Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Let us pray: O God, guide our relationships. Be near in times of tension and struggle, so we may honour you through all we are and all we do. Speak to us your word of life, that we might live as a community reconciled by your peace. Amen.
I once saw a cartoon which depicted a large lecture hall with tiered seating. The perspective was from the front, looking out on the rows of seats. Strung across the back wall of hall was a large banner which read: First Annual Conference for Members of Functional Families. There was one person seated in the large hall.
The point of course was that every family has its dysfunctions, but clearly some more than others.
I think a case could be made that the book of Genesis – the first part of the so-called Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible, because it encompasses the five books of the Law of Moses, which largely tells the story of the generations of the Hebrew people – beginning with Abraham and then as we heard today continues to tell the story of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph could also be called a Chronicle of Dysfunction. It's a classic tale, actually a series of tales, of family intrigue, family conflict, conditional love, and the type of thing which makes for good reading, but certainly not the stuff of good relationships. This is why I always wonder what certain, often religiously conservative, Christian commentators mean when they urge people to get back to basic biblical family values. In my understanding these stories do not describe the kind of conduct that leads to functional family relationships.
The reading this morning is a perfect case in point. For the sake of instant gratification just because he was tired and hungry Esau trades away his birthright. A fleeting need was met by a monumental and life-changing forefeit.
Regardless of how we may feel about the whole idea of birthright and the rule that says it falls on the firstborn, this is a story that seems to champion the cheating of a family member and the idea that it is okay to play favourites within a family unit.
It we are to learn anything about family values from these stories it would seem that the biblical record offers a kind of manual written in the negative – if you want to get along with family members – here is what not to do!
But of course it is not that simple because the story is told with changes both subtle and significant elsewhere in these early chapters of the book of Genesis as it travels the generations of patriarchs from Abraham to Joseph. And almost at every turn the story reinforces the message that taking advantage of fellow family members, playing favourites and a number of other suspect actions are not only okay but in many ways are a fulfilling of the will of God.
Now some might say – but this is the “Old Testament” for Christians. Surely Jesus puts a different spin on things and therefore it is these family values that are referred to when we hear of a return to Biblical family values. But no – Jesus is pretty harsh on the whole idea of family – predicting that family member will turn against family member when it comes to following the way of God.
I am reluctant to even call it the “Old Testament” for I think that passes a kind of unhelpful value judgement on a different kind of family conflict. We share a good deal in common with our Jewish sisters and brothers – including the whole of the Hebrew bible. Yet the history of the relationship between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith is full of conflict. It is important for us to remember that God is God of all people and that the God we worship is the same God that we learn about from the stories of our Jewish ancestors in the faith.
Some time ago our friend Lorne Gushue mentioned the curious little observation that if you buy a Volvo it suddenly seems that everywhere you look everyone else seems to be driving a Volvo. Of course it is not true, but the point that this little observation is making is that if our senses are attuned to a particular theme or issue, we can find connections everywhere.
That would describe things for me this past week. I returned last Sunday from a visit with my mother in Ontario. While it was good to see her and to spend some time getting a first hand experience of how she is doing, it was also a time when my own family issues were once again brought to the surface. Without going into any kind of detail let me just say that it is quite likely that none of my family members, myself included, would qualify for attendance at that conference depicted in the cartoon I described a few minutes ago.
I just have to mention something that points out the observation I made a moment ago. As I wrote these very words the radio played “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge as the lead-in to a story about the perils and promise of attendance at summer family reunions. Everyone drives a Volvo indeed!
Anyway, back to the main theme. So, here I am back in Yellowknife after a family visit. I arrived in my office on Tuesday morning after almost a whole month away. And as is my custom on Tuesday morning I took a quick look at the passages for today. There I read the story we first heard this morning – the story of Jacob and Esau. And then I made ready to head out and do what many other Yellowknifers did on Tuesday morning – do you remember? Yes – head over to Somba Ke park to see what I could see of the lovely young royals – William and Catherine but not before I updated my Facebook status to tell all my “friends” what I was doing and that I was doing it with mixed feelings. At the same time I was curious to see them and also worried about what people would think if they saw me in the excited crowd. Yes, I have my reservations about the patriarchal royal system, where power and status are granted simply by virtue of birth.
The royal family would not qualify for attendance at the cartoon conference either. Far from it! And yet these young newlyweds seem to carry the promise of something new. What a load to put on their shoulders – to singlehandedly – or perhaps double handedly – rescue the monarchy in the eyes of Canadians and perhaps the whole commonwealth and to do it with the eyes of the world fixed upon them. I do not envy the kind of pressure that must present to them.
Their situation is not unlike that of Jacob. Despite the devious means by which he received the family birthright, we quickly learn that his branch of the family will be the favoured one – even receiving the blessing of God as well as that of his father Isaac (even though it was given under false pretences).
So what is the point of all this expressed concern about biblical and present-day family relationships? I guess what I want to say is that family relationships are perhaps the most important ones we have in our lives. There is lots of peril associated with them – lots of pressures can be placed on them, and things we would never do in any other kind of relationship becomes second nature to us in our family relationships – both bad and good.
When we get together to prepare for baptism like we did yesterday afternoon, it is very common, almost universal, that in describing the source of warmth – spiritual, emotional warmth for us in the formative years of our lives – family relationships are the ones that get named.
In other words, to quote a common phrase – Families – you can't live with them, but you can't live without them.
There is no profound insight to be gleaned one way or another from the biblical record on families other than to discern that family relationships are complicated. There is no uniform biblical family value despite what some preachers and teachers would have us believe and that it is often the case that the bible tells us what not to do in our family relationships more than how to cultivate a healthy relationship.
However, family relationships are the most important ones we will have in our lives, and there are lots of examples beyond the biblical story of how to live as family such that character is strengthened, aspirations are fulfilled and most importantly that God is served.
As Jesus's parable of the seeds describes, it is important for us to nurture the seeds we plant in our family relationships such that they bless everyone within and that they become a blessing for others who surround us. Amen.