July 13, 2014
You don’t have to look very hard or very far online to find silly quizzes. There are quizzes that supposedly determine the classic movie you would be if you could be a classic movie. There are quizzes to determine what mythological creature you might be if you were actually able to be a mythological creature. I saw one yesterday that even determined the particular tarot card you are. But the best quiz that I’ve run across lately is one called, “How Southern Are You?” Sometimes I take these quizzes and sometimes I don’t. But this one I had to try. The questions to determine your Southern-ness were, and I paraphrase, “what’s a pig-picking and what do you do at one?” “What is the real meaning of the phrase, ‘bless your heart’?” Then there was my favorite question of all, “how do you deal with the quirky, odd, more eclectic members of your family?” The choice of answers listed options such as institutionalize them or pretend they’re not related to you. But if you are a true Southerner, the correct answer was that the quirkiest of family members should sit in the nicest seats in the living room, or in a prominent spot on the front porch. Then the neighbors should be invited over for a barbecue. In other words, the true Southerner, or the true Southern stereotype, doesn’t try to hide our family’s dysfunctions. Quirks and eccentricity is a source of pride, not shame. We put the more flamboyant members of our family right out on the front porch for the world to see.
Well, welcome to Genesis: the front porch of the Bible. If we really read them carefully, the stories of our patriarchs and our matriarchs, our spiritual ancestors in our faith, should give us pause. Perhaps they should make us question what we mean when we refer to the “family values” that are supposedly based on scripture. From Abraham and Sarah on, this is one big, dysfunctional family. Abraham and Sarah wait for years to have a child together. Finally, they are blessed with Isaac. But Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son with Hagar, is a threat in Sarah’s eyes. So she has Abraham leave Hagar and Ismael in the desert to die. Now it’s just the three of them, and their family should be perfect … except God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. As I said when I preached on this particular story a few weeks ago, the sacrifice of Isaac is known in the rabbinic tradition as The Akedah or the binding of Isaac. As one clergy colleague wrote, the rabbis of this tradition see this crucial moment in the life and faith of Abraham and Isaac as a shadow that follows the family line from that point onward.
We see this shadow when Sarah’s death follows the story of Isaac’s binding. One commentator speculated that perhaps Sarah just gave up after her God and her husband seemingly schemed to sacrifice her only son. We see the shadow as we read the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah, but he was 60 before Rebekah conceived. Just as Sarah and Abraham endured generations of barrenness so too were Rebekah and Isaac. Just as Sarah and Abraham finally conceived, Rebekah and Isaac’s prayers for a child, a son, were answered. Not just with one son, but two.
So begins our story this morning. Rebekah is pregnant, but it is a difficult pregnancy. The text tells us that the babies “struggled inside her.” She is so uncomfortable that she wants to know why she can’t just die instead. She goes to the Lord to ask for an explanation or some understanding of what is happening within her, and she receives an annunciation. There aren’t just two babies fighting for space inside her, there are two nations.
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
Even in utero the destiny of dysfunction seems set. Esau and Jacob are born; Esau the oldest and Jacob the youngest. Esau’s name in Hebrew is a play on the word for “hairy.” He is indeed covered in an abundance of red hair. Jacob’s name in Hebrew is a play on the words for “heel and supplant.” Jacob is born grasping his brother’s heel.
In another example of what we think of as dysfunctional, Isaac and Rebekah play favorites. Isaac loves game, and Esau is a skillful hunter able to give his father the food he loves best. Jacob is quieter. He stays among the tents. He learns how to cook. Rebekah loves Jacob. Jacob’s ability to cook begins the divide between the brothers. Jacob is making a stew of “red stuff,” probably beans and grains. Esau comes in from the field and he is, as he puts it, “famished.” He asks Jacob to give him some of the stew. Jacob seizes the opportunity just as he seized his brother’s heel. “Sure, Esau, I’ll give you some stew. But first you give me your birthright.” Esau doesn’t want to think about birthrights. He is hungry, famished, so he gives up his birthright for a bowl of beans.
There are many directions that we can go from here. One, how dumb was Esau? Really? You couldn’t have walked a few feet farther and gotten food from somebody else? I imagine that other food was being cooked in the vicinity. Yet you sold your birthright, you sold out your family heritage, because you had to have food at that moment? Didn’t you think about the consequences?
A second thought is why was Jacob so mean? It’s your brother for Pete’s sake! Just give him some food. Is one serving of stew too much to ask? It makes me think of every bad family sitcom where one sibling needs a favor from another, and has to promise to give up allowance or do chores or some other menial task in order to get the favor. But this goes far beyond a favor and losing allowance. This is about the rights of the firstborn son, which was a big deal in that time and context. It was about leadership in the family and inheritance rights. Yet sibling rivalry can be a dangerous thing, and in this dysfunctional moment, in this dysfunctional family, Jacob saw a chance to outwit his older brother. Esau, thinking only about his immediate gratification, falls right into the trap.
Unfortunately the lectionary skips the next part of Jacob and Esau’s story. Not only does Jacob take his brother’s birthright. He also tricks Isaac out of the blessing meant for Esau. Jacob wrangles for Esau’s birthright on his own. But when he tricks his father, disguised as Esau, it’s done with the help of his mother. Rebekah again plays favorites. How dysfunctional is that?
You’d think that with all of this dysfunction, God would step in and restore Esau back to his rightful status as the firstborn. Shouldn’t the story of God’s people continue through Esau? But that’s not how it happens, is it? God continues the covenant through Jacob; Jacob the grasper, the trickster, the scoundrel. It would seem that God also plays favorites, which is a troublesome idea to comprehend. The one who should be least likely to carry the promise of God is the one who is chosen.
Sure, even though Esau isn’t the chosen one to continue the covenant of God, he is the father of a nation. He is blessed with descendants and wealth. Jacob isn’t the only trickster that we’ll meet. He is tricked by his father-in-law, Laban, into marrying the oldest daughter Leah before he can marry his true love, Rachel, the younger daughter. But it still smacks of unfairness that the one least likely to be an instrument of God’s grace is. Yet isn’t that the way of grace? Over and over again, we read that God chooses the unlikely, the underdog, the flawed and the dysfunctional to bring his promise to fruition. But in our own lives, in our own churches, we act as though the opposite is true. We tie God’s grace to piety. If we are just good enough, just pious enough, then we will be close to God. But if these stories in Genesis – and the stories in the books that follow – teach us anything it is that goodness and grace are not cause and effect. To paraphrase Paul, this doesn’t mean that we should intentionally seek to be scoundrels so that God’s grace is heightened. But it does mean that God’s grace is not dependent on our goodness. And that is good news. It is good news because our flaws, our failings, our quirks and our dysfunctions do not deter God. If anything, God works through them. God works through us, dysfunctional, broken, flawed beings that we are.
A few months ago I had coffee with a dear friend, who remarked that for a pastor I am pretty unorthodox. In response, I said, “Hey, God called me as me.” God called me as me, imperfect, quirky, and dysfunctional. In fact the times when I’ve gotten in the most trouble is when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not. But God called, God calls, me as me. And God calls you as you. Maybe God does play favorites, but God’s favorites are all of us, all of God’s children; sinners and saints, the tricksters and the trustworthy, underdog and upright. God calls all of us, in spite of ourselves, and his promise of love and grace and mercy is still coming to fruition. Let all of God’s quirky, eccentric, flawed, and dysfunctional children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.