The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: July 16, 2017
Preacher: Anne Marie Witchger, Candidate for the Priesthood sponsored by St. Michael’s Church
I just got back yesterday from a week with my in-laws—my husbands’ parents, his two younger sisters, and his youngest sisters’ husband. We were all staying together in a small cabin in northern Michigan, sharing bathrooms and cooking meals together, and going on hikes and bike rides and boat rides. It was a lot of fun, but it was also intense because spending up-close quality time with family (even in a family where everyone gets along) can bring up all kinds of past dynamics—old behaviors, rivalries, expectations, disappointments, and so on.
There is a theory that I learned about in seminary (that might be familiar to some of you) called Family Systems Theory. Family Systems Theory attempts to understand not just an individual’s behavior, but how systems of people interact and relate to one another. The idea is that if we want to make positive changes in our lives, we have to acknowledge that who we are and how we behave depends on our relationships with other people—both from our childhood and the families or communities we are part of today. Our interdependence with others can work for us or against us. If there are healthy, cooperative relationships within our family system, then the system as a whole (all the individuals within it) can thrive. If there is unhealthy tension, anxiety, or excessive stress, even from just one or two members of the system, that can have ripple effects and create dysfunction for the group as a whole. No family is perfect, but some families have healthier connections than others. If you think about your own family of origin—the one in which you were raised—you can begin to evaluate those connections.
In the Old Testament reading for today, we get an up-close look at a pretty significant family system in our faith tradition. In this passage, Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, becomes pregnant. She and Isaac had been trying to conceive for 20 years. When God finally responds to Isaac’s prayers, Rebekah conceives twins and the twins in her womb struggle against each other. You may have people like that in your family—two people who seem to have been in conflict since before they were born. The babies struggle against each other in Rebekah’s womb and it becomes so painful that Rebekah implores God, saying basically: “Lord, is it even worth living if there is so much strife within me?” If any of us have experienced conflict in our families, we know this feeling. In Rebekah’s case, the battleground for her sons’ conflict is literally her own body. But many of us know what it feels like to be part of or stuck in the middle of a conflict that is so close to us if feels like we cannot escape.
God’s response to Rebekah’s plea is not so reassuring: God tells Rebekah that the conflict within her body is even larger than she can imagine. “You are carrying in your womb not just two babies, but two nations. And these two nations will be divided; one will be stronger than the other and the older will serve the younger.”
Imagine consulting a psychologist or a counselor because two of your children are arguing and being told that their disputes will grow even bigger than you could ever anticipate? Yikes.
The conflict does not go away when Rebekah gives birth. The passage we read today doesn’t tell us the whole story; after Jacob manipulates Esau out of his birthright he collaborates with his mother to trick Esau out of his father’s blessing, too. The young men trick and neglect each other until Jacob flees his childhood home for fear that his older brother will kill him. They live separately, in fear of the other’s wrath and vengeance for decades. I encourage you if you have time this week to go read the next several chapters of Genesis—it is like a soap opera.
Talk about messy family dynamics. This family is not at all healthy—the brothers have an intense rivalry; the parents take sides and use the children to trick each other. Isn’t the Bible supposed to model healthy, good relationships for us? Isaac and Rebekah’s family is messy and unpredictable and manipulative and unfair. Did anyone grow up in a family like that?
If not, perhaps you have been in a relationship or a workplace like that. Dysfunctional family or community systems can feel hopeless.
So, what do we do with a passage like this? What can we learn from a family in which no one seems capable of or interested in change?
Don’t worry, there is good news for us. As people of faith, we are not beholden to the failures or challenges or dysfunctions of our families. We are not even beholden to our own failures and dysfunctions. That doesn’t mean we don’t experience them or that they are not real, but as people of faith we are not bound by our human relationships alone.
God is part of our family system.
God is there from the very beginning of Jacob and Esau’s lives, even when they are still in Rebekah’s womb. Rebekah is never a perfect mother. Isaac is never a perfect father. The brothers are cruel to each other; they take turns making each other’s lives miserable. But God is there in the background of it all. God is part of this family. God is part of our families.
Our faith assures us that God is always at work. And that God’s work is good. As Christians we believe that Jesus took on human form to be in solidarity with us; to endure the pain and suffering of human experience so that we would not have to endure it alone. In Jesus’ resurrection we have been assured that God is a God of life and rebirth. That God’s work is to make dead things breathe again. Our God is a God of renewal and reconciliation and hope.
When we look for signs of God, we are looking for signs of peace, of new life, of restoration. Let me be very clear: God’s presence with us does not protect us from conflict or hardship or tragedy. God is not like a pupetteer orchestrating our human relationships, but God can breathe new life into relationships we have severed. God can help us find hope after someone has hurt us deeply. God does not tell our mother how to treat us, but God is at work—God is with us when we feel abandoned or unheard or unloved. In a situation like that God’s work might be to help us find the healing we need over time; to help us find comfort; to assure us that we are not alone.
Eventually, God’s role in the family system comes to full fruition for Jacob and Esau. The brothers have gone their separate ways and they have both become successful. They have lots of children and wives and servants and livestock—the measures of success were a little different in antiquity. Neither one really “needs” the other. They could have gone on living in their separate camps forever, but eventually Jacob decides he needs to try to reconcile. It’s not clear exactly why—perhaps he and his family were going to travel past Esau’s family and Jacob thought it would be better to reconcile than risk a big fight. So Jacob starts sending gifts to Esau—livestock and other goods. And then Jacob has this transformational experience. You might know this story. Jacob is alone one night and an angel of the Lord comes to him and Jacob wrestles with this Angel all throughout the night and even though he wins the fight, the angel knocks out his hip socket before blessing him. As Jacob walks away limping he realizes what has just happened and he says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”
The scripture doesn’t make a direct connection to Esau, but immediately after this event Jacob sees Esau coming toward him. Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge, but he goes toward him with humility. And the two men come head to head. And it could turn into a big bloody battle, but instead Esau runs to meet Jacob and he wraps his arms around him and falls on him and kisses him. And Jacob and Esau weep, holding each other, like little kids—like the brothers they never really were. And Jacob says to Esau: truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favor.”
God is part of this family. Jacob sees God in the face of this brother whom he has hated for years. Perhaps he also saw his brother in the face of God while he was wrestling the night before.
So, where is God in our families? What role has God played in our family or community system? Where do we see signs of reconciliation, and peace, and new life? We cannot escape our families—even if we have moved far away and established new households—the emotional interconnectedness of family systems ensures that we will carry our families with us wherever we go. But if we can remember that God is also part of that system.
A parish is a lot like a family system. God is part of this “family” system, too. We, as a community, can heal and change and experience renewal. That is the hope God gives us—that is the hope we proclaim through Christ: that God is with us through it all and that even the most dysfunctional, desolate areas of our lives, or our families can find new expression. So, claim God as part of your family; invite God to help you change; wrestle with God until you find peace.