Sermon: Renamed & Renewed

Renamed & Renewed

Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine

Aug. 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21


This summer we have been spending time with our ancestors, getting to know the forebears of our faith a little bit more intimately perhaps than when we were first introduced to them in Sunday School, which is for some of us many years ago now. We are now visiting with the third generation – the grandchildren of Father Abraham; these are Isaac’s kids – the twins – Jacob and Esau. They are the Danny DeVito/Arnold Swartzennegger kind of twins — couldn’t be more different. Physically, Jacob is slight, stays close to home and depends on his wits to get by; Esau is strong and muscular and loves hunting and the outdoors.   Their personalities are different too – Jacob is calculating, always looking for the advantage, planning ahead and not adverse to manipulation and cheating to get what he wants; and Esau is blunt, straightforward, quick tempered, and pretty much lives in the moment without thinking of the consequences.

Because their parents played favorites, the boys grew up estranged. Jacob swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. And later, he connived with his mother Rebekah to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father, Isaac. When Esau threatened to murder him for this betrayal, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham and his mother Rebekah had departed from years before. In the twenty or so years Jacob lived there, he married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah.

In a kind of poetic justice, Jacob met his match in his father in law Laban, who was as much of a trickster and conniver as Jacob was. Finally, it seemed best to leave his tense situation with his father-in-law and head back home. They had conned each other one time too many over the years, and their relationship was fast deteriorating. The only fly in the ointment to returning home, was his long lost and embittered brother Esau, who when last heard of was threatening murder.

Jacob sends greetings ahead to Esau, and the response is swift; Esau approaches with 400 men. Jacob is terrified, and prays to God for help for the first time in his life, but also hedges his bets in perfect Jacob style, sending gifts, or more realistically, bribes, hopefully to pacify his brother. As night was falling, he even sends the women and children and the rest of his caravan on across the river Jabbok so that they will be between him and the advancing Esau. Finally he collapses into a deep sleep, alone, powerless, and anxious – caught in the middle between Laban behind him, and Esau before him – no place to go, no place to run, no place to hide.

The last time Jacob was alone was when he was escaping from Esau’s wrath, and he dreamed of angel messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from the sky, and God gave him assurance that God’s intention was to use and bless Jacob’s life. I wonder if he even remembered that dream; it had happened so long ago. But God did not come to him in a bright dream this time. God came as an intruder, a heavenly stranger, who wrestles with him throughout the night until daybreak, at which point, the stranger cripples Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life.

To his credit, Jacob didn’t wimp out in the middle of the struggle! He fought the stranger all night long, and near the end demanded that the stranger bless him. Instead, the stranger asks him his name. And here is the real crux of the story. Names in the ancient world are not simply names, they are descriptors, indicators of one’s character and nature. And Jacob’s name – literally means “heel” or “grasper” because he was the one who was grasping at Esau’s heel as they were being born. And he’d been grasping ever since – living by his wits, trusting no one, and proving himself untrustworthy over and over again. So when the stranger asks him his name, he is really asking him to confess – confess who he really is – confess his failures, his shifty deals, his compromised integrity, his shoddy character, his selfish misuse of his life and the lives of others all to get what he wants regardless of the cost. It is time for Jacob to come clean; time for him to confess who he really is – that he is a cheat and a scoundrel.

But once he does, an extraordinary thing happens. God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow his name to be all there is to him. And instead, God gives him a new name – Israel – which has been interpreted to mean “the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed.” And with this new name God then blesses Jacob and sends him limping into a new future, marked almost immediately by the arrival of his brother Esau, who runs toward him not to kill him but to embrace him and to welcome him home.

For Jacob, this encounter is something like the encounter he has just had at the Jabbok. And he says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10). Jacob is a changed man – the young Jacob was a deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. Now he is the one who has wrestled with God and come to terms with who he is in God’s eyes. He could have sung, as the choir did earlier, “All is right that once was wrong; I’m finally home.” He can see God in the face of the one who was once his enemy, whom he fled so long ago in fear for his life.

