Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pentecost 7A

I don’t know which cliche to use to describe what happened to Jacob in today’s Old Testament reading. I’m not sure if this is a case of “the devil being in the details” or “what comes around goes around.” Or both.

But whatever cliche we use to describe Jacob’s situation, you have to admit that he received the “short end of the stick” because Laban, being “crazy like a fox” indeed “drove a hard bargain” (to conclude my list of cliches).

When Jacob hammered out the contract with Laban he should have paid closer attention to what his boss DID and DID NOT say. He needed a good lawyer to glance over the paperwork to read the fine print.

After asking Laban for Rachel’s hand in marriage as a reward for seven years of hard work, Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man. So...we have a deal!” And they shook on it.

Notice what Laban DIDN’T say. He didn’t say “I will give RACHEL.” He merely said “HER.”

That’s why, when the seven years were finally up, and Jacob climbed into his wedding tent that night, lifted the veil over his bride’s head, and the sun came up the next morning, he was in for BIG surprise. And the surprise was, of course, that it was Leah, not Rachel, who was lying next to him in the wedding bed.

Understandably angry, Jacob bolts from the tent and tracks down Laban, 

“Hey! I thought we had an agreement! I was supposed to get Rachel NOT Leah!”

Pretending to NOT know what Jacob is talking about, Laban responds, “O c’mon, you know better than that. The oldest daughter always gets married first. It’s custom. Tradition. The way it’s always been done around here. How God wants it. 

“So stop being so silly. But I’ll tell you what. Give me seven more years, and you can have Rachel as well.”

Fast forward seven years and Jacob takes Rachel for his wife. And later, since Rachel couldn’t get pregnant, Jacob then marries Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, with whom he had a son. And then Jacob also married Leah’s maid Zilpah who became pregnant and had more children.

That’s a lot of wives. And a lot of children.

And this wasn’t a case of Jacob philandering. In fact the bible tells us that there was much rejoicing at each of those births from all of Jacob’s wives.

And I won’t even get into the issue of a wife being payment for work accomplished. But I will draw attention to Jacob’s multiple wives. And that everyone in the story seems ok with this. 

It was custom. Tradition.The way it was always done. How God wanted it, and God never changes. Right?

So, when we talk about the “traditional” or “biblical view of marriage” what are we talking about exactly?

We tend to believe that the bible affirms marriage as one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others ‘till death do them part, amen. And yes, the bible DOES say that.

But the bible also DOESN’T say that.

The bible provides examples of MANY forms of marriage. The biblical writers were not of one mind on how human beings are to enter into the marital covenant, because the motives for marriage changed over time to meet their circumstances. Which makes me draw the conclusion that the various forms of marriage that the bible gives are born from culture and custom rather than divine edict.

So as we see from this story of Jacob, the definition of marriage and family has never been static or fixed, either in scripture or in society. Each generation figures it out for themselves, and with each decision, the generation following might be appalled by what their parents and forebears did.

For example, for some unfathomable reason, one of Martin Luther’s parishioners wanted more than one wife. We can only guess what his motives were, but he asked Luther, his pastor, if polygamy was permissible. 

Luther responded by saying that if a Christian man wanted multiple wives, “he may do so in accordance with the Word of God and his conscience” and suggested that the pressure from society for a man to have only one wife was irrelevant to scripture.

Luther advised this man to follow his conscience and the teachings of the bible, which allows for and even encourages polygamy, rather than to submit to the community’s arm-twisting to stay trapped in the one-man-one-woman marital arrangement. 

In other words, (and guys, you might want to pay attention to this), if you want more than one wife that’s no one else’s business than your’s, all of your wives’, and God’s.

To our ears that sounds insane! (Personally, one wife was PLENTY for me).  And if I ever counseled someone in the church to obey scripture in such a reckless way I’d be moved out of the parsonage before the sun set. And rightly so. 

So it tells us that we make life decisions based on more than just what the bible says. That our lives are much more complex than to look for legal guidance from scripture. 

However, this story isn’t really about marriage, although it speaks to contemporary debates.

It’s about how Jacob created such a huge family.

This story looks at the way we use the tools that God has given us to discern what God wants for us. Namely, scripture informed by conscience. And the messiness that that creates.

