I suspect that the favorite birth stories of the midwives were the story of Esau and Jacob’s birth. The memory was probably shared for generations. The first thing that had to have impressed them was the color of the first-born. Esau was hairy and red –that alone would have made an impression –but then came the second astounding piece of the story. The midwives witnessed Jacob holding on to Esau’s ankle as Esau moved through the birth canal, with Jacob following. The battle between them became even more complicated when their mother chose to favor Jacob, and their father chose to favor Esau.
Their childhood was spent with all the relatives focused on their differences. Esau loved the outdoors. He was a field and stream kind of guy. Jacob was more reflective. He spent his time in the tents of his people. If he’d owned a computer, he probably would have been the family IT specialist. Jacob was smart – smart like a fox.
The key moments of action in the family history takes place on a day when Jacob is anticipating his brother’s return from the field. Jacob spent the morning in the kitchen slicing and dicing theveggies, sautéing the onions, garlic, parsley and basil in the olive oil and at the proper moment adding the red lentils and the fresh herbs. As Esau nears the family compound, a fragrance begins drifting out, reminding him of just how hungry he is. By the time he arrives home, he is so starved that he appears to have very little control over his actions. Esau heads for the kitchen where Jacob is hovering over the soup pot. He greets Esau at the door, and takes in Esau’s request for a bowl of the red stew. Jacob moves into his game plan—a very dangerous plan. He refuses to ladle up a bowl until Esau swears that he will give Jacob his birthright. The costly bowl of soup and the hunk of bread are then passed over to the hungry one and the years continued. Who knows if Esau even remembered that kitchen sale.
As father Isaac neared his death, Rebekah commands Jacob to bring her two kid goats so she could prepare Isaac’s favorite stew. While Jacob rummaged through Esau’s closet looking for his brother’s hunting jacket, Rebekah began to prepare the goat skins to serve as the final pieces of the costume which transformed Jacob into his hairy fraternal twin brother. Although Isaac’s eyes were dim with age, he was astute enough to discern the differences in their voices, but he pushed aside his doubts when he felt Jacob’s silky goat skinned gloves that passed as Esau’s arms. Isaac was relieved to catch the familiar “field scent” as Jacob bent to kiss Isaac wearing the selected hunting Jacket from Esau’s closet.
Jacob could recall with detail the anguish of his trembling father whose sobs racked the house when he discovered that Esau had been tricked out of his blessing—out of his birthright. Nothing salved the wound of betrayal for Isaac. How could he have dared to believe that Esau could have been so gullible and naïve as to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup? No father wants the weakness of a son flaunted before him when he desperately needs to cling to his dreams for the next generation.
Things were exceedingly tense around the family compound. Household help often trade their information as their only source of power. Rebekah was informed of Esau’s plan to kill his brother, and Rebekah helped Jacob to pack and sent him off to her brother Laban’s home.
It’s on his journey following leaving his home and relationships behind that Jacob dreams the dream that will forever influence his life. In the middle of the night, in his fugitive role running from the wrath of his brother, the anguish of his father, and while holding the last view of his mother, he now has the time and the silence to begin to face his own inner demons. Yes, he has the blessing, but he knows that God may deem it as counterfeit. On one of the darkest nights of his life, the dream comes. The image within the dream is of a ladder filled with angels expressing his desire for movement away from his earthly conflict. It reflects his desire for hope—hope of inheriting the covenant passed down from Abraham to Isaac, and by a circuitous route to Jacob. The ladder represents God’s rainbow of hope. He faces the hard work that comes with transformation…and he is ready to be accountable to God, not an easy task for Jacob, and not an easy task for any of us. And the great humbling gift is God’s grace of unconditional love offered to Jacob in spite of his disordered behavior.
As I was working on this sermon, I thought about an article from the sports page by Jim Souhan. It was written several years ago when Josh Hamilton, of the Texas Rangers stole the limelight from Mauer, Morneau and Nathan at the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. I remember being touched by the story of Josh Hamilton’s history. For three seasons he was out of baseball battling a drug addiction. For three years he fought to regain trust with his wife and his family who he had betrayed by his behavior. He tells the story of showing up on the porch of his grandmother’s home. At first she didn’t recognize him because he had lost 50 pounds and was covered in tattoos. At 24 years of age his voice was weak and his eyes hollow. He remembers seeing the disappointment in his Grandma’s eyes.
That night, coming off a crack binge…he had the most haunting dream. In the dream he has a stick or a bat that he fights the demon. Over and over he would swing, and the demon would rise again. Just as he was about to give up, he felt a presence by his side. He turned his head and saw Jesus, battling alongside him. Josh tells how he was filled with strength. It was a turning point.
His recovery is part of a daily commitment. The ladder of hope in his life came when he had an encounter with God. He is transparent with what it takes to stay sober. He talks about how it takes a daily commitment to the God who called him out of addiction. He clings to the liberation that he found in the redemptive power of God. His story is one that has influenced many of his fans who wait not only for his autograph because he’s a ball player, but because he has become a ladder of hope…someone who has found a way out of bondage.
Jacob’s dream was an invitation to enter into God’s plan. There was a promise of God’s presence. When he awoke, it was clear that the dream was more…it was indeed a vision. He made his commitment to follow God with the understanding that he would be provided for and that ultimately he would be able to return to his father’s house in peace. He made his altar on the stone pillow that had held his head has he experienced the sacred vision, and he promised God a tenth of his goods.
On this Independence Day weekend, we worship a God who embraces all the parts of ourselves while inviting us to move towards wholeness and ultimately freedom. Conflict is a part of life. We are tempted to deny, ignore and avoid conflict. It takes courage to engage in the life one has been given. Blessing, wisdom and freedom often come out of that hard work that it takes to stay present to God and to ourselves. Freedom often comes not out of living differently, but in seeing our lives differently. It takes courage to move one’s life into alignment. It is into God’s arms of mercy that we are all invited to fall. There is no other God. This is our faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.