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Your Birthright

  • July 16, 2017
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for July 16, 2017 (Proper 10, Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Title:               Your Birthright

“Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank; and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

Who are you, my friends? Are you Jacob? Or are you Esau?

Thinking in terms of our Gospel story: Are you the hard-packed dirt of the path? Are you the rocky ground? Are you the patch of thorns? Or, perhaps, are you the good soil which produces an abundant harvest?

My friends, I think that there are two basic lessons for all of us in the story of Jacob and Esau. First of all, understand that this is a story of etiology. It explains why there are distinctions and divisions between the descendants of Jacob and those of Esau.

Mixed in with this story of origins is a moral lesson, though it is a complicated one.

Most moral lessons are quite simple, because we all seem instinctively to prefer the simple ones!

It’s just much easier when a story has a clearly identifiable “good guy” and “bad guy”. And many Sunday School lessons throughout the years have told children that Jacob is the hero and Esau is the bad guy and that none of us should do what Esau did.

But, what exactly did Esau do?

In the Letter to the Hebrews within the New Testament, Esau is discussed as a moral cautionary tale in this way: “See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal” (Hebrew 12:16).

Now let me ask you: was Esau stupid and thoughtless? Absolutely! Incredibly so.

But was he immoral and godless? Truth be told, this seems a bit harsh to me. The book of Genesis itself explains that Jacob acted deceitfully in taking away the birthright from Esau – and later in stealing Esau’s rightful blessing from their father. (cf. Genesis 27:30-38).

I mean, consider the situation: who would do that to his only brother?

Could one not describe Jacob’s actions as immoral and godless? To steal a birthright and a blessing through deception, and by taking advantage of a vulnerable person?!

Jacob is shameless, and Esau is desperate, and WE need to pay attention!

Desperate people take desperate measures, and desperate measures lead to all kind of desperate circumstances.

Of course, you all have seen the Snickers commercials in which someone famous takes the form of their opposite personality until they bite into a Snickers bar which – viola! – like magic relieves their hunger and allows them to return to their normal selves.

Well, Esau was so famished that he traded his birth right for a bowl of stew!

You know that if you go to the grocery story feeling starved, then you’ll fill your shopping cart up with WAY more than you need!

In fact, there is a good, sound, fundamental life principle which I learned from folks in AA which applies here. It is called HALT. H – A – L – T. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

The rule of thumb is this: if you are overwhelmed by any of these feelings, then – no matter what – DO NOT make any decision! Don’t do anything, except the minimum required to move beyond that particular feeling in a healthy way.

Never, ever allow hunger, anger, loneliness or tiredness to overtake the critical thinking side of your brain, because it will if you let it. And you will likely regret whatever comes out of that scenario.

Hunger overshadows good judgment. Principles crumble in desperate times. We can all be good and wise and kind – we can all give to the needy when we have enough, but what about when the baby’s crying and your stomach is growling, or the bank account is empty? Interest rates don’t matter to the famished Esau’s of the world – they just want the cash in their hand and they will pay the piper another day because it’s hard enough just to get through today!

The time of desperation is not the time to make a decision. If you’re famished, don’t stand over the soup while you make your decision, but walk away and ask for advice!

I’m sure that the lentil stew that Jacob cooked up in his tent all afternoon was delicious to the famished Esau, but he would be hungry again and now he’d be hungry the very next day without his birthright!

So don’t be foolish like Esau. That lesson seems clear enough. But, really, should anyone be like Jacob?

Is it possible to live with yourself if you’re Jacob? Jacob gets that inheritance from his brother Esau and in doing so he takes advantage of a desperate man,  and not just a man, but his brother.

We know that Esau became hungry again. But what happened to Jacob?

Well, he seems quite impervious to guilt. Shameless is what I’d call him. Willing to do whatever he needs to in order to get what he wants, what he needs to improve his situation, even if it means the diminution of his own brother!

But as the story unfolds in Genesis, we find that Jacob spends the rest of his life dealing with the repercussions of his actions.

The smell of that lentil stew lingered for many years to come. Shameless and immoral is what I would call Jacob as well.

Knowing what we do about desperate people who will take desperate measures, is it morally right to take advantage of such people?

Some folks chalk it up as simple supply and demand, the simple act of doing business, but there is no clear standard.

When Uber raised prices during a snowstorm here in the US and after a terrorist attack in Australia, people were outraged! Even though the increased prices were clearly stated up front, this seemed to cross a line for many, like it was taking advantage of desperate people!

By contrast, when Erin and I looked into booking a hotel room for West Point’s graduation in 2018, we found that the only two hotels that are close to the school double their rates each year for graduation week!

For some reason, this is an acceptable form of price-gouging, while Uber’s approach is not.

In some ways, we are always taking advantage of desperate people. Who is not interested in incredible discounts when a store is going out of business and needs to get rid of all their inventory?

Well, you may say, these are all economic examples, so perhaps it’s different in interpersonal relationships, right?

We can only hope, but honestly, when negotiating sticky personal situations, who does not try to work from a position of advantage and strength?

Jacob is shameless, but if we’re honest, who among us would NOT exult in making a fantastic deal which just doubled our net worth? And, heh, the other guy agreed to it, right? So how bad can it be?

No one is clean in this story. The moral lesson is this: don’t be like Esau, but don’t be like Jacob either!

But perhaps more than anything else, the lesson of this ancient story is this: never, ever despise your birthright! Protect it and cherish it!

There are many different ways to think about our own birthright. We all have a birthright from our family. We have a birthright from our nation, our state, our home community. All of these are to be cherished.

But most importantly, I ask you to never, ever despise your birthright as an adopted child of God. As a member of the household of God!

This matters more than anything else.

The real difference between those we read about in Genesis and you, the real difference between them and me, is this: we know that God chose them and worked through them in spite of their failures and foolishness and deceptions, that they were not defined by the mistakes in their lives. Even Esau moved on and produced an abundant harvest later in his life.

We know this about all of them, but we do not yet know this same truth about our own lives! We tend to get stuck in our past, our great failures, our tragic disappointments, or our foolish choices.

We tend to think that these define us, but they do not. For we do not belong to our past or to what we have done. We belong to Christ, who has bought us and claimed us for his own.

My friends, we are in fact the grain produced by seed which fell in good soil.

Not because we earned it, or because we made it happen. But simply because God chose us!

But not in order to celebrate our spiritual birthright, not to boast in our blessing. But in order to give it away! To share it with those who desperately need hope. To continue to sow the seeds of eternal life.

For truly our divine birthright is a mission, a calling to share the good news everywhere we go. Like the sower casting the seed.

So will you cherish this birthright and claim it as your own? May it be so. Amen.

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