Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 6 September 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Do you remember Easter of this year? It was, many of us confessed, the weirdest Easter any of us had ever experienced. We were about a month into the pandemic lockdown and I think that many of us were still telling ourselves at that point that surely this would be all over soon. Maybe – we held onto this idea for a while – maybe it would even be over by Easter.
But no, when that festival rolled around, there we were; shut up in separate houses. The doors of our houses were locked because we were afraid to be with other people because of the virus that stalked out in the streets. I heard many people say that it didn’t seem like Easter at all and the maybe Easter should be cancelled or postponed. And you may also recall that I preached on that Sunday that far from cancelling Easter, we were actually living it – that we were just like the disciples locked up in their upper room in fear on Easter Sunday. Their fear didn’t stop Jesus from rising for them and ours wouldn’t stop him rising for us.
I could not help but think of Easter Sunday as I thought about our worship here today and, especially, as I looked at our reading from the Book of Exodus this morning. It is now twenty-one weeks after Easter. That is a long time. And, in many ways, it may feel like we’re in exactly the same place we were then – still living with restrictions, still worried about the virus, still often hiding indoors as often as possible because what’s outside is dangerous.
The truth is, however, that we’re not quite in the same place. We’re wearing masks now – that wasn’t really in view in April – and certainly some restrictions are eased. But I’m talking about something else that is really very different. It is one thing to be about a month into a crisis; it is quite another to be six months in. We’ve now kind of blown past that initial adrenaline phase. We’re past the “let’s all pull together and be heroic because we can do this” phase. And even the conspiracy theorist and anti-mask and anti-vax phase of this whole mess has gotten extremely tired. We have just settled into this new routine of a life that just doesn’t seem to be what it’s supposed to be. We are just tired and what do we do with that?
Well, here is the context of our reading this morning from the book of Exodus. The people of Israel have been in Egypt for a long time. They have been dealing with a crisis in Egypt, a crisis far worse than a pandemic, of course, a crisis of slavery. And they have been enslaved so long that they have blown past that initial adrenaline phase. They’re past the “let’s all pull together and be heroic because we can do this” phase. And even the conspiracy theorist of Israelite turning against Israelite and “maybe the Egyptians are actually the good guys” phase of this whole mess has gotten extremely tired.
They have just settled into this new routine of a life of slavery that just isn’t what it’s supposed to be. And the question is, after all this time and when this new reality just seems to be the way the world is, how can you even begin to dream about something different and something better? I kind of feel a lot of kinship with them on that front right now.
And the story we read this morning is about how God transferred them out of that state. The opening words are, I feel, significant. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months;” God says, “it shall be the first month of the year for you.” And here we are too, at the beginning of a new year in the life of the church, of school, of the business cycle. Yes, I know that technically the year begins in January, but practically we all know that it begins in September. And I know that all of us are wondering, as this year begins, what on earth it is going to look like because it ain’t going to work quite like any year we have seen before.
So here is the circumstance as the Israelites begin this new year in their life. “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” And I realize that a lot of people really struggle with this famous tenth plague of Egypt. The idea that God could willfully strike down the children of a country, even for the worthwhile goal of setting people free from slavery, is rather disturbing. But I do not think that you have to interpret the story in exactly that way.
Yes, this crisis is described as God passing through Egypt and striking people down, but it is also described as a plague. There is also no description of how or why people died. Understand that this was a story told by a people who had a tendency to describe any disturbing event as the action of some god. It is not a huge stretch to imagine that this was just their way of talking about a pestilence of some sort that spread through the land and that particularly affected a certain demographic. Such things, after all, have happened again and again throughout human history and still happen today.
So, let’s just imagine for a moment, that that is what this is describing – some kind of deadly epidemic. That would certainly give us a different point of view on the instructions that Moses gives to the Israelites. Isn’t he basically telling them that, in order to survive this disease, they have to take some very specific measures? They have to shelter in place only with the members of their own family or, at most, with one other family in their bubble. “They are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one.”
They need to follow some very specific food preparation instructions and leave no leftovers because, of course, food storage failures are a common vector for disease. “They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.”
