Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church of Harvard University, Sunday sermon July 12, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Please pray with me. God, open us to your Spirit, that I would speak your word and that our hearts and minds would perceive it. Amen.
For most people, genealogy – the study and tracing of lines of descent from an ancestor – isn’t an exciting subject. For some, learning about one’s ancestors or lineage isn’t an option because of a closed adoption or because one’s descendants were people who were enslaved. For my great-uncle, genealogy was an obsession. After completing extensive family trees for everyone in my family, he moved on to U.S. presidents and local personalities. It so happened that I eventually came to inherit his collection of family records, documents, and genealogies.
The opportunity to dig through family histories is a privilege. Digging through family histories can unearth bits of our past that others hoped to conceal, sometimes intentionally. Some family secrets are passed down through tactfully chosen recipients, and others lay waiting to be discovered in boxes and on ledgers. While sifting through my great-uncle’s – let’s call them “files” – I came across things that no one talked about, like family members who were cut out of wills or suffered from mental illness.
Luckily for my family, our history isn’t recorded in a book that countless people read or can find in their hotel room drawer. Genealogies play important roles in the Bible, like in the case of Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham, the establishment of a heritage of God’s covenant; that God’s chosen people have a bloodline. Indeed, it is through Isaac that God’s covenant is passed on, and so it will be with his children as well. Like many families, the family of Isaac and Rebekah is complicated, messy, and not without hardships.
Rebekah and Isaac, like Abraham and Sarah, pray and pray for a child. They plead with God to work a miracle so that they would no longer be childless. God hears their prayers and grants them not one child, but twins! This ancestry narrative in Genesis tells us that Rebekah’s pregnancy was difficult because the children struggled together in her womb. This prenatal brawl is a signal to the reader; a prelude to generational dysfunction. Even at their birth the twins were at disagreement, with Jacob, the second-born, gripping Esau’s heal, jockeying for the position of first-born.
As was the custom in Ancient Israelite culture, the first-born son was to be highly favored. This favoritism is called the “birthright.” To receive the birthright means to take on the father’s profession, inherit the father’s role as patriarch, and get a larger portion of the family wealth. The birthright grants the first-born son social and legal security that his siblings could not enjoy. The narrator in our Genesis text leads us to believe that this is why Jacob is fighting with Esau in the womb, hoping to get “first place,” so to speak.
To no surprise sibling rivalry and parental favoritism ensue. As Jacob and Esau grow up, we learn that Rebekah favors Jacob while Isaac’s favorite is Esau. Like he did in his mother’s womb, Jacob continues the fight for the prized birthright. While Esau is in the field, Jacob is over the hearth cooking a lentil stew. Faint with exhaustion, Esau enters the house and asks for “some of that red stuff” – the soup. Jacob, not letting an opportunity slip by, offers soup but only in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Overcome by the moment, Esau sees no current value in his birthright, so he swaps it for soup. It’s only afterwards that Esau realizes the consequence of his decision.
Before Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah learns from God that from her sons will come two nations: Israel and Edom, the latter being established by Esau. It’s important to note that the family history we read in Genesis was written by Jacob’s progeny, the Israelites, thus we hear very little else of Esau and the Edomites. Two nations forever living with the consequences of their ancestors’ decisions.
To be clear, Jacob, is a morally gray character in the Bible. If we look to subsequent chapters in Genesis we learn how Jacob mistreats his sons and his only named daughter, Dinah. In the passage read this morning by Dori, we are inclined to see Jacob as victimizing Esau. At a closer look it’s clear that Esau, a skillful hunter, had returned from the field, meaning he had been hunting and indeed had meat to quiet his stomach. It seems that Esau prefers immediate gratification and has complete disregard for his family inheritance. In the midst of the bartering between brothers, I can’t help but wonder: where are the parents? Was their favoritism keeping them from their responsibilities? Why didn’t Rebekah or Isaac discourage their sons from such behavior?
As readers of the text, it’s easy for us to be like Isaac and Rebekah and take sides. But I think we would do well to put ourselves in the shoes of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, when have we beguiled a sibling or coworker to get ahead? How have we manipulated our neighbors to serve ourselves? Or like Esau, what self-gratifying decisions have we made? When have we been a sellout? How have we misused our privilege?
As a nation, we continue to fumble with the pandemic. Greed has reared its ugly head yet again as our leaders barter our health to pad their wallets. International students have become the latest pawn for a xenophobic administration’s political gain. Racism and white supremacy go relatively unchecked because it’s easier to remain comfortable at the expense of our neighbors.
The story of Jacob and Esau invites us to reflect on our own choices. Or as Dori described it during one of our coffee hours, “Personal excavation work where we learn about the layers of who we are and how we are made.” It’s easy to point to Jacob and criticize him for being a cheat; and it requires little effort to cast Esau as imprudent. It requires intentionality to look at Jacob and Esau as a mirror, reflecting back to us our own shortcomings. As we do so, we also see that God remains with Jacob and Esau; that despite their faults, known and unknown, God is faithful. God never stops loving them.
What’s revealed in our family histories, or the lack thereof, is ultimately found in the story of God’s people. Our complexities, our proclivities, our secrets are laid out for all to see. We don’t need a family genealogy to get a sense of who we are; the Bible does this for us. And subsequently, we get a sense of who God is.
God is a God of the imperfect. God chooses the weak to inherit the kingdom of heaven. God chooses the flawed to call into question what is good. God chooses the last to be first. As Aric read for us in the Gospel lesson, God doesn’t plant seeds in only the best soil; God scatters seeds on every kind of turf imaginable. It is about the larger idea of God’s work in the world: We are redeemed through God’s faithfulness, by the unconditionality of God’s love.
Unconditional love is unsettling; it isn’t the way the world is supposed to work. Yet, the only way we can know God is through God’s goodness, and by God’s goodness we are made good.
If we dig a bit deeper into the genealogy of Isaac and Rebekah, we learn that their ancestors stretch back to Adam and Eve. It is here that we recall God’s beloved people being formed from dirt. Adam’s name is a testament to this, being derived from the Hebrew word for soil, adamah. God takes what is at the bottom, what is trampled on and redeems it, gives it life.
The word “soil” is derived from the Latin word humus, which means earth or ground. Humus, like many Latin words, happens to be the root word for many other words we use today. From humus we get the words: humanity, human, and humble. From dust, from dirt, we came; and to the soil we will return. May our humanity, our humus, bring us to greater acts of humility, so that we may learn to walk humbly with our God.