For pretty much my entire childhood, I hated school. Part of it was just that I thought it was boring; I hated being trapped in a classroom all day. And, knowing that I had absolutely no control over how I got to spend my days was annoying. And then there was the homework; I hated homework, even though I never actually did it. And, this caused a lot of problems for me as a kid: this not doing my homework thing. I couldn’t answer the teacher’s questions about it and then I would get all embarrassed. A lot of times, I couldn’t go to recess because the teacher would have me sit at the lunch tables doing my homework from the night before, while all the other kids got to run around and play.
I would get in some serious trouble for it, too. My dad was old school, so when the teachers sent home notes about me not doing my work, or my report card came, which would always be C’s and D’s, out came the belt. Now, I do not in any way approve of disciplining children this way, but I have to admit that I probably deserved to get some kind of punishment for my behavior back then.
But, it never worked as motivation for me to actually do my homework. I was more interested in playing outside with my brothers or reading or drawing or any of the thousands of things that kids can do when they just don’t want to do their homework. I remember one time when the report cards came, in order to avoid the punishment that I knew was coming, I convinced my brother and sister that we should burn the report cards in the fireplace, because I had gotten C’s again. My sister, who always got straight A’s and never got into any kind of trouble at all, was not happy about this, but she agreed to go along with it, because she didn’t want me to get into trouble either. To this day, my parents have no idea that we used the living room fireplace to destroy evidence of my academic failure.
About the time I got to junior high, something changed and I actually started to care about the grades that I got. I started getting A’s and B’s, but I still didn’t really like school. It was also about this time that I started getting the feeling that God maybe wanted me to go into ministry. Now, this is kind of a problem for someone who doesn’t like school. In order to become a minister in most of the Reformed traditions, you need to get a bachelors degree and then you have to get a Masters of Divinity. That’s eight years of school! Eight years of school, on top of the already thirteen years of school that are required by law. That’s twenty-one years of school! For someone who doesn’t want to go to school in the first place, that’s asking a lot.
So I had a very frank discussion with God about this, and I said, “No way! No way are you making me go to school for eight more years!” I didn’t want to do it! I did what any self-respecting person in denial would do. I decided to interpret God’s call in a way that would better fit into how I wanted to live my life. God didn’t really want me to become a minister. God just wanted me to be in ministry. I can be involved in ministry in so many different ways! What God really wanted was for me to be active in the church, to spread the message of God’s love, to reach out to people in need. I decided that’s what God was asking me to do. I didn’t need to go to seminary for that!
Because, that’s what we do when we come up against the wisdom of God. It’s so different from what we understand; it’s so alien to us! We negotiate, even though we know, deep down inside, that we are absolutely wrong. We somehow manage to convince ourselves that we know better than God. Because God’s way is not our way.
When Isaac’s wife Rebekah became pregnant with twins, the babies where wrestling around inside of her, rolling around this way and that way, using her insides as a boxing ring. She prayed to God, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” And God said to her, “There are two nations in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
The older will serve the younger? That’s not right. We all know that it’s the firstborn that has the special status. It’s the firstborn that inherits the largest portion of the estate when the parents are gone. All throughout the world, throughout the history of the human race, with only a few exceptions, it has always been the firstborn son that basically got everything. No matter what a person’s culture, religion or ethnicity was, this was just the way things worked. The oldest would get most of the sheep from the flock or cows from the herd. The oldest would get most, if not all of the land. The family trade would get passed down from firstborn son to firstborn son, generation after generation of bakers, carpenters and tailors. Even kingdoms and empires would get passed down this way.
So, imagine Rebekah’s surprise when God tells her that the older will serve the younger. That just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. You see, it kind of makes sense that we’ve adopted these traditions of the oldest inheriting everything. The firstborn would start learning the family trade as soon as they were old enough and would help to teach any younger children that came along after. Even while the parents were still alive, the oldest child would have a lot of responsibility.
