September 24, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Hearing Ourselves Ask, “Who Are You?”
(second in the series Choosing Family)
About ten years ago, I attended a wedding. In her toast, one of the bride’s moms made this statement which I’d never heard before, but it struck a chord of deep recognition in me. She said, “I believe in chosen family.” Chosen family is exactly what it sounds like. It is the people who become our family by choice, not necessarily by blood.
Officially this named notion of chosen family emerged from the Queer community in the late eighties and nineties, and you can understand why. If your biological family fails to support who you are, then you’ll need to find family somewhere else.
Unofficially, the idea of chosen family has been around forever. Adoptive families are chosen families. An only child who finds brothers and sisters in her friends has chosen family. The Body of Christ is a chosen family. Now your blood relatives might also be your chosen family if you claim them, but this designation is a way of honoring how family can be more than blood and biology.
Then, on the other hand, there’s this. There’s the peppery argument that goes: But wait! Something that makes family distinct from anybody else is precisely how we don’t get to choose our relatives! Kacey Musgraves wrote an exquisite song about this. Here are some of her lyrics:
“They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor
You’d wash your hands of them but blood’s always thicker
You might look just like ‘em, that don’t mean you’re like ‘em
but you love ‘em.
Family is family in church or in prison.
You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ‘em
They might smoke like chimneys but give you their kidneys
Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family.”
So here we are. There are two claims, and what if both are right… One says you can choose whom you consider to be your family. You don’t need rhyming DNA to legitimize a loving relationship. The other says: “Family is family in church or in prison; you get who you get, and you don’t get to pick ‘em.” Which is it? These seemingly opposite claims leave a tension ringing in the air.
Because look, in some ways, the catchy song lets us off the hook. We really do have more choices than we might like to admit. It may be the case that we’re not entitled to someone’s loving commitment even though we’re related… We’re not required to stay married if love turns cruel. We’re not required to seek revenge on behalf of our brother. So even if the song is right and we don’t always get to pick the people, still, we’re always choosing how to be family together.
And if you’ve ever been part of any kind of family then you know; our choices will take us only so far. Even in relationships that we freely choose, there is always some part of the one we love that we don’t know. There’s always some part of our own children that we don’t know. There’s always some part of God that we don’t know. This may be what is horrifying about love. This may be our best hope.
Today we’re getting into the fall sermon series called Choosing Family. In the coming weeks, we’ll hear an assortment of family stories from the Bible. I invite you to join me in listening for the choices set before these human people figuring out how to be family.
The scripture Ed just read is a folk story that got told around campfires when children asked their grandparents, “Hey! Why is there so much fighting between the Edomites and the Israelites?” And their grandparents said, “Oh, it’s all because of a bad soup deal. Let me tell you what happened…”
One day, the older brother, Esau came home exhausted and hungry after hunting all afternoon. Before he got to the door, he felt a wave of relief when he smelled the stew wafting from the kitchen. He said to his brother Jacob who was cooking: “You’ve got to give me some of that red stuff! I am famished.” Jacob said, “No problem. First give me your birthright” (this is everything Esau was entitled to inherit as the first born).
Nearly anybody hearing this story, even hungry people hearing this story, would stop and think, “Really? A birthright for a bowl of soup?” Yup. The story is matter-of-fact. Jacob gets the birthright. Esau gets the soup. And there it is: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset…”
Now you know one of those grandchildren sitting by the fire is going to ask: What about God? What is God doing in this story? That’s exactly right. God makes a brief appearance at the beginning and another at the end, but in the middle she is pretty hard to find.
At the beginning, what God does is bizarre. Verse twenty-one goes like this: “Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah conceived.” Now scholars point out that Rebekah and Isaac were dealing with infertility for twenty years but in this version, God fixes it in one verse.
Equally disturbing is what happens next! Rebekah feels the twins struggling inside her womb so she asks God, “If it’s going to be like this, how can I live?” And God hears her prayer then gives her an explanation! On the same day. What?! No wonder we imagine God as customer service rep — reversing infertility in one verse, answering our questions right out loud. Then God promptly disappears.
Much later, after the soup incident, Rebekah and Jacob play a trick on Isaac so Isaac will give Jacob his blessing thinking he’s Esau (when really it’s Jacob disguised as Esau.) The LORD’s name gets invoked as part of their con, but God himself stays out of it. And it is a mess. A wife scheming against her dying husband; a brother stealing from his own brother. You’d think God would have something to say about these choices! And we don’t see any of God. Not yet.
Ask anybody who knows God at all, they might tell you, God has a way of going missing. It happens when you pray and feel a rush of expectation surge through your soul. Then nothing. It happens when you feel a nagging pull saying, “You really should pray,” and you just can’t. You have no prayer, no scrap of a prayer anywhere in sight.
I’ve heard two good explanations for this problem of God failing to show up. First, some say it’s because God is so much bigger than we know. So maybe all this family drama is part of God’s transcendent vision for the cosmos. Sure it’s terrible for these years, for this family, but God is grandly scheming. Generations to come will learn from these brothers.
The other explanation says it’s not really that God is absent, but God is smaller than we know, closer to us than we realize. (So you see the reason God didn’t stop the train wreck is because God was asleep in the back of the train.) Where is God here? God is in Esau’s hunger and Jacob’s worry. The Spirit of God is in the red soup! So God is too big —further than the most distant star; God is too small —nearer to us than our breath. And both claims are true. Neither are entirely helpful.
And so it is. We human people can give our lives to being in relationship with God. We can wake up praising God in the morning because worship is what we were born to do. We can plead for help in the storm and sing our Hallelujahs. And still. There is something of God we didn’t choose and we can’t see. This prayer rises up from our being: O LORD, who even are you? Who are you.
This is the same thing happens in our families. Even in relationships we have freely chosen, there will come a moment, one day, when you look at the person you love with your life, and you hear yourself ask, “Who even are you? I thought I knew you, but I don’t know you. How could you do this.”
This makes me feel compassion toward Simon Peter. In the hours leading up to Jesus’ death, Peter was asked three times whether he knew Jesus, and Peter says “I do not know him!” and the rooster crowed. Now maybe Peter was not altogether lying.
“Family is family in church or in prison; you get who you get and you don’t get to pick ‘em.” That’s true. Except sometimes you do get to pick ‘em. We’re always making choices —choosing to adopt, or get married, choosing to walk away after all these years, choosing to start speaking again after all these years. That’s true. And even then, there is always something about each other we didn’t choose and can’t see —always something about God we didn’t choose and can’t see. And maybe this isn’t the worst horror. It may be this is our best hope.
After stealing his brother’s birthright and later his blessing, after years of settling in different regions and not speaking to each other, Jacob thought he knew where things stood with Esau. He knew that Esau had wanted to kill him, now Jacob would like to smooth things over. He sent his messengers to tell Esau that he would give him oxen and donkeys, livestock and human slaves, if that would help. The messengers returned and told Jacob that Esau was preparing to come after him with four hundred men. Which sounds about right. Surely Jacob did not think he would get away with what he had done!
He prayed to God. He wrestled with an angel all night long, and his hip was injured and his eyes became able to see the LORD. When the day had broken, Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming to kill him. But when Esau saw his brother, he ran up and embraced him. And they wept.
We might think Jacob would look at Esau and say, “Oh my brother. Who are you? Where do you get this forgiveness? I thought I knew you, but I don’t know you.”
What Jacob actually told his brother was this: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). Amen.