Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wrestling in the Pews

I am not preaching tomorrow, but here is a sermon from a while back for those of you who like them. This was the first sermon I preached at Tiny Church--an audition, if you will.  As anyone there can tell you, everything went wrong in that worship service; even the electric keyboard stopped working, and I had to lead replacement hymns a capella. I figured there was no way they'd hire me after that service, but session met in the foyer and hollered a job offer across the parking lot before I could drive away. Such is the way of tiny churches.


Possibly the most memorable part of that worship service (for me anyway) was the reading of scripture, specifically this verse from Genesis 25:  
Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife because she was barren, and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?"
At that exact moment, my oldest child caught his brother in a headlock. The little guy shrieked with rage, leaped up from the front pew, and ran underneath my skirt. Oldest casually strolled up and leaned into me, smiling out at the congregation. As I stood momentarily stunned, the congregation giggled a bit, and after depositing my two weasels back into the pews, I continued on with my debut sermon. I will simply say that pastoring as a single mother is an interesting experience.

Here is the sermon. Enjoy, dear ones.

Sermon, Sunday, July 13, 2008
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Genesis 25:19-34 and Matthew 12:46-13:9

Jacob and Esau were the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They were the only children of Isaac and Rebekah, and they were born late in Isaac’s life, when Isaac was sixty years old. For twenty years Rebekah had been barren, unable to conceive children. Isaac prayed to the Lord, and God answered their prayers for a child. In God’s usual way, the prayer was answered mischievously, with a pair of twins. From the very beginning, even in the womb, Jacob and Esau fought with one another. They were so rowdy in their mother’s womb that Rebekah sought advice from the Lord. Foreshadowing the pain and struggles to come for their little family, Rebekah asked the Lord, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Siblings who fight can cause unimaginable grief in a household, and these two were already going at it before they were even born. The Lord’s answer can hardly have been all that reassuring. Two nations at war in her womb, the elder shall serve the younger, a recipe for disaster in a world where peace in a household was maintained by birth order.



Esau was born and he was red and hairy at birth. Jacob was born shortly after—so quickly in fact that he was holding on to his brother’s heel as he was being born. The name Jacob means “to take by the heel” or “to supplant,” and so their lifelong relationship was defined at birth by their names. Esau was strong and older, Jacob was younger and crafty.

Isaac loved Esau best because Esau loved to hunt and spend time in the fields, things that were important to Isaac. Rebekah loved Jacob best as he spent his time quietly among the tents of the household. The situation was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. No matter how much affection there might actually have been between the family members, the competition between Esau and Jacob was too strong for there to be a lasting peace, especially with each parent playing favorites.

So one afternoon, after Esau had been working hard in the fields, he came in to the house and smelled the lentil soup his brother had made. And he said, “Give me some of that, I am starving!” And Jacob said, “Sure, but you have to give me your inheritance.” I can imagine that it might have started playfully between the two brothers, but Jacob made Esau swear, which made the transaction permanent and very serious. A few years later, when Jacob schemed with his mother to also steal Esau’s blessing from Isaac, the situation turned deadly as Esau threatened to kill his brother. And Jacob fled from his home, away from Esau, away from the birthright he’d bought with lentil stew. Jacob’s story takes up 24 chapters of the book of Genesis in which he has spiritual encounters with God, marries four women who bear him thirteen children, and makes and loses his fortune a few times. Ultimately his twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of his sons brings the family to Egypt to live during a time of famine. Jacob’s story explains how the Israelites came to live in Egypt before the time of Moses. The whole story is a fascinating portrait of a deeply flawed man, who yearned for God’s blessing, and who creatively and sometimes unethically schemed to gain that blessing. After leaving home, Jacob met his brother many years later and reconciled, but they never lived together again. They met only one other time, to bury their father, Isaac.

The story of Jacob is the story of how God made something good out of Jacob’s scheming. It is the story of family conflict that never fully healed. It is the story of our spiritual ancestors. Perhaps it is also the story of our own lives.

R. Paul Stevens wrote a book called Down-to-Earth Spirituality: Encountering God in the Ordinary, Boring Stuff of Life. He wrote,
Jacob’s story is so universal because it is so personal. He grows up with an emotionally distant father and bonds deeply with his mother. The family is fragmented and messy. While his parent’s marriage began in love, his mother and father grew emotionally distant from each other, and each parent sought intimacy and solace in a favorite child. A distant father, an overbearing mother, an overpowering brother, wives he cannot please, a manipulative father-in-law, children alienated from each other—this is the stuff not only of Jacob’s story but all too often of our own. It is in this messy complexity of family life that Jacob’s own identity, his vocation and spirituality are forged and hammered.
Jacob’s story is really the ultimate soap opera, isn’t it? Through story after story we get to know Jacob, and we get to see ourselves and our families in his stories. The other day I was in the Wawa with my children and I met an older woman who said my children were beautiful. I liked her instantly. She said she’d had six children of her own, three boys and three girls. “I took care of those children, I’ll tell you,” she said. I smiled and said it must be their turn to take care of her now. “Not likely!” she snorted. “When they’re grown they lose interest.” She was out the door a moment later, and I don’t know anything more about her family, except this: whatever the reasons are that she is estranged from her children, there is a story there.

