Brothers & Blessings
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 29, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Genesis 27:1-38
As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may belss me.” His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, I am your firstborn son, Esau.” Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? — Yes, and blessed he shall be!”
When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.”
Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him al his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.”
Then his father Isaac answered him:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
We have jumped ahead a bit, from the story of Abraham and his covenant with God, to the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac in the land of Moriah. Since then Sarah has died and has been buried and mourned by Abraham and Isaac. Isaac has married Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s kin. Abraham has married again and had more children, has died and is buried.
Isaac’s wife Rebekah is a woman of prayer. Like Sarah she struggles to conceive, but prays to God and is granted a child. Or, children to be more precise. Her pregnancy is troubled, the text says that the children struggled within her, and Rebekah cries out, “If it is to be this way then why should I live?” She goes again to God and is given an oracle, a word from God about the two children she will bear. God tells 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.”
It is with this oracle in her head and on her heart that Rebekah gives birth two twins: the first Esau, red and hairy, the second Jacob, clutching his brother’s heel. These are the boys who will continue the story of blessing and covenant, from God to God’s people.
It is a foundational story to be certain: Jacob and Esau, two brothers vastly different from one another. Esau, who loves the outdoors and is good at hunting, beloved by his father Isaac. Jacob, cunning and ambitious, beloved by his mother Rebekah. Brothers, with everything that word brings.
As a mother of two boys I can only imagine the ways in which Rebekah, mother of twin boys, might have experienced the competition which arose between her sons. The torment one feels when two children you love cannot get along can be overwhelming. Rebekah’s first response is extreme, when the boys struggle amongst each other within her womb: “If this is how it is to be, then why shall I live?” she cries out. Tormented by their fighting even before they break forth from her body, Rebekah is ready to be done.
Any mother of boys can relate to Rebekah’s exasperation. A few months ago I found myself a bit fed up with my boys who were always fighting, and so one late evening I googled, “books on raising boys” and reserved three of them at the library. To be sure, I didn’t get far, since when you are playing referee you don’t have much time for reading. But one book with short clips caught my attention and laughter. Rachel Balducci is mother to six children, five of whom are boys, and wrote two sweet compilations: the first, “How do you tuck in a superhero?” and then, “Raising Boys is a full contact sport.” She is funny, to be sure, and she completely understands boys.
One of her best chapters was on competition, and begins with a story about how she discovered tape on her drinking glasses one day. When she asked, she learned that the boys had been racing each other in drinking milk, and the tape was the only way to make sure they had the exact same amount. As Balducci notes, everything for her boys is a competition. From things that warrant it: like basketball or baseball, hockey or running, to things that, well… perhaps don’t. Like milk drinking.
It seems universally true that competition somehow seeps into every ounce of every day for brothers. From the moment they awake and race each other through eating cereal, to who gets what seat in the car, to whose backpack is heavier or whose dessert is bigger. This is the plight of brothers. Certainly this was the plight of Jacob and Esau.
One difficult part of this morning’s story, of course, is the way that Rebekah initiates and encourages the in-fighting between her two boys. Her actions instigate Jacob into lying and cheating his dying father into a blessing intended for Jacob’s brother. At best she is a mother with a favorite son, at worst she is conniving and manipulative, thirsty for power for Jacob and callous towards Esau. How could a mother do such a thing?
It’s possible that Rebekah’s actions are tied to the words of God spoken to her while the boys were still in utero. Engulfed by the warring children within her, Rebekah seeks help and relief from an oracle of The Lord, who speaks to her in prophetic voice: “Two nations are in you womb, and now two peoples born of you shall be divided. The one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
Perhaps those words spoken to her, of two nations divided, of the stronger and the weaker, the elder serving the younger… perhaps these words had taken root in her heart, and she believed it her place to enact them as God’s will and promise. Commentaries note that as a woman Rebekah had no real power to bring this prophecy into fruition, and that as a woman and the second born son, society’s norms were stacked against these two, Rebekah and Jacob, and toward the natural-born privilege given to Esau and Issac.
So, perhaps God’s promise and will can account for shady deals and backhanded ways…?
It is a slippery slope. If this is the case then one could imagine the ways in which we all could justify deception and manipulation as long as it is subservient to God’s will. Isn’t this the source of virtually every religious war?