And they need to mark the doors of their households to ensure communitywide compliance with these guidelines. The promise is that, if they do all this, the people will be able to survive this particular crisis while those who don’t take these measures, like the Egyptians, will suffer because of it. It is kind of like if you were to compare how Canada and the US did in terms of following the advice of public health experts and then you were to compare how the two countries have done in terms of the spread of covid-19.
But actually the point of this story in Exodus is not to exult over those who did not do as well in following instructions. I firmly believe that the story of the Passover is not intended to entrap the people of Israel in the story of their enslavement and their escape from slavery, but rather to get them to focus on what comes next – on building a new life and a new reality after the crisis. That is why the focus is on Passover being the beginning of the year and it is especially why they are told to eat it in a rather peculiar manner. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.”
Now, why do we have this rather odd piece of instruction? Because the Passover is all about beginning a new way of life, a post-crisis life and a post-slavery life. That means being willing to leave the past behind, even though it is comforting and familiar, and embracing the new reality the God is putting in front of the people.
And, if you read on in the Book of Exodus, you realize that this was not really something that came very easily to the people of Israel. They were constantly griping and complaining and wanting to go back to Egypt because the new reality was unfamiliar and it was hard. But it was the way forward and this Passover meal was instituted to cement that truth in their consciousness.
Like I say, I do feel a particular kinship with the people of Israel at this moment in their story. We are gathered today and we are gathered in our own particular homes. We have taken communion together, but we ate it isolated within our household bubbles. It is a Passover meal. This particular meal will not mark the end of this crisis for us as it did for them. We’re not out of the woods yet as far as covid-19 is concerned and I do not know when that time will come, but I do know that it will come. There will be a day, and I pray it will be soon, when we greet the dawn without any substantial worry that there is a coronavirus out there waiting for us.
The plague will pass over. And I am going to suggest to you right now that the way that we ate this meal here today and the way we do other things right now in the time of crisis needs to become all about how we will live in that new reality when it comes. I challenge you to eat it with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.
What does that mean? I realize that the phrase “gird your loins” is not quite everyday speech for most people today and it might even sound a little bit off-colour, but the meaning is pretty straightforward. People in that world normally wore long flowing robes which are great for standing or sitting or walking. They are particularly refreshing in a nice cool breeze, but, as you can imagine, kind of get in the way when you’re doing anything more strenuous. So they would just take up their skirts and tie them around their waist when they needed to run or fight or do anything else of the sort.
So put that together with the instruction to have your sandals on and your walking staff in your hand and what this instruction means is that they are supposed to eat with a readiness to move out and to move on. They are to “eat it hurriedly” because they can’t wait to embrace the newness that God is preparing for them.
Now, as human beings, we generally have this habit of seeing a festival or a holiday as an occasion to look back. On Christmas, for example, we always get nostalgic for the Christmases of the past. Festivals are a chance to breakout old traditions, old recipes and old memories. But Passover is meant to be different. Passover is meant to be a call to look forward to the new life the people are called to live in their new freedom. And that is why I think it is the type of festival that we need at the beginning of this year.
I do not know when our particular release from Egypt will come – when the pandemic restrictions will all be lifted. I know we’re not there yet, but that day is coming. And it is my belief that we need to meet that day with our loins girded, our sandals on our feet and our staffs in our hands. We cannot afford to go into that new reality while we are constantly grumbling and complaining about how things used to be back in Egypt. God has prepared something new for us and I hope that the feast we have shared today has given you a taste for that newness.
Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 26 July 2020 © Scott McAndless
1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, Mat 13:31-33, 44-52
Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t worry, God won’t send you more trouble than you can handle.” It is a phrase that is so common, repeated by so many people, that you maybe just assumed that it came from the Bible. You may have even gone looking for that verse. Or maybe you are thinking right now, yes, I’m going to go look for that verse later.
