I had just graduated from college and my parents drove me and all my stuff to Chicago and moved me into a student apartment at the Lutheran School of Theology where I would start seminary and prepare to become a pastor. I had visited the seminary before, but my parents had never been there, so we signed up for a tour. A student in his second year gave us the tour around the school and we paused outside looking at the green space where students walked their dogs. My dad looked at our tour guide, a guy he had never met before that afternoon and asked, him right in front of me, “are you worried about women taking your job?” The tour guide chuckled awkwardly at being the object of my dad’s concern over me, and commented that he thought there were enough churches for everyone.
Jacob’s story is a potent reminder that God’s claim on our life often creates conflict. Jacob, who later wrestles with the angel, begins life by wrestling with Esau in the womb and it is so uncomfortable, Rebekah would almost rather die than see this pregnancy through. God’s claim creates an ordeal. God’s blessing makes life a struggle. Faith is both/and. Living out a holy calling in a fallen world is hard, there is no other way. God tells Rebekah right away that conflict is part of the plan—her sons are the leaders of two nations and the younger, not the firstborn, will be the stronger one. God is upending business as usual.
Business as usual in the ancient family structure, was that the oldest son received 66% of the inheritance, took on the family business, and received the blessing of the father—in this case, God’s promise to Abraham of descendants, land and becoming a blessing to all nations. The second son received 33% and had to make their own way from there, unless they had a generous older brother and a good relationship with him.
That was not Jacob’s situation. He and Esau were not the kind of twins who had a secret language, shared a special bond, and displayed a fierce devotion to each other; rather, they were completely different—each one favored by a different parent. Once again, we see in the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, a flawed human family with personality conflicts and favoritism as God’s larger purposes somehow get worked out through their limitations.
Isaac, who has grown very prosperous by the time his sons are born, favors Esau who is a man of action—a hunter who provides and lives off the land. Rebecca favors Jacob who grasped Esau’s heel as they were born, and who cooked and spent more time in the tent. Neither of them comes off very well in our passage today. Jacob is conniving, taking advantage of his brother’s hunger after he provides meat for the family. Before we are too hard on him, we must recall our own manipulations to get what we want or need from others. Esau is impulsive and short-sighted, unable to forego immediate gratification for the long-term benefit his inheritance. Before we judge Esau too harshly, we must remember how often we choose to eat high-fat, high-sugar, processed convenience foods or skip wearing a mask, all of which can sacrifice our long-term health.
Esau gives up his birthright and eats the lentil stew. The brothers steal and threaten and remain mortal enemies for the next several chapters. It is the opposite story of Abraham and Sarah who receive the promise from God and then struggle for ten chapters for the promise to be realized in the birth of Isaac. For Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, the blessing of pregnancy comes immediately—it all happens in one verse—21, and then for nearly ten chapters, the blessing is the cause of the struggle. Either way, God’s claim on our life can create an ordeal.
God is not interested in business as usual, in maintaining human power structures and traditions and in making sure everyone feels comfortable. For a second time, God is working through the younger son rather than the oldest. It’s not that Esau will go without blessing—he will be provided for by God, just like Ishmael was—and Edom becomes a strong nation.
But God keeps upending the traditional practices, over-turning the power structure, working through the underdog, choosing the unlikely person, a trickster, even. Working through the underdog always creates conflict, and listening to God will always set us against the powers of this world. We see this over and over again.
• The divine revelation about Jacob and Esau comes to Rebekah, not to Isaac;
• Joseph, one of Jacob’s youngest son’s, is the one who ends up in Pharaoh’s court with his older brothers bowing down to him,
• David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, defeats Goliath and becomes Israel’s king,
• Deborah, the female judge, leads the people into battle against the King Jabin and the Canaanites,
• Samuel was called to be a prophet when he was only a boy, and
• Esther, a woman, saves her people from slaughter at the hands of a Persian king.
So it should not surprise us that when the Savior is born, he comes to a young unwed mother from a backwater region of Galilee who said that, “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty...”
• and that Savior calls uneducated fishermen and a reviled tax collector to be his disciples,
• and that he promised that the meek shall inherit the earth, and the last shall be first and the first shall be last,
• and that he lifted up enemies like the Samaritans as models of faith,
• and that choses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,
• and that brings life by conquering death.
God might as well start sending women to seminary, and saying that Black and Brown Lives do Matter and we better start structuring our society that way, and that LGBTQ people shall inherit the kingdom of God!
When God starts working through the underdog it often creates conflict, and listening to God will set us against the powers of this world. If God is not interested in upholding the male inheritance system of ancient Israel, what makes us think God likes any of our systems any better? God works through the flawed person, the outsider, the underdog, the powerless, the downtrodden which makes clear that we do not put our trust in human tradition and institutions, but rather, we put our trust in God’s power even in the midst of struggle. We have to do our work and trust God to do God’s work.
Right now the church feels like the underdog, downtrodden, powerless younger brother who is getting a small pittance of what we are accustomed to during this global pandemic. Jacob’s story assures us, this is when God does the best work! God calls us not to trust in our traditions or even our in-person worship, but rather to cling to the blessings and promises of the Spirit that are with each of us every day to be the body of Christ active in the world.
• With Rebekah, we listen for God’s divine guidance for us each day.
• With Jacob, we forego immediate gratification and embrace the long-haul commitment to God’s divine purposes which are not going to be fulfilled overnight.
• With Esau, take action that benefits others, that provides for others, that feeds others, that is always mindful of the needs of the larger community around us.
COVID-19 lays bare the conflict God’s claim on our life creates—our faith must be active in love and lived out in our daily choices—because that is the church right now. This is not a time of waiting for the church to come back—it is the time we are most active—doing our work, asking God daily how we are to serve right now, while we trust God to do God’s work.
While conflict is part of the story, it is not the end of the story. Later, in Genesis, after Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and has 11 of his 12 sons, Jacob returns to meet Esau, who himself has been blessed by God and become prosperous. Jacob is so afraid that Esau is still angry with him and will kill him, but when they meet, Esau runs up to Jacob, throws his arms around him, hugs and kisses him. Jacob did his work, struggling through the conflicts that arose in his life and let God do God’s work, blessing Esau.
My parents had never seen nor heard of a female pastor before I went to seminary, so it was new for all of us. When God’s claim disrupts our systems and traditions, we enter an ordeal where we have to struggle through our own work and allow God to God’s work with others. And that’s what we did. I am blessed with amazing parents who were willing to engage in the conflict my calling created for them. By the time I was ordained four years later, they had flowers on the altar of their Missouri Synod congregation, and my dad was telling the pastor how much they were missing out by not allowing women pastors. They bought champagne for my ordination brunch, and they eventually joined the ELCA.
Blessing and battle, calling and conflict, promise and pain-- Living out a holy calling in a fallen world is hard, there is no other way. As we do our work, God always does God’s work. In the end, there are hugs, kisses and champagne—with Jesus, you always get a happy ending and we end up where God wants us to be.