July 12, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 25:19-34||Psalm 119:105-112||Romans 8:1-11||Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23||Isaiah 55:10-13||Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13|
by Nichole Torbitsky
Setting and Historical Background:
Today’s text in Genesis takes place in Hebron, a city that lies about 18 miles south of Jerusalem in the same mountain range as Jerusalem. Isaac and Rebecca and their son’s Esau and Jacob, were living toward the end of the time period we call the Bronze Age. It is called the Bronze age because tools and weapons were made from bronze (a copper-tin alloy). Although there were established and walled cities in Canaan, most people and we believe Isaac and Rebecca among them, were nomadic or semi-nomadic. This meant moving with one’s flocks of sheep and goats through the hills to graze for at least some of the year. Depending upon the community, often the young men and boys would go out with the flocks, leaving home sometimes for months at a time. Those who did not go out, remained in a semi-permanent tent village. Hunting would be necessary to help sustain everyone, but farming, done mostly by those who did not go out with the flocks, would also provide an important source of food. One’s wealth would have been determined by how many animals they owned, and also, how many household goods and luxury items a family had. The animals, slaves, and household items would be passed from one generation to the next by inheritance.
This leads of course to the rules about birthright inheritance. These rules have been slightly fluid, and did develop over the years from Isaac’s time into a more rigid set of rules that gave the first born son a double portion of all the possessions of a father (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). The oldest son’s job was to take care of his mother and any of his father’s other wives or concubines, and his sisters. Essentially, the oldest brother is supposed to inherit nearly everything from his father and then take over the responsibilities. But in Esau and Jacob’s time, these rules were not yet codified. Typically, the oldest son was given the greater part of the inheritance, but a father could choose a younger son to inherit the lion’s share. It was not uncommon for the mother to intercede on her son’s behalf, especially if more than one wife was involved. Although Jacob only had one wife, Rebecca, clearly Rebecca thought one of her sons was more fit to inherit and run the family than the other, so she interceded on her younger son’s behalf.
A Story of Brothers
The text for today begins with a lineage rundown: Abraham is father of Isaac, who is married to Rebekah. The text carefully mentions that Rebekah is from the ‘right’ lineage as well, naming her father and brother as kin to Abraham. Like the mother in law she never met, Rebekah also has difficulty conceiving. Isaac prays for God’s help and Rebekah conceives twins. But, this is a troubled pregnancy with the fighting inside her womb. Rebekah, presumably pretty exasperated, asks God what is going on. God responds to Rebekah with information that she is carrying two sons who will be the forebears of two peoples, who, like Jacob and Esau will not find unity with each other. In contrast to the rules about birthright, God tells Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger brother.
The first born boy is red and covered in hair, so they name him Esau. Esau, in Hebrew, translates to “hairy” or “rough” in English. The second born is Jacob, which in Hebrew translates to heel in English (which makes sense, since he came into the world holding his brother’s heel). We are told that Esau is a skillful hunter and a man of the filed, while Jacob was a quiet man, who did not go out with the flocks, but stayed in the village. The text says that Isaac preferred Esau and Rebekah preferred Jacob.
When next we meet the twins, Esau comes in from the field and he is very hungry. Jacob just so happens to have a made a stew. Esau asks for some of that ‘red stuff.’ And the text comments that this is why Esau is also called Edom (red). This story serves to explain why there is animosity between Edom and Israel. Before Jacob will let Esau eat, he demands Esau give up his birthright to Jacob. Esau, reasons that his birthright means very little if he starves to death. But, Jacob demands an oath, a promise that Esau give up his birthright. Esau swears, and Jacob gives his brother bread and stew. Esau eats and drinks and then left. My translation reads, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
I’m glad that the text itself has interpreted this story for us. That last sentence helps to soften Jacob’s actions. Without it, Jacob looks a little like a scoundrel. Here his brother is starving and Jacob withholds food until his famished brother sells his birthright for some bread and stew. This doesn’t strike me as a very fair trade. We’re lead to believe that Esau was not actually about to die of starvation, but was exaggerating. He was careless with his words and reckless with his responsibilities. The text makes clear that Jacob is not a conman, but Esau is impetuous and unfit, and therefore, not chosen by God to carry on Abraham’s line.
