Sunday, July 27, 2014

Two Sisters

Genesis 29:1, 15-28
July 27, 2014

            “What, sir, would the people of the earth be without woman?  They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.” 
            Of all the memorable quotes from Mark Twain that I’ve read over the years, that one remains my favorite.  I admit that I don’t know its context.  I should probably do some research and find out the circumstances in which Mr. Twain uttered those simple but profound words.  But even not knowing those particular details, this quote makes me think that Samuel Clemens was ahead of his time in more ways than one. 
            As we make our way through Genesis, learning again about the patriarchs of our faith – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – we read again and again about the promise and the covenant between God and them; the covenant God was determined to keep.  The covenant of blessing and abundant offspring that God made with Abraham continues with Jacob.  Jacob, in spite of being a scoundrel and a trickster, has received God’s promise that his descendants will not only be numerous, they will number even more than the dust of the earth.  They will inhabit every corner of the world.  Through Jacob’s offspring the world, every family, every person, will be blessed. 
            But in order for this vast population bearing God’s blessing to be realized, one factor is of vital importance.  Woman.  Jacob can’t start this baby boom by himself.  It takes a woman.  In Jacob’s case, it takes four. 
            In last week’s text, the story of Jacob’s dream and the staircase which crossed the line between heaven and earth, we read about Jacob on the run. He has fled his brother’s rage and death threats and traveled to the land of his mother to meet his uncle Laban.  What we don’t read in this week’s text is his arrival in Haran.  Jacob comes to a large well where the sheep of the field were watered.  He sees some shepherds there and asks them if they know Laban.  As he is speaking with them, Rachel, Laban’s youngest daughter, comes to the well with her father’s sheep.  When Jacob sees Rachel, he walks up to her and moves the stone away from the mouth of the well so that she can water the flock.  Apparently, it is love at first sight, because he is so moved by the sight of her that he not only moves the stone away, he kisses her and weeps aloud.  He tells Rachel that he is her relative, and she runs to tell her father. 
            Laban, hearing that his nephew Jacob has come to their land, runs back to the well to meet him.  Laban greets Jacob, brings him home, and makes him welcome.  Jacob has already stayed with Laban a month when we come to our place in the story. 
            Laban, seemingly not wanting to take advantage of Jacob, tells Jacob that he can’t work for Laban for nothing.  What does he want as wages?  Jacob wants Rachel.  He asks to marry Rachel.  Laban has two daughters.  We’ve already met Rachel, who is described as graceful and lovely.  But he has an older daughter as well.  Leah.  The only physical description we are given about Leah is that she has “lovely eyes.”  In other versions Leah is described as having “weak eyes.”  The Hebrew phrase that is translated as both lovely and weak is uncertain at best.  I remember talking about this textual dilemma when I was in seminary.  The literal translation reads more like Leah has “eyes like a cow.”  There’s obviously idiom involved with this phrase, but no contemporary translator quite knows what that idiom means.  I’m sure there are plenty of cows with lovely eyes.  There are probably cows with weak eyes as well.  But whether Leah had eyes that were cow-ish, weak, or lovely, there was something different about them.  There was something about her eyes that stood out.  But her lovely, different eyes did not seem to compare to her sister’s graceful beauty.  Jacob had no interest in Leah.  He wanted Rachel. 
            He wanted her so badly that he was willing to work for Laban for seven years without complaining in order to win her hand.  The text says that those seven years seemed like only a few days to Jacob, his love for Rachel was so deep and strong.  The seven years come to an end, and in other stories we might have a happy ending.  But here comes the plot twist.  Jacob goes to the marriage bed thinking he’s going to be with his love, Rachel.  Instead he wakes up to Leah!  Laban’s excuse?  The younger daughter cannot be married before the older one.  The trickster has been tricked.  The younger sibling who usurped the rights of his firstborn brother, is now caught by another rule of the firstborn.  A rule Jacob obviously didn’t see coming.  Laban promises Jacob that Rachel will also be his wife after the initial bridal week.  But Jacob must work another seven years for Laban. 