If that is what you are thinking, let me save you a little bit of time. You won’t find it; it’s not there. The Bible never promises you anything of the sort. But I probably don’t need to tell you that because, really, this year of 2020 has, up until this point, pretty much been continual demonstration that the troubles of this world can come at you and be totally overwhelming. And, because it is 2020 and not one of us has any clue what yet might be in store for us during this year, I just want to say that it is time for us to give up on that saying and that, if you have been or are feeling completely overwhelmed these days, you shouldn’t feel bad about that. You should not feel as if you have failed somehow. I suspect we’ve all felt like that at some point this year.
So, that is what the Bible doesn’t promise you in a year like this, but I think we’re all looking for a little bit of encouragement at this point. So, let’s ask, what does the Bible promise us? Well, if there was ever a good passage to read during a bad year, I think that the passage we read from the letter to the Romans this morning is a good place to turn. God may not promise you not to send anything you can’t handle, but he does promise you this: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And, while that other saying might set us up for some unrealistic expectations, I do think that this one is particularly helpful at a moment like this.
It doesn’t say that everything that happens is good or even that everything happens for a purpose. That, by the way, is another trap we easily fall into, thinking that every bad thing that happens must have some divine purpose behind it. That sets people up, makes them think that, if only they can figure out this hidden purpose behind whatever tragedy they are dealing with, everything will all just make sense and everything will be good. I have known people who drove themselves into mental and bodily illness in a fruitless quest to find the purpose behind various tragedies they have lived through.
I have also seen well-meaning friends and family members torture their loved ones with speculation about the purpose they claim to see in a tragedy. I knew a couple, for example, whose daughter had died at a young age of cancer. That is, of course, a horrible thing for anyone to live through. But it was made worse, for them, by the people around them at that time who kept trying to explain to them the purpose that they thought God had in making that terrible thing happen. None of the proposed purposes was good enough, of course, and I met this couple years later and they were still tortured by a question that, I believe, really had no answer.
So it’s not that everything that happens is good or has a purpose, the promise, instead, is that God makes things work together for good or, to put it another way, that God has a way of bringing good out of even the worst circumstances. I think that this is an important difference. I don’t pretend to understand why God allows various bad things to happen in this world. I happen to believe that God is just as grieved when people die in a pandemic or in a war as any of us are – probably more so. But even in the worst of circumstances, God does have a way of bringing good out of it.
I’ve seen that throughout this pandemic. There really is this potential for good things to come out of it – for communities to pull together, for us to rethink how we treat and how we value people who do essential work, to do a better job in long-term care and there are many other great things that could and should come out of it.
22That doesn’t mean that these positive things will all happen, of course. In fact, as I look at the response to this crisis and how people are retrenching and protecting old privileges, I am often worried that the people in charge are going to stubbornly resist learning anything from this whole thing and that powerful forces will exert themselves to make sure that nothing really changes. But whether we manage to find the good and bring it out of the bad thing that happens, I think, is up to us. And we’ve got some work to do to make sure it happens. God’s promise is to work to make that good a possibility.
But, still it has to be said, even if all that good did come from this pandemic, I would not suggest, even for a moment, that that is something that would make the suffering, the death and the deprivation all worthwhile. It doesn’t work that way – no positive outcome could make that a fair exchange.
And as for purpose, there is purpose to be found in this and in every tragedy, that is also a promise that is made in this passage. But note that Paul doesn’t say that the purpose is to be found in the tragedy itself. This is what he says: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The purpose, you need to understand, is not in the tragedy or the bad thing that happens. The purpose is in you. You, as someone who loves God, have a purpose. God calls you according to his purpose for you.
What does that mean? It means that, while it is often a fool’s errand to try and find the purpose in some particular tragedy, you may always believe that there is a purpose for you that you can realize in the midst of whatever your circumstances are. That purpose is most completely fulfilled in love. That’s what Paul has to mean when he refers to those who love God.
When you’re in the midst of some awful events, you do have a purpose. You are called to comfort and support others according to your ability. Or sometimes, when you are truly overwhelmed and have nothing to spare, your purpose can simply be accepting that, in this moment, you are called to receive love and compassion and care from other people.