Even given the Deuteronomistic rules about birthright (which would imply God’s sanction), it is not uncommon for God to act in ways counter to standard expectations. We see God overturn expectation and favor the younger brother in Abel over Cain (Genesis 4), Isaac over Ishmael (Genesis 21), Joseph over his older brothers (Genesis 33ff) and David over his older brothers (1 Samuel 16). God appears to overturn ‘law and order’ when the lawful and orderly way of organizing society fails to meet the good designs God holds for humanity. Time and again, God raises up the humble, picks out of order, favors the weak, and ‘breaks the rules.’
As I write, once again, American citizens gather in multiple cities to protest against police brutality and racial inequality. I hope that by the time you read this, our country has come to its senses and begun to take a hard look at racial inequality and is taking steps toward justice for all of our citizens. As I write, I wonder if God’s vision of a lawful and orderly society actually fits with the American legal and political system in place currently. What does a lawful and orderly society look like for those of us who view the world through a process metaphysical lens?
In Postmodernism and Public Policy, Cobb reminds us that “each person is internally related to one another and to other creatures (Cobb, 126). Even though we are inextricably internally related to one another, we are also individuals responsible for each of our decisions. Our decisions are made freely, and are acts of self-determination (Cobb, 129). We are, by nature, both individuals responsible for our freely made decisions, and members of community, internally related to one another, and God. This is the one of the examples of flux, the many become one and are increased by one. We are therefore, responsible for ourselves and responsible to be good members of a society. Cobb says, “to whatever extent a society is truly a community, it will take some responsibility for its members” (Cobb, 137). The relationship between individual, society, and God is one of mutual internal relations, whether we like it or not.
Add to this ontological situation, the Christian belief that God acts in the world for good and that good often takes the form of turning human social rules upside down when those rules do not line up with God’s good vision for this world. If we look to our lesson for today, we see that God has plans for the least likely, the Jacobs of the world, who are the younger brother, the ones who are counted out, who do not fit the mold of the perfection. God’s plans for this world are often surprising and often discomforting to those of us who like things the way they are, or at least benefit from them. Perhaps a lawful and orderly society in God’s vision for us does not look much like our society today.
I wonder as we approach preaching this story, who you identified with as you read? Did you see yourself in Jacob? Perhaps you did. Maybe you are the underdog, the counted out, the one who by societal rules should not inherit. If so, you have a good sermon to preach, one full of hope that God has good plans even for those that seemed destined to get the short end of the stick. This passage can preach! It can say that Jacob used the resources God gave him, to follow God’s call, even when the cards seem stacked against him. It can say that God will stand with those who are willing to take the responsibility of properly caring for their community as Jacob stood ready to do, and Esau so carelessly bargained away. It can say that God will not abandon those who society says do not count the way others do. It can say that God will do great things with those that are willing to follow God’s call for the good.
I wonder though if, as we read, it might be better for some of us to identify with Esau. How many of us reading today, have privilege and so much entitlement to that privilege that we treat it with the same carelessness that Esau treated his birthright. Perhaps we have forgotten that with privilege comes responsibility. What responsibility, your congregation may ask? Because we are inextricably internally related and simultaneously ultimately responsible for our actions, we do not have the luxury of entitlement. We have the responsibility to care for our community and the members of it as members of it. We have a responsibility to act on the knowledge that we are internally related to the members of our community. Injustice and oppression for any is injustice and oppression for all.
