Sibling Rivalry

July 23, 2017

Series: July 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Genesis 25:19-34

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Though I was away last Sunday, I am aware that you heard this story of Jacob and Esau read then as well.  While I could have chosen a different passage for this Sunday, the story is so rich, with Jacob the trickster stealing his birthright from his older brother Esau, I simply couldn’t resist.  Think of the possible interpretations of this story.  It could be:
-A story of craftiness, outsmarting the other to get what you want.
-A story of the underdog, rising up against the stronger elder,
-A story of breaking social convention, in which the firstborn receives a birthright, either through the wit of the younger or the will of God,
-A story about the importance of remembering priorities, and not being ruled by momentary desires of the flesh, though that feels a little harsh to the hungry Esau, who, after all, worked up his appetite in the fields.
-On that note, it could be a story of privileging the “tent dweller over the hunter,”  a sort of urban vs. rural tension…sound familiar?
-The story could be read with a feminist perspective, noting it is the one Rebekah favors, Jacob, who prevails over the one Isaac loves, Esau. 
 Then there is the matter of embattled brothers leading to entire peoples being divided.  God says to Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided” (Gen. 25:23).  We are not told the source of this division; we are simply assured that some divisions go back to the womb of civilization.  If Cain and Abel, the first siblings, weren’t enough to convince us, then Jacob and Esau should leave no doubt.  It is said while they were still in the womb they were “struggling.”  The word in Hebrew is harsher, meaning “to crush.”   They are crushing one another when Esau emerges, Jacob grasping his heel, already trying to take the all-important birthright due the first-born. 
 The story may speak to deep-seeded divisions of the context in which it was written, but how far do we have to look to find such divisions in ours?   How far do you have to look, in your family?  Your other close relationships?  Your neighborhood?  Our idyllic setting is not immune.  I am not talking about healthy disagreement, but when difference gives way to derision.  Out where I live, a community we love, there’s a battle brewing over the schools with the recent emergence of a charter school.  The history is more complex than is worth getting into here, and many have strong feelings on the matter—that’s not surprising.  What has been surprising to me is how people have behaved toward one another:  children bullied or ridiculed on the playground for decisions their adults have made, online forums such as Nextdoor having become sites for nasty diatribes, personal attacks, and rude disregard of others’ opinions, and all this from a community that prides itself in being open.  For all the blessings of online communication, thoughtful discussion about public matters is not among them. 
I don’t even need to point out the nations who struggle to crush one another still, having forgotten they were, and are, siblings.
 How do we live in light of this reality that the Biblical text names with such exquisitely simple imagery, two babes wrestling before they could learn the patience to do anything else?  How do we live when such enmity is, if not in our DNA, then certainly somehow deep within us?  We must choose.  Do we join the struggle, returning hurt for hurt, trying to crush, or even just outwit so we can take from, one another?  I know God seems to reward Jacob for that, but come back next week and you’ll hear a later story in which Jacob get his comeuppance.  Do we return blow for blow, or do we have the strength to try and turn our struggle into something that strengthens relationship rather than destroying it?
 The latest project of Shane Claiborne, a powerful Christian of my generation, has been to work against the death penalty.  He does so not only because of the well-documented mistakes and biases of its execution, no pun intended, but also because he fundamentally believes that the way of Jesus is not killing to show that killing is wrong, because in Christ he believes no one is beyond redemption.  For him, what’s most convincing is the stories.  Claiborne tells a story of a woman named Mary Johnson, whose 16-year-old son Laramiun was killed in a random shooting.  The killer was named Oshea—and you can’t make this up—Israel, Israel, of course, the name to which God changes Jacob’s name later in Genesis. 
