Sermon Library

Sermon Library

Sun, Jul 19, 2015

Still my Brother's Keeper?

Our Second Reading comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 25, verses 19-34. This is the sixth week of our summer worship and Sunday School series: Faith and Family. With personal testimonies in Sunday School we are hearing inspiring stories of faith from our own members in relation to their family and their church family. During worship, through the lens of the families found in Genesis, we are exploring what it means to be part of the family of God and how that primary relationship impacts our relationships with one another and with the world.

We began with the conclusion of the story of Adam and Eve. Despite their disobedience, God does not abandon God’s creation and God’s people. As the family of God, we live outside the Garden, but God goes with us still.

We next heard the story of Cain and Abel. God hears the cries of both. We were challenged to be our brothers and sisters’ keepers with dialogue, accountability, and mercy.

Then we joined the story of Noah and his sons after the flood. With a slightly odd and off color story, the family of God has to begin again. We sought to find a way to honor the generations that have gone before, and yet begin to find a home in a new place and a new day.

Next we heard the story of Abram and his nephew Lot. Abram has to let go of Lot, allowing him to choose the best land, as they depart from one another. Yet, God uses that moment to fulfill the promise of blessing and land for Abram. We discovered that often we hold on best by letting go.

Last Sunday, we reached the pinnacle of the story of Abram, now known as Abraham, as God inexplicably asks him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and then equally unexplainably provides a ram to sacrifice instead. In this world both terrible and beautiful things will happen, but we need not be afraid for as the family of God, we walk on together as one.

Today, we join the third major cycle of stories in Genesis, the stories of Abraham’s grandson Jacob. Today we hear of Jacob’s birth and of his brother Esau’s, for they are twins, and of the tension and rivalry which marks their lives. Let us hear this Word of God from Genesis 25:19-34.

Read Genesis 25:19-34

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

How many of you just love conflict? You know the kind of tension and rivalry that threatens to destroy even the closest relationships. The struggles that keep you up at night, that cause you to seek out allies in the fight, that imply that only one can win and everyone else must lose. Do you love conflict like that? There are some people who do, but very few. For most of us, conflict is to be avoided or quickly resolved. If we ignore conflict, maybe it will just go away. If we are forced to deal with it, let’s put that behind us and get things back to normal.

Well, our text for today seems to imply that at least for Jacob, and maybe for most of us, “normal” is rivalry and conflict. Even in the womb, these two brothers are going at it, to the point where their mother has had enough. So, she appeals to God for some relief. I know there are no other parents here who can identify with Rebekah’s prayer to God, right? Yet, even God cannot calm these two down. There are two nations at war in her womb and the elder will serve the younger. At the moment of their birth the one is born first, but the other is holding onto his heel, trying to pull his brother back so he instead can be born first. Yes, from the beginning “normal” is rivalry and conflict.

As they grow, not unexpectedly, their interests diverge. Esau, the older, is a man of the fields and loved by his father. The younger, named Jacob or “the heel,” is a quiet man who prefers the tents and is loved by his mother.

Their tension and rivalry continues as they mature into adults. One day, Esau returns from a day hunting and he hungry. Like really hungry. Like really, really, hungry. And Jacob has some stew.

Since we know where this story is going, let me pause at this point and invite us all to consider a question: "Who has the stew?"  Yes, who has the stew? Because I suspect that we all have moments in our life when we are famished, when we want something so badly that we will do anything to get it.  It looks good, smells good, we can almost taste it! A new phone, a pair of shoes, an acceptance letter, a promotion, a treatment, a cure. Yes, consider for a minute who has the stew that you long for and what you would give to get it.

As you ponder that question, let me ask you another. Who is coming to you looking for stew? Because while we all have moments in our life when we desperately long for something, in the larger picture we as 21st century American Christians are probably more like Jacob in this story. We are the ones with the stew, with the food, with the nourishment that other desperately need and desire.

For example, while recent efforts by Christians and others to provide clean water around the world have been largely successful to the point that over 90 percent of the world’s population now has improved sources of drinking water, according to a World Health Organization report, “At the same time . . . the world has fallen short on the sanitation target, leaving 2.4 billion without access to improved sanitation facilities.” Experts say more people own cell phones than have access to a toilet or latrine. That is appalling. We have the stew and there is a desperate need.

In 2013, 15.8 million children under 18 in the United States lived in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. There is plenty of food in this world. Yes, we have the stew and there is a desperate need.

More than four years after the massive earthquake in Haiti, based on statistics released last month, almost 61,000 people are still living without permanent housing. We as a congregation are making a difference in that country, but there is a long way to go. We have the stew and there is a desperate need.

Chattanooga, TN; Charleston, SC; Sandy Hook Elementary School; Aurora, Colorado; Virginia Tech; Fort Hood; Tucson, Arizona; and more than 40 other mass casualty shootings since Columbine High School in 1999. My friends, we have the stew and there is a desperate need.

Yes, Jacob has the stew and his brother Esau is famished. He has the opportunity to meet his brother’s need, to extend a gift. Yet, he uses this moment to get something he wants from his brother. He will trade some stew for the birthright, for the rights of the older brother. He will only meet the need if he gets something better in return. And Esau’s need is so great that says yes.

Neither Esau nor Jacob come out of this narrative looking particularly admirable. Esau focuses on the immediate, the material and gives up his long-term blessings. While Jacob gets the birthright, he actually takes what can only be received as a gift at the expense of his brother. Nothing is resolved. Their rivalry continues. In the days to come their conflict will escalate to the point where Jacob must flee for his life into the desert alone.

And yet, somehow, yes somehow, God’s intention and plan is accomplished. While these boys were still in the womb, God told their mother Rebekah that the elder would serve the younger. We need to recognize that this is not how the world worked. The order of society depended upon the rights granted to the oldest son. With these two boys God intends to disrupt the very order of society. So, no wonder “normal” is conflict and rivalry. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says,

That is what the Jacob narrative is about. The world is filled with … many who insist on their culturally bestowed rights and privileges. These will not welcome the new community of the younger. If such guardians of the present order have a means they will eliminate the younger to preserve their particular privilege. God has inscrutable mercy on “younger ones.” And the promise does not fail.

Yes, God’s promise does not fail. The younger, the widows, the orphans, the children, the weaker, the sinners, are treasured in the sight of God. But that does not mean we cannot be better as the family of God. This story bears so many similarities to the account of Cain and Abel which we considered several weeks ago. Two brothers, conflict and tension, divergent professions, jealousy. Yes, in this early stories of the families of Genesis, and too often in our own families, “normal” is conflict and rivalry. Yet, are called to do better.

My friend Jill Duffield wrote recently about one of the very few sermons she remembers from her days in seminary. She says,

There is one from a seminary chapel service 20-plus years ago that I do remember. Professor Sib Towner preached on Genesis 4, the harrowing story of Cain and Abel. He told the story and then hovered over verse 9, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel? He said, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Dr. Towner said emphatically, “Cain is not his brother’s keeper.” He paused and let the statement hang in the air. An electric silence filled the space. It felt like the Holy Spirit had taken a deep breath and was waiting to exhale. Then, in a steady, measured voice Dr. Towner said: “Cain was his brother’s brother.”

Cain was his brother’s brother. Jacob was his brother’s brother. You might notice that the title of this sermon is, “Still my brother’s keeper?” But perhaps we need to change that. For my friends, we are called to do better than just be keepers, ones of privilege and caretaking. Ones who demand something in return for our care and our aid. Trusting that God will work God’s purposes out, we can be our brother’s brother, our sister’s sister. We can be, we must be, by faith the family of God.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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