As Lutherans, we confess to a doctrine called “sola scriptura” which is Latin for “scripture alone,” which means that we say that God is revealed in scripture and ONLY scripture. No where else. We don’t look outside the pages of the bible to learn who God is. 

So, Lutherans traditionally dismiss people who say that they (for example) find God in nature. Or in prayer. Or in intuition. Or in disembodied voices. Or in supernatural experiences.

Lutherans traditionally and actively reject any notion that the God revealed in Jesus can be found anywhere other than in the stories and teachings of the bible. 

We call the bible the “Word of God” because it preaches salvation in Jesus, and NOWHERE else is such a message proclaimed. 

And my preaching, it is assumed, is an extension of scripture’s salvation proclamation.   

So, Lutherans traditionally say, “Don’t tell me about the transcendent experience you had while hiking in Waterton.” 

“I don’t want to hear about the voice you heard in your head while praying that you say is God’s.”

“I don’t want to know about how angels protected you from that car accident.” 

“I don’t care that you think you had a ‘sense’ of Jesus comforting you during your surgery.” 

“These experiences are just meant to distract and deceive you. It’s the Devil pulling you away from the TRUE Word of God which is Holy Scripture,the ONLY source of God’s knowledge that can be trusted, the ONLY place where God is revealed and Jesus is proclaimed. Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone. End of discussion.”

Sounds pretty limiting, doesn’t it?

And while Lutherans officially confess Scripture Alone, we never really practice it, because we instinctively understand its limitations. Which is why I hear so many stories from people that don’t come from the bible.

But my instincts were pretty dull for a long time. And I would get angry with people who deviated from this path. 

I used to defend Scripture Alone wholeheartedly.

I used to admonish parishioners who shared stories of “experiencing God in the mountains.” 

I used to correct people who said that they heard God speaking to them while praying. 

I used to inwardly roll my eyes at those who said that they sensed God comforting them during moments of grief.

Nice, eh? 

I thought I was doing the right thing. After all, Lutherans confess that God is revealed in Scripture Alone, and I made a vow to uphold that doctrine when I was ordained.

But then I realized that I was upholding a doctrine at the expense of people, and even at the expense of God. I realized that I was putting religious dogma before flesh-and-blood human beings, that I was shoe-horning a fixed set of beliefs into the lives of those who were actively and earnestly seeking after God.

They had read scripture, and they saw that the bible wasn’t a retreat FROM the world, but the bible opened their eyes to see what God is actually doing IN the world.

I was like Laban in today’s first reading who used the tradition for his own purposes. While my intentions weren’t devious like Laban’s who used sacred knowledge to trick Jacob into working for him for seven years beyond his initial contract, my motives were probably worse; I was protecting a tradition from the people the tradition was supposed to serve. 

I was protecting a tradition at the expense of people to whom I was supposed to bring good news.

I was protecting the Word of God from those to whom that Word was to be proclaimed.

So, I began asking questions like, Is the tradition that I’ve been given placing burdens on people, or is it setting people free in Jesus’ name like it’s supposed to do?

Am I protecting the tradition because that’s what *I* need, at the expense of my people and what THEY need?

In my hands does the tradition live and breathe, expand and contract, as it speaks to present realities, or do I have my thumb on its windpipe because I’m afraid losing authority?

Does the tradition even need protecting? Does God need protecting? 

As I defend the tradition am I just defending myself?

Am I hiding in the tradition because it’s more comfortable and safe than navigating a world I can’t control?

I began to realize that it’s not my job to bring the world “out there” into the world of the bible. But to bring the world of the bible to the world “out there.” It was my job to bring God’s world of forgiveness, of mercy, of justice, of peace, of love, of freedom, of joy “out there.”

It is my job to tell others about the God who makes all things new. It is my job to proclaim the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and is renewing everything that God had made, and will not stop until the whole of creation breathes fresh air.

It is my job to tell others that “...I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord....”

And my job becomes your job. Your job is to take these stories that we hear “in here,” and live those stories “out there.” Because God goes from “in here” to “out there” through you. 

It is “out there” that the kingdom is coming alive. It is “out there” that the blind yearn to see. It is “out there” that the dead long to be raised. It is “out there” that the imprisoned ache for freedom.

