July 12, 2020

Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. (ELW)

First Reading: Genesis 25:19-34

19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23And the LORD said to her, “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.” 24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Psalm: Psalm 119: 105-112

105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light upon my path. 106 I have sworn and am determined to keep your righteous judgments. 107 I am deeply troubled; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word. 108 Accept, O LORD, the willing tribute of my lips, and teach me your judgments. 109 My life is always in danger, yet I do not forget your teaching. 110 The wicked have set a trap for me, but I have not strayed from your commandments. 111Your decrees are my inheritance forever; truly, they are the joy of my heart. 112I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes forever and to the end.

Second Reading: Romans 8: 1-11

1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Gospel: Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sermon (Pastor Meggan)

This summer we have been accompanying our ancestors of the faith through the Book of Genesis—asking how their journeys inform our faith and our relationship with God and with the world.  I love the stories from Genesis and am preaching on them this summer for a few reasons. It is not that I do not think the parable of the sower and the seed speaks to our current context. But during the first half of the church year, the time from Advent to Pentecost or December through May, I do preach primarily from the New Testament, so I feel permission to preach on these Old Testament stories during summer and fall. I have also learned during my time as a pastor that many Lutherans do not know the stories from the Old Testament and if they do know them, they do not know exactly what to make of them.

I know the stories not because I am a pastor but because my parents read our story bible to me and because for hours at a time, I listened to my collection of the Purple Puzzle Tree records—vinyl, that’s right. I would sit in our balcony by the record player and follow along with the accompanying picture books. The creators of this series spent a long time getting through Genesis and Exodus. Why? Because the stories are foundational to our faith. They were the stories Jesus grew up with. They are part of our story. They tell us something about the God we worship and the people of God.

Our Genesis lesson this morning begins a group of narratives often call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac.” Both of these labels are accurate, but neither gives the full picture. Missing from these titles are the rest of Jacob’s family — the formidable figure of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, his older brother, Esau, and Jacob’s primary wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah.

The biblical writers understood family to be the foundational unit of society and religious experience. They also understood this particular family (beginning with Abraham and Sarah) to be the foundation of ancient Israelite society and religion. And so, these stories explore not only the complications of domestic ties, they also explore the connection between family dynamics, social customs, and covenantal life.

Like many of our own domestic dramas, the stories of the Israelite ancestors include infertility and problem pregnancies and difficult births. Pregnancy is a condition that is always fraught with meaning and risk. In this case, the situation of Rebekah and Isaac is itself an echo of Abraham and Sarah’s earlier difficulties. Infertility threatens the family line with biological extinction and jeopardizes the promises of the ancestral covenant until God intervenes after a lengthy period.

Rebekah’s resultant pregnancy means that God’s covenant promises, and the family line will survive, against the odds. However, hers turns out to be a problem pregnancy in more ways than one. Rebekah’s condition creates such discomfort for her that she is not sure what the outcome will be. A word from God informs her that she is not just gestating twins who are struggling within her, she is also gestating two different nations fighting for dominance.

As it turns out, these twins are not identical, and they do not share a special bond that involves a secret language and a fierce devotion to each other. At birth, Esau and Jacob each possess characteristics that signal physical and personality differences that will lead them into conflict. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, who are said to be descended from Esau.

These characteristics also link to Esau to the outdoors and he turns out to be brawny and skillful at hunting. Jacob, who is destined to be the father of the 12 Israelite tribes, is born second. He is smooth-skinned and comes out with his hand around Esau’s foot. The detail clues us in on Jacob’s desire to upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and to subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the firstborn.

The social status of these twin brothers is complicated by the Ancient Israelite expectation that the first- born son should be favored. The firstborn son typically takes on his father’s profession. The firstborn succeeds his father as the family patriarch. The firstborn inherits a larger portion of the family goods than his other brothers. These privileges make up the birthright. Collectively, they provide a level of social and material security that the younger brother would not enjoy.

The younger sibling would have to depend on the mercy of the older brother or make his own way in the world. It may be that these customs developed to create consistency and fairness in families, to prevent parental favoritism from running amok. When the older and younger brothers in question are twins born just minutes apart, however, then the custom seems a bit more arbitrary and unfair.

Jacob is determined, even before birth, to have the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. But since he is not the outdoorsy type, he uses brains, not brawn, to gain it. Jacob is a trickster, an underdog character who uses his wit and cunning to change the status quo. As a man who prefers the tents to the hunt, Jacob knows how to cook. He uses this skill and his knowledge of Esau’s weakness to trade some red soup for Esau’s birthright. It is a trade that Esau willingly makes.

