Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pentecost 4A

I understand twin brothers, since I am one and have one. I understand both the friendly rivalry and bare-knuckled competition between twin offspring.

My brother Keith was born 10 minutes before me, and you’d think, by the way he talks about those 10 minutes, that during that extra time, he’d gained a world of experience that I’d never possess.

Growing up we’d wrestle and fight. We’d tussle. We’d race. We once we competed for the same girl (I won). And when we started our careers we tried to “one-up” the other in terms of salary and status.

Most twins I know are the same way. That’s why I immediately understood what was happening between Jacob and Esau.

As most often in stories of twins, Jacob and Esau were different in every way you could imagine. It’s almost as if they needed each other to be a complete person.

Esau was a big hairy brute who liked to spend his time rummaging around in the woods when he wasn’t playing football. He worked with his hands and hated every moment he spent in school.

Jacob was the smart, articulate, smooth-skinned bookworm who was probably president of his school’s math club.

Esau was Isaac’s favorite because he probably lived vicariously through his son’s ultra-masculine accomplishments. Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite perhaps because she saw a lot of herself in him.

Jacob and Esau never got along. Rebekah could feel the fist fights in her womb. And at the moment of their births, Jacob grabbed hold of Esau’s heal in an apparent attempt to “trip” his brother on his way out the door. Which is why Isaac and Rebekah named him “Jacob” which means “heel” or “leg puller” or “tripper-upper.”

They were as different as wine and petroleum. They fought because they wanted to show the other whose path was better.

And today’s Old Testament story tells us just how far their competition and animosity went.

Esau comes home empty handed after a long day of hunting, and he’s famished. He hasn’t eaten all day because he hadn’t caught anything. He finds Jacob cooking lentil stew, and since he’s starving, he asks his brother for some.

“I’ll give you some stew if you give me your birthright,” Jacob offers, which is quite the stunning condition to put on a simple bowl of lentils.

“What good is a birthright if I die of hunger today?” Esau answers. As if people ever die from missing one meal.

Some commentators call Jacob “shrewd.” But I think this tells us more about Esau than it does about Jacob. And this is the narrator’s way of taking the birthright out of Esau’s hands and putting it in Jacob’s.

The birthright, which traditionally went to the oldest son, was their inheritance; the majority of land and wealth that was promised to them after their dad died.

And not only the land and wealth, but position and power. Esau was in line to take over the leadership of God’s people after Isaac went to his grave. Esau, presumably was being groomed for this job, since Isaac showed such favoritism toward him.

But as you read the story, the narrator clearly wants to the birthright to go to Jacob. The narrator can’t FATHOM Esau taking over the reigns from Isaac. Jacob is clearly the right one to lead.

“What good is a birthright if I die today of hunger,” Esau says. And that’s the punchline.

Esau reveals himself to be a person ruled by his appetites, someone who has no vision for the future. Someone who can’t look beyond the moment to see what can and will be.

Esau is clearly not up to the job. He’s not interested in living up to his family and community obligations. He find comfort in the present moment, and lacks the capacity to envision a new and better life for himself and those he is called to lead.

“I’m going to die anyways, so what do I need of a birthright? So, please pass the bowl.”

It’s easy to hate Esau. The bible goes to great lengths to describe how dumb and ugly he was, just in case you were starting to feel badly for him.

Which is why I have trouble taking my eyes off of him. Not for the fascination with the abomination, he’s not some sideshow freak that I can giggle and point at.

I keep staring at him because I see something of him in me. And in us. He’s like a mirror reflecting back at us those parts we’d not admit about ourselves.

For me it’s the constant struggle of living according to my appetites rather than according to the vision of life and health that God wants for me. Working harder and harder with less and less to show for it. Of being in constant competition with those who are supposed to be my partners.

For us I see in him our sense of worry for the coming years. Overall church decline. The battle to include all people into the life and ministry of our faith community. Decreasing influence in society. Diminishing resources. We’re slowly and painfully fading away.