This part of the story goes beyond our verses today.  Jacob is married to Leah.  Poor Leah with the different eyes, she knows she is unloved by her husband, but she is blessed with four sons.   Rachel is loved by him, but she struggles with infertility, just as Sarah and Rebekah did.  Thanks to their father, these two sisters are in competition for their shared husband’s affections.  The sisters both give him their handmaidens, Zilpah and Bilhah, as their surrogates and these women also bear Jacob sons.  One man.  Four women.  Twelve sons.  One daughter.  Twelve tribes.  A new nation.  It’s like the show Sister Wives on steroids. 
Whatever our cultural and moral disapproval of polygamy, it was an accepted and standard practice in that context.  While I’m not thrilled about it, what bothers me even more is the invisibility of these women.  True, we know their names, which is more than can be said for other women we read about in scripture.  Yet I cannot help but wonder what Leah and Rachel, what Zilpah and Bilhah, thought and felt about their situation.  Did Rachel feel the same way about Jacob as he felt about her?  Did she want to marry him as much as he wanted to marry her?  What was it like for Leah to be snuck into Jacob’s tent so he could be deceived into marrying her instead of her sister?  How did she feel about being married through such an underhanded way, as if she had no other prospects for finding a husband?  And the two handmaidens?  The designation handmaiden sounds gentle, but essentially they were slaves to be given.  Not only were they “given” to Leah and Rachel to serve them, they were also “given” to Jacob to bear his children.  How did these four women feel about the way they were used and bartered and traded like property?  Certainly, that’s just the way it was done in that time and place, but that doesn’t mean that these women didn’t have opinions or feelings or hopes or dreams of their own.  They weren’t invisible; they were real flesh and blood humans.  But in many ways these women were treated as if they were. 
Much of the story of our faith is written from the male perspective.  It was the dominant perspective, so it’s not surprising that it’s the lens through which we read their story, our story.  But the blessing of God required both the patriarchs and the matriarchs.  So it seems to me that this story of two sisters is as equally important as the story of two brothers.  Jacob would not be the Jacob we know without Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah.  These sisters, these women, were necessary for the blessing of God to be fulfilled.  They were necessary for the descendants of Jacob to be as many as the dust of the earth.  These women were as important to the story of God’s purpose being enacted in the world as Jacob was, as Isaac was, as Abraham was.  God worked through them all, these flawed and dysfunctional men and women, to bring forth God’s blessing in the world.  God worked through them all, calling them, challenging them, loving them, so that the story of God would go on. 
Maybe that’s the primary lesson we take from this scripture today.  Not only are both men and women necessary and needed for God’s blessing and promise to be fulfilled, but God’s story is told through unlikely characters and strange voices.  There is no predicting how God will work through people, but we should know by now that the folks we think least likely are probably the ones God will choose first.  The story of God continues to be told.  And perhaps the good news is that we are part of that story, unlikely and unworthy as we may feel.  But if we are part of God’s ongoing story, promise, and blessing, than so are others; others who look, act, think, and speak differently from us.  The story of God is still being written through the scoundrels, the voiceless, the forgotten, the lovely, the loathsome, the quiet, the quirky, the ones who are on the run, the ones who remain.  The story of God is still being written through every flawed man, woman and child in this world.  The story of God is still being written through every one of us.  May we trust and believe that God’s blessing and promise of love, mercy, and grace will be fulfilled through us and all people, in spite of ourselves.  Let us give thanks that God’s story continues, that God’s blessing and love is unending, that God’s surprising choices include us.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia.”  Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Surely, God Is Here!

