July 16, 2023
Genesis 25.19-35. The rivalry of Jacob and Esau; Esau sells his birthright.
Psalm 25. A prayer for God’s support, guidance, forgiveness and love.
Romans 8.1-11. Life in the flesh, and life in the Spirit.
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23. The parable of the sower.
People who want to get “back to the Biblical ideal of family” need to read the Bible. Most families in the Bible are dysfunctional, and Jacob’s is blatantly so. In this story, and following tales we’ll see conflict, distrust, deception and betrayal. And grace. It seems the biblical idea is that family is where we work out our crap. Or, as Robert Frost says, “Family is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you.”
Esau doesn’t seem to value his birthright. Well, same with us. In what ways do we deny who we are, repudiate our belovedness, abandon our place of belonging in God’s family? What stresses and anxieties lead us to betray our divine birthright?
It’s easy to judge Esau, but maybe he wasn’t just hungry one afternoon. Maybe he was actually, as he says, starving. We can imagine the brother’s conflicts were long and deep, to the point that Esau is actually driven into deep poverty. In that state, he’s right: what good is a future legal matter when he’s about to die? I think of how readily we judge the poor for how they spend their money, and how unaware we are of the pressures on poor people for day to day survival.
But notice who we tend to criticize in this story, and who we let off the hook. The worst travesty is the obvious— that Jacob doesn’t care for his brother, but is willing to cheat him out of his inheritance. And we are heirs of that injustice. We Americans live on stolen land, in a nation built by slaves, with an economy supported by the labor of the poor, fueled by oil that spills on somebody else’s land. It would seem our moral compass isn’t worth a bowl of stew. Boy, do we ever need to pray for God’s guidance. Hence Psalm 25.
“There is no condemnation; we are set free from the law of sin and death.” Our attempts to be good people, to live “by the law,” can’t actually heal our relationship with God or others, but God’s grace does. God comes and lives among us as one of us and so overcomes our separation from God—which is our sin. Instead of judging us for our sin God “condemns sin,” that is, does away with our separation from God. God fulfills the law for us!“
According to the flesh… according to the Spirit.” We’ve interpreted this notion dualistically, as if there’s physical and there’s spiritual, and physical is bad and spiritual is good. That’s not what Paul means. There’s nothing bad or sinful about your body or its needs and desires. But here’s the thing. We have this very strong illusion that we’re separate, unrelated individuals, and our “self” is contained in, limited to and defined by our bodies. Pointing to my body I think this 163-lb sack of flesh and bones is “me,” and everything else is “you, “ or at least not me. But that’s not true. We are actually all fingers of the same hand, members of the Body of Christ, all one in the Spirit of God, all of us cells of one living organism. None of us is “alive” separate from the whole body, any more than one of your cells or tissues could be “alive” separate from your body. We are one in the Spirit, even though we seem to have separate bodies.
What Paul calls life “in the flesh” is self-centered life, life controlled by our egos, controlled by our our self-serving anxieties and desires. Life “in the Spirit” is life as one with the whole Body of Christ, one in the Spirit, led and sustained by God. Paul is not contrasting flesh and spirit. He’s contrasting individualistic life and connected life. (Notice that when Paul talks about our individualistic ego-defined self he usually calls it “flesh.” When he talks about our oneness in a single life he usually calls it “body.”)
And the cool thing is that since we are one with Christ, Christ’s resurrection is also ours. We are raised up out of our own death, out of the sinful control of our egos, by being part of the Body of Christ. Paul says “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Righteousness doesn’t mean religious correctness, it means relatedness. We’re in relationship with God because (in Christ) God relates to us. Because we participate in Christ’s life we participate in Christ’s resurrection. So all our attempts to fulfill the law are for naught. By being in us, God fulfills the law in us.
Beware of any “explanation” of a parable—even Jesus’. No good comedian explains their jokes. No good storyteller explains their stories. The explanation was likely added, maybe by Matthew, and is unlikely to have come from Jesus. His parables are not allegories, in which each part “equals” some particular thing. They’re way more open to various interpretations. Maybe the seed is the Word planted in us. Maybe it’s us planted in the world. Maybe it’s about our love planted in the lives of others…. This is a story about receptivity and resistance. It’s about patience (failure, failure, failure, success…) It’s about acceptance (Of course so much of the seed is wasted. That’s how you plant a field.) … It’s about the triumph of grace over everything..
Call to Worship
Leader: God of truth, sow the seed of your Word in our hearts.
All: We receive your grace with glad and generous hearts.