Paul goes on to write, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Paul wrote this as someone who had experienced hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword in his work of preaching the gospel. And he was writing it to people who had also experienced these things or lived in fear of experiencing them.
They all understood that the promise was not that God would never send you any trial that you couldn’t handle because nobody can handle all of that. Nobody can go through it without feeling overwhelmed. And I think we all have a better understanding today about what it means to handle hardship. When this crisis started back in the middle of March, I think that most of us felt like we could ride out the storm. We would hunker down, load up on some supplies – hopefully score a big pile of toilet paper as if that was all that really mattered – and we’d make it through this thing. But then we all know what happened, it dragged on and on and on a psychological level and a physical level it became harder and harder to bear.
I’m not trying to suggest, of course, that we are living through the worst tragedy that human beings have ever had to deal with – far from it – but I’m just saying that the length of this and the uncertainty of the length have definitely taken their toll on us. And it has given us a taste of what it is like to be in a situation where everything is out of control and you just can’t handle it. That happens. That is part of life in this world and people of faith, people who love Jesus, are never given the promise that they will be spared that.
But the promise that Paul gives us in this passage is significant. He is promising you that, though you may pass through some trials, nothing you have to face is going to separate you from the love of God that has been shown to you in Christ Jesus. You may sometimes feel overwhelmed. You may have things going on in your life or in the world around you that you just can’t handle. What Paul is promising is that when you are overwhelmed by circumstances, God will overwhelm you with love.
So those are the truths and those are the promises that you need to be holding onto, especially in uncertain times like these. But that still leaves us with one lingering question: how are we supposed to manage all of this? I mean, it is all well and good for me to stand here and tell you that nothing bad that could happen to you could possibly separate you from the love of God, but, when you’re in the middle of it, when you are feeling totally overwhelmed by what is going on, what are you supposed to do with those feelings? What are you supposed to do to help you cope in the middle of it?
I believe that the number one tool that God gives us to help us cope when we are feeling overwhelmed is prayer. In fact, sometimes prayer is nothing more and nothing less than the act of admitting to yourself and to God that you are overwhelmed. It is saying to God, I know I can’t handle this. I mean, I’ll do what I can. I’ll try and do the best that I can for the people I care for in this situation, but I just know that there are parts of this that are out of my control and so, God, I’m going to have to hand those things off to you. Prayer is simply the act of giving over to God what you know that you can’t carry.
But there is a problem that may come with that when you are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes the situation is so complex that you honestly do not know what is needed and what is going to help. And so people might wonder how they can pray when they don’t even know what they’re hoping for or what to ask for.
Paul speaks to that very issue in this passage. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” You see, prayer is not really an exercise in figuring out what is needed in a situation and then telling God what to do about it. Prayer is first of all about God meeting us where we are. And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed, we cannot even put into words what we want or what we need.
The promise we are given in that kind of situation is this: nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our inability to pray, not our inability to express what we need, not our feeling of being overwhelmed. When all we have left are the cries and groans of our own hearts, God can and does meet us there. The promise is not that we will be spared the troubles of this world. The promise is that we do not have to face them alone and without the support of the love of God. And that, I promise you, is what you need most.
Many people have no doubt been wondering why it is that we are the ones who have to deal with the crises of our present time. I don’t have an answer to that question, I only have a promise. God is alive and God is with his people to support those who lean upon him and who trust in him. And I know that that is enough.
Hespeler, 19 July 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Many years ago, I was called on to do a funeral. The family really only had a slight connection to the church where I was ministering, but they were hurting and grieving and I wanted to be able to do my very best for them – to say something that would give them comfort. But finding those words was not necessarily going to be easy.
You see, this was the situation. The person who had died was a beloved daughter, sister and aunt. She had died far too young and she had struggled. She had struggled, specifically, with alcoholism. She knew it was a problem. She knew that it caused no end of problems for the people who loved her. She knew she needed to stop drinking and she had tried – oh how hard she had tried! But she never succeeded for anything longer than a short season. We were gathering for her funeral because she had finally drunk herself to death.
