Learning you are not alone

Sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost

If you’ve been here over the past several weeks, you’ll be aware that I’ve been focusing on these stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith as told in the book of Genesis, but I can’t resist saying just a few words about tonight’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. This parable of the weeds is one of the few times in which Jesus offers a straight-up allegorical interpretation—the sower is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and so forth. Its images of the good seed as being “the children of the kingdom” and the weeds “the children of the evil one”—to say nothing of the furnace of fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth—seem to cut such a black and white line through everything that it is easy to wonder what has happened to the grace, mercy, and sheer agapic love that characterizes so much of who and what Jesus is. But do consider this. As I’m about to make clear in the retelling of this portion of the Genesis story, it is hard to think of a character more “weedy” than Jacob. He lies, cons, cheats, and even blasphemes his way to what he wants… and yet God does not number him among the weed-like “children of the evil one.” Hear the parable, but reserve your own judgments; or at least reserve your judgments as to who you might decide is a weed, and who is not.

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Now, in appointing the story of Jacob’s dream as our reading for this evening, the lectionary has jumped right past the story of why it is Jacob has left Beersheba and set out for Haran, so let me back us up a bit to fill in some of the blanks.

Last Sunday we had the birth story of Jacob and Esau—twin sons who had already begun their wrestling in their mother’s womb—followed by the story of how Jacob conned his older brother out of the status as the first-born. We also learned that “Isaac loved Esau… but Rebekah loved Jacob”… and that is a piece of the story that will continue to figure mightily in the background to today’s reading.

In some real sense, nothing much changed when Esau traded away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob might have felt a bit superior, but it seems to have impacted Esau very little. And as far as their father Isaac is concerned, Esau remains the favoured son.

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, ‘My son’; and Esau answered, ‘Here I am.’ Isaac said, ‘See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savoury food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac is readying himself to confer upon Esau a father’s blessing; something of enormous significance in their world. According to Walter Brueggemann, “The narrative presumes that symbolic actions have genuine and abiding power.”

Symbolic actions (like laying on hands) are not empty gestures signifying nothing. This ritual act is a decisive event in which something has been done irrevocably. More happens than meets the eye.

This narrative assumes and affirms that spoken words shape human life… They mean what they say.

Issac is about to speak such words over the life of Esau, his favoured firstborn. Now the storyteller alerts us to a critical fact: “Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau.” And Rebekah loves Jacob, and so she initiates a desperate con game in which the son she loves will steal the blessing intended for his brother. This is a messy family system, in which a mother will help con her own husband in order that the son she favours might come out on top. Anyone who imagines that family dysfunction is a modern phenomena take note!

Here’s the risky con. While Esau is out hunting game to prepare for his father, Jacob is to slaughter two young goats from the flock that Rebekah will then roast. Because Isaac is quite blind, Jacob will pose as Esau, putting on his brother’s clothes and tying bits of the goat skin to his hands and the back of his neck so that if Isaac touches him he will feel not Jacob’s smooth skin but rather something approximating Esau’s hairy hands and neck. Even as a kid in Sunday School, I wondered if anyone could possibly fall for the goatskin trick. I mean seriously, could Isaac be that feeble and confused?

This is how Frederick Buechner describes the scene, in his remarkable novel The Son of Laughter:

“Can you be Esau and have Jacob’s voice?” Isaac said. “Can you be Jacob and have Esau’s smell? Those hairy paws I’d know anywhere. As the Fear is your witness, tell me the truth.”

He took me by the shoulders and held me off at arm’s length. He gently shook me. There was coriander and kid on his breath. I could smell the oil in his beard.

“Speak, boy, speak.”

He did not say it, he crooned it. It was a lover speaking to his beloved. It was a child pleading with a man with a knife poised above him.

“I am Esau. It is the truth.”

I do not know to this day if he believed me. I will never know. Maybe he himself did not know. Maybe he knew all along I was Jacob. Maybe though it was Esau he loved, it was Jacob he believed in his heart would be the luckier luck bearer and he only pretended to believe me. Maybe he was past caring which of his sons I was and wanted only to get on with his dying.

Did Isaac suspect anything? Or had he just reached a point in his life where he had not the energy to really pursue his own doubts, and needed simply—as Buechner puts it—“to get on with his dying”.

No matter, the deed is done; Jacob carries the blessing of his father; the tradition will speak not of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau, but always of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… yet the cost is high. Rebekah—the architect of the con—goes to Jacob to tell him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran.” Run for your life, Jacob. Esau is dangerous when he’s angry, and he will take you down.

It is on his desperate journey to Haran that Jacob dreams his strange dream of a stairway connecting the heavens and the earth, with angels ascending and descending and the Lord God at the top. This is no thinly comforting spiritual experience, and these are not sweet greeting card angels coming with cherubic faces to make him feel better about himself. He’s on the run, and he has nothing and no one; he has never been lower in his life, in other words, and now heaven is revealed to him as being not some remote or far off place, but rather a reality that has much to do with earth; always much to do with earth. He’d never been more alone… yet this dream tells him that he is anything but alone. As Brueggemann puts it, “The dream permits the entry of an alternative into his life… the presentation of an alternative future with God.” He is not alone, and never has been, yet only now can Jacob see this. And he sees it, to again quote Brueggemann, “not in wakeful control but in a time of vulnerable yielding, while he is asleep.”

In the vulnerability of his sleep, Jacob sees a new reality and he hears a fresh promise­—“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”—yet his response is still marked by fear. “He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

Jacob had of course been afraid before, and the reason he’s out there in the wilderness is because he’s running in fear from the wrath of his brother. That’s survival fear, whereas in this dream he is wakened to something altogether different. This is holy fear of the kind that maybe makes him consider for the first time in his life how broken-down, corrupt, and even weed-like his life has become. It is also a holy fear that will give him the courage to get up the next morning, build a stone marker to commemorate the dream-event, and then get on with the long lonely walk to the land of his uncle Laban. As we’ll see as the stories continue to unfold, it is not as if he’s been suddenly reformed either. He’s still got an awful lot of the shyster in his soul, and he’ll spend a lot of years playing the con with his uncle—who, by the way, is clearly cut from the same cloth—but at least here he has begun to learn that he is not alone. His life belongs to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and now—oh so clearly—of Jacob. It is at the moments when he forgets that truth and tries to orchestrate his own life and destiny that things will again get mucky… but those are stories for another Sunday. For this week, hear these words as spoken both to Jacob and to you: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.”

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