God’s story didn’t end with the Book of Revelations. God’s story begins anew each morning when you rise and live God’s story, where the ongoing saga of Jesus and the power of his resurrection is lived and breathed in all that you do.

You are not Laban who uses God’s story to deceive. You are not like how I was who read the words of the bible but missed the message of salvation.

You are a follower of Jesus - the crucified, risen, and ascended saviour - whose story leaps from the pages of scripture, and joins your story, so that, at the end, you reach the conclusion together.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pentecost 6A

After all the recent rain, the tiny weeds in my yard have grown super-sized, daring me to yank them.

I have a bit of experience in this area. When I was a kid I pulled a lot of weeds. Weeds in the driveway. Weeds in the flower bed. Weeds in the garden. Sometimes my mom watching from inside would come bursting out of the house yelling, “No! Not those! Those are radishes!”

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Weeds. No one likes them. The first impulse is to snatch them out by their roots. To get rid of them before they cause more to grow until they’ve taken over the garden. 

But while that may be good gardening advice, Jesus tells us to let them grow. To let them flourish. Because if we are too hasty in getting rid of the weeds we might take out some of the good plants as well.

And, if that’s true, the question is how to live with the weeds. How do we resist the temptation to get on our hands and knees and pull out those pests who are stealing much needed nutrients from the carrots without offering anything in return?

Maybe what’s harder to take in this parable is that Jesus says we’re to let the weeds grow WITH the wheat – not just putting up with the weeds – no, Jesus is saying that we are to live with those we are totally convinced are weeds. 

Jesus isn’t painting a picture of a gardener unsure if those little green plants growing by the rose bushes are primroses he planted or just a mysterious weed – but instead, it’s bold and brazen thistles growing beside your prized cabbages. 

And it might be best to leave well enough alone, he says. Especially when we realize he’s not actually offering gardening tips, but is teaching us something about each other. That life can’t be divided up as neatly as we might want it to. That our relationships can’t be easily packaged. That people are more than the label we slap on them.

A year after I finished my internship there, a young woman appeared at Zion Lutheran Church in Sault Ste Marie, ON. She was professional, competent, enthusiastic, and willing to serve. So, the congregation did with her what good congregations do –  they affirmed the gifts they saw in her and put her on church council. She said she had an accounting background so she was elected treasurer.

The next year, at synod convention, the pastor (Pr. Jim Garey) and Zion’s delegate were going through the financial statements and they noticed a discrepancy: the number that was reported in Zion’s annual report on how much money they gave to the synod and the number the synod reported as having received were two VERY different numbers.

Upon investigation, it turned out that this young woman, so professional, so competent, and so enthusiastic, embezzled thousands of dollars from the church.

She was a weed thriving among the wheat.

On the other end of the synod, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, the church I was serving as co-pastor my former spouse, we had a guy who was obsessive about two things: finances and proper governance. He’d been at the church for over 50 years and held probably every position there is to be had in the church - except for pastor and ELW president.

He liked things done a certain way – his way. And if you didn’t do things his way, he got angry - VERY angry. 

When he was treasurer, if he didn’t like what the council decided to spend money on, he would refuse to write the cheque. 

If he thought that the church wasn’t following proper procedure, as he understood it, he would stand up at the AGM and with all the sound and bluster worthy of Winston Churchill, would bang his fist on the table, and condemn the actions of an “incompetent council” and “ill-trained pastors.”

He’d been known to chase people off of church council and out of the church over the smallest financial disagreement.

And then there were the memos. The year that Rebekah, my former spouse, was on maternity leave with our daughter Sophie, and I was on my own at the church, I must have received over 300 memos from this man (literally - 300! in the space of a year), memos to me, memos to church council, and every so often, memos to synod office. 

Memos on how I didn’t follow “proper procedure” when developing a new program or project. Memos detailing mistakes he thought the counters had made. Memos on how church council made a “wrong” decision. Even memos to the bishop, correcting episcopal mistakes. Memo upon memo upon memo.

This guy was a weed. I was amazed that the church hadn’t yanked him out years ago.

However, this is the same guy who spent his Sunday afternoons visiting shut-ins. This is the same guy who would be the first one to greet church visitors with a wide smile and friendly handshake, making sure they received the best welcome the church could provide. This is the same guy who sat up all night with a long time member of the church who had no family, and who was dying, because, he said, “No one deserves to die alone.”

