When Ivy and I moved to Minneapolis, coming from another state meant that I had to get a new license to practice medicine. The process was one of the hardest I’ve ever gone through. I had to provide names, phone numbers and addresses for every program in which I had trained and every place I had ever worked since graduating medical school. Do you have any idea how hard that is to do after a quarter of a century has elapsed? And once I dug up all this information, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice called each and every place, apparently to find out if I had, in fact, been there and had not been a criminal.
The whole point, of course, has to do with assuring everybody that I was qualified to be a physician here. If you do almost any kind of work outside the home, you, too, probably had to obtain a little blue square of legal paper saying that you are qualified. It’s a big deal in our time and place.
I was remembering that struggle this week when I thought about the lesson from Genesis which you heard this morning. The the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, tell the history of God’s choosing a people to be God’s own cherished possession, and calling the ones who would lead that people to the promised land. If you were to think of the Torah as a single story, and read it all through as you would any other book, you might then ask the question: what qualifications was God looking for in those who would carry the salvation story, the relationship with the Holy? I think that the Minnesota Licensing Board would be appalled.
If you wanted to call into being a nation more numerous than the stars in the heaven, why would you be working with so many barren couples? Abraham and Sarah were about a zillion years old before they had even one child to carry on their inheritance. When they at last had a son, he remained a bachelor until age forty, when his parents stopped waiting and sent someone to find him a wife.
Then Isaac and his wife were unable to have children for twenty more years, until their fervent prayers were answered. And what an answer they received – twins who apparently began their battles with each other while still in the womb. The boys had very different personalities, and their parents seemed to divide them up: ‘Isaac loved Esau because he was a good hunter, but Rebekah loved Jacob.’ Can you spell dysfunctional family?
Esau was the elder, and should have inherited everything. But he wasn’t necessarily the brightest, or the best at postponement of gratification; when he was hungry, although I suspect not literally starving, he let his younger brother sell him a pot of lentil stew, for the low, low price of his birthright. Nor is Jacob one whom you would choose for a role-model, as he conned his father into believing that he was Esau, thereby stealing the patriarchal blessing meant for his brother. Of course then Jacob had to go on the run, since Esau was the stronger of the two, and vowed to kill him.
The story would continue into the next generation where, again, leadership would go, not to the eldest, but to the second youngest. It was Joseph, who brought Israel to live in Egypt, for a place of safety during famine. Generations later, Israel would be brought back out of Egypt by Moses, an unwilling leader with a noticeable stutter, against whom the people constantly rebelled and complained.
Everywhere the rules, expectations and qualifications were turned upside down. And when all was said and done, this people Israel, God’s Royal Priesthood, was, in fact, a tiny nation, located on a geographic crossroads, constantly vulnerable to the comings and goings of far stronger hostile kingdoms. Is this any way to run a Chosen People?
The answer seems to come in the words spoken to the prophet Isaiah: “Your thoughts are not my thoughts, nor your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Barren women, feuding siblings, dysfunctional families, a nation conquered and taken into captivity. All of these were the raw clay from which God, the potter, spun forth the shape of salvation. In other words, God is always in relationship, in covenant, with unqualified, flawed human beings – people just like us.
And the promise of God has to be newly discovered by each generation. We today are the current generation needing to understand this story. We are certainly in the tradition of the weak, the dysfunctional and the powerless. Christian denominations squabble with each other like Jacob and Esau. Numbers of church members in Mainline denominations are in continual decline, and those who declare themselves as having no religious affiliation are in the ascendancy. We seem to be the barren women who cannot bring forth the next generation to carry on the family name. The national churches of every denomination continually propose programs for church growth as though to say that being more numerous, wealthy and powerful, like the churches of our great-grandparents, would be much better.
But before we sell our birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, perhaps we should ask ourselves if God’s call is actually best embodied by those who mimic the world’s methods and values. Do we need greater numbers, or do we need deeper fidelity to the Gospel? Do we need more political clout, or do we need sacrificial presence in a broken world?
Going back to the Genesis story, Jacob may have beaten out Esau in many ways, but then he had to get out of town to avoid his brother’s wrath. After one especially wearying day of journey, he had no place to stay as the sun set. So he laid down on the ground with a rock for a pillow.
That night he had a dreamed of a ladder extending from heaven to earth, with angels going up and down. There he heard the voice of God saying, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ In the morning the fugitive woke astonished and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’
What if this is the calling for us – learning to recognize the times when God is surely present in this place. That is our human-sized task. It is not we who created the universe and brought order out of chaos. It is not we who first spoke the words of the covenant of salvation.
But we are those who inherit all the gifts of the God who has promised to keep us wherever we go. In this time and place, in liturgy and song, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we join the line that began with Abraham and Sarah and extends to eternal life. When we are willing to be merely human, with all the attendant flaws of that role, we become God’s children, creatures of true glory.