Rev. Diane K. Hooge
When my grandmother died many years ago, some of her children and spouses gathered to sift and sort through 90 years of saved letters, documents and a lifetime of gathered keepsakes. In the sorting, came the shocking discovery of some family secrets. One of her daughter-in-laws discovered the adoption papers of a grandchild. It had the effect of an explosion within the family. The fallout from that discovery took years to settle down. It impacted each generation. It gave us insights into the cultural norms and the family dilemma around the choices that were made in the year 1950. The truth is that we tend to highlight our favorable ancestors and downplay or cover-up family history that is deemed unsavory.
Today’s text is rather disconcerting. I grew up in a church tradition that specialized in rules and regulations, and so it still amazes me to read a biblical account of such a dysfunctional family. It reminds me of the process of going through musty boxes of old memories and being blown away by what one finds.
In today’s lesson, Abraham and Sarah have both died. Son, Isaac married Rebekah when he was forty, and it was twenty years before Rebekah would become pregnant. We can only imagine the countless rollercoaster cycles of hope and disappointment that took place month after month and year after year in Isaac and Rebekah’s home. It is only when one knows this history that one can appreciate Rebekah’s thrill at becoming pregnant, and then becoming horrified at the agony of her pregnancy. After the misery of being barren, she finds herself in the awkward place of crying out to God over her horrendously painful pregnancy. God gives her the information that she is carrying not one child, but two…added to that surprise was the disconcerting news that they would not get along. And, she was told that the older twin was going to serve the younger. This piece of information enables Rebekah to more fully understand the battle that is raging within her womb; for she is told that they will each become a leader of a separate nation—rival nations: Israel and the desert Ishmaelites. If Rebekah wasn’t in such pain, the whole story would have been comical.
I suspect that the favorite memory of the midwives was the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob. The story was probably shared for generations. The first thing that had to have impressed those tending the birth was the color of the first-born. Esau was hairy and red; that alone would have made an impression, but then came the second astounding piece of the story. The midwives witnessed Jacob clinging on to Esau’s ankle as Esau moved through the birth canal, with Jacob following. The battle between them became even more complicated when their mother chose to favor Jacob, and their father chose to favor Esau.
The twins’ childhood was spent with all the relatives focused on their differences. Esau loved the outdoors. He was a field and stream kind of guy. Jacob was more reflective. He spent his time in the tents of his people. If he’d of owned a computer he probably would have been the family IT specialist. Jacob was smart—smart like a fox.
The key moments of action in the family history takes place on a day when Jacob is anticipating his brother’s return from the field. Jacob spent the morning in the kitchen slicing and dicing the veggies while sautéing the onions and garlic. At the proper moment he added the red lentils and the fresh herbs. As Esau nears the family compound, a fragrance begins wafting out, reminding him of just how hungry he is. By the time he arrives home, he is so starved that he appears to have very little control over his actions. Esau heads for the kitchen where Jacob is hovering over the soup pot. He greets Esau at the door, and takes in Esau’s request for a bowl of the red stew.
Jacob moves into his game plan—a very dangerous one. He refused to ladle up a bowl until Esau swears that he will give Jacob his birthright. The costly bowl of soup and the hunk of bread are then passed over to the hungry one and the years continued. Who knows if Esau even remembered that kitchen sale?
As father Isaac neared his death, Rebekah commands Jacob to bring her two kid goats so she can prepare Isaac’s favorite stew. While Jacob rummaged through Esau’s closet looking for his brother’s hunting jacket, Rebekah began to prepare the goat skins to serve as the final pieces of the costume which transformed Jacob into his hairy fraternal twin brother.
Although Isaac’s eyes were dim with age, he was astute enough to discern the differences in his son’s voices, but he pushed aside his doubts when he felt Jacob’s silky goat skinned gloves that passed as Esau’s arms. Isaac was relieved to catch the familiar “field scent” as Jacob bent to kiss Isaac wearing the selected hunting jacket from Esau’s closet.
