Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon: Remembering Our Stories

Genesis 25:19-34 (27:1-45)
Remembering Our Stories
James Sledge                                                                                       July 16, 2017

“A wandering Aramean was my father.” That famous line is the opening of a statement the people of Israel were to say when they offered their first fruits at the Temple. The full statement traces that wandering Aramean’s journey to Egypt, where living as an aliens, the descendants become great and numerous, were oppressed by the Egyptians, rescued by God, and finally, were brought into the good and bountiful land of the promise.
The statement functions a little like a creed such as the Apostles’ Creed. However, it is not primarily a statement of beliefs. Rather it is a claim to a particular and peculiar identity. This is who I am. This is my story. This is what it means to be this strange community of Israel that is called by God and exists only within its relationship to God.
Identity is rooted in story. Families have stories; communities have stories; cultures have stories. Many would argue that the partisan splintering in our nation today has been greatly aided by the loss of a shared story, a family story. They exist, but we’ve forgotten them, lost them, or can’t agree on them, and so, in a very real sense, we don’t know who we are. Something similar may well be happening in the Church.
Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of individualism paired with consumerism, to reduce each of us to agents of wanting and acquiring with identities built solely on what we can accomplish and get. But we have a deeper identity, a true identity as God’s beloved children. It is an identity rooted in stories of faith that need to become our story. “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
People often think of Abraham, that consummate man of faith, as this wandering, Aramean father. He fits the bill, but so does his grandson, Jacob. If anything, Jacob is the one in whom Israel sees itself. His stories are Israel’s stories. Israel’s identity is deeply bound to that of Jacob, its wandering ancestor.

Jacob’s existence is pure blessing, pure grace. Out of barrenness, God brings life, but the life of Jacob is caught up in struggle and dysfunction even before he is born. Jacob is God’s choice to bear the promise given to Abraham and Sarah, but he is an odd choice. He is not the older son nor his father’s choice. Worse, he turns out to be something of a shady character. He is a trickster and a scoundrel. It is not clear whether or not he knows he is the vehicle for the promise as his mother does, but he is out to obtain it either way.
In the story we just heard, both Esau and Jacob treat the blessing as a commodity, theirs to acquire or sell. Neither seem to appreciate that the promise is God’s to bestow, and it will finally follow the path that God has for it.
For some reason, God tells Rebekah about the strange choice of Jacob. Her knowledge seems to encourage dysfunction in Jacob’s story. Our story is the first of two where Jacob schemes to obtain the blessing. Here Esau comes off as something of a dolt, putting little value on the promise. But in the second story, which seems unaware of the first, he is a much more sympathetic character.
That story, the work of a master storyteller, is instigated by Rebekah. She overhears Isaac, old and blind, tell Esau to go out hunting and then prepare a tasty meal for the two of them. After they feast, Isaac will bless him, grant him his birthright. Rebekah springs into action. She hatches a plan to substitute Jacob for Esau. She prepares a feast and puts some of Esau’s clothes on Jacob so that Isaac will smell his older son. And she puts the goat skins on the back of Jacob’s hands and on his neck to simulate the hairy Esau.
Jacob, disguised as Esau, goes to Isaac’s tent with the savory meal his mother has prepared, announcing that he has successfully returned from his hunting trip, ready to eat and receive his blessing. Isaac is suspicious. Surely Esau has not been gone long enough to find game, return, and prepare a meal. Plus the voice sounds like Jacob. But he does smell like Esau, and then the proof. Isaac asks to feel his hands, and the goat hair Rebekah put there does the trick. This is the hairy Esau, and so Isaac confers the blessing upon Jacob.
The real Esau returns from a his hunt only moments after Jacob departs. Isaac and Esau quickly realize what has happened, but it is too late. The blessing cannot be taken back. It is legally binding. Rebekah and Jacob have conned Esau out of his birthright, his blessing.
Not that Esau is inclined simply to accept what has happened. The blessing may not be his, but Jacob will not enjoy it either. He will kill Jacob.
But once again, Rebekah overhears. She tells Jacob to flee to Haran where he can stay with her family. So Jacob heads out. God’s choice, the bearer of the promise, is on the run, a wandering Aramean like his grandfather before him.
But the stories of Jacob, these and others we’ve yet to hear, are more than tales well told, more than memories of an unsavory ancestor whose antics have come to be treasured and beloved over the centuries. No, Jacob’s story is Israel’s story. Even the name Israel first belongs to Jacob, a new name given to him by God in another of those stories.
Jacob and his stories are a constant reminder to Israel that their special place, their chosenness, has nothing to do with their being deserving or the strongest or the best or the logical choice. They are the bearers of God’s promise solely because of God’s inexplicable choice, God’s surprising grace, and when they forget that, as they often do, they forget who they are; they lose their identity.
Being God’s chosen can be a mixed blessing. Far from providing Joel Osteen’s “best life now,” being God’s people at times only adds to the messiness and conflicts of life. When God partners with humanity through Israel to bring blessing to the world, when God partners again through Jesus, God gets deep down into the muck and mess of human existence. God is not neatly confined to some religious or spiritual sphere, but is found in the messiness of the day to day. In the triumphs and failures and missteps and dysfunctions of daily life, God is somehow moving the promise forward. In all this messiness, the boundary between divine providence and human agency can get pretty blurry, but God is there, guiding the promise toward its appointed end.
In Christ, you and I are invited to become part of this messy partnership, one not reserved for the holy, those of great faith, or those who are particularly deserving. God’s invitation calls you and me to become part of a great and messy and often dysfunctional family of faith, the family that carries God’s blessing, God’s promise to the world, forward. And that promise, that hope, is embedded in the family stories. And when we claim them and remember them and make them our own, we remember who we truly are.
“A wandering Aramean was my father.”
All praise and glory to the God who, in Christ Jesus, has grafted us into to the story of the family of faith.

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