August 13, 2006
10th Sunday after Pentecost
"Changing Dysfunction Into Function: Isaac, Jacob and Esau"
(Gen 27:15-24, 30-34)
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
I'll never forget the time my little brother Scott got into major trouble. He was down in our basement shooting pool when dad called down and said, "Scott, supper's ready." Scott didn't answer. Again Dad called again. And finally Dad was mad, stood at the top of the stairs and hollered, "Scott, get up here, NOW, supper's ready." That last time got Scott's attention and just as he came up the basement steps, Dad yelled, "Where have you been?!"
Everything would have been OK if Scott hadn't said, "I didn't hear you when you called the first two times."
Communication. It's essential to life. It enables us to get our ideas across. Unfortunately, while sharing those ideas, communication CAN be a roadblock, a stumbling block and sometimes make us feel like a block head.
A wife went to see a lawyer about getting a divorce. He asked, "Do you have grounds?" She said, "Well we have about two acres."
He shook his head and said, "No, I mean does he have a grudge?" She said, "No, but we have a carport."
By this time the lawyer was getting really frustrated and asked, "'Does your husband beat you up?" She said, "No, I usually get up first."
Totally exasperated, the lawyer finally asked, "O.K. Why do you want a divorce?" And she said, "Well, we just can't seem to communicate." (1)
Communication is essential to family relationships. Lack of communication and miscommunication are some of the basic demolition tools of a family relationship. From what I've been able to read and glean this week, one of the major problems within most dysfunctional families is the way the members of the family communicate with each other.
One of the best known dysfunctional families in the Bible is that of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Esau. From the moment of inception, fraternal twins, Jacob and Esau were fighting for position and dominance. If you remember Genesis 25:22, it basically says, the children tumbled and kicked so much that she went to God and said, "If this is the way it's going to be then just take me now."
Esau was born first, but Jacob came out with his hand on Esau's heel. The name Esau means "hairy" which he was. And Jacob means "grabby." Which he most definitely was. Isaac loved Esau because he was an outdoors kind of guy, a manly man who liked to hunt and always brought Dad fresh game. Esau was Daddy's boy.
Jacob on the other hand was quiet and introspective and preferred the indoors to the outdoors. Rebekah loved him best because he was always there to help inside. And so, he became a Mama's boy.
So, right from the outset, right from the git go, you see we have the makings of a world class dysfunctional family. Let's look at one of those moments in the life of this family that really is a shining example of dysfunction.
Genesis 27:15-24, 30-34.
It's like Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
The dysfunction in this family had gotten so out of hand and gone so far that it eventually pitted brother against brother and husband against wife and wound up with Jacob stealing both the birthright of the first born son and the blessing that accompanied it and then fleeing in fear for his life. Obviously, rivalry, animosity and miscommunication over the years had been a major factor.
So, what can we learn from this Biblical family whose relationships and communication techniques pretty much define the term dysfunctional family?
A. One of the hallmarks of a strong family is that they are other centered. Strong families, functional families believe in helping each other.
Obviously everybody in Isaac's family seemed to only be interested in looking out for themselves or their favored son. Jacob and Esau almost remind you of an old Smothers Brothers bit. "Mom always liked you best."
We all know there is going to be conflict and trouble. That's the nature of life and families. Isaac and Rebekah kind of remind me of the family I read about