD for attempting to walk to the bathroom during the song.
The political benediction was first used by Richard Nixon in1973, before that no major political speech had used the phrase. Authors David Domke and Kevin Coe argue that in our modern day political climate the phrase helps politicians pass the “G-d and country test,” the verbal equivalent of pining an American flag to one’s lapel.
Next time you attend a Nationals game or endure a political speech more than likely you will be part of an intermission or receive a benediction that most people don’t think twice about until they don’t hear it.
More often than not the phrase is used in a cavalier manner. I do not doubt the sincerity of the hymn being sung in worship and prayed corporately or individually. The problem with this phrase arises when it is used without the acknowledgment of the blessings G-d has already given to America.
Hasn’t G-d already blessed America?
We have an adequate food supply and access to clean drinking water. If you don’t like the taste of the municipal water you can purchase bottled water and in most cases have it delivered to your doorstep.
Our access to world-class medical care places our infant mortality rate at less than 7 per 1000 births, that’s less than 1%, while nations like Sierra Leon and Angola are above 150 per 1000 births.
88% of the population in the United States is considered “upper-middle class” or “high income” while 71% of the world is considered “low-income” or “poor.”
We have the military might and national infrastructure that is second to no one.
We have hit all of the criteria to be considered “blessed” laid out by theologian Karen Armstrong, author of In the Beginning - An Interpretation of Genesis, a book that many of you have studied this year. America has been blessed with fertility, wealth, success, and might. We are blessed and yet the expected benediction continues on as if these blessings are something we are still waiting for.
Jacob lived a life of blessing, regardless of how he obtained it. He stole a blessing belonging to someone else and the wealth and station that came with it. He demanded and received a blessing from G-d. He was blessed with a family. But still, Jacob was not satisfied.
He had the outer-markings (fertility, wealth, success, and might) but wrestled to acknowledge and see these blessing because of a lack of inner-harmony. Divine harmony and power should have radiated off of Jacob, touching everyone and everything he came into contact with but instead, he continued to wrestle with himself. He had not realized the fullness of G-d’s blessing on him and because of that, he lived with inner-turmoil, the unresolved inner-conflict from stealing a blessing from his brother.
Any kind of blessing - whether it be saying, “G-d bless you” after someone sneezes, receiving a benediction at the closing of a worship service, or having G-d bless you - is an intimate moment. The intimacy of blessing requires two things: physical experience and a spiritual experience. Blessings initiate a physical change to the circumstance of your life along with a transforming spiritual encounter, both of which require intimacy.
Jacob had both of these experiences when he wrestled with G-d but they did not last. Yes, the physical change stuck as his hip was put out of place and he was safe from harm but the spiritual experience did not last. We do not read about him recalling the event with awe and wonder but instead, Jacob ignores the blessing he received and continues on his path of deceit and did not live into the fullness of his blessing. And because blessing does not equal entitlement or immunity to suffering, the spiritual side of acknowledging and receiving the blessings given to him was overlooked.
G-d’s blessing is not something to be taken lightly. Evoking the name of G-d in any circumstance should not be done in a cavalier manner or without actually meaning what you are saying.
Jewish mystics believe the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are powerful and can be used to affect the divine. The Hebrew name for G-d (YHWH) is especially powerful and not to be taken or used lightly. When Jews print G-d’s on paper, that paper is infused with G-d's divine spark and thus, it becomes holy. There is a very specific way that to dispose of anything with the name YHWH written on it
To say “G-d bless you” is an intimate act between the speaker and the recipient along with between the speaker and G-d and the recipient and G-d.
There is also the risk of evoking G-d’s name without recognizing and naming the blessings G-d had already placed in our lives corporately and individually. Evoking the name of G-d with “vanity” or “emptiness,” or in a manner that will do harm to someone else is contrary to what the third commandment given by G-d to Moses said.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. - Exodus 20:7
The power of G-d’s blessing should not be used for personal or political advantage over another person or group of people. Jesus never said “G-d Bless America," or for the context of His time “G-d bless Rome,” because while overlooking our blessings and theirs, ignoring the fullness of what G-d is doing and was doing, G-d already gave a blessing and continues to do so.
G-d has blessed us, but in some cases, we have yet to reach the inner-spiritual harmony, the same harmony Jacob lacked, in order to fully realize and live into what G-d has given us. On a day like today with the events that are happening across the river and in Charlottesville, we are reminded of our nation’s corporate lack of inner-spiritual harmony and unity.
G-d, thank you for blessing America, please help us find the inner-harmony necessary to fully live into what you have given us, as we work to eliminate intolerance and hate and truly live Christ’s command to love each other