And what do you say? What can you possibly say under those kinds of circumstances that will be of any help? I didn’t have a clue, but I did have a resource. I turned, as I always do, to the scriptures for help. I often turn first, when I am in need, to the parables of Jesus – they just seem to be able to speak so powerfully to a surprising array of circumstances. And something drew my heart to the particular parable that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
Now, you might think at first glance that this parable really doesn’t have anything helpful to say about a woman who has drunk herself to death because, of course, the Gospel gives us an interpretation of this parable – an interpretation that declares that it is all about judgement and the end of the world and people burning up forever and ever. I am not personally inclined to preach about such things at any funeral, and I especially wasn’t at this one. But you need to know something about interpreting the parables of Jesus. One interpretation may be given to us in the Gospel of Matthew and it is a good and true one, but the power of a parable of Jesus is quite limitless. If you come to a parable with a need, I believe that Jesus can and does meet you in that need.
So, as I came to this parable in my need, I believe that Jesus spoke to me through it. He showed me that this poor too-young woman, like the field in the story, had been founded in so much good. She was loved. She was smart. She had so much potential. And, what’s more, so much of that goodness had stayed with her throughout her troubled life. Her family still loved her – they had put up with a lot, but they still loved her. And she had touched the lives of her friends and family in some very meaningful and sustaining ways.
And yet, despite all of that, a great deal of evil had crept into her life. Most of it had come in the form of addiction and of the side effects of addiction. Her life was like a field that had been sown with good seed but that had become overrun with weeds. And I know where we like to get hung up at this point of the story. We want to know where that evil came from. Was it all on her and her responsibility for the choices that she made? Or was this actually an evil that came upon her from outside of her? As we might ask it today, is alcoholism a disease or is it simply the result of bad moral choices? Alcoholism is a disease, and yet, it is one that is often driven by our choices. The question doesn’t have a simple answer.
And isn’t it interesting that the parable of Jesus gets hung up over that very point as well? When the weeds first show up in the garden, the slaves ask that very question. “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” Now I’ve always figured that this was an odd question because I’ve got to tell you something: I’ve planted many seeds in many gardens in my life. Every single time I’ve done so, I’ve had weeds come up. I’ve never thought to ask where weeds came from. I’ve always just figured that weeds were something that just happened when you planted something.
But the master operates under a different theory. He apparently has absolutely no doubt when he blames all of the weeds on an external enemy: “He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’” So there is some strange debate in this parable about the origin of evil in the world and in the lives of people like that woman who had died. But, and this is the really important point, the point of the parable is not to argue over where the evil comes from in this world. The point is to talk about what we do with this evil and what its ultimate fate is.
Here is the plan that the master comes up with for dealing with the weeds. “The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Now, as I sat there preparing for that particular funeral and reflecting on that poor woman’s life, the meaning of that part of the parable was only too clear to me.
As the beloved friends and family of that woman sat there in that funeral, they knew only too well what it was to see a mix of weeds and wheat in somebody’s life. To be with her, to have her in their lives, meant that they had had to put up with a whole lot of bad things. They had had to put up with benders, with drunken fights, with bailing her out of jail or visiting her in hospital. They had to put up with crushing disappointment again and again.
And yet they didn’t have to put up with any of it, did they? They could have gotten all of those weeds out of their lives by simply kicking her out of their lives. But not one of them ever considered doing so because that would have meant losing all of the good times and the love and the really wonderful memories that they had shared with her. Despite all the problems, they loved her and she loved them and they would not have given that up. Oh, they knew exactly what the master was talking about when he said that you had to let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side.
And then we get to the punchline of the parable. What happens at the end? What happens when the weeds in her life finally lead to her drinking herself to death and the family comes together to mourn that passing? What happens at harvest time? “At harvest time,” says the master, “I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
That I also believe they understood. They knew that the weeds of her life had been hard on her and on all of them, but that was all done now. It was over and it would all be burned away. But the good stuff – the wheat – the happy memories, the shared laughter, the times when she had been there for them and they for her – those were treasures that would be stored up forever and ever like so much wheat gathered and stored up in barns.
