DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
A few years ago the movie Legends of the Fall was quite popular. Why wouldn’t it be with Anthony Hopkins as the proud old father of three boys – one of whom was played by Brad Pitt back in his early heartthrob days. It was the story of three brothers. The eldest was serious and stern. Focused on the right ways and a little bit reserved because of how others would think of him. The youngest seemed indulged. The apple of all their eyes he was passionate and diligent. His big brothers believed they had to remain in that role of protecting him from his own naiveté. And then there was Brad Pitt’s character: Tristan. If you saw the movie, you know he was the rebellious one. Though no one really cared because of his dashing looks, his easy mannerisms, and his ability to make all the ladies love him. The story starts out blissfully as the boys and their father forge a living on the wide open frontier in the early 1900s in America. Well, everything’s not quite fine as their mother refused to move from her comfortable New England lifestyle to the rugged wild West. Before you know it, a World War breaks out and the boys find themselves embroiled in battle in Europe. It’s almost a metaphor for the days to come in their family, because when the younger one dies in battle, the cracks in their family connection shatter completely. Before you know it, the older two brothers are locked in a bitter divide, which never is fully reconciled. I guess we should have got that from the title: Legends of the Fall. The story of one family’s ugly undoing.
I’ve never had one in my biological family, so I don’t really get it about brothers. What is it about them that such competition can be the norm? And grudges: o, it seems there is nothing worse than one brother who believes himself wronged by the other. I hope none of you know any of this up close and personal. Two or more brothers who no longer talk to each other over who knows what. Maybe one thought mom and dad loved the other more. Or brother number one failed to live up to brother number two’s expectations. Or maybe one of them really did destroy all family harmony. Good reasons may exist for the ice cold chill that has developed between them. It’s just that: they’re brothers! Flesh from the same flesh. With the same parents and home and history.
We could just look to scripture to know it so often turns out this way between brothers. And sisters too, I know, it’s just that the brothers of the bible get a lot more attention than the girl siblings of scripture. Cain and Able are the first two brothers scripture records. We remember what happens to them, right? They are complete opposites, even though they have the same parents. And in a tale that may have grown too familiar to shock us anymore, from the start one of the first brothers kills the other. It’s been said that the first question posed by a human being in scripture is Cain’s guilt-ridden response when God asks where his brother is. “I don’t know,” Cain replies to the God who already is on to the atrocious act committed. Cain goes on to ask: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The rest of scripture is the story in answer to that question. YES! God pretty much says from the start. You ARE your brother’s keeper!
At least we get a little bit of progress in Jacob and Esau. Of course it all seems worse because they’re not just brothers: they are twins! They don’t just have the same parents, they literally shared the same womb at the very same time. The way scripture describes them, they must have been fraternal twins. You know: the ones that are their own eggs and grow in their own placentas. Still there never is a time when the other one was not. Until death, twins never know a moment of life without their co-multiple. Even if one is born a bit before the other, supposedly birth order issues do not play out the same between twins as they do between singletons. Twins share a unique bond that is constant and oh so very powerful. What a gift to have another human being’s life so intricately woven together with your own. Which may be the reason why twins can be so incredibly complex. Once parents make it through the long nights of double feedings and duplicate diaper changes; if they’ve been able to secure the coveted double stroller; if mom and dad have made it out of their twin’s first years of life with the joys of two sets of first steps and two times of first words; with two successful potty trainings and two burgeoning personalities; twins bring difficult parenting decisions. Do you dress them alike or not? Can you curb the comparisons in hopes of reducing twin competition? And as they first make their way out into the world, should you advocate for your twins to be in the same kindergarten classroom? So it went for Isaac and Rebekah because Esau and Jacob aren’t just brothers; they are twins!
Oh how easily divisions can arise! Before birth they are jostling around in Rebekah’s womb. One kick here. Another punch there. Twins begin the fight with one another in the womb as they struggle to get the nutrients they need, not to mention enough space for themselves in those very tight quarters. Maybe Esau and Jacob are destined for days of division. After all, the LORD tells a bereft Rebekah that “Two nations are in your womb and two peoples born of you shall be divided. The one shall be stronger than the other; the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Still, don’t you think that the prophecy grieved God to speak it as much as it grieved a mother to hear it of her own sons?
The history of two nations really is played out between Jacob, whose name will be changed by a midnight wrestler to Israel, and Esau, whose hairy red appearance is code in scripture for the Edomites that occupied the land southeast of Judah. The outcry of Psalm 137 shows us the bitterness between the nations founded upon these brothers: “Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’” (Ps. 137:7). In other words, in exile the children of Jacob want the LORD their God to remember that the children of Esau, the Edomites, cheered Babylon on against the Israelites. After Babylon left, the Edomites (in the current territory of Jordan) supposedly raided the ransacked city of Jerusalem, kinda rubbing in exile even more. They come from twins and throughout their history, these two nations never could figure out a way to get along! Which might just leave us wondering if there’s any hope for those so different from one another. One peek at the nightly news shows us how difficult it is to remember that we ARE brothers – keepers of one another!
Maybe that’s why the rest of Jacob and Esau’s story is so important. Eventually, after living far from his homeland for having swindled his brother out of his birthright, Jacob comes back. A grown man, now of wealth and wives and children; fear of brotherly retaliation still lingers. In Genesis 32, Jacob’s all set to give his brother a whole bunch of stuff in hopes he and the four hundred men coming with Esau towards Jacob won’t kill him and his. In fear, he sends on flocks for his brother and hangs in the back for a little bit more protection, just in case it is with the sword that Esau comes out to greet him. After a restless night – cuz you know Jacob knew he’d get what he deserved if Esau still held a grudge – instead, in the light of day Esau runs in joy to meet his long-lost brother. Kinda like that prodigal story Jesus tells of the welcoming father who sprints out to meet his returning son; Esau opens wide his arms to his brother. And even though Jacob is going to fib him one more time, Esau shows nothing but goodwill unto Jacob. It’s such a grace-filled reunion that Jacob declares: “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor” (Gen. 33:10).
Even if the history of Jacob and Esau’s children isn’t going to turn out quite as grace-filled, it’s as if the relationship between these two brothers is hope enough that it can. That somewhere down the road brothers are going to figure out that we are each other’s keepers. In the face of one another it is to be like seeing the face of God. Like knowing the compassionate forgiveness we are to practice among one another. After all, we too are brothers – man and woman alike. Brothers in this one, great big world from whom God hopes for something better.
May we all have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts ready to heed how – with all others – we can be brothers.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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