Jacob could recall with detail the anguish of his trembling father whose sobs racked the house when he discovered that Esau had been tricked out of his blessing—out of his birthright. Nothing salved the wound of betrayal for Isaac. How could he have dared to believe that Esau could have been so gullible and naïve as to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew? No father wants the weakness of a son flaunted before him when he desperately needs to cling to his dreams for the next generation.
Things were exceedingly tense around the family compound. Household help often trade their information as their only source of power. Rebekah was informed of Esau’s plan to kill his brother, and Rebekah helped Jacob to pack and sent him off to her brother Laban’s home.
It’s on his journey following leaving his home and relationships behind that Jacob dreams the dream that will forever influence the remainder of his life. In the middle of the night, in his fugitive role running from the wrath of his brother, the anguish of his father, and while holding the last view of his mother, he now enters the darkness to face his own inner demons. Yes, he has the blessing, but he knows that God may deem it as counterfeit. On one of the darkest nights of his life, the dream comes. The image within the dream is of a ladder filled with angels symbolizing his desire for movement away from his earthly conflict. It reflects his desire for hope—hope of inheriting the covenant passed down from Abraham to Isaac, and by a circuitous route to Jacob. The ladder represents God’s rainbow of hope. He faces the hard work that comes with transformation…and he is ready to be accountable to God; not an easy task for Jacob, and not an easy task for any of us. And, the great humbling gift is God’s grace of unconditional love offered to Jacob in spite of his disordered behavior.
As I was working on this sermon, I thought about the story of former Texas Ranger’s Josh Hamilton, who now plays for the Los Angles Angels. For three seasons he was out of baseball battling a drug addiction. For three years he fought to regain trust with his wife and family who he had betrayed by his behavior. He tells the story of showing up on the porch of his grandmother’s home. At first she didn’t recognize him because he had lost 50 pounds and was covered in tattoos. At 24 years of age his voice was weak and his eyes hollow. He remembers seeing the disappointment in his grandma’s eyes. That night, coming off a crack binge, he had the most haunting dream. In the dream he has a stick or a bat that he fights the demon. Over and over he would swing, and the demon would rise again. Just as he was about to give up, he felt a presence by his side. He tells how he turned his head and saw Jesus, battling alongside him. Josh tells how he was filled with strength. It was a turning point.
His recovery is part of a daily commitment, as it is to those who faithfully park their cars in our lot and on the side streets and make their way to A.A. meetings in our building. They are living into the courage that it takes to break a cycle. Josh Hamilton clings to the liberation that he found in the redemptive power of God. His story has influenced many of his fans who wait not only for his autograph because he’s a ball player, but because he has become a ladder of hope…someone who has found a way out of bondage.
As the mystics would call it, Jacob experienced the dark night of the soul. Jacob’s dream was an invitation to enter into God’s plan. There was a promise of God’s presence. When he awoke, it was clear that the dream was more…it was a vision. He made his commitment to follow God with the understanding that he would be provided for and that ultimately he would be able to return to his father’s house in peace. He made his stone pillow, on which he had received the sacred vision, into an altar. In the wilderness, he made a commitment to God. This is the familiar part of the story, isn’t it? It’s in the wilderness places of our lives where we often struggle with the unfinished business of our own lives.
We worship a God who embraces all the parts of ourselves while inviting us to move towards wholeness and ultimately to freedom. Conflict is a part of the journey. We are tempted to deny, ignore and avoid conflict. It takes courage to fully engage in the life one has been given. Blessings, wisdom and freedom often come out of the hard work that it takes to stay present to God and to ourselves. Freedom often comes not out of living differently, but in seeing our lives differently. It takes courage to move one’s life into alignment. This is God’s invitation to us… and we need the support of a faith community to live into the invitation. May God grant us the strength to continue to step out in faith. Amen.