You know how in old westerns….you always knew who the good guys were during the chase scenes on horseback because the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats? Maybe some of you don’t remember those movies. Anyway, the directors did that just so it would be clear for us as we watched….so we wouldn’t be confused who was who in the chaos of the chase.
They were made mostly in the 50s…after the war. As the cold war settled in. And people wanted clarity about who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. America good. Russians bad. Capitalism good. Socialism bad. We painted with broad brushes….traditional family good. Nontraditional bad. Marriage good. Divorce bad. Christian good. Atheism bad. Straight good. Gay bad. And, of course, as the hats revealed…white good. Black bad.
These days, I hear a lot of folks longing for those “good old days”. When we knew right from wrong. When the lines were clear. When men were men and women were women. They long for the white hats and black hats. Mostly, of course, it’s folks who fit in all the white hat categories. They miss the days when no one thought they were judgmental or racist or misogynist or prejudiced for wearing their white hat with pride. They miss the days when things didn’t seem so chaotic…like a huge chase scene where they can’t tell who is who.
Of course…they conveniently forget that to be black..to be gay…to be divorced…to be an atheist or a socialist…was pretty horrific in those days. They forget blacklisting and McCarthy. They forget that as women they couldn’t even have their own bank account and abuse and rape in a marriage were condoned. They forget that most people despised Martin Luther King and approved of segregation and turned a blind eye to lynch mobs. They conveniently forget that the white hats of the day were perpetrating all sorts of evil.
The truth of our human life…is that there are no white hats and no black hats. It IS a chaotic chase…and there is good in us all. And there is evil in us all.
And that brings us to Jacob…and to Esau.
The story we read today is about two sons….and the one who gets the blessing of his father is the one who deceives his father with his mother’s help. Deceiving bad. Telling the truth good.
But…is Jacob bad and Esau good? Not according to the Bible. According to the prophet Malachi, God says “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” According to the Bible…Jacob is the chosen one. His mother had a vision that God told her Jacob would be the greater of the twins…and she and Jacob did what they did to fulfill that prophecy. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel…and Jacob becomes the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. The promise of God continues through Jacob. Even though Esau is a child of Isaac, grandson of Abraham…he is cut off from the promise when Isaac blesses Jacob in his stead.
Now….what do we say about this? Rabbis have had plenty to say over the centuries, to be sure. They observe that Esau was the golden boy. His father’s pride. Strong and tough. A hunter. What they call a “man’s man.” Jacob was a mama’s boy. He was soft. He was sneaky. He spent his time with the women and servants in the house. A disappointment to his father. Everything in who they are speaks to Esau’s destiny to take charge of the family clan.
However, Esau had a weakness. Some of you might remember the story where he came home hungry and Jacob was cooking stew…yes? Esau demanded his weakling brother feed him. And when Jacob said…sure, you can have some stew if you give me your birthright… Esau agreed. Now, the birthright inherently belonged to the eldest son. It meant you were the leader of the clan. The one responsible for the well being of the whole estate and household — the property and the livestock, yes…but also the women and children and servants. Esau thought nothing of that responsibility… basically gave it to Jacob with a “who cares” attitude as long as he could fill his own stomach. But Jacob…who spent his time with the women and children and servants…understood how important that role was. His mother had taught him. And he and his mother understood that Esau would not care for the community…only himself. So when the time came to receive the final blessing from Isaac…they made sure Jacob was on the receiving end. Of course, Esau was enraged…and was ready to kill his brother…so Jacob fled. And the story goes on…
But, what I love is that this is a story of what real life is like. It’s not a story longing for the days when things were clear. It’s not a story about white hats and black hats. It’s a messy story…a chaotic story. It’s hard to tell who is good and who is bad…because the answer is yes. Yes…this is us. This is what we are like. Some of us fit all the golden child stereotypes….Esau, the man’s man…the rugged individualist .. but he gets so caught up in himself that he isn’t looking at what’s best for the community…for the household. And some of us are the black sheep, the outsiders in the human family…Jacob, the effeminate one, the one looking for angles…yet God’s promise comes through him anyway.
This is a story of saints and sinners. One of Martin Luther’s best doctrines was his absolute conviction that we are simul iustus et peccator– we are simultaneously 100% ..wholly…a saint. And at the same time 100% …wholly…a sinner. This is Luther talking — he says:
Thus a Christian person is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy
of God and a child of God. None of the sophists will admit this paradox, because they do not
understand the true meaning of justification.
And what does Luther think justification is? It is God loving and choosing to be with and work through and do beautiful things through ordinary, deeply flawed, people. It is God loving and choosing and redeeming us, just as we are…and using us, just as we are, to love and choose and redeem the world. That is what the God of Scripture is about…has always been about. From the time of Abraham and Sarah…blessed to be a blessing to the whole world. This is the promise of Jesus Christ…who said “I chose you…you didn’t choose me..I chose you to be light in the world.” It is the promise of Jesus who said…”Forgive them…for they don’t know what they are doing.”.
The story of Jacob and Esau is a story of how God’s promises persist…sometimes through the most unlikely folks…and in spite of all the things we do wrong. Here is the truth… each of us is capable of seriously hurting others…hurting ourselves…hurting creation. Some of us may not even realize how we have devastated others through our actions…or inaction….but there is pain in the world that stems from us.
But here is also the truth….each of us is capable of doing extraordinarily kind things. We are capable of acts of generosity and forgiveness and thoughtfulness that make the world beautiful. That change lives. That give hope. The world is better because you are in it.
The paradox is real. We do the things we wish we wouldn’t…again and again. Yet while we are yet sinners….Jesus gave his life for us. And called us beautiful and beloved children of God.
Esau is a saint and a sinner….later, when Jacob returns, Esau, who seemed to be hated by God…will be the one to welcome Jacob and his family with open arms and offer him forgiveness. He will make a way for beautiful reconciliation.
Jacob is a saint and a sinner….Jacob, who seemed to be loved by God, will continue to cheat and be cheated…he will try to bribe Esau…he will play favorites with his children and his wives and wrangle with God.
We are all saints and sinners. Pastors, church members, neighbors…all of us. But God’s promises..to love the world…to love us..to redeem the world and redeem us….persist through us. And that is where our hope lies.
You know, in the 4th and 5th century…there were people in the church that argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. In other words…if you were baptized by a corrupt priest…it didn’t count. And if you learned about God’s love or received grace through communion from a priest who was sinful…it wasn’t’ real. It was called the Donatist controversy. The church came down on “absolutely not”. (Thank goodness!) God’s promises, you see, always come through deeply flawed people.
We’ve had issues with that these days…with abuse in the church. I did an interim after a pastor who had violated his role as a pastor by being sexually involved with a parishioner. But people had come to know grace through his preaching. They had been baptized and confirmed, married and buried by him…they loved him and were loved by him…and they were hurt and angry and defensive and confused. But, the absolute truth is that his failures didn’t change God’s promises. God uses us, messed up as we are…to forgive and love and redeem others. And God also forgives and loves and redeems us …when we hurt others.
No…there are no white hats and black hats. In the pulpits or in the pews or in our community or in our world. The clarity of the good old days we long for is an illusion ..a lie…that was always deadly for so many. Life has always held ambiguity….like Jacob and Esau. And when we most get ourselves in trouble, is when we deny that…when we paint with broad brushes…of good and bad. They are good or they are bad. Or I am good or I am Bad. Because the reality is yes. We are. We are all good and bad…saints and sinners….yet God’s promises are for us all. God’s love is for us all. There is grace for us…..Our whole life long. Amen.