For the last four or five weeks, we have been following the story of Abraham and Sarah and their family in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. The lectionary gives us the high points of this family’s story, although we missed out the part that in Jewish tradition is referred to as “the Binding of Isaac” because we substituted and Independence Day reading on that particular Sunday. And we will continue hearing about Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Esau, Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph until the middle of August. So this would be a good time to go back and read this whole family saga as it appears in Genesis, chapters 12 through 45, which really won’t take too long. Now there are some of those “crazy Old Testament names”, and place names that may mean nothing to you or you may find difficult to pronounce, but hang in there! Because reading this story of the patriarchs and matriarchs is akin to reading your own personal family story; it describes a lot about human nature and relationships, and the way that our ancestors in the faith learned what it was to be in relationship with God – even when they weren’t good, or faithful, or wise. There are many times, as we read these accounts, that we can probably find ourselves in the nub of the stories, if not in the details; and their words, behavior, and attitudes may shine a light on our own actions and thoughts. So give it a try: Genesis, chapters 12-45, and read a modern translation – NRSV, NIV, The Message, the Common English Bible. The King James Version would muddy the waters too much, as beautiful as the language is.
This morning we have heard the story of Esau and Jacob, fraternal twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, different as night and day, and each parent chose one of them as their favorite. Jacob was the younger twin, and he was always the striver, the supplanter, the one trying to best his older brother. And in this very compact story we learn that Jacob does indeed cheat Esau out of his birthright, his inheritance rights – two-thirds of his father’s wealth that belonged to the elder son, as opposed to the one-third that went to the younger son. Jacob knew how to manipulate his brother’s weakness (physical hunger and a lack of being able to focus on anything else). And, although it will not be part of our Sunday readings, Jacob cheats Esau not once, but twice – conning not only his brother, but his father as well when Isaac was on his death-bed and ready to pass on to his eldest son the blessing of Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. It was that unique and sacred blessing that Isaac had received from his father Abraham; that blessing God had promised him if he and his family would pull up stakes and follow him, giving to God all his trust and loyalty. Of course, this stealing of the blessings opens up a huge rift between the brothers, and will lead Jacob to flee from his brother’s murderous rage once he realizes that both his birthright and his blessing have been stolen from him. Can you blame him?
And yet….God blesses Jacob; the line and the story and the blessing continue through Jacob’s branch of the family – far more than through Esau’s. Now why is that? If we were going to take a straight-forward moralistic approach to this saga we would expect that eventually Jacob would be brought up short, the birth-right and blessing would be returned to Esau (or at least to his descendants), Jacob would be punished – or at least chastised – and all would be well in the ancient land of Canaan. But that is not what happens. Jacob does get his come-uppance in a number of different ways, but that does not change the fact that he is the one who carries the blessing, who passes along to his children and their descendants the knowledge and love of God in a way that seems to defy the world’s wisdom.
One thing we can say about Jacob is that he was singularly focused on obtaining God’s blessing, even when his methods were unwholesome. He was the one who cared about it, who valued it far more than Esau did. To Jacob that blessing and everything that went with it – including serving God in a focused and intentional way – was of ultimate importance. Maybe that pushed all other considerations aside, and God determined that (despite Jacob’s sins and shortcomings – he had what it took to be the bearer of the blessing to the next generation and to plant that seed in his children and children’s children.
Jesus had a lot to say about seeds, to an audience whose very life depended on knowing how to sow, and tend, and harvest. The parable we heard this morning, in which Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a farmer sowing a field, describes seeds that fall in all different kinds of soil and situations: fertile soil, rocky soil, a field of thorns and brambles, a hard-packed pathway. And each of these different soils produced a different result for the seeds that fell in them.
Perhaps, despite his trickster nature, Jacob was like that fertile soil – where faithfulness and loyalty to God could grow and flourish, even though it was not perfect, even though Jacob would stumble and fail God again and again. I think this should give us all comfort and confidence, because none of us is perfect, none of us follows God without fail or without stumbling. That doesn’t mean we should take Jacob’s deceit as license to misbehave, but it does mean that God’s purposes are so much bigger than whether or not we always follow the rules.
Sometimes following Jesus is about seeing a bigger picture, a deeper truth, about being willing to risk that God’s love and blessing will sometimes move us out beyond accepted norms of behavior and the status quo. Following Jesus can take us to some strange and unfamiliar places, by some quite convoluted paths, where the only landmark we have is the Summary of the Law that Jesus gave us: You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I think Jacob knew the first part of that, and he eventually learned the second part. And aren’t our lives like that? We keep learning as we go along. But we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t keep the first part front and center: Love God, and then let God order our hearts, minds, lives, and actions. And never fear: when we truly turn our life and our will and our love over to God, we will be remade and shaped and guided to be the person and the people – all of us – that God wants us to be.
The blessing was given by God to Abraham, was carried to Isaac, then to Jacob, and then given to Joseph, and on and on. We each are descendants of this family, heirs of this lineage. Let us each receive the blessing that Jacob strove for, and use it to our utmost for God’s glory and for the good of all God’s people.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you have planted the seed of faith and blessing in each of us. Let us tend it with focus, care, and love so that we may be able to pass it to others when the time is right; always trusting in your goodness and mercy. Amen.Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 16, 2017