It’s funny how weeds and wheat can look remarkably similar. 

But it’s so easy to confuse the two, isn’t it? It’s so easy to divide the world into weeds and wheat. It’s so easy to place people into two camps. 

It so easy to want to designate people, to impose identities, to inflame differences, to turn people against each other, to encourage divisiveness as a way of maintaining comfortable entrenchments.

Dividing the world between weed and wheat creates conflict, which destroys communities, families, and lives.

Israel and Palestine. Russia and Ukraine. Liberal and conservative. Caucasian and people of colour. Rich and poor. Gay and straight. French and English. East and west.  Protestant and Catholic. Christian and muslim. I could go on, because that’s how we usually like things. That’s how we usually divide up the world.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that all human beings are, at the core, the same, that individual uniqueness doesn’t matter when held up against the great mass of humanity that is trying to just get through the day.

To ignore people’s distinct characteristics is to ignore the person God has made them. And to say that human beings are just “all the same” comes from a place of privilege, because I can downplay my uniqueness since I have never been told to hide my identity for fear of harm because of it. 

I’ve never been told that I was lesser than someone else because of who I am. I’ve never been excluded because of my background, skin colour, or gender. In fact the opposite is true. Because of those things I’ve had opportunities that were denied to others who were not like me.

To say that we are “all the same” robs people of the opportunity to wear their identity with pride, when they might have been told their whole lives, and with the lives of generations before them, that they are less than others, that some feature of their being diminishes them when ranked next to someone else, that they play a smaller role in the world because of their difference, that they are weeds among the wheat.   

So, this is not to gloss over important distinctions, but to celebrate uniqueness, and to resist the urge to impose weed status on someone who isn’t quite like us, especially when we just assume that we are wheat. 

It’s to remember that people are more than the label we give them or the label they give themselves. People are more than the sum of their worst deeds, and better than their best moments.

That’s why it’s not our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Our track record is spotty at best.

Leaves the weeds alone, the gardener says. Let the weeds and wheat grow together. Don’t think you’ll be able to tell at first glance which is which. Don’t be so hasty to pull the weeds or you might find yourself with a handful of wheat.

So, which are you? Weed or wheat? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know that we are both. None of us is pure weed and none of us is unsullied wheat. We instinctively know that we have within us both the capacity for great kindness and tremendous cruelty.

We have moments of failure and occasions of greatness. We have times when we look with indifference on the suffering of others, and we have instances when we step up and respond to human need with overwhelming generosity. We have days when compassion deserts us, and we have times when love and care overflow.

We are inconsistent. We are weed. And we are wheat. Together. At the same time.

But God, the great gardener, who sows the wheat, tends the field, waters, lays down compost, looks forward eagerly to the harvest.

In others and within ourselves, weeds abound. But we hope for what we do not see – for somewhere beyond this mixed field of wheat and weeds stands a farmer, with weathered hands, cap over his squinting eyes, tending the field, and looking forward to the day when we will rest in his barns.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pentecost 5A

I understand twin brothers, since I am one and I 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 had gained a world of experience that I’d never possess.

Growing up we’d wrestle and fight. We’d box. We’d scrap. We’d race. We once we competed for the same girl (I won). And in our careers we try to “one-up” each other in terms of salary and status (let’s just say that this competition is still on-going...).

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 minute he spent in school.

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

Esau was Isaac’s favourite because he probably lived vicariously through his son’s ultra-masculine accomplishments. 

Jacob was Rebekah’s favourite 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 family business, and the majority of land and wealth that he’d receive 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 he was the oldest, if only by a few minutes, and because Isaac showed him such favouritism.

But as you read the story, you’ll see that the narrator clearly wants 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. So the narrator needs to rip the birthright from Esau’s paws, and place in in front of Jacob.

So we hear Esau say,

“What good is a birthright if I die today of hunger?” 

And that’s the punchline.

Esau reveals himself to be a person ruled by his appetites, who makes impulsive decisions in the moment, someone who has no vision for the future. Someone who can’t look beyond what is in front of him 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 finds 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 almost trips over itself to let you know just 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 rather not admit about ourselves.