Jacob does not exist in the Bible as an example for us to follow. Jacob exists because he is a figure of hope that no matter how messy and complicated our lives become, God can always find ways to bless us and make good of our stories. Jacob, the schemer, who alienated parents, sibilings, wives, children, father-in-law, entire villages of people, that Jacob found favor with God. In a night of spiritual wrestling, God renamed Jacob “Israel” and founded a nation. In the same way, we wrestle with our families and with God, but the possibility remains to find deep and abiding relationship with God and meaning for our lives beyond what we can make of it ourselves.

In our second reading this morning, we began with Jesus’ own family. His mother and brothers came to speak with him, concerned because Jesus was alienating the authorities with his outrageous teachings. They came to claim the right to speak with him through kinship—as his mother and brothers, they called to him, hoping they might speak some sense into him. But Jesus denied the kinship and said, “who is my mother and my brothers?” Even Jesus had a messy family. Even Jesus at times alienated those around him. Expanding the notion of family, Jesus claimed as kin all those who do the will of God.

Jesus went on to tell the crowds a parable of a sower who sowed seeds in different types of soil. Some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some were choked by thornbushes, and some fell on good soil and prospered. In our time, it is easy to think about this in terms of children and how we raise them. Some children are raised in neglectful circumstances, others in households of poverty. Some children live in families that choke the life and creativity out of them, and others grow up in homes where they receive love and prosper. We have made an idol out of the perfect family in which children are loved perfectly with the right amount of resources and the right amount of discipline and the right amount of religion. Our job as parents seems to be to create that perfect family so that our seeds can prosper. Yet how many of us in this room today carry secret wounds of the things that didn’t go so right in our families? How many of us still fight with our siblings? How many of us tried hard and failed to give a child what they needed growing up? How many of us alienated family members to the point where we can no longer live together?

Jacob’s story serves as a reminder that it is in the yearning after God that we find our blessing and not in the perfection of our family’s life. Jesus reminds us in the parable of the sower that abundance comes from the heart that can hear and understand God’s Word. Regardless of our family circumstances, we are gathered into family with Christ through our spiritual yearning for God. This doesn’t fix our families, but it reminds us that God makes good of the mess we have made, and that somehow, like Jacob, we can find blessing in the midst of the mess.

Norman Maclean wrote a short story called “A River Runs Through It,” and Robert Redford turned it into a movie. It is the story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian pastor who taught them to flyfish in Montana in the early part of the last century. The older brother seemed to have his life together pretty well with a job and a wife and some kids. The younger brother, though, was a mess in many ways. An expert fly fisherman, he nonetheless gambled and drank and got into fights. Eventually he pushed too far and was murdered one night while still young. The whole family saw it coming, but were unable to help him. In the movie, the father preaches a sermon after his son’s death saying:
Each one of us here today will,
at one time in our lives...
look upon a loved one who is in need
and ask the same question.
"We are willing to help, Lord...
but what, if anything, is needed?"
It is true we can seldom help
those closest to us.
Either we don't know what part
of ourselves to give...
or more often than not,
the part we have to give...
is not wanted.
And so it is those we live with
and should know who elude us...
but we can still love them.
We can love completely...
without complete understanding.
As we seek the will of God, as we seek to be good soil for the Word of God, as we seek to love our families however imperfectly, we are called to offer up such a prayer as this: “We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?” We don’t know what part to give, but we can still love completely without complete understanding. We don’t know often what part to give to Christ, yet we can still love Christ completely without complete understanding. In the midst of our messy lives with our messy families and relationships, it is hard to see the blessings and the way God is shaping our life and our world. Yet we can still love God without complete understanding, trusting and knowing that God loved us first and always.

Jacob’s story is a call to all of us who are not perfect to seek God anyway. Jacob lied and schemed his way through life, married four women and had thirteen children. Even after experiencing the devastation caused in part by his parents’ favoritism, Jacob went on to favor one wife over the others, and the children of Rachel over the other children, causing yet more family strife and pain. Yet time and again, Jacob called on God and God was present. Each of us, however much we scheme and engage in imperfection, can only follow Jacob’s example in calling on God to be present. Flawed though we are, we have some gift to bring to the world, even if we don’t know what that gift is. Though the soil be rocky or full of thorns, God knows our hearts and our yearning for God’s presence in our lives.

For all of us, like Jacob, who have felt unworthy, as if they had no gift to offer Christ, no standing to claim kinship in the family of God, I’d like to close with story of The Broken Pot.*
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole, which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.

"I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you."

"Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?"

"I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts." the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."

Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.

The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."
We are called to yearn after God and to do God’s will in this world, cracked pots though we may be. May we find this week the blessings in disguise in the midst of our messy lives. Know that a heart that yearns for God is good soil, and that we can love God and God’s creation completely without complete understanding.

*I have not been able to find the origin of this story or the author's name. There are a lot of broken pot stories floating around the internet, and this story is retold in many books without attribution. If you have more information about this story, please contact me so I can properly attribute it.

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