071220 Pentecost 6
Gen. 25:19-34; Rom. 8:1-11; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23
Today’s first reading offers the powerful image of twins struggling in the womb. The author says they were two nations from one mother divided in the womb. The struggle between Jacob and Esau began in the womb; it continued as brothers growing up; their descendants – the Edomites and the Israelites – struggled as arch enemies throughout their history. This story addresses how certain conflicts in Israel had their source in fights between twin brothers centuries earlier.
The United States started its history with multiple nations battling in the womb too. Those battles have continued throughout its history. The United States goes beyond twins to triplets – Native Americans, African Americans, and European Americans – who struggled at birth, in their childhood, and up until today. I keep referring to our twin original sins of the extermination of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans because they keep coming up in the news, and because the lectionary readings from Genesis keep inviting us to draw parallels. The Supreme Court ruled last week that about half the land of Oklahoma is on a Native American reservation. The calls for reparations for descendants of slaves is in the news again, receiving more attention and more legitimacy than in the past.
To understand all these struggles, and, more importantly, to transform them, we need a healthy theological perspective. Today’s conflicts seek transformation. We’re seeing signs of transformation, but also signs of resisting transformation; sometimes they even take the same form. Seekers of division and seekers of reconciliation both use protest and legislation to accomplish their purpose. That’s why
we must look deeper to discern their intentions and impact. A theological lens can help to discern the meaning of those signs. But we need to learn to recognize the biases even of theology when it is limited by a parochial view of religion.
Transformative theology takes into account all of history, all of reality, and all the universe.
Genesis tells the story of Jacob and Esau through a particular theological lens. It is pro-Jacob, pro-Israel. We saw that in the story of Sarah/Hagar and Isaac/Ishmael. We see it again here. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means we must notice it. The portrayal of a God who sides with the powerless, the weak, the younger brother, the barren woman is a healthy theological perspective. At the same time, it reveals Israel’s self-understanding as a tiny, powerless people who lived in the midst of much stronger nations; a reality that became even more evident in the run-up to the exile with superpowers who could crush a people like Israel without blinking.
But Genesis is mature storytelling. It shows how struggles that began as shallow in one moment become deeper conflicts over time: hunger pangs lead to a change in birthright, envy becomes obsession, and cleverness turns in on itself. The struggle isn’t between winner and loser, better and worse, or right and wrong; it’s initially just between older and younger. Jacob, whose name became Israel, did not prove to be any more noble or righteous than Esau, whose name became Edom. God’s will isn’t revealed automatically by who wins, or who is righteous. God’s will must always be discerned, not assumed based on superficialities.
It is always the present moment that we must discern. We don’t have the luxury of hindsight. Every movement wins some battles and loses others; has moments of righteousness and moments of unrighteousness. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we will be able to look past those things to discern the arc of history. Last week conservatives celebrated some Supreme Court decisions and were enraged at others; progressives celebrated different decisions and disputed others. Last month, some protesters looted, and some partiers wore masks. There are no pure villains nor pure heroes. Every struggle holds an invitation to reconcile and to discern. But it will not be a forced reconciliation or an easy discernment. Conflicts can be resolved at any point along the way; but each time we fail to choose reconciliation that task gets harder. Clarity can be gained at any point; but each time we fail to act it becomes more elusive. No matter how great today’s challenge is it will be bigger tomorrow.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we learn there is no blanket condemnation of sinners. After a chapter where Paul has been struggling with his own inner voice of condemnation, he makes the liberating declaration, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. One of the greatest errors of religious movements has been to condemn entire categories of people they consider sinners: disabled people, left handers, women, homosexuals, blacks, Jews, Muslims, and a host of others.
Jesus confronted that practice with his words and with his life: he always welcomed people who were excluded by religion and society for their sin–lepers, the disabled, eunuchs and menstruating women. And he exposed religious leaders, saying, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. Accusing movements and their leaders of sin and evil is a common way to condemn and undermine them. Segregationists accused ML King of being a communist and an unfaithful husband to undermine the civil rights movement. Today many have tried to delegitimize the protests by pointing to looting and destroying monuments. The Spirit gives life. Where is life nurtured today?
The parable of the sower also speaks to the matter of how to live with different parts that struggle with each other. The sower in the parable had a garden with thorns, rocks, hard ground, and one area of well-ploughed soil where seeds grow well. In that garden the sower scattered the seed indiscriminately. She didn’t seem to exert great effort to make sure most of the seed would fall in good soil. It fell in equal parts in thorny, rocky, hard and ploughed soil. In Jesus’ telling, God is the sower, and Jesus is the seed, and the four types of soil signify the conditions of life. Jesus has already been sown everywhere – in good soil and bad, among rocks and among thorns – and it’s been done without any participation on our part. Isn’t that the offense in the story? We think God can only have sown the word in Jacob or Esau, Democrats or Republicans, in Protestants or Roman Catholics – forget Episcopalians! – European, African or Native Americans. But all of them have rocks and thorns and hard pathways and tilled soil. Abraham and Sarah’s family seemed to understand this. Every story about them shows a family blemish. In today’s story, we see deceit and jealousy between Esau and Jacob. In other stories it is secrecy and pride. It turns out that to bear fruit we must welcome and accept the many selves – or soils! – that make us who we are, both as individuals and as communities.
In this moment when different parts of our nation struggle for dominance in the country, it is important to heal the wounds that started in the womb, and to affirm the value of each part as we discern the path forward. After wrestling with God one night, Jacob sought reconciliation with Esau. It was too late, but the inclination was right. Jacob realized that Esau had a role in history too. The stronger doesn’t always win. The winner isn’t always right. When we use imperfections as excuses for dismissing leaders or movements, we lose the gift. That makes it harder to discern. But it’s about time we got it right.