For me it’s the constant struggle of living from 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. The temptation to bask in nostalgia as we face our present challenges. 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 feel like 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, and places his hands over our eyes when we try to see farther than the present moment.

But Jacob doesn’t fare any better than Esau in this story. 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, dumb, and hairy.

Nor did Jacob receive the birthright because he was the virtuous one and his brother was a moral midget. This had nothing to do with morality or brains. 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 received the birthright because he 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, to those who grab God’s promises with both hands and run toward the finish line that God puts in front of them.

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

God does not want us to stay stuck in the present, 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 what 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. We are in uncharted territory and there is no map. We are venturing in the dark with no flashlight.  We are being asked to run as fast as we can, but not knowing which direction our feet are supposed to be pointed.

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

But others instead of mere change, see patterns, they see something new emerging from the world’s disarray, they see creation unfolding faster than in any other time in history. They see newness being born. They see God doing something new. They see opportunity for renewal. They see resurrection. 

And, like Jacob, we have been chosen to witness to God’s future vision here today.

Like Jacob, as the people of God, we have been called to lead the world from chaos into community!

Like Jacob, we have been called to proclaim freedom to those ensnared by the world’s deadliest temptations!

Like Jacob, we are called to light up an often dark world, shining with the light of God’s mercy!

God has chosen US! This is OUR time!

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 forgiveness, to bring relief to the suffering, to offer God’s compassion to 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 AT THIS MOMENT.  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. God trusts that we know what to do with it. 

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pentecost 4A

Today’s Old Testament reading begins in the middle of a story. Actually, it starts in the middle of a sentence, and we only hear part of the conversation that sets the story in motion. And in this reading we hear only bits and pieces, as the lectionary folks suggest that we leave out a few verses.

It’s as if they’re in a hurry to get to the point of the story, they want to rush to the end, bypassing some conversation along the way.

And I guess it makes sense. After all this story is about the next generation taking over. It’s a passing of the torch. An opportunity for fresh blood and new ideas to emerge. And as we all know, the younger generation tends to be in more of a hurry than their elders.

Genesis chapter 24 starts out by saying “Abraham was now old, and advanced in years...” This may sound innocent enough, but we have to remember that Abraham was already almost 100 years old when God called him out of retirement to be a father of nations. And he and his wife Sarah toiled for years after they received the promise to parent a new people.

But everyone is called home at some point, no matter how many years they’ve put on this earth. And when that that time comes, someone needs to take over, a new leader needs to step in and take charge.

And Isaac, for better or for worse, was that person.

Isaac can be described, at best, as a placeholder leader. He’s sandwiched between two towering figures. His father Abraham and his son Jacob.

It’s not that Isaac was evil or that greatness was not in him, he was simply uninspiring. While his father Abraham is said to have  “hungered and thirsted for righteousness,” Isaac seemed to hunger only for his lunch.

Even next to his brother Ishmael, Isaac seemed small. Ishmael was the motorcycle driving bad boy who probably got all the girls, while Isaac stayed home and played video games all night, never giving any thought to his life or his future.

You might remember that Isaac and Ishmael were half-brothers. Ishmael was born of Hagar, a maid that Abraham impregnated; while Isaac was the miracle child that Sarah bore. 

And even though Isaac was the fruit of God’s faithfulness, he never really lived up to expectations. After all, if you’re born from a barren womb, how to do top that?

It wasn’t that Isaac was lacking in brains or potential. He was just unambitious. He was passionless. He had no direction. He simply floated down the current of life, not really thinking about where he would end up.

He waited until he was almost forty before getting married, and even that was a surprise. While I’m sure that Abraham and Sarah were dropping the occasional hint about how wonderful it would be to have grandchildren, Isaac probably came home from work each day, crashed in front of the TV, and let the days and evenings slip into weeks and years, with little to show for it.

So when Rebekah arrives on the scene and agrees to be his wife (the first time EVER in the bible where the bride actually gives her consent to be married), it’s like an alarm clock had woken him up, and he wanted to get married RIGHT away, even though both their families suggest that they wait a while before rushing into a lifetime commitment.

Isaac’s anxious to get going. This was HIS time! Maybe he knows that his dad is sick. Maybe he can see his mom slowing down.