We’re going to die anyways, so what do we need of a birthright? So please pass the bowl.

Please pass the bowl of comfort to help us feel better about our challenges. Please pass the bowl of minor squabbles to make us feel like we’re still doing something that matters.

Please pass the bowl of blame so I can point my finger at the cause of all our troubles. Please pass the bowl of the past, so we can remember when the churches were full, money was flowing, and outreach was thriving.

We’re going to die anyways, so what do we need of a birthright? So please pass the bowl.

That, I think, is our greatest temptation.

Esau hovers over us as we talk about who we are and where we’re going.

Conversations about our future are often more about bringing back what once was rather than building something new. We keep looking to the past for inspiration rather than to the future to see what God has in store for us. We’re looking for restoration or resuscitation, rather than resurrection.

That’s what I hear from certain sectors as we prepare for the national convention. “If those motions are passed that will mean the end of the church!” they scream, as if God is waiting for a certain amount of moral purity to restore our church to it’s former glory. As if God chooses only the holiest and most righteous saints to build Christ’s church. As God will be boxed into a corner from which God cannot escape. As if our birthright was born from our obedience.

But if we look closely at the story we see something very different at work. While the narrator seems relieved that Esau was deprived of the birthright, the narrator isn’t at all pleased by the way Jacob obtained it. And as we shall see in the coming weeks, the narrator of the story becomes less and less impressed by Jacob’s behaviour. It’s a pox on both their houses.

Jacob didn’t receive the birthright, the opportunity to lead God’s people because he was handsome, smart, and smooth-skinned, where his brother was ugly, hairy, and dumb.

Nor did Jacob receive the birthright because he was the virtuous one and his brother was a moral midget. This was a game both of them lost.

Jacob received the birthright because he knew what to do with it, and his brother didn’t. Jacob received the birthright because he could see God’s vision for the future.

Jacob could see God’s promises unfolding around him, and he trusted God to lead him and his people into the life that God had chosen for them.

God gives the birthright to those who have vision, to those who look forward in faith, to those who eyes are fixed on the future, those who grab God’s promises with both hands and run toward the finish line that God puts in place.

God does not want us to settle for what is. God fixes our eyes on what COULD be.

God does not want us to stay stuck in the present moment, filled with worry about the future. God gives us eyes to see beyond the troubles of this day and sets our gaze on what CAN be.

God does not want us to keep looking back to once was, God turns our faces to the direction of what WILL be.

And this isn’t easy. Especially when world is changing so fast and we have trouble seeing what’s coming next.

Some see change as unbridled chaos and long for a simpler time when everything seemed fixed. When our lives were fixed and ordered, we knew our places, and the future looked just as stable as the past.

But instead of mere change, others see creation unfolding faster than in any other time in history. And we have been chosen to witness to God’s future vision here today.

This is OUR time to bear witness to God’s love for the world. This is OUR time to tell God’s saving story. This is OUR time to be God’s healing presence.

This is OUR time to share God’s mercy, to bring relief to the suffering, to live God’s compassion for the world. This is OUR time to live God’s resurrection life.

This is not a time to stop the clock or to turn it back. God is calling us to march forward into the future, proudly proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that God’s reign of justice, of mercy, of forgiveness, of freedom, of peace, and of healing is HERE - right now - in Jesus Christ.

By the grace of God, we are not children of Esau. We are sons and daughters of Jacob. We have been chosen for this holy task TODAY. We have been called by name and anointed by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to God’s promised future TODAY. God has given us eyes to see and mouths to proclaim the great and mighty deeds of God.

That is our calling. That is our birthright. May this be so among us. Amen!


Blogger Susan Fish said...

Amen indeed! This is excellent, Kevin. Thanks for it.

10:55 AM  
Blogger aprile1959 said...

This is a very interesting analysis/interpretation of biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Thank you!

5:54 AM  

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