Walter Bruggeman has commented that the healing and reconciling work of God happens in both vertical and horizontal directions.[i] The love of God alters our understanding of who God is and who we are; it changes our understanding of our core identity and causes us to realize finally that we are beloved children of God. And when that happens, something also changes in our relationships with other people. A new kind of love can flow through us. And the more we give ourselves to God the more we are able to perceive other people differently and value them differently.

One of the beliefs we have as Christians is, as Paul expressed in 2Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (vv.16-18). And we remember this every time we gather together at the communion table, as we do today. Like Jacob, we say aloud our sins and shortcomings – and we are given a new name – forgiven, beloved child of God. And then we participate together in the meal of fellowship that Jesus instituted to remind us God’s reconciling work in Christ and encourage us to go forth to become reconcilers. It doesn’t mean that henceforth everything will be perfect; it certainly wasn’t for Jacob, as we will see next week. But it does mean that the God of Second Chances and New Beginnings goes with us, and will offer us opportunities again and again to find renewal, refreshment and reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 272.

Sermon: Family Values

Family Values
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
July 13, 2014
Genesis 25:19-34, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

The honeymoon is over. Last week we recalled of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. It was a gentle hopeful story, where every wish of the servant matchmaker was answered, where the bride was eager leave home to begin her new life in a faraway place, and where her husband loved her and she brought him comfort after the death of his mother. It was a nice start.

A lot happened after that lovely wedding. Abraham died. In a conciliatory moment, Isaac and his estranged half-brother Ishmael met to bury their father together next to Sarah. Isaac prospered in material ways – with land and cattle much as his father had done. And like his father, he waited for children. And he waited. And he waited.

He prayed to God that Rebekah could and would bear children, and after twenty years of praying, his prayer was finally answered. But not before Rebekah prayed to God as well – questioning why, after waiting so many years, her long awaited pregnancy was so uncomfortable, so painful, that life seemed almost not worth living. Because she trusted God and was willing to share her distress with the Almighty, she was granted an oracle, a prophecy from God. She was told that more was going on than she could realize. These twin boys that she carried would be the founders of two different nations that would struggle against each other later on in life even as they had before their birth. And in the contest with each other, and the elder, in contradiction to the prevailing custom, would ultimately serve the younger.

When the twins were born, they couldn’t have been any different. Esau, the firstborn, was the larger baby for sure. He was ruddy and had a head full of hair. His brother Jacob, was born immediately after Esau, holding onto his brother heel as he entered the world, as if trying to get ahead and beat him into it. As they grew up, their personalities and talents differed. Esau loved hunting and the outdoors. Jacob, in contrast, was quiet and stayed closer to home. And consequently their parents favored one over the other – Isaac favored Esau because Esau was good at hunting game. Rebekah, on the other hand, was partial to Jacob. We aren’t told why, maybe as a newborn, he was smaller and needed more of her attention so she bonded more with him, or maybe it was because of that sense that he was meant by God for greater things that she’d become aware of before his birth. Of course neither boy knew of his mother’s strange experience because she kept it to herself.

Then one day, just an ordinary day by any measure, Esau came in from hunting and he was famished. And Jacob was alone in the tent, cooking a stew. It’s funny how things that change your life can happen under the most mundane circumstances. Esau was hungry; Jacob was cooking. That’s all it took. Esau saw an answer to his immediate problem, while Jacob saw an answer to his long range problem.

Esau was the first born, and by custom, at the death of their father, he would receive two shares of his father’s estate to his brother’s one. And he would also be given authority and responsibility as head of the family. His would be in a privileged position, and his first born son would inherit in the same manner after him. This social custom of primogeniture was and still is in some places, a foundational element in legal and social systems. Today we can see this tradition still active in royal families– for example, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s oldest child, will inherit the crown of England because he is her first born son, and after him, his first born William will take the throne. Recently the law of primogeniture was changed in England to allow the successor to the throne to be the first born child, regardless of gender; however, the birth of Prince George deferred any immediate problem when he became Will and Kate’s first child. Certainly Charles and William have lived since their first days with the knowledge that much will be expected of them beyond the living of their private lives. They know they have a responsibility to their country, to its government and to its people that will take precedence over any personal desires or wishes,

So that day when Esau came into the kitchen hungry, he had the responsibility of the family’s future resting on his shoulders. He would have known that just as surely as Charles and Will know it. And everything he did should have been done with that future in mind. But he’s hungry. And his immediate desire for stew on the table is more real to him than his future obligations. He obviously wasn’t aware that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Maybe he just thought it was already his, and he could do whatever he wanted to do without consequence.

