Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sermon; Proper 10A; Genesis 25:19-34

Today we begin a four-week journey with Jacob.  As we make our way through these stories, keep in mind this recurring theme:  conflict.  It seems that Jacob's life is nothing but conflict.  There's conflict between Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and God.  If all of these stories revolve around conflict, we might be asking ourselves, “Where is God in these stories?  Where is God in the conflict?”

This life of conflict is not, however, the sole result of Jacob's actions.  All this conflict was set up by God before Jacob was even born.  Pregnant Rebekah is having a difficult time and goes to God to find out why.  The answer:  “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided . . . and the elder shall serve the younger.”

In other words, God predestined Jacob for a life of conflict.  When I say that, some people might hear (either through their own biases or by reading into my words) God as a cruel puppeteer who delights in controlling our every movement.  But the reality is that today's story affirms a basic and uncomfortable reality about God, and that is that the call of God leads not only to blessings and well-being, but the call of God also leads to difficulties, conflict and hardship.

God called Abraham into a new way of being, into a new relationship, and promised him land and children.  That call was not without its difficulties and conflicts – think back to the banishing of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac.  And now with Jacob, as the promise of children begins to be fulfilled, we see conflicts with his brother, uncle, wife and God.  Just because you are called by God doesn't mean life gets easy.  If anything, it might get more difficult.  And if you are thinking that this proves the God of the Old Testament is a mean old man, then let's put an end to that thought right now.

At every Eucharist, at every Morning Prayer, and maybe every day in your own prayer life, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Have you ever actually prayed those words, or do you let them roll off your tongue without much thought?  What would it look like if the Kingdom of God manifested itself here on earth?

As it turns out, the Jacob story shows exactly what it would look like if the Kingdom of God were to manifest itself here on earth, and that's why there is so much conflict and strife.

In ancient societies, and all the way up through today in some societies, the first-born male received the lion's share of rewards.  He received the title, the greater portion of inheritance, the blessings and on and on.  Among other things, it kept society orderly.  It allowed for the smooth transition of property.  Everybody knew what to expect.  Disputes were minimized.  Of course it didn't always work out, but in general it gave structure to society.

The inherent drawback of the system, though, should be self-evident.  If the first son receives the blessings, what do sons two, three and four receive?  And that doesn't even address the issue of daughters.

This system, called primogeniture, was probably devised by tribal, clan or territorial leaders looking to ensure their family remained in control after they died.  This system, devised by men here on earth, reflects earthly values and concerns; it does not reflect Kingdom values.

This system which protects societal order and giving distinct advantages to some, destines others to a life of denial and disadvantage.  It is a system which favors the status quo and places more value on the luck of birth than on the value of a person.  By necessity, the right class of people have all the rights, while the wrong class of people are expected to take what is given to them and like it.

And this is where the conflict comes in.  Rebekah is told by God that the elder will serve the younger.  Jacob, the second born with no rights or blessings of his own, manages to get those rights and blessings given to him by his older brother who doesn't think twice about their meaning.  He despised them.  He doesn't value them because he believes the system won't fail him.

But God has other ideas, and it is God who upsets the primogeniture system, throwing Jacob into conflict with Esau.  It is Esau who escalates the conflict by threatening to kill Jacob because he now hates Jacob for having what he had.

Again, this is not just an Old Testament thing.  Look at the Magnificat: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  The earthly systems that allow and provide for a privileged few to receive power and blessings, while also destining others to a life of disadvantage and curses, is not a Kingdom system.  Any system which promotes advantage/disadvantage must be dismantled.  God does it through Jacob.  Mary sings the Magnificat.  Dismantling those earthly systems in favor of Kingdom systems puts us in conflict with the world around us.

Thy will be done.  People have value because they are people, not because they were born first, or to the right class.

God has a heart for the lowly and dwells there.  We heard this in last week's gospel: The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  Earthly systems segregate people on a variety of issues, all with the goal to determine who is in and who is out; who is blessed and who is cursed.  Jesus came to eliminate those earthly systems of segregation and usher in a Kingdom system of all.

This conflict that originated with Jacob and looks to overturn earthly systems of inequality in favor of a Kingdom system that favors a fair balance for all, this conflict of Thy will be done, is not just one that God is involved in.  We also are involved in this conflict.  You want to be a disciple?  Pick up your cross, because this world will hate you for following the one who is trying, through us, to dismantle inequality.

If all you see in this story is a Wascally Wabbit of a man who cheats his older brother out of a birthright and blessing, you're missing the point.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Where is God in this story?  The same place God is today – working to upset the earthly systems based on advantage/disadvantage in favor of establishing a Kingdom system that welcomes all people equally.  This is a conflict of Jacobean proportions with God as a driving force.  And if you pay attention, you will notice that we are called to be right in the middle of it.



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