Sermon

A Mess of Pottage

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: July 16th, 2017

Pentecost 6, Year A

Audio:

No recording

Scripture Text:

Genesis 25:19-34

Sermon:

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At the end of my second year of seminary, I decided to spend part of the coming summer in a program for clergy who were interested in working as Interim ministers — in order to be able to do the kind of thing I’m doing right now: serving a congregation during the time in which it prepares for and chooses a new rector.

There were about 40 of us in the program that summer at a conference center in West Cornwall, Connecticut. Only three were Episcopal. The others were Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and there were three Jewish rabbis. In fact, the instructor of the program was also a rabbi.

One evening at dinner, we were talking about the stories of the Old Testament and Rabbi Michael, our leader, mentioned how Christians and Jews often interpret those ancient stories very differently. Of course, we were intrigued and wanted to hear more about it.

He used the story of Jacob as an example. He said, very accurately, that Christians tend to emphasize Jacob’s deceitful nature. They believe righteous and holy people should always be honest, selfless, and generous. And Michael noted that Christians often sympathize with Esau, the firstborn, feeling he was undeservedly tricked out of his inheritance — Indeed, many Christians believe that Jacob took unfair advantage of Esau.

Jews, he said, on the other hand, admire Jacob because he understood and embraced the promise made to Abraham by God, that “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Jacob, they argue, put the covenant first in his life. Esau, on the other hand, did not reverence his incredible inheritance. He was willing to throw it away for the immediate gratification of his appetite. Jews, Michael said, see Jacob as a man who understood the big picture, a man who could postpone gratification to ensure the survival and the flourishing of his children and his children’s children.

Isn’t the Bible great?

It’s full of marvelous stories that speak to us in all sorts of ways. Not only in different ways to different people, but, for each of us individually, the same passage may hold different meanings at different times in our lives.

We can look at today’s reading about Rebecca, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob, as the story of a very dysfunctional family. As one commentator said, “It’s not the story you would use “to prove that the Bible promotes ‘family values.’” First, there’s that intense sibling rivalry that begins in the womb. Then, a brother cheats his brother out of his inheritance. In addition, each parent clearly favors one child over the other. Daddy likes Esau (he’s a good hunter) and Mommy likes Jacob.

Of course, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

At the beginning of the reading, Rebecca has not been able to bear children for the first 20 years of her marriage. Isaac, now sixty years old, asks God for the blessing of children, asks God to fulfill his promise to Abraham. Rebecca does become pregnant, but it’s a difficult pregnancy. She wonders if she can survive the turmoil in her womb.

Then God speaks to her, tells her she is to bear two children — twins who are more than just twins; they are “two nations” already at war. One is “stronger than the other” – this appears to refer to Esau – but we learn that the older, stronger one — Esau — will ultimately serve his younger brother.

The story of Jacob and Esau has been given particular attention in the Jewish rabbinic tradition of the Midrash. The Midrashim — that’s the plural — have been around since as long ago as the first century A.D. They are a the body of stories told by learned rabbis to explain passages in the Hebrew Bible. These stories elaborate on Bible stories, fill in the gaps and suggest possible explanations for things that might be confusing.

One Midrash about the Jacob and Esau story calls Rebecca a prophet because it is she, not Isaac, who hears the voice of God telling her about the two nations her children will father. From Jacob will come Israel; from Esau will come Edom. In biblical times, Edom covered a large area just south of the Dead Sea. Most of what was Edom is now in Jordan and includes some of the eastern part of present-day Israel.

In the Midrash about Isaac and Rebecca’s family, God has a distinct preference for Jacob over Esau, a preference that God certainly does not express in our reading from Genesis. However, the story of God’s preference for Jacob in the Midrash provided rabbis with an explanation for Rebecca’s unqualified support and love for Jacob.

So, the twins struggle in the womb, and, when they are born, Esau wins. He is first: ruddy and hairy. Jacob is born second, with smooth, hairless skin and grasping his brother’s heel, a precursor of things to come.

These are not identical twins. Esau, the hunter-gatherer, is an accomplished killer of game, a provider of meat for his family. Jacob, the agrarian farmer, is a quiet man who prefers to live in tents and is clearly a gifted cook. So, one day Esau comes home from hunting. He’s famished: certainly exaggerating when he says, “I am about to die.” But who among us hasn’t said hyperbolically at one time or another, “I’m dying of hunger.”

Jacob — perhaps having cleverly anticipated his brother’s returning home hungry — has made a delicious bread and lentil stew, a stew that will shift the balance of power. He will give his brother the “mess of pottage” as it has been called since the fifteenth century, and, in return, Jacob will ask for Esau’s birthright. The birthright has two parts: first, Esau’s double-share of the inheritance from Isaac. The inheritance for two sons was divided in three parts and the eldest received two-thirds – the double share. The second, and more significant, part of the inheritance is God’s covenant with Abraham.

We can safely say that neither brother has acted well in this story. Jacob, an intelligent, somewhat devious young man knows his brother’s weaknesses and plays him like a violin. Esau, on the other hand, wants only immediate gratification. His very special birthright is tied to a covenantal promise from God, but that’s clearly not important to him. The following statement in Genesis about Esau’s attitude is uncompromising: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Jacob loves that birthright, loves the covenant, is willing to postpone gratification, to be patient for the fulfillment of the promise.

So, God chose a deceitful, imperfect man to be the father of a nation, a chosen people. God’s grace blessed Jacob in spite of his imperfections. Jacob didn’t deserve that grace.

Later on, God chose that other fellow, Peter, to show The Way to all of us who would follow — Peter, that reprehensible man who denied Jesus three times. God’s grace blessed Peter in spite of his imperfections. Peter didn’t deserve that grace.

And God chose Paul, a man who persecuted followers of Jesus, a man who stood and held cloaks as Stephen was stoned to death and became the first Christian martyr. God’s grace blessed Paul in spite of his imperfections. Paul didn’t deserve that grace.

And God has chosen you and me to join God’s work in the world. God has given us the grace and the blessing to do what we can to clear away the garbage and reveal the Kingdom that surrounds us.

God’s grace has blessed you and me in spite of our imperfections.

We don’t deserve that grace.

But let us accept it — welcome it.
Let us be more like Jacob.
Like him, let us not forget our covenant,
Let us understand the sanctity of our birthright given at our baptism.
Let us say “Yes” to grace and accept the work God has give us to do.
Let us be more like Jacob.
Amen.

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