And that was it, that was the message that I received in my particular need to say something uplifting in a very difficult circumstance. God showed me how that parable was really spoken for that woman and her family to teach me something about the grace of God. It spoke to me about her life and its value more than it did about her death and her place in the afterlife – other, I suppose, than to say that she was now in the hands of a God who probably understood what she had struggled with far better than any of us. I honestly believe that none of us could possibly ever be in better hands beyond the grave. But, as you can no doubt see as I recount the story now, the lesson of that parable has remained with me and continues to speak to me.
And I’m going to tell you something. Whenever, in the garden of this world, I see weeds coming up in situations where we all thought that only wheat had been sown, you can bet that I return2 to this parable in my heart. I don’t just apply it individuals who have lived troubled lives, but to larger developments as well. When, for example, a deadly pandemic shows up and disturbs everything we had taken for granted about this world, I come back to this parable. I don’t spend a lot of time arguing with myself or with others over the origin of the badness that is in the pandemic – whether it was sown among us by some nameless enemy or whether it is just a product of natural functions. I just recognize that it’s here – that the weeds have grown up among the wheat. And, yes, that does mean that, for now, we are going to be experiencing a lot of really bad stuff like limitations on gatherings and people getting sick and some people dying. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good crops growing at a time like this as we are forced to look at life in new ways, to recognize the value of people, like essential workers, that we have neglected, as we experience creativity and possibilities we never dreamed of before. Some good things will come of this, and I know that that doesn’t make covid-19 worthwhile. But it does mean that sometimes you can’t uproot the one and still keep the other.
Or think of some of the other terrible things that we have seen recently – George Floyd dying on the ground with a policeman’s knee on his neck in Minneapolis, a young indigenous woman, Chantel Moore, shot to death during what was supposed to have been a wellness check, people upset and protesting on the streets with the occasional predictable side effect of rioting, looting and violent reactions from the police. It is all bad stuff, the evil of this world at its worse. These are weeds, honestly, that have been there in our society for a long time but, in recent days, we have noticed them much more clearly growing up among the wheat that we thought we had planted in our society.
And, once again, we could get caught up in a discussion about where these weeds come from and who planted them among us. I could probably name a few enemies, both human and supernatural, who have sown such weeds. But, rather than arguing on the sources, we ought to put our energy into figuring out what to do about the weeds. And I am very sure that we will find that there will be a great deal of trouble pulling out those particular weeds without disturbing a lot that is really good in our society. We may have to put up with some disquiet and unrest for a while but, if we do so and if we work on it, I really do believe that we can create a better harvest in this world and a harvest in which more people will feel that they have a part.
When I got the call to do that funeral so many years ago, I knew it would not be an easy task to figure out what to say. But I will never regret agreeing to do that service because, in that work, God spoke to me in a pretty powerful way and gave me a message that I keep with me and that comforts me and gives me peace as I deal with some of the very difficult events of life in this world. I will be forever grateful to that woman who lived a very troubled life and yet who taught me something vital about the kingdom of God. That was the good harvest that I received from a difficult job that I was once given to comment on a life that was filled with weeds and with wheat.
Hespeler, 12 July, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
When the ancient people of Israel gathered around their campfires, they did what all ancient people did: they told stories. And the stories they told taught them who they were, who their God was and about the peoples who were their neighbours. The stories were remembered and passed down and some of them were eventually even written down and preserved in the Bible.
We read one such story this morning in the Book of Genesis – the story of two brothers – twins – Jacob and Esau. The Israelites told stories about Jacob because they saw him as their common ancestor. In Jacob’s actions and heroics, his adventures and mistakes, they saw indications of who they were and who they were supposed to be. Esau, for his part, was claimed as the ancestor of another people, the Edomites, who lived in the land just southeast of the ancient Kingdom of Judah.
The Israelites clearly felt that they had a close kinship with the Edomites. Why else would they picture the founders of those two nations as twin brothers? And the connections were quite clear. The two peoples spoke a very similar Semitic language. They had very similar customs and even religion. The chief God of the Edomites was called Qos, a God who is described in very similar terms to Yahweh, the God of Israel, leading some to speculate that maybe Qos was merely another name for Yahweh.