Loving Christ, sow the seeds of healing and growth in our bodies and souls.
We receive your grace with glad and generous hearts.
Holy Spirit, sow the seeds of your love in our lives.
We receive your grace with glad and generous hearts. Alleluia!
Leader: Creator God, we praise you!
All: Risen Christ, we greet you!
You gather us into a family of grace, a household of love.
You make Covenant to be our God, and call us to be your people.
Alleluia! Come, Holy Spirit, and transform us by your grace. Alleluia!
Collect / Prayer of the Day
God of truth, you sow the seed of your Word among us. Soften the soil of our hearts to receive your grace, that it may flourish in us. Amen.
O good and generous God, you have sown the seed of your Word in our hearts. Nourish that Word by our worship today, so that it may grow and flourish in us, and so that in all our lives we may bear the fruit of your love. Amen.
God of love, we are siblings to Jacob and Esau, caught up in their rivalry, ready to compete. But we are all your children, all of us beloved family. Remind us who and whose we are. Speak to us anew of our inheritance from you, of grace and belovedness. In the spirit of Christ, we are listening. Amen.
(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)
O Sower of Love,
we are ready soil.
Plant your word in us;
nourish it in the sun of your grace
and the rain of your love.
May it bear fruit
by the power of your Spirit. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
Most merciful God, we confess
that we have separated ourselves from you,
that we have not been mindful of your presence
or lived in your Spirit;
and in our isolation we have lived hurtfully.
We are sorry, and we repent.
Forgive our sin, heal our hearts,
and restore us in your grace. Amen.
Loving God,we confess
we have lived wrapped up inside ourselves,
not joined with you, led by your Spirit.
Rejoin us to you.
Forgive our sin, heal our fear,
and renew in us your spirit of love. Amen.
Romans 8.1-11 —a paraphrase
God has no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the controlling power of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the controlling power of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, in the hands of our weak flesh, could not do: the Only Begotten took on sinful flesh, eliminating our sin, our separation from God. By being in us God fulfilled the just requirement of the law in us. So we walk not as if we are contained and defined by our individual flesh but knowing we are defined by the one Spirit. For those who see themselves as isolated individuals set their minds on self-centered anxieties, but those who know they are part of God’s Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
To set the mind on the isolated self is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the individual self is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s will—indeed it cannot; and those who are absorbed in self cannot please God. But you are not an isolated individual; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, though your isolated body is dead, being disconnected from God, the Spirit is life because of the gift of God’s presence. If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through God’s Spirit that dwells in you.
Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion
[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) May the seeds of grace you have planted in our hearts bear fruit in love and faith and service, for the sake of the world, in the name of Christ. Amen.
Gracious God, we give you our gifts as symbols of our lives. Receive them with love, bless them with grace, and use them according to your will. Send us into the world to share your love with all people, to extend the kinship of your grace even in conflict, to meet even our enemies as siblings, and above all to hold all in the light of your grace, in the name of Christ. Amen.
Loving and generous God, you have sown your grace in our hearts. We thank you for your blessings, and in gratitude we offer to you our gifts, and our very lives. Bless us that we may be your fruitful wheat planted by your hand, bread for the world in the name and spirit of Christ. Amen.
(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)
Love-Sowing God (Tune: Gift of Love / The Water Is Wide)
Love-sowing God, sow love in me,
your seeds of grace abundantly.
My soul be soil where love may root
and grow and bear your precious fruit.
Where habit’s feet and wheels have tracked,
my anxious work the soil has packed,
soften my soul with bliss or pain,
so love may enter in again.
My angry thorns, my selfish weeds,
God, clear away, and sow your seeds.
Despite the hungry, wanting bird,
Love, plant in me your living Word.
Love-sowing God, your labors done,
help me to trust the rain and sun,
receive your grace and faithfully
bear forth your love that grows in me.
O Faithful God (Tune: Finlandia)
O faithful God, whose steadfast love is sure,
O Loving Father, Mother kind and strong:
your Covenant forever will endure;
you bind us to your heart our whole life long.
No matter how rebellious is your child,
in you we are brought home and reconciled.
We have been loved and held when we would run.
We are to all a sister or a brother;
though we would flee, you join us all as one.
Our deepest wounds come from our deepest love,
and so our highest hope for life above
So teach us God, to bravely love each other,
for all belong within your house of grace,
to give our enemy, who is our brother,
our steadfast mercy, and a wide embrace;
for in our love, though we be right or wrong,
we know the grace to which we all belong.