Genesis 28:10-19a (20-22)
July 20, 2014

            In spite of my parents’ and my preacher’s and my Sunday school teachers’ best and most concerted efforts, my earliest and strongest association with the words “Jacob’s Ladder” were not from the Bible story, but with the string trick by the same name.  I loved string tricks when I was a kid, and I would practice them for hours.  I spent many hours in church as well, but the string trick that resulted in Jacob’s Ladder made more of an impression on me as a child than the story about the actual Jacob and his ladder did. 
            My next association with Jacob’s ladder is from the hymn.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.  We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.  We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.  Soldiers of the cross.” I suspect that as children we were encouraged to sing this hymn with gusto.  It wouldn’t surprise me if we marched as we sang it, being the good soldiers of the cross that we were.  But the origins of this hymn are in the spirituals sung by slaves.  Just as the story of the Exodus, of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, was a narrative that resonated with these people bound in slavery’s chains, I imagine the idea of climbing a ladder to heaven was also a story that gave them some measure of hope.  Soldiers of the cross, they would follow Jesus and climb that ladder from slavery to freedom with God. 
            But as plaintive and haunting as the spiritual and as fun as the string trick is, neither one fully connect to or convey what is happening in this story about Jacob and his dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven.
            Jacob is on the run.  Last week we read about Jacob swindling his older brother Esau out of his birthright.  Although the lectionary skips this story, Jacob’s trickery doesn’t end with stealing Easu’s birthright.  Jacob also tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for his brother.  Twice Jacob has taken what should have been Esau’s.  To say that Esau is furious is an understatement.  Esau is plotting revenge.  He declares that the old man can’t live forever.  Once Isaac is finally laid to rest, Jacob will be too.  Esau won’t stop until he sees his twin dead.  His threats are reported back to their mother Rebekah.  Just as she intervened and helped Jacob usurp the blessing meant for Esau, she again steps in on behalf of her youngest son.  She tells Isaac that the Hittite women all around them are driving her to distraction.  She doesn’t want Jacob to marry one of them, so she wants him to go to the land of her brother, Laban.  Let him find a wife there.  Isaac agrees and Jacob flees his home and his family, following his mother’s instructions to find her brother and his people.
            That is where we meet Jacob today; on the run.  Night has fallen so Jacob stops.  Whatever provisions he brought with him, a pillow or head rest was not among them. To make due, he takes a rock, puts it under his head, falls asleep, and dreams a strange dream. 
            Now we hear about Jacob’s ladder.  Only the word ladder is misleading.  It wouldn’t have been the kind of ladder we would use.  It would have been more like a staircase.  Large structures with staircases going up them could be found in that ancient context.  Babylon and other cultures believed that they marked the dwelling places of the gods.  These were thin places, where the separation between the divine and the human was tenuous.  These staircases were called ziggurats, and it was most likely a ziggurat that appeared in Jacob’s dream. 
            Angels, messengers of God, were ascending and descending the staircase, from heaven to earth and back again.  But instead of some holy message or divine directive being given to Jacob by the angels, the Lord appears.  In our reading, the Lord stands beside Jacob.  But in the Hebrew, what is translated as “stood beside him” could also be translated as “stood above him.”  As I read this, I wonder if both translations are true.  The Lord, so big, so wondrous, so mighty, so above Jacob, was also the Lord who stood right next to him. 
            The Lord speaks to Jacob in the words of covenant.  “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” 
            Just as the Lord promised Abraham that his descendants will be like sand and stars, both elements so numerous they are uncountable, God also promises Jacob that his offspring will be like the dust of the earth.  Commentators note that when we read the word dust, we should think more along the lines of topsoil.  Topsoil is rich and fertile, full of the necessary nutrients required for plants and crops to grow.  So Jacob’s offspring will be like topsoil.  They will be prolific and grow and spread across the world.  Through them God’s blessing for the world and all of the families within it, shall be realized. 