But Jacob knows better, and this is his chance to improve his prospects in the world. Who knows what his motivation was. Maybe he’d been told by his mother that it was unfortunate that Esau was born first because he was big and strong enough to easily make his own living in the world, but Jacob was not as strong or active; he’d have a hard time and have to use his wits in order to survive in the world.

Whatever the reason, Jacob tells Esau he can have his fill of stew after he sells his birthright to Jacob. And Esau, exaggerating for sure, since he’s nowhere near starvation, says dramatically, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” And then Jacob makes him swear that this will be so. He does, and then gobbles down his stew and bread. The narrator says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He shunned it; scorned it; rejected it; disregarded it – all for a plate of lentil stew and a piece of bread. He forfeited his future to quiet the rumbling in his stomach.

These brothers are really something, aren’t they? There’s one who would sell his future for a dish of stew; and the other who would withhold food from his hungry brother in order to get something he wanted that was not within his customary rights at all. So one is shortsighted and can’t see beyond his stomach, and the other, although far sighted, ignores the questionable ethics of his plan. These behaviors seem strange to us, unforgivable even, unless any of us has perhaps been tempted at some time or other by an immediate desire so overwhelming that we forgot our long term responsibilities. Or perhaps there were times we were tempted to be less than truthful or a bit manipulative upon occasion to get our own way. Have you ever justified, rationalized, or excused your behavior? I know I have!

And yet God chooses to work with people just like you and me, just like Esau and Jacob! Those who speak so reverently about upholding the “family values” found in the Bible, must not be familiar with the family of Abraham and his descendants. They present the Bible as a book about moral values and doing the right thing.

But that’s not what the Bible is about! It’s not a cookbook. It’s not a book of rules. It’s not Miss Manners for Believers. The Bible is God’s story, a story about a powerful and mysterious God who offers few explanations or justifications, and who continually creates, redeems, and sustains. It is about a God who can work with most anything or anyone to bring something good out of the worst of circumstances.

We don’t know why God chose Abraham and his descendants, but we do know it wasn’t because they were perfect in every way. They weren’t the strongest or the smartest or the bravest or the most honest by a long shot. And by choosing them, God’s purposes get all tangled up in their weaknesses, in their self-interest and self-seeking.[i] But God made a promise to Abraham, and God does not go back on God’s promises. That’s what the Bible is about!

Jacob has a faulty moral compass, he’s a rascal some would say – he’s not above lying, cheating, or stealing in order to get what he wants. Later on he’ll lie to his father, and then steal from his uncle. But God chooses to work with the unworthy, the unvalued and the powerless, even going so far as to choose a crucified messiah as the way to begin again.[ii] As Paul says in the passage from 1Corinthians that we heard earlier, “God choose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” That’s what the Bible is about!

So today’s story tells us something about God and something about what it means to be caught up in the purposes of God regardless of our limitations or flaws. God blessed Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the world. And that was not an easy task for them, nor is it now for us. Because it doesn’t mean being chosen for a life of leisure or of plenty, but instead being chosen for a life that very well may involve a lot of conflict and a lot of change and a lot of sacrifice.

But it also means the opportunity for transformation and for blessing that arise from the conflict, change, and sacrifice. Jacob is blessed by God even as he runs away from Esau’s wrath and he learns over time – learns the hard way as most of us do – to trust God more than he trusts himself. And later, he experiences not only God’s grace and mercy, but also the forgiveness of Esau who has gone on to find peace in his own life.

God is the God of promise and the God of blessing. That’s what the Bible is about! If we only knew that! If we only could trust the promises and accept the blessing! But apparently there is no easy way to trust and acceptance. The road inevitably leads through questioning, conflict, and change as we first try and fail to do it by ourselves and in our own way, and only after those struggles, are we ready to receive the blessing that has been waiting all along and to accept our own birthright as the people of God. Amen.

[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 204.

[ii] Bruggeman, 209.