 Mary experienced the same kind of anger I imagine most of us would.  She was full of rage.  Mary is a Christian, however, and so what she did with that rage would be defined by that.  She is a kind of a charismatic Pentecostal woman, and she said at one point the Spirit started to work on her.  She comes across this anonymous poem called “Two Mothers.”  It’s about two women, who meet in heaven, now angels.  They recognize each other as mothers by the stars in their crowns (so there is a reward coming, moms!).  The two women recognize another commonality as well.  Each has a blue tint to their halo, which means they each lost a child while on earth.  The first asks the second her story and she tells of her son’s crucifixion.  Upon hearing that this is the mother of Christ, the first falls on her knee, but Mary picks her up, kisses the tear from the woman’s cheek and asks her to tell her story.  That woman says, I am the mother of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and then killed himself.
 When Mary Johnson hears this poem, she reflects on her own situation and realizes there is another mother here too.  She reaches out to Oshea’s mother and they become connected, eventually founding a group “Two Mothers,” and an organization “From Death to Life.”  One woman holds a support group for mothers of victims of violent crimes and the other holds one for mothers of those who commit them.  Mary eventually feels moved to reach out and actually visit Oshea, and the two of them became connected.  In fact, their relationship grows so strong that when Oshea is eventually released from prison, he moves in next door to Mary, the mother of the boy he murdered!  One of the first things Oshea says when he’s released from prison after 20 years is, “I feel like one of the luckiest men in the world, to have two mothers.” 
 It is easy to behold that story as the stuff of miracles, and therefore dismiss it.  That’s what we tend to do with miracles, behold them and dismiss them.  “I could never do that,” we say.  Maybe not, but we don’t know for sure.  We are not, after all, fundamentally different from Mary Johnson.  We are kin, from the same womb and we claim to be devoted to the same Spirit, the same gospel, the same Jesus.  Don’t think it was easy for Mary.  It took a year and a half for her son’s case to go to trial and she was still broiling with anger by then.  It took fully 12 years before she went to see Oshea in prison.  She did it not because it was easy, but because she believed doing so was what it meant to follow Christ.  I have found in more progressive circles the tendency to express condescension toward our more evangelical sisters and brothers, but if all Christians took following Jesus as seriously as Mary does, and many like her have, we would live in a very different world.
 I hope to God none of us will ever have a child killed, but we will all be challenged.  We will face hardship.  We will encounter struggle, some of us a struggle so deep it will lead us to ask what Rebekah asked, perhaps the most biting question of the whole story.  “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”  Put more simply, “Why live?”  Have you ever asked that?  Statistics tell us that a number in this room right now have asked that in the most literal of ways.
 Why live?  Because we have the possibility to give birth to something beautiful with our lives, be they literal children or something else.  A week and a half ago, I received notice that one of my mentors, the man who got me my first job, preached at my ordination service, had taken a fall and suffered a stroke.  David Bartlett is known to many for the books he’s written on the New Testament, for being a dean at Yale, and, for some of us, for finishing his career at Columbia seminary.  He only came to Columbia to allow the dean who followed him at Yale to have the chance to spread his wings, without having to work under Bartlett’s shadow.  That’s the kind of thoughtfulness this man exudes.  The right half of Bartlett’s brain has been significantly injured, the prognosis is uncertain, it seems likely he will never teach or preach again, though he is young enough to do both. 
 Within one day of the posting on social media of his fall, 477 people had commented on the posting, people sharing testament after testament to this man.  One person said Bartlett had written 100 letters of recommendation for him.  I had experienced his care and guidance, his thoughtfulness and wisdom of this deeply faithful man.  I had no idea so many others had.  That fact doesn’t diminish it.  It only multiplies it.  As I read through the comments, I thought to myself, look at one person has done over the years by caring for his students, his colleagues, his congregations, and his children.  One of his sons, Jonah, has been posting updates on his father.  In a recent one, he mentioned that his dad never went more than two days without expecting a call from his adult children.  Jonah and his wife have been listening to saved voicemails from him lately, most of them not 10 seconds from the learned professor:  “This is your father, give us a call when you have a chance.”  Jonah concluded the update on his largely unresponsive father, “We’re trying.”
 There is a time to be infants, wrestling around, taking what we can get our hands on.  Then, there is a time to grow up and be adults, forgiving and blessing and keeping connected.  Amen.