            It’s not surprising that when Jacob wakes up he exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”  He recognizes that this random spot where he chose to bed down for the night is actually the house of God and the gateway to heaven, Jacob takes the rock he used for a pillow and refashions it into an altar.  He anoints it with oil and uses it as a marker of the place where the sacred and secular met. 
            Although the lectionary stops at the beginning of verse 19, we really should read through verse 22.  Not only did Jacob recognize God’s presence in that place and consecrated it accordingly, he also adds his part to the covenant God has made.  “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
              Perhaps the lectionary leaves off these last words of Jacob because it sounds as though he’s making some counter offer or trying to bargain with God.  But I think that it could also be read as Jacob’s legitimate response to God’s covenant.  The covenant you have made with my ancestors, you have made with me.  So as you remain faithful, I too will be faithful. 
            It would be easy to end here.  It would be easy to close with the importance of recognizing that God finds us in unlikely places and works through the most unlikely of people.  Jacob the grasper, the scoundrel, becomes Israel.  He becomes not only a father, but a father of a nation.  God’s promise continues.  It may seem to tread on shaky ground at times, but it continues.  The promise is fulfilled in Jesus, and with each movement of the Spirit, God’s blessing can be found in every corner of the world.  And it all can be traced back to that scoundrel Jacob.  Alleluia.  Amen.
            Except … I am tired of scoundrels.  I am sick to the death of them.  It has been a heartbreaking week.  I have lost count of how many times I’ve thought that on Sunday mornings.  I’ve lost count of how many times I have mourned senseless deaths and illogical violence.  With the shooting down of the Malaysian jet over the Ukraine, with the escalating violence in Gaza and the deaths of innocent people that are escalating with it, I am heartsick.  So much of this can be traced back to scoundrels – whether individuals or collections of them.  I am sick of scoundrels who see humans as disposable.  I am sick of scoundrels on any side of any issue who refuse to consider any way other than violence as a means of addressing differences.  I am just sick and tired of scoundrels.  So it is hard to read this passage about Jacob, that scoundrel, and not feel some anger at God working through … him.  
            I am grateful and overwhelmed at the reality that God’s grace works whether I deserve it or not, because I realize that most of the time I don’t.  But at the same time, I don’t want to get on the Jacob veneration bandwagon.  Because I am sick to death of scoundrels. 
            Yet even as I say that, I cannot help but think about the times when I, like Jacob, have thought, “Surely, God is here!”  I cannot help but remember when I have encountered God’s presence, when I have felt God with me, when I have known and believed to my very soul that God, so mighty, so big, was standing right there beside me.  I remember those times and those places, those thin places, when the line between heaven and earth was blurred, and for a glimpse of a second I could see God at work in the world. 
            Perhaps that is what this passage is asking of us.  It’s not asking us to venerate Jacob or excuse or accommodate the scoundrels of the world, even the ones that reside in our own selves.  It’s asking us to have faith that God really is indeed present in our midst.  And it’s not just asking us to believe that God is present generally, but that God is present specifically.  It’s asking us to trust that there are more thin places than we can possibly know.  It’s asking us to have faith that God is more persistent in grace, love and mercy than any evil or chaos a scoundrel can create.  Perhaps this passage is asking us to have faith that the thinnest places in the world, the places where the line between God and us is most porous, is where there is heartbreak; the site of the downed jetliner, the West Bank, the cities and towns that are now battlegrounds, the hospital rooms, the violent homes, the forgotten places, the lonely places.  Those are the thin places.  So in faith let us proclaim that surely God is there.  Surely God is here.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Friday, July 18, 2014