The story of Jacob and Esau has profoundly influenced western literature’s treatment of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. Still, it is often difficult for Christian readers to appreciate these as religious narratives. Seen through the lens of a traditional Protestant or Catholic piety, there seems to be little about Jacob to inspire us.

One instructor wrote that when she teaches these narratives, her students often think that Jacob victimizes Esau. They read Esau’s comment in verse 32 quite literally and think that Jacob is trading on Esau’s dire situation. In fact, Esau has just come in from hunting. He is not starving to death, he just prefers immediate gratification over the long term benefits of his birthright. His family inheritance, which in this story is tied to the covenant promises, means little to him.

American Christians have been taught to correlate piety with traditional personal virtues like selflessness and guilelessness. Moreover, we tend to view our personal successes as rewards for our piety and virtues. But these stories challenge our first-world sensibilities by lifting up an otherwise disadvantaged character who must use guile and ambition to claim his status as a son of the covenant.

The truth is that whether we are talking about the pandemic or dismantling systemic or structural racism or pivoting the church, I actually think guile and ambition are really useful. We need creative problem solvers. We need people who can be clever and crafty for the good of the marginalized, not for abuse and harm but for everyone’s liberation from systems that hold us back collectively. I was one of those straight arrow kids, but guile is something I am valuing more and more when it is used for good.

There is more we can learn from the very imperfect character of Jacob. Esau may not value his familial and spiritual inheritance, but Jacob does. Moreover, Jacob doesn’t see any immediate reward for his efforts; it will be decades before he actually sees success. Jacob is not deterred by the prospect of delayed gratification. Are we really so different? I will sacrifice future health for greasy food or a milkshake.

We are wired/trained today to favor immediate reward. We want closeness but we forget that building relationships takes time. Lots of us want immediate relief for the marginalized, forgetting how much work it is going to take to truly transform our society. That does not mean we should not get moving; it just means we need to occasionally take the long view. To weave this story together with Jesus’ parable of the sower, we do not know how long the seeds will take to grow, but it could be a long time.

Finally, these stories of Jacob illuminate a different view of grace. God chose Jacob even before his birth, a choice that was clearly not based on Jacob’s merits or achievements. Indeed, this is one of many stories about siblings in which God acts contrary to the social custom of favoring the firstborn.

Firstborns are no more virtuous by the fact of being born first, but being born second in the ancient near eastern world made one an automatic underdog. As one author put it, “It’s a bit baffling that God would favor Jacob, a quiet and conniving mama’s boy who tricks his older brother out of his inheritance rights and deceives his aging father into compliance, but Hebrew Scripture has a soft spot for scrappy underdogs, so he grows into the unlikely hero of Israel’s origin stories.”

Sometimes we think that God’s favor of the marginalized, God’s turning the world upside down began with Jesus’ preaching the beatitudes or Jesus being born in a manger. Maybe we trace it back to the Babylonian Exile or perhaps back to the Israelites Exodus out of Egypt. Rarely do we consider that God was choosing the underdogs all along. After all, Jacob becomes the father of the 12 tribes. His name gets changed to Israel. God chose the underdog. That may irk our conventional notions of grace or it may be just the good news we need to hear.

Prayers of Intercession

Called into unity with one another and the whole creation, let us pray for our shared world.

Gracious God, your word has been sown in many ways and places. We pray for missionaries and newly planted congregations around the world. Inspire us by their witness to the faith we share. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Creating God, the mountains and hills burst into song and the trees and fields clap their hands in praise. We pray for the birds and animals who make their home in the trees, and for lands stripped bare by deforestation. Empower us to sustainably use what you have given. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Reigning God, we pray for our nation’s leaders. Increase their desire for justice and equality. We pray for our enemies. Bridge the chasms that divide us and guide authorities to a deep and lasting peace. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Abiding God, care for all who are in need (especially). For those who are doubting, renew faith. For those who are worrying, provide release. For those who are struggling, ease burdens. For those in fear, give hope. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Renewing God, revive your church in this place. Nourish and nurture the seeds you have planted, that we might grow as disciples. Replace what has been depleted. Sustain our ministries (especially) and deepen relationships with the wider community. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Eternal God, we give thanks for all who have died (especially Nathan Söderblom, Bishop of Uppsala, whom we commemorate today). Comfort us in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Receive these prayers, O God, and those too deep for words; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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