The Israelites knew that the Edomites were a proud, strong and noble people, but, for a long time, they also saw them as a subjugated people. The Judahites ruled over the Edomites and there are some indications in the Bible that the Judahites may have mistreated the Edomites, so much so that the Edomites celebrated Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.
And I believe that, when people do that, when they demean, mistreat or exploit another people group on the basis of their race, creed or identity, something inside them at some deep level tells them that this is wrong. Something creates a desire to justify such an attitude and so what they do is tell stories. Every racist, for example, has a stock of stories that they can tell you that, in their mind, proves that all people of a certain race are dirty or devious or lazy or whatever vile thing they happen to believe. Racists need those stories to justify themselves. If they lose those stories, their racism will be undermined. That’s how powerful stories are.
Well, I believe that the stories of Jacob and Esau, for at least some Israelites, fulfilled that kind of role. These stories convinced them that those blasted Edomites deserved every bad thing that happened to them. But all stories, including racist stories, can be seen from another angle. And that made me wonder. If what we have in Genesis is the story that the Israelites told each other about the Edomites around their campfires, what stories did the Edomites tell around theirs?
Exhausted after another long day, the Edomite tribespeople settle in around their evening cook fire. They are a tough people and have never minded hard work but these days there is plenty of grumbling because they see so little of the fruits of their own labour. They also grumble over the food that they share. It consists mostly of a stew made with the rations that are provided to them by their overlords – rations that mostly consist of lentils. The stew is nutritious and gives them the strength they need to continue to work, but the diet is monotonous and red lentils are a food mostly considered to be fit for slaves.
Eating together like this always reminds them of the noble heritage that they have, but also of the sovereignty over their own affairs that they lack, but no one wants to dwell on the grimness of their situation. So, before long, voices begin to clamour for some diversion. The best storyteller in the tribe is besieged with requests. “Tell us the story of our great ancestor. Tell us the story of Edom, whom the Judahites call Esau.”
As storytellers are wont to do, the old man demurs, insists that surely there must be somebody else who has a story to tell, but, in the end, he gives in as he always does and the people fall silent as the story begins.
“Edom was the firstborn son of Isaac by his wife Rebekah. He was born to be a prince among men, but, even before his birth, his way was troubled by his brother. For there were two children in the womb of Rebekah and Edom’s brother, though he was always a scrawny and skinny little thing, harassed and harried Edom as he grew. The contention between them became so violent that their mother could barely stand it and she feared that she might die.
“That was when she went and inquired of the Oracle of Qos, whom the Israelites call Yahweh. And the Oracle of Qos answered her saying: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.’”
The faces that shine in the firelight all nod at the familiar words of the oracle. The words of the poem are often repeated to explain the enmity between the two nations. But the people then visibly lean forward to listen to the next words, knowing full well that there are two different versions.
“‘The elder shall be stronger than the other,’ the storyteller continues to the murmured approval of the people. ‘But watch out for that younger one, he’ll be a tricky bastard.’” That line always brings forth a peal of derisive laughter.
“When the time came for the twins to be born, Mother Rebekah brought them into the world. The firstborn was strong and had a red complexion and so Rebecca called him Edom, the red one. He was all covered in hair even as he left the womb, surely another sign that he would be powerful and manly. But even that moment of triumph, the moment of his birth, was marred by his brother who came after him grasping his heel and so they called him Jacob, the grasper, and so he remained.”
“Edom grew and became a powerful man. He was a hunter who ranged far and wide. There was no beast that he could not take down with his spear and his bow. He was the mightiest of all hunters since Nimrod.
“His twin brother, the grasper, for his part would not risk the dangers of the hunt. He remained in safety close to his father’s tents. He watched over flocks and gardens while his brother faced down lions and bears, antelope, wild ox and deer, ostrich, crocodile and hippopotamus. Esau was lord of the wilderland, while Jacob ruled over the kitchens.