About a Boy

My baby turned 13 a few weeks ago.  I meant to write something in his honor closer to the actual day of his birth.  Isn't this the way it goes with a second child?  He is not loved one iota less than his older sister, and every milestone he's reached and every accomplishment he's achieved have been marked and celebrated -- just not quite as quickly.  So, finally, I'm putting on paper the thoughts about my son that have been percolating in my brain these last few weeks.

When he was born I was determined to keep any sort of toy weapon out of his hands.  I didn't want either one of my kids to be limited to gender specific toys -- or roles.  In spite of this, when my daughter was three she asked Santa Claus to bring her makeup.  By the time my son was three, he would take sticks, pencils, sharp nail files -- whatever he could find -- hand me one and say, "Now Mommy, let's fight."  I recognized the potential danger in this.  So on our next trip to Minneapolis to visit my parents, I took him to the Lego Store at the Mall of America -- or as I sometimes refer to it, Consumers R Us.  There I bought him a soft, supposedly harmless, sword.  Yes, I caved.  But that seemed a safer option than the sharp objects he'd been using.  The moment we returned to my parents' house, he proudly showed Gramma and Grampa his new treasure.  Then using the back of his shirt like a scabbard, he marched off to do battle with bad guys and dragons and villains of all sorts.

That sword fought valiantly until the end, but it finally fell into disrepair a few years ago.  However resting in his closet and in the tool shed in our backyard are Nerf guns and light sabers, shields, soft foam bullets, and an ammo belt.  These weapons aren't played with much these days; instead my son fights nefarious people and monsters on video games.  I know, I know.  I caved there too.

Even though I fell short at keeping weapons out of his life, my son, my "baby," is incredibly kind and compassionate.  He is sweet to little kids and older folks alike.  If someone is hurting or scared, my son is the first to respond.  Described by every teacher since Kindergarten as a "deep thinker," my youngest is smart and curious.  He's funny, quick to pick up accents, does impressions, and loves stand-up comedy like his mother does.  Eager to help others, he is acutely aware of the world's injustices.

It's obvious that I am proud of my boy and his abilities, but I am under no delusions about him or his sister.  They both have their faults and failings, as we all do. I also know that at 13 my son is no longer a baby.  There were days this past year when I could have sworn that he grew in the eight hours he spent in school.  He is already several inches taller than I am, which is not difficult.  But he has also shot up past his sister, a feat that was harder to accomplish.  Lanky, long-limbed, with a deepening voice, I realize the term "baby" is a misnomer.  Yet I look at him, at the young man he is and the man he is becoming, and I see that little boy with a Lego sword stuck down the back of his shirt.  I worry about the "bad guys" he will face in the years to come.  Even as I write this, the world is grieving over the terrible events of the last days and months.  A commercial jet was shot down in the Ukraine.  A ground battle has ensued in Gaza, adding to the violence and heartbreak that seem omnipresent in that region.  Other countries are in the throes of civil war.  Young girls are kidnapped or killed merely because they seek an education.  Socially, politically and economically, our country is more partisan and divided than I've witnessed in my lifetime.  Around the world, extremists of every creed threaten life and liberty.  The lines between "bad guys," and "good guys," are blurred at best, and downright indistinguishable at worst.

This is the world my son is growing into.  In moments of despair, I wonder how I can send my children into such brokenness. Examples of the terrible way we treat one another abound.  But even in the most horrific of circumstances, there is still evidence that the goodness of human beings has not been overcome.  The human spirit still triumphs.  There are still abundant reasons to hope.  One illustration of this is Michael Sam, who will soon be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  This year's recipient of the ESPY's Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Sam gave a poignant and moving acceptance speech.  His closing words were, "Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself."

It is tempting to teach my son that the best way to survive in this world is by keeping his distance and his head down.  But the lesson I would rather have him learn is to live with the kind of courage Michael Sam spoke about.  As the world grows increasingly violent, some might see teaching a child, especially a boy, to arm himself for personal protection as prudent. My hope for my youngest is different.  I hope that his innate empathy and kindness flourish.  I hope that one day he understands that love is more powerful and potent than any weapon.  I hope that he does indeed have the courage to always be himself, as I hope it for my daughter and all children.  I have no doubt that the great things that happen from children who grow up with this kind of courage may just be a better, kinder world for us all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Playing Favorites

Genesis 25:19-34
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.