While certainly Rebekah is manipulative and conniving, Jacob and Esau have their own flaws and faults. Jacob is clever and opportunistic, his only doubts about Rebekah’s scheme are whether he can get away with it.
Esau, on the other hand, who just before today’s story, sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage, seems bumbling and uncaring, driven by his various bodily hungers rather than by his mind and intention. His natural entitlement and privilege cause him to live carelessly – the loss of his birthright is entirely his own doing. Frankly, no one in this formative family of faith is beyond reproach, not even Issac, who comes off as frail and blind in more ways that one.
This is our family tree, in all it’s glory: made up of neither demons nor saints. Each is complicated and broken, each with his or her own longings and disappointments. It is perhaps most amazing that God chooses to bless any of them, let alone the conniving Jacob, to covenant with them as the fulfillment of God’s promise and blessing from Abraham to generations that come after.
So what is there to say of these, our ancestors of faith? What do we make of this story? What should we do with this dysfunctional family, these imperfect and unscrupulous ancestors of ours?
The answer seems to hinge on this word, “blessing.” Twenty-eight times this word appears in our text for this morning: “That I may bless you,” “bless those that bless you,” and the harrowing cry, “have you only one blessing Father? bless me, me also!”
When Isaac finally blesses his son Esau, it is with the underside of his brother’s blessing. Isaac is bound again, this time by ritual and tradition, and is unable to retract the blessing of Jacob. But he predicts that Esau will occasionally break free of his younger brother’s rule and lordship. And this is the story that comes to pass.
“Truth be told, in Genesis, Jacob the younger brother never fully rules Esau the older. The stolen blessing…rather, inaugurates twenty years of flight, exile, and servitude for Jacob and loneliness for Rebekah, who never again sees her favorite son.” Jacob is the chosen one, the one who is to carry on Abraham’s lineage and covenant with God, and yet, in spite of the hardships and struggles, both boys produce nations of people, and far in the distant future, there is the hope of reconciliation and love.
In fact, as we pull back with a wider lens, the story of Jacob begins with a list of the generations of Ishmael, (that son of Abraham by Hagar, whom we haven’t talked about yet,) and then the story of Jacob ends with the generations of Esau. The story of the blessed Jacob is bookended by the stories of the outcasts, still numerous and prosperous.
Perhaps, unlike Isaac, God indeed has more than one blessing to offer…
The long arc of God’s story bends towards love and grace. The story which becomes our story, includes many outcast after Jacob. Prostitutes and criminals, stutterers and people from the wrong side of town, and then Jesus, outcast and rule-breaker, put to death like a common criminal. God uses each of these unlikely characters, to weave a story of grace and love that transforms and redeems like no other in the history of time.
The beginning of all that, is here. It is through this messy family story that God blesses not only Jacob but all of Israel, and the generations that come after. God chooses this one family, for the sake of all families. God chooses these unlikely characters for the love of you and me, even before our world was imagined.
One Christian musician calls the church “a beautiful letdown, painfully uncool, the church of the dropouts the losers the sinners the failures and the fools.” We are a hospital for sinners, not a house for saints. A respite for broken souls, not a program for perfectionism.
It’s hard to imagine this to be true, in a place such as this. We do a good job of hiding it. We fake it till we make it. We smile and nod.
Perhaps we are the mother who would do anything, anything, to give her child a leg up in a world stacked against him; after all, what’s a little white lie when I know the possibility and promise he holds?
Perhaps we are the son who feels stuck by what has been given, or not given, to him. Shouldn’t we do all we can to succeed, to improve, to ascend?
Perhaps we are the one who too often forgets the blessings we are given: birthright and blessing, power and privilege. Never thinking about the way our privileges mean there are others who remain without.
Perhaps we are the father, who looks away as his children war against each other and vie for attention, blessing, love.
This is our story: and none of us are demons or saints. All of us have circumvented or sidestepped the path God hopes for us.
But the truth is: the blessing is: the crazy bizarre, hard-to-take message is:
It is not in spite of these things, but because of these things that we are loved by God and chosen for something better. It is not in spite of this brokenness, but because of and along with these this brokenness, that we are claimed and named as God’s people. It is not in spite of this underbelly of our lives, but because we are imperfect that God works in and through our lives to bless us and fill us with grace and love. In the name of our Creator, our Redeemer and Sustainer, today and always. Amen.