As a white woman, this is a delicate matter to preach. I cannot take off my privilege, I cannot see what I don’t yet know to look for. This is to say, I want to be an ally, because I believe that I am constituted by my world, and that by my actions I help to constitute that world. I want this world to reflect God’s perfect vision of what we can be. And also, my privilege is so deep that I am nearly blind, like Esau, to exactly what that privilege entails. Unlike Esau, I would like to do better. I cannot tell people who are regularly on the receiving end of police violence and racism what to do and how to behave, but I can listen when they tell me what they will be doing and what they need. I can find out what African American community leaders are doing and support them. I can show up to protests and do *only* that protest, not spray paint “Black Lives Matter,” not throw things or abuse the police, not loot or riot. I can refuse to allow casual racism in my family and my work place. I can do this while practicing Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself. I can get educated, not by asking my Black friends to educate me, but to pick up a book and read. Perhaps, dear preacher, you might use this as an opportunity to start a book study to help those in your congregation who want to learn more. I would highly recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. This book will be a classic of Christian reading. For more preachable insights and quotes on how to be an ally, check out this link.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Historical Background and setting:
Our text for today is often called the Parable of the Sower. A parable (as I’m sure you are already aware) is the technical word for a teaching story. It comes from the Greek parabole which means comparison. Which makes sense, Jesus often starts a teaching with the phrase, “the kingdom of God is like…” He does not do that in this case, but the comparison between the seeds and those who hear Christ’s teaching is pretty clear by the end of today’s passage.
I learned, much to my surprise, this semester, that many, many of my college age students have never planted a garden. Most of them had put a seed in a paper cup and watched it grow, but most of them have never had the experience of attempting to nurture and coax seeds planted in the ground. It is possible, though less likely that some in your congregation have never actually grown anything from seed. If you have had this experience, you can set this story by describing your attempt. I hope it was successful, but if it was not, there is still a good lesson to learn there (perhaps an even better lesson than the successful garden story). We can pretty safely assume that most of Jesus’ listeners would be keenly aware of the difficulties of working with seeds. While not everyone gathered in the crowd by the Sea of Galilee was a farmer, many fished for living. Nearly all of them would have a home garden of some kind. And nearly all of them understand that the difference between a seed in good ground and a seed in inhospitable ground could mean the difference between hunger and plenty, starvation and making it through another year. What we see as a helpful comparison, has deeper consequences to those who rely on those seeds to live rather than as a hobby. This comparison also suggests that Jesus’ gathered crowd was probably made up of people who did farm, rather than people from large cities who did not have space to farm.
Jesus tells this story from a boat just off shore on the Sea of Galilee. The text does not give a specific location, but tradition holds that the house mentioned in the first verse is Peter’s house in Capernaum. Capernaum is located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is thought to be Jesus’ “home base” during his ministry in Galilee.
The text also says that after a great crowd gathers, Jesus gets into a boat so he can preach without the great press of the crowd. But, also, tradition holds that there are a few coves around Capernaum with great acoustics that would have served to amplify Jesus’ voice to the crowd. (Perhaps someone more in the know than me can affirm the truth or falsity of this claim in the comments.) Whether for safety or clarity of a line of sight or amplification or for the gorgeous backdrop of the Sea of Galilee or any combination of these, Jesus gets in a boat to deliver this and six other parables that day. From this day until the end of his ministry in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will only speak in parables to large crowds.
I’ll spare you an extensive analysis of the metaphors Jesus uses in this parable. While the disciples seems to have a bit of a tough time figuring out what Jesus means, we have the benefit of Jesus’ own explanation.
This parable reminds me of a poem credited to Mother Theresa.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
I would like to add, If you sow a bunch of seed, some will take root and grow, but much will not mature to bear fruit. Sow anyway.
There is another great adage, ‘you will reap what you sow.’ From a process theological perspective this rings true. We create the world we live in through our actions. Not exclusively. This is not my world alone, but the things I do contribute to what this world can become and will become. The things I do contribute to who I will become. I have a choice to sow those things that will contribute to the world God envisions for us. I cannot control what happens to the seeds I sow. I cannot control what other people do with or react to what I do, but do the right things anyway. Sow anyway. Why? “Because,” Jesus says, “simple, some it will take root and bear good fruit.” Fruit that might get you or someone else through a lean season.
