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Thursday, July 07, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 25:19-34 AND Psalm 119:105-112 OR Isaiah 55:10-13 AND Psalm 65:1-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There’s a fascination these days with family history, even a TV program with celebrities seeking a long lost ancestor. Our ancestors are seen as the roots from which we have grown. In a week when the Gospel lesson is a parable about a sower and seed and soils, and a story about the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) family patriarchs, it seems appropriate to think about how our own lives have, or have not, been nurtured.

The story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25 is a story about sibling rivalry, probably a reminder to the early readers of the origins of tribal antagonism they were still experiencing. Like modern-day religious rivals, they had differing understandings of the family traditions and accused each other of being unfaithful.

Like Isaac their father, the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, are children of their parents’ old age. (Genesis 25:20-21) Their rivalry begins in the womb and Rebekah their mother is told, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided . . .” (vss. 22-23) Esau comes out but Jacob hand is “gripping Esau’s heel,” as if, from the very beginning trying to hold Esau back. (vss. 24-26) The two boys are nothing alike—Esau, a ruddy hunter, and Jacob, “a quiet man, living in tents.” (vss. 25 & 27)

The story reflects the transition from a hunting and gathering culture and a more settled agricultural existence, the two cultures almost always in conflict. Esau represents the old ways; Jacob, the new ways. And as is sometimes the case in families, each parents has a favorite. Isaac is fond of the hunter Esau. “Isaac loved Esau,” it says, “because he was fond of game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (vs.28)

The custom was that the family inheritance went to the firstborn son. What is evident in more than one of the biblical stories is that God’s lineage isn’t always bound by human customs. Here God’s lineage is traced through the younger son, Jacob, even if trickery comes into play. (vss. 23 & 29-34) It is refreshing and humbling to be reminded that God’s ways sometimes leap around the barriers we humans would erect.

The story is so vividly painted that one can almost smell the stew Jacob is cooking. Esau comes in “famished” from working in the field. “Let me eat some of that red stuff,” he demands. (vss. 29-30) Jacob will do so only after Esau surrenders his birthright. (vss. 31-34) How quickly we are ready to forget where we have come from when we can trade our roots for our appetites. We are bombarded with things to buy which are guaranteed to make our lives better. It seems that we are measured by the dollars we earn and spend. Family stories like these in Genesis are told to remind the hearers about the deeper values that can be found in roots/heritage. What kind of soil do we come from?

The parable in the Gospel lesson from Matthew can be seen as asking that question. It’s often been called the Parable of the Sower, sometimes the Parable of the Seed. Many suggest instead that it be seen as the Parable of the Soils. A sower goes out to scatter seed. (Matthew 13:3) The seeds fall on all different kinds of soil, rocky ground, surrounding by thorns, etc., where they don’t fare well. (vss. 4-7) “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (vs. 8) Those who focus upon the soils often end by asking, “And what kind of soil are you?” It’s a good question, although it may not be the only question.

Some ask what the images in the story represent—the sower, the seed, the soil. Are we individually the soil or is the community of believers that is the soil? As a gardener, I read the parable and I see the implication that we are to take care of the soil, working to be sure that there is good soil in which the seeds can grow. In my gardening I have come to the point where I see my first task as taking care of and building up the soil, even feeding and watering it. If the soil is healthy it will probably grow healthy plants.

This parable is part of a series of parables about seeds and growth—the seed being the Gospel message the disciples were commissioned to share. Their efforts were not always well received. I believe these seed parables collectively were intended as a word of encouragement to discouraged disciples. “Keep on planting; some of the seed will take root and grow.” No matter what kind of soil we come from seeds have been planted and some will grow. It is a word of hope to parents, to pastors, to all sowers of the message of love and peace and justice.

Similarly, in Isaiah 55, God’s word is compared to rain and snow which “come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater.” (Isaiah 55:10) That rain and snow, says the prophet, are like “my word . . . that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (vs. 11) The harvest is joy and peace, mountains and hills that sing, trees that clap their hands, signs of everlasting hope. (vss. 12-13)

The entirety of Psalm 119 (the longest chapter in the Bible) is about God’s word, something to be stored in our hearts so that we can be empowered and guided in our living. What soil do we come from? Here we are invited to grow in the soil of God’s word—not the cold word of a literalist reading, but the “decrees” which “are my heritage forever . . . the joy of my heart.” When asking what soil we come from, we are asking, in part, what is in our hearts. Psalm 65 also notes the abundant growth God makes possible and the hope it offers. “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain . . . You water its furrows abundantly, setting its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.” (Psalm 65:9-10)

The reading from Romans keeps us focused on what is stored in our hearts, using the distinction between “flesh” and “Spirit”—“life” and “death.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) Paul is speaking primarily of two states of being as we live in this world. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (vs. 5)

In examining our heritage/roots, we are called to pay attention to the Spirit of Christ and God. If Christ is in us, we are “not in the flesh,” but “in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells” in us. (vss. 9-10) If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to you mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (vs. 11)

On this week when our congregation mourns the loss of a beloved member, John Barnhart, and celebrate his life, it is particularly helpful and comforting to be reminded that it is the living, eternal, spirit that is the source of all meaning in life, his and ours. What a refreshing breeze God’s Spirit brought to life in John! And notice that the reading from Romans begins not with an emphasis upon judgment. As we reflect on our roots and growth and celebrate the lives of those around us, hear again the words that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 1)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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