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God Works Amidst Dysfunction

Preached at The Fairfax and The Pentagon (as part of St. Mark’s MAPTP internship) on July 6, 2011.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A (RCL): Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Consulting the online resource Dictionary.com, dysfunction is defined as: “a consequence of a social practice or behavior pattern that undermines the stability of a social system.”   So I imagine there’s some measure of dysfunction in just about every family there ever has been, is now, or will be in the future.   I remember my father returning from a family wellness retreat; he immediately called my sister, brother, and me, in order of oldest to youngest, to individually apologize for how dysfunctional our family was.  He heaved that “D-word” around a lot until I finally challenged him to “show me normal.”   That’s not to say we didn’t have relational challenges in my family.  We are human after all.   I’m guessing that any notion of a ‘perfect family’ must live somewhere in that part of the brain which produces imagination and fantasy!

Regardless of whatever normal or healthy relationships look like within a family, I would challenge anyone who suggests that Jacob’s family was perfect.  Talk about being dysfunctional!   Today’s account from Genesis about Jacob and Esau is marked with parental favoritism, cheating, stealing, deception, trickery and dishonesty.  Let’s face it: Not everyone in the Bible is a role model!

That dysfunction did not originate with Jacob’s immediate family.  We can trace it back to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.  Abraham sired at least eight children by three different women.   There was Ishmael whose mother was the Egyptian slave Hagar; there was Isaac whose mother was Abraham’s wife Sarah; and there were six other sons born to a woman named Keturah that Abraham married after Sarah died.   Now, even though Ishmael was Abraham’s first born, Abraham cut off Ishmael and Hagar from the family, dismissing them out into the wilderness of Beersheba with nothing more than bread and a skin of water.

Afterward, Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.  Abraham took special care that his other children did not threaten Isaac’s inheritance; they received gifts before being sent away to the East.   So in effect, Abraham actively disinherited seven of his eight sons and their families, and later disowned them, fearing they might ‘contaminate’ the others, including Isaac.   That sure sounds like hush money to me!  Again, Not everyone in the Bible is a role model!

Now we come to the infertile couple of Isaac and Rebekah.  Isaac prayed for an end to his wife’s barrenness.   God answered his prayer with twins: Esau, the first born, and Jacob.  Other than Cain and Abel, this is the sibling rivalry of the Bible!   Even in the womb, there was conflict between the two: The children struggled within Rebekah.   So great the turmoil in this woman who had been unable to conceive for twenty years, Rebekah cried out to the Lord: “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”  Finally, when the two were born, first Esau, then Jacob, Jacob was holding onto his brother’s heel.

From the beginning, these twin brothers were different.   Esau was born rough and ready, a hairy boy who grew up to be a rugged hunter, much to his father’s delight.   Jacob, on the other hand, was quiet and remained in the tents - a gentle homebody who stayed near his mother.  It is Jacob who is cooking a stew as Esau comes in, famished from working in the fields.   Jacob cons his brother out of his birthright - and Esau is foolish enough to complete the deal.   The birthright, so important to Jacob, was of such insignificance to Esau that he rated it lower than a dish of stew.  Deception and trickery!   To make matters worse was that Isaac and Rebekah were apparently playing favorites: Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah doted on Jacob.   Real situations, but not necessarily healthy.  Talk about dysfunction.  This is not one of those ‘go and do likewise’ stories from the Bible!

Yet here’s the amazing thing: In the midst of this somewhat twisted, dysfunctional family system, God is at work.   And in some rather unconventional ways.   For example, God chose Jacob as the child of promise even though Esau, as the first born, should have received the status of his father and a ‘double portion’ of the inheritance, as was the social custom of the day.   And God had told Rebekah, “The one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

So why did God make this unexpected choice?  No answer is really given.   We are left to conclude that this represents the enormity of God’s grace - God’s unearned, unmerited love at work - perhaps even in a slightly scandalous sort of way.

Yet this should not surprise us.  Jesus himself was an unexpected choice.   Who would have thought that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth that was born in a stable in Bethlehem would be God’s chosen Messiah?

The cross was certainly an unexpected choice.  Peter said to Jesus: ‘God forbid it, Lord!   This must never happen to you.‘   Yet the cross, that vehicle of Roman torture and death has become for us a symbol of God’s promise of salvation and eternal life.

Even God’s choice of us was unexpected by the world’s standards: God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

I hope you realize what this means.  That no matter how dysfunctional our families may be or how convoluted our lives may become -- God is always at work to bring something good out of the mess!   And, finally, we cannot possibly earn this favor and we certainly have done nothing to merit these blessings - that is why we call this extraordinary gift of love - Grace.  Thanks be to God!