Genesis 25:19-34 and Isaiah 55:10-13
Someone this week, learning I was a minister, confided: “I’d like to go to church, but I’m just not sure I belong there.”
“It’s a common fear,” I responded. “Would you trust me to share what makes you worry you wouldn’t fit in or be welcome?”
He hesitated, and then began slowly. I wasn’t sure– did he feel he needed to be careful what he said, or was he just not sure how to explain?
The sacred story he told– and I’ve asked permission to share– was about how he and his wife had grown estranged. “Sometimes the relationship is openly antagonistic. But mostly we hardly speak. It’s just dead air time.”
He ‘confessed:’ “We don’t have much of a marriage left.” He worries what their kids are seeing– not just that their parents’ marriage is strained, but that they are missing a model for what marriage should be.
I tried my best not to appear surprised or disapproving. I wasn’t feeling, either, but i think he was expecting me to be.
He was convinced that churches are full of people with perfect marriages– congratulations, church. But for him, that meant that we’d look down our noses at anyone who’s having marital troubles. That’s a problem, church.
Beloved, I’ve heard of divorced people fearing they wouldn’t be welcome in church, because some churches disapprove of divorce. But this was a married man who feared their unhappiness in marriage disqualified him…
I explained, we aren’t that kind of congregation.
That he wouldn’t be the only one here who’s feeling the strain of marriage.
That he could trust we’re a congregation of real, imperfect people,
folks with all kinds of families,
none of them perfect EITHER,
with at least a few different kinds of family problems…
Then I added,
“When I talk with people before they get married,
I tell them that no matter how long or sufficient our conversation,
there’s no way we can touch on, much less handle all the issues that will come up in a marriage.
So instead of pretending that premarital counseling is some sort of vaccine or magic pill, I hope– that by talking about possible trouble spots, and if the couple wishes, any issues they may have already identified and be struggling with– I hope at the least they’ll come to see the church as a place to look to, to come to when you have have some problem,
BECAUSE you’ve hit some bump in the road– whether that happens next Sunday or in 25 years…”
I’m not sure what he took from that passing conversation, but I’ve been thinking about it all week.
Most of you have heard me say before, I know what it feels like to not fit in to church. As a teenager I kept going to church when the rest of my
family– sort of imploding… everyone else fell away from church. On my own in a suburban church of families, I know that awkward feeling of not belonging.
But somehow I also knew, ironically, the ways we feel we don’t belong are close to our deepest reasons for going to church.
The ways we feel we don’t belong– those are cues, somehow related to the deepest reasons each of us have for going to church.
Week by week we are working through the generations of Genesis, the grand first family drama, down through Abraham and his heirs. Our forebears in faith. In which you can’t miss painfully real family stories. Rivalries. Betrayals. Jealousy and guilt. Multiple wives and families on the side. Questionable parenting. Dirty dealings. Separations. Even murder.
Like our families…well, most of ours aren’t quite as epic as the soap operas of Genesis. Or just maybe in a minor key…
Like our families– in different shapes and sizes and configurations.
Like our families– where people don’t always act like we’d expect them to… or we’d like them to.
Like our families– where people don’t always get along. Where people hurt one another; sometimes treat each other horribly.
Like our families– that try the best they can, struggling with difficulties they don’t always understand and often cannot master…
Like ours, where we wonder who our own children are, or where they come from.
Like ours, where our parents complicated relationships are a mystery to us, and sometimes more troubling.
Of course, these Bible stories are supposed to serve as a sort of mythical history, explaining to the ancient Israelites and, by extension, to us why things are the way they are.
Why we die. And what we have to deal with in this life.
Why there is pain in childbirth.
Why there’s so much work and trouble in life.
Why crop farmers and shepherds are at each others’ throats.
How the righteousness of one man can save the whole world.
Why the Israelites could take the land from the Canaanites.
Why brothers betray one another.
Why the Jews and Arabs don’t get along…
Truth be told, these myths usually can do no more than flesh out the mysteries, name and illustrate the familial and communal and existential burdens people often can’t otherwise figure out how to solve, dodge, or escape.
Still, stories, especially holy stories, because God’s involved in them, because God’s working through them in a special way, while not answers in themselves, often make more difference than the world would like to admit.
Holy stories can be subversive. When there seems to be only trouble all around, when there seems to be no way out, holy stories remind us that God and God’s promises are still here. That God has other plans. That mountains too difficult climb can becomes a flat plain.
