Sunday, July 20, 2014

Heel of Fortune (or Wheel of Fortune)

Listen to the sermon
No manuscript this week
(not that I didn't use one, it's just it's so different from what I wrote and I liked improvisation better!)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Let's Make a Deal

19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23And the LORD said to her, 
     “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.” 
24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Have you ever done something really stupid or hurtful or strange and then wondered why? Have you reflected upon what motivated you to behave that way when in your heart, it’s not the person you want to be? Me, too. This happened to me just this week.

This past week I was on study leave at Chautauqua—It’s a place with two faces—a wonderfully intentional, deeply intellectual community where people gather to think big thoughts and ponder hard questions. It’s exciting. But is also an exclusive, gated community with astronomical fees just to step onto the grounds. There is very little diversity and the squeaky clean small town living is unattainable without beaucoup bucks. It’s like an amusement part for smart people—just like Disney, everything is a little artificial.

I was wrestling with these two ideas as I was waiting for my ticket to get my gate pass. There were two windows in a narrow hallway and so I stood at the entrance to the hall waiting for one of the windows to open up. You know, like the line at Marshalls where you wait for the next available associate. Then, as one person finishing up at the window, a man and his wife pulled a jerk move. They blew past me to get their tickets. They didn’t ask if I was next, just walked up ahead of me.

Rather than do the right thing, which would have been to firmly but politely insist that I was next, I fumed. They got finished and were walking out and before I could stop myself, I looked at them and blurted out, “Nice sense of entitlement” and walked past them to the window while they sputtered some excuse. And of course, before I even had my ticket in hand, I felt badly about what I’d done. I don't want to be that snarky person. I felt even jerkier than the jerks. I don't believe that's who God is calling me to be. So I made a deal with myself. Next time I’ll speak before our start fuming.

Our interior motivations, our hunger or appetites, can drive us in ways that we don’t always understand. And sometimes in ways that we regret.

The story of Rebecca, Esau and Jacob is a story of those deep motivators that we don’t always think about— they each have a hunger. Rebekah--for peace, Esau--for food and Jacob for the birthright. It’s one of those stories in the Old Testament where we see God’s will at work in people despite their flaws—despite their appetites for things other than God.

The story
First, there is Rebekah, a woman pregnant with twins. I can just imagine her-- huge, uncomfortable and afraid.  She may not have known she was carrying two babies.  All she knew is that she was much bigger than most pregnant women. She knew that whatever was inside her was struggling. She was so miserable, in fact, that she basically says that she’d rather die than deal with her pregnancy.  Why was she so miserable? Why must she endure this struggle? She went to ask God why she was suffering when all she wanted was a little peace and quiet. She just wanted to be able to sleep through the night without feeling like there was a wrestling match in her belly.  God tells her that she is birthing two nations.

Remember, Abraham gave birth to two nations with two women—Sarah and Hagar. Now, Isaac and Rebekah are giving birth to two nations. But Jacob and Esau aren’t brothers from another mother. These are brothers from the same mother. Born out of the same event, pretty much at the same time. Esau comes out red and hairy, the firstborn. Jacob comes out gripping the heel of his brother as if he was trying to propel himself forward, competing for the first-born status.

Esau is supposedly the father of the Edomites. The word means red. Esau comes in from hunting and can think of nothing but food and that red stuff Jacob has cooked smells sooo good. Esau has to eat. He has to satisfy his appetite in the moment. And he’ll do whatever it takes.

Jacob sees an opportunity. Surely the idea of firstborn shouldn’t count when it comes to twins, right? In his mind he may have thought that they were practically born at the same time, so why should Esau get everything? The young man who gripped the heel of his brother finally had a way to propel himself forward. He sees the opportunity for advancement and takes it. So, he says, Let’s make a deal.

Sell me your birthright for some stew.

And like that it was done. Esau satisfies his hunger for food but gives up his birthright.

Jacob then tricks his old, blind father into giving him the blessing and the status of the firstborn son.  That means he got it all. When Esau approaches his dying father for the blessing a little later, Isaac has to tell him that Jacob fabricated a big, fat lie and made off with his blessing. Esau begs for something, anything, from Isaac.