Maybe he looked around and saw that all Abraham and Sarah were asked to do was accomplished and realized that it was his turn to lead.

And he was right. Although the story doesn’t come right out and say it, Abraham does die, as does Sarah. And now Isaac is left alone, trying to figure out how to take charge of a people looking for guidance.

But his initial enthusiasm soon fizzled into a settled mediocrity. If you follow his career you’d probably give Isaac a B or B-. He enjoyed some success and endured some failures; but accomplished nothing of note. He was involved in some shady business dealings and lost a lot of money, but gained most of it back.

He ruled competently but charted no new course. He was a capable manager but had no new vision for his people. Under his watch the camels ran on time but he inspired no devotion. 

It wasn’t the force of destiny that compelled him to grab hold of the leadership reigns.

It was like he was just taking over the family business and lacked the passion that gave rise to its institution. If Isaac weren’t Abraham’s son and Jacob’s dad, we probably would never have heard of him.

His personal life was also troubled. Like his parents, Isaac and Rebekah had trouble getting pregnant. And when they did have kids he couldn’t control his sons, Jacob and Esau. He even fought with his wife over who was the favourite. Rebekah favored Esau where Isaac favoured Jacob. That must have made for interesting dinner conversation.

Isaac was a manager, but he was not a role model. He is the bridge between his father Abraham “The Father of Many Nations” and his son Jacob whose offspring formed the twelve tribes of Israel. He was a transition. An interim. No one to admire or hate.

So what can we learn from Isaac? What does he have to teach us?

The point of Isaac’s life wasn’t that he was an uninspiring, mediocre, leader who didn’t quite live up to expectations. 

The point of Isaac’s life was that he was a promise fulfilled. He was a child of Abraham and Sarah, the miracle child, who has his own place in salvation history.

He is the father of Jacob, who was the father of Joseph, who led Egypt through a terrible famine, and brought prosperity to the region.

Isaac may be the middle-child of history, but he did his job the way he was supposed to. To me that’s backhanded good news.

When I worry that I haven’t lived up to my potential (and I know I haven’t) I know I’m in good company, and that God can and does use me for God’s own purposes just the way I am.

This doesn’t mean that I can stop striving to be better at what I do. But that I can use my gifts to contribute to God’s on-going promise of creating a new and better world.

It doesn’t mean that I can float through life until my days come to an end and have nothing to show for it, but that I have been given a job to do, a mandate to fulfill, and mission for my life, so that when my days are completed I can point to what I’ve built and say, “This is what I’ve contributed to God’s creative vision.”

It doesn’t mean that I can stop and rest on the laurels I’ve inherited from other church leaders, or live off the hard work of Christians of generations past, but that I can use the time that I’ve been given to build a stronger church to pass on to the next generation.

However, it DOES mean that I can fail. It means that I can be human. It means that I don’t have to worry about God’s promised future for the church or the world, because, while I contribute to that future, I’m not in charge of that future. I’ll let God worry about that future instead. 

Like Isaac, each one of you here, like everyone who has gone before us, is a promise fulfilled. 

Each one of you here is a shining star that Abraham saw when he looked up at the night sky and saw his future. 

Each one of you here was put on this planet to use your gifts, no matter what they are, to bridge the gap from the past to the future, a future of God’s own making, but built with human hands.

The history of the church has human fingerprints all over it with occasions of great triumph and moments of devastating failure. The mission of the church is of divine origin but has been achingly human in its implementation. 

And it continues to be. Because God has chosen us - at this moment, with all our strengths and limitations - to build the bridge from a scattered past to an unknown future. 

We know that some days we will succeed and some days we will fail. But our every days, the daily moment-by-moment encounters of our lives may seem small and insignificant, but they add up to a larger vision of what God wants for us and the world, and moves God’s salvation story forward until that day comes when we hand what we’ve received and what we’ve built over to the next generation, and we rest from our labours .

So today, we can remember Isaac not as a cautionary tale of ignored potential, but as a parent of grace, of reminder of God’s ongoing faithfulness to that original promise God made to Abraham and Sarah, an example of God choosing the wrong people for the right reasons, as evidence that we are not in charge of the world’s salvation.

And for that I can say, “Thanks be to God.”

May this be so among us. Amen.