As an oldest child myself, I happen to know some of things that oldest children have to put up with. A lot of times, I felt like my parents didn’t really know what they were doing when they were trying to raise me, like I was some kind of experiment. They were really strict with me and I had to practically beg to do anything fun. But, by the time my youngest brother came around, they had pretty much figured everything out. By then, they had seen it all, and the crazy things that kids do just didn’t faze them anymore. My youngest brother also had two older brothers and an older sister to look after him. He pretty much got away with whatever he wanted to. He wasn’t taught responsibility!
For three separate individuals, I had some kind of responsibility for them. None of my siblings can say that. In a lot of ways, it’s as true today as it was in the past that the oldest is responsible for taking care of the family. It’s part of our tradition; it’s part of what is expected. And even if we don’t agree with it, we still need to understand it and know that it’s part of our cultural make-up, and that it influences the decisions that we make and the things that we do.
Of course, times are different now, and we don’t always follow the traditions of the oldest getting everything. But, back in the days of Isaac and Rebekah, that was the rule. And when Rebekah’s twin sons were born, it was a very close race. When the older son, Esau, was born, his younger brother, Jacob, was holding onto his foot. They were literally seconds apart. But still, one was the oldest, and the other was not. As they grew, each boy developed different skills. Esau became a great hunter, and Isaac was so proud of him because he would bring home wild game. Jacob, on the other hand, tended to stay at home with his mother and help with the household chores.
One day, Esau came back from hunting, hungry and Jacob was cooking some stew. Esau was so hungry that he sold away his birthright for a single bowl of the stew that Jacob was cooking. All of the rights and privileges that he enjoyed as the firstborn son, gone with the dip of a spoon and a swipe of crusty bread. And here’s the thing that Isaac and Rebekah could never have foreseen when the two boys were born. That Esau could be so reckless with his future.
Of course it’s possible that he was just so hungry that he couldn’t think straight. Or, maybe he thought that his brother was just kidding around, or wouldn’t hold him to his word later, because it was after all, it was just a bowl of soup. Or maybe Esau just wasn’t very bright and he actually thought that it was a fair trade. He does say at one point that his inheritance will do him no good if he starves to death. Either way, what God had told Rebekah when the two boys were still wrestling around inside of her, came to pass. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” According to biblical tradition, Esau eventually went on to become the ancestor of the Edomites. And, the Edomites were eventually defeated by King David, who was one of Jacob’s descendents, and the Edomites had to live under King David’s rule, and the rule of his son Solomon, after him. The older will serve the younger.
So here we are today, and I think it is quite obvious what happened to me. I spent a lot of time running away from seminary, trying to find other ways to serve God. I did youth group for seven years, thinking that it was a perfectly acceptable ministry. And it is, youth ministry is as much a ministry as any other. But, that’s not what I was destined for. I had a bakery for a while, thinking that if I was successful at that, I would be able to give lots of money to the church. That didn’t pan out. Then, one day, my pastor asked me to go through a lay leader-training program. It was a one-year intensive program, one eight-hour Saturday a month. They were basically trying to condense seminary down into twelve days, with a month’s worth of independent study in between. I jumped at this, because I knew it was my last chance to avoid going to seminary.
By that point, I had been out of school for seven years. And in that time, God had changed me. God had instilled in me a love of learning that was impossible to ignore. I didn’t hate it anymore. And so, as much as I had fought it, I went back to school. I first had to finish two years of undergrad, but I finally made it here, and I just finished my second year of seminary. It’s hard. I have to sit in classrooms all the time, and I have way more homework than is even possible for me to do. But, I’m happy, because God knows me better than I know myself, and God knew that seminary is where I was supposed to be, even if I thought that couldn’t possibly be right. God’s way is not our way. God’s way is the best way. And, learning to trust that can be hard. But, somehow, some way, God will get us there. God will always get us there. Amen.