Esau pleaded and cried for a blessing from Isaac and got nothing.

What motivates us?
These hungers that we see in Rebekah, Esau and Jacob are wresting inside of us as well. We all have competing interests like Esau and Jacob. We all long to fulfill our appetites.

On the one hand is our hunger for the things of this world, The things that we need that appear in front of us. These desires for food, shelter, and safety are some of our oldest and strongest drivers. The things that Esau longs for are necessary for our survival, part of our primal instincts.  Think of what babies long for. If you are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, Esau seems the things on the bottom, our most basic needs.

But those basic needs aren’t our only needs. There are the second-born needs coming on the heels of our primal needs as we grow and mature. We long for power and control. Like Jacob, we want to take charge of our destinies. We want independence and the means to achieve it.  Like the toddler who says "mine" or throws a tantrum to get what she wants.

Beyond that even, is our intellectual and moral self. The part of ourselves that glimpses heaven and wrestles with the idea of God. This part of us is able to think about things like how to distribute food, shelter and safety.  The part of us that is like Rebekah and wonders why things happen. Why do people fight?  Why do I suffer? Why do I live?

Our lives can be one long episode of Let’s Make a Deal as these desires wrestle within us.

But how does it end?
This wrestling match over the birthright is not the last word about Jacob and Esau. Jacob goes on to live in fear of his brother—and rightly so. Esau threatens to kill Jacob so the birthright would be his. But, Jacob leaves town and survives, thrives even. Esau is lives a successful life as well.

Years later when both have wives and families, they encounter each other in the desert.

Jacob is traveling in the desert with his wives and many children. He looks up and sees Esau and 400 men coming toward him. What deal might Jacob make to get him out of this situation? What impulsive thing might Esau do when faced with the man who stole the money and land and blessing that should have been his?

It’s a showdown in the desert and Jacob is afraid. Genesis tells us:

Jacob divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 

Jacob himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. 

Put yourself in Jacob’s place. You have behaved horribly toward someone. And there they are, walking toward you in the mall or on the street. What do you do? Do you pretend that you don’t see them? Do you wonder if they will they ignore you? Or retaliate? So many times in life we come face to face our misdeeds.

Jacob’s heart must have been pounding as he imagined what might happen. Esau was a powerful hunter, would he shoot Jacob from afar? Would he kill the women and children in retaliation for Jacob’s greed?


Genesis 33 says:
"Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept."

They wept in relief that they could put the past behind them. They wept because in some way they managed to forgive each other. The red, hairy beast of a man that is supposedly the bad guy in story runs to meet his brother, embraces him and kisses him. The time for making deals is over. Jacob is relieved that somehow Esau seems to have managed to forgive him. He says to Esau:

“for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.”

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had Jacob and Esau in mind when he told the parable of The Prodigal Son.

How would the prodigal story be different if the older brother, the brother who always did the right thing was more like Esau? What if that older brother could look at the prodigal and not see someone took and squandered his father’s resources, but instead could see someone that he loved? What if instead of boycotting the party, he went in and embraced his brother, kissed him and wept with him?

We all live lives of inner conflict, making deals between the competing interests and hungers within us. Sometimes we are like Rebekah, wondering why things that should be joyous can sometimes seem so hard. Sometimes we are like young Esau hungry and willing to do stupid things to feed that hunger. Sometimes we are like young Jacob ambitious and scheming so that we get our way in the world.

But, other times we are like the older wiser Jacob; we know that we’ve done wrong and ask for forgiveness. Or we might be like the older, wiser Esau--willing to forgive and embrace those whom we love even when they have done wrongly by us.

I wish I could say I had the chance to apologize to the couple I was so rude to. I did not see them again. I have to live with that unresolved conflict and hope that the next time I can be a better person. The person God is calling me to be. 

I am thankful that despite my faults--and despite your faults-- God is a god of outstretched arms. God forgives us and embraces us. The power of God isn’t in God’s control and manipulation of the world or the people in it, but in God’s willingness embrace what is. God’s willingness to embrace us as we are—people who wrestle with right and wrong. People who sometimes choose right and sometimes choose wrong. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is a God of steadfast love. This is the God who says to us come into my embrace, weeps with joy and holds us close.