Knowing that most of the people in your congregations are probably already committed Christians, they are probably already convinced that they should be sowing kindness anyway. Preach it anyway. We need to hear it. Tell us stories of random acts of kindness. Tell us your story of when someone was kind to you. Remind us that this world is full of love and beauty, and we are capable, no charged by Christ to contribute to that beauty. We can’t fix everything, but we can make that one thing better. And, that is good, it is valuable. It is worth doing.
Let me give you an example to get you started. It is, as far as I can tell, a true story. But, even if it didn’t happen this way, I know that it is true. “A woman returned to a Starbucks drive-thru with an apology note and a $50 tip after she snapped at a barista. The card reads:
Greetings Starbucks Barista! Yesterday at your drive thru we had a less than cheerful encounter. At no fault of yours, you were out of carriers and said you could not take my empty cup (trash). I was less than understanding & my manner was curt. I need to apologize. The thought of leaving a trail of unkindness like that is not the path I want to reflect. Not for you, not for me. You are a young man, clearly working hard to build a fortune and you should be commended. Keep your attitude of cheer & hope. Stay hopeful no matter what kind of people cross your path (or drive thru). Surely, God has good blessing in store. You taught this ole lady something yesterday about kindness, compassion & staying humble. I thank you! God bless you today and all your todays. Debbie.”
This and other stories of kindness can be found at this link.
Let me tell you my story of kindness. Stop me if you’ve heard it before, I tell it all of the time, because it is one of my favorites. You are welcome to use it if you like. As a seminary student, I was driving one day to visit a church I had never been to before. I was a little lost. These were the days before cell phones had google maps to help me get everywhere. I was a little distracted looking for my next turn, and I ran right through a fully red light. Unfortunately, the person with the right of way was making a left turn across the lanes of traffic I was trying desperately to stop from continuing down. Both of us reacted quickly enough to avoid a collision, although I did end up facing the wrong way down opposing lanes of traffic. I pulled over into a gas station and the driver of the other car followed. I was sure I was going to get a good chewing out. I was prepared for it. I deserved it. As the driver of the other car approached I rolled down my window ready to apologize and hope for the best. This is what she lead with, “Are you ok?” “That was a close one.” “Is there a baby in back? No. Good.” “Everything alright?” I was stunned. I was speechless. It took me a moment. Then I apologized, profusely. “No harm done,” she said, “Glad you’re ok.” Then she walked back to her car and drove away. This was nearly 20 years ago. I do not know her name. But I remember her face. I pray for her still. She made the world better that day.
Let me tell you another one. As a young mother I was traveling by alone with my toddler son and a giant diaper bag stuffed full of everything I could think of to keep a three year old busy for six hours. After a terrible delay leaving LA, we landed in Phoenix an hour after our connecting flight had already taken off. It was late and we were exhausted standing in line with all of the other passengers who had missed their flights and needed to make other arrangements. I was the mom who kept my toddler in a toddler harness. I know. I know! Trust me, I got so many judgmental stares and loudly whispered judgments, I know exactly what most people think. My toddler didn’t mind it though. Actually, I think he kinda liked it. He had a little freedom to move around, but even in a big scary place like the airport, he always knew where I was. Two travelers behind me had different opinions and particularly loud whispers about how a good mother wouldn’t need to use a thing like that. How they would never do that to their child. I have to admit it hurt my feelings to be judged by strangers after such a terrible day. Just at that moment, a security guard walked up to me. Oh no! I thought, he’s gonna let me have it for the toddler harness. I must be breaking a rule or something. He leaned in a little and whispered loudly (loudly enough for the busybodies behind me to hear) “Ma’am that’s the smartest thing I can see a parent do around here. We have kids get lost and go missing all the time. Those things keep everyone safe. Thanks for being a good Mom to your sweet boy.” He smiled and walked off. I didn’t hear much from behind me after that. I don’t know his name either. But, I pray for him too.
Here is a good one. This is a link to a picture of protesters in Louisville protecting a police officer who was separated from the rest of his unit during the protests.
Here is a link to a story about Tennessee National Guard troops who laid down their shields and pulled up their face protection at a peaceful protest rally on the Capitol steps.
Nichole Torbitzky earned a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, Women and Religion, African Diaspora and African American religion.