Holy stories can expand our minds and, maybe more importantly, grow our hearts– shatter boundaries, show hypocrisy and ugliness for what they are, offer different perspectives on the truth, point to alternatives to our present realities. Quite literally sometimes, let the captives go free.
Holy stories can take us away from the confines of our world. Sometimes a mental escape is necessary; sometimes it’s the only escape that’s possible. Always a faithful vision is our light in the darkness.
Holy stories lift us out of our lives for a moment. They can make us smile and laugh. They can chip away at the sadness, boredom, loneliness. They can bring us back to hope, faith and love.
Holy stories can teach us about life. They show us the way to love when it would be easier to hate, how to forgive when resentment or revenge feel more natural, if you will.
Holy stories can help us along the way toward growing up, even those of us who became adults chronologically a long time ago. They can help us navigate through our world and lives that often feel more like a maze or a dead end than a clear path on the way to a better place in God’s future.
Holy stories can inspire. They open up our imagination, touch our souls, feed our hearts, rearrange possibilities, spark innovation, offer hope, prompt change, remind us that we are not so alone or as powerless as we often fear.
Holy stories remind us that bravery is small and large, that no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, we can make a difference, survive, go on to see another day, hold on to God’s promise…
Since on these informal summer Sundays, I’ve not been preaching in the pulpit, but down here at the lectern, on the floor, staying with you, I usually move the bible to the table for the sermon. But today, I wanted to preach right from on top of all these holy stories.
At the least, they are sacred placeholders for God’s mysteries. And they remind us we’re welcome here even if we haven’t spoken with our brother for years, even if our marriages are falling apart, if we are the one who betrayed the family… Maybe those are exactly the reasons we should be here and listening…
Jacob and Esau were rivals from the get. Despite being brothers… sharing parents… as twins, sharing a womb, they were completely different sorts of people. Not only didn’t they particularly like each other. Their different ways of going about life set them on a crash course. Neither of them did much to help the situation. Their parents probably make things better either. It took life an awful long time and heartache before there was any reconciliation.
Beloved, there are deep divisions, even in the best of families, that we often don’t get over or get our arms around. And the wounds, hurt and strife those divisions engender– they take on lives of their own, becomes our companions, and what we are stuck wrestling with. All with consequences for each of us, our families, even the nations.
And, yet, what we can’t get around or beyond, it doesn’t confine God. Jacob’s and Esau’s fights and flaws, very real and tragic as they were, could not kill off God’s love, plans, or promise. May the same be so for our families’ realities, sufferings, failings. Very real. Oh so tragic.
But probably not as inevitable, unavoidable, irredeemable as we often make them out to be.
But God’s not just with us for the long haul. God is here also in the every day, every minute, offering possibilities of love and forgiveness, new starts, a better way, reconciliation to every family relation, at every family meal, even the ones where we decide instead to turn a lowly pot of lentils to our advantage.
Beloved, the second holy story, from Isaiah, in the context of “A House Divided” takes up the worst case scenario. Home has been destroyed. Lives have been broken. Family is scattered. Even God couldn’t prevent this massacre.
The prophet’s words were probably written in the first years of the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem is in ruins. The Jews have been hauled away.
We probably don’t need to look that far to find decimation and hopelessness.
I have friends back in New York, I knew them as a happy family, two moms and two daughters. Now there’s been violence in the home, no kind words to be spoken, no help seems to make a difference, the war just keeps burning and destroying, now raging in court over custody of their two little girls.
Some of our families seem to implode, or become atomic explosions in and of themselves. Like Rebekah with the fight already begun in her womb, we might understand asking, “If life is to be this way, why live?”
But let’s listen again to the words of Isaiah’s holy story, the promises of what God can do with disaster so dire it leaves no hope, how God can redeem the worst decimation:
…the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
… do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and
bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and
all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
For the man I spoke with whose marriage is unhappy,
for my friends’ whose family is decimated,
for parents with complicated relations, and their children,
for brothers and sisters who have hurt and betrayed one another,
or haven’t spoken for years,
God’s power and possibility can still surprise and save:
Promises of restoration, rain, rejoicing.
God will neither forget, run, nor renege.
Come here, no matter how broken you or your family is–
because people and relationships are difficult–
Come here for peace and joy, to hear the holy stories–
because none of us can ever be cut off,
and God can still do amazing things.
(The congregation used Romans 8:31-39 as an affirmation of faith after the sermon.)