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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Claiming Our Birthright

The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
Genesis 25:19-34, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Some people are just doomed to live their lives in the midst of conflict. Have you ever met someone like that? Someone for whom life was never going to be easy, they were always going to be just a little out of sync with the world around them …perhaps a step ahead of their time, perhaps a step behind but either way …life was not going to be easy. The thing about those people is they also don’t let other people lead easy lives…take for example Esau and Jacob. Esau is a perfectly fine, stable guy, good at what he does for a living, respected by his dad…and yet his whole life long Esau has had to contend with this pain in the neck brother, this brother who through some accident of birth order leaves his mother’s womb literally at Esau’s heels and then spends the rest of his life in conflict and chaos trying to undo the undoable.

To be fair to Jacob at least in the beginning it’s not his fault either. Because his twin was the first to enter the birth canal, Esau will now serve as the inheritor, the leader of the clan, the one who gets to call the shots for the rest of their lives….how fair is that? In what kind of a world is one person born to privilege while someone who is literally his twin is doomed to subservience and second class citizenship. Can you imagine struggling with that and against that your whole life long? What would you do if it were you being told that your whole life story was now going to be mapped out as an inferior, lesser, underprivileged person….just because of some arbitrary set of rules that said that first was better than last, that first led to riches, that first led to prosperity and last to struggle and servitude Could you imagine anyone living in such a world? Well perhaps some of us can. And truthfully can you imagine how hard it would be to be Esau in this story as well?

Imagine spending every day of your life living with the frustration and resentment of your brother over something you also had no control over. Can you imagine how some days when you were tired of sibling rivalry, tired of the unfairness of it all, tired of trying to live up to what was expected of you, tired of being in this never ending wrestling match with your brother…on one of those days when you had come in from a long hard day at work and you were hungry and thirsty and completely done in from life …that yes, on that day you might truly despise your own birthright. On that day you might for a moment want to give it all up, let the younger one carry the baton for a while and see how it really felt to be in charge and the recipient of all those expectations and demands and all that envy. One day you might just be tempted to chuck it all and hope and pray that would be the end of this life of never ending conflict you seem to have been doomed to.

I think for all of us the challenge of faith is to figure out what we are meant to do in the midst of life’s conflicts. How will we respond to a world that stacks the deck against some people and for others without any regard for what’s just or fair. Jacob and Esau were both caught in an unjust system that told them how their lives were meant to turn out before they even lived them. It was a world that pitted father against mother, brother against brother, hunter against herdsman. So much conflict! So many reasons to believe that life is just something to get through, to try and survive. Just keep your head down and try not to get caught in the crossfire. But of course none of today’s lessons are about just surviving life, and all of them are about facing the conflict inherent in life and not giving up, not yielding to lethargy or fear, not despising one’s birthright or allowing one’s self to be defined by it.

Some would say our birthright is unmanageable. We have been born at a time when the world is being turned upside down. We live in an age full of war and strife, ecological crisis, globalized corruption, climatic chaos, and economic superpowers motivated by unfathomable greed. Some would say if ever there was a day in the world that was conflict laden, where we might despise our birthright, where seeds were being sown on rocky soil….this is that day. And yet to say that is, I think, to over simplify the Gospel.

What Jesus promises in this Gospel story is that no matter how things look, no matter how infertile and inhospitable the terrain appears to be, no matter how rocky and hard and parched the ground is….there will always always be those places where the seed takes root and the good soil nurtures that seed into fullness of life in a way that is almost unimaginable.

Jesus of Nazareth…Palestinian, native in an occupied territory, itinerant preacher whose politics and religion enraged the authorities and put him in perpetual conflict with the powers that be. Jesus of Nazareth, witness to self serving political leaders, ruthless military regimes, and legalistic religious institutions that were sucking the life and breath out of his people. This Jesus tells a story about sowing seeds that yield bountiful fruit. This Jesus does not say, “Let’s just lay low and wait for a better day.” He does not say, “Times are hard, let’s sit back and take care of ourselves for a while.” He does not say “the problems are just too big right now to even make a dent in them.” He says, “Be the good earth that the seed falls upon”. Make good earth under your own feet, and then make stuff happen. Make the word come alive…make the rocky place smooth….

Don’t sell your birthright because life is hard. Because your birthright is not this mess of a world we have inherited, it is the world that can be if we dare to make it so. It is the world that grows up from the precious seeds of the Gospel planted deep within your heart when you refuse…refuse! to knuckle under and give up on the world. Our birthright is nothing less than the reign of God not on some ethereal cloud in the sky but here and now in this place, in this time! Make this place a holy place for all people!

One of my favorite writers and theologians of all time is Annie Dillard. Annie Dillard writes, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.”

What I think Annie is saying and that today’s Gospel is saying is

We have to be the good earth where the seed takes root….if we don’t we despise our birthright.

If we don’t, there may not be another chance.

If we don’t, people will suffer and die.

If we don’t, the poor will remain poor and the rich will get richer.

If we don’t, we will never know all that we could have been and done in our lives, and the world will keep waiting, waiting for the acceptable time when the Gospel seed finally finds its good earth.

Be the good earth that yields abundant fruit, because the days of struggle and conflict are never going away….because we dare not despise our birthright, because there is no one but us. There never has been.

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