“But Edom knew not that he had chosen the wrong place to establish his domain. He knew not that there was more power in the kitchen than on the hunting range. Again and again, Edom would bring back the finest game and hand it over to the servants in the kitchen tent but then he was always given some bogus reason for why he couldn’t have any to eat himself and he was only offered a tiny barley cake and a little bowl of gruel to fill his growling stomach. Jacob used his influence to starve his brother half to death so that he grew desperate.
“And then came that day – and I know you have heard of that day. You have heard the story as the Judahites tell it, saying that our ancestor despised his birthright, the honour of his place as the firstborn son. They rub our faces in it, tell us that we are deserving only of this red stew that we eat because our ancestor sold everything for it. But we know the truth.
“Edom had come back from the hunt. He was exhausted for he had chased the antelope all day long and, for once, they had evaded his spear and he had brought home nothing. It was something that never happened, but this time, for once, it had happened. Jacob had watched his brother approach the camp empty-handed. And he knew that Esau would be both discouraged and famished. He knew that this was his chance.
“The potage that Jacob prepared that day was different, unlike any that Edom had seen before. He made it with onions and red lentils that Jacob had cultivated in secret and the family had never seen before. It smelled fabulous and looked so intriguing. And when Edom came into the kitchen tent, Jacob was there alone. Edom rummaged around looking for some bread or cakes or something, but Jacob had taken care that there was nothing of the sort. The only food was in that delicious smelling pot that bubbled on the fire as Jacob stirred it.
“‘My brother,’ Edom cried, ‘you have to give me some of that, uh… some of that red stuff that you’ve got there. It’s making my stomach grumble so much that I fear it shall consume me from the inside.’
“‘Oh,’ replied Jacob, ‘and what will you give me in exchange for my magic stew?’
“Edom laughed. He just thought that Jacob was his brother who would only respect his place as the eldest child. He did not see the evil glint in the man’s eye. ‘Ha, ha, ha, I’m about to die here and you’re asking me what I’ll give you. What wouldn’t I give you? You’re about to save my life!’
“Jacob laughed too, but if Edom had really listened, he would have heard the sinister undertones in the laughter. ‘Heh, heh, heh, fine, then how about you give me your right of first born.’
“‘Done!’ laughed Edom without a care as he grabbed a bowl and a ladle.”
The storyteller cast his eye around the circle of his listeners. “You know how the Judahites remind us of this tale and how they hear it. They throw the jars filled with red lentils at us from their carts. They laugh at how much they say that we love them. They tell us that our father despised his birthright and sold all of us out for the sake of a bowl of lentils. But we know better and we will not forget. And we believe that the day will come when Qos will remember the firstborn son of Rebekah.”
Have you ever heard a story or an anecdote about somebody who belongs to a particular race or group – a story that implies something about all of the people who belong to that group? It might even have been a true story, or at least a story that had some truth behind it, but the problem with such stories is that they have this way of making us look at a particular group that can make us justify the way that we treat them as if they were all drunks or cheats or lazy or whatever.
You have heard such stories, I know that you have. I wanted to tell you the story of Jacob and Esau the way that the people of Edom might have told it because it was a story that was used to treat a whole people with injustice.
In the 137th Psalm, the psalmist complains specifically about the people of Edom to God. “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites,” he says, “the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’” The Edomites, Judah’s closest neighbours and their close ethnic kin, hated them enough to cheer their destruction by Babylon.
My friends, that kind of animosity does not come from nowhere. It is not okay, obviously, to cheer somebody else’s destruction, but, man, the people of Edom must have had some legitimate grievances. When people start crying out for the defunding or even the abolition of some established institution, you should maybe listen to where that level of outrage is coming from.
I think it’s kind of instructive to consider that the stories we tell about other peoples – and in particular the stories we tell to justify the way that we treat other people – absolutely matter. So, the next time you hear a story that seems to paint all people of a certain ethnic group or social group with one broad brush, maybe just ask yourself, how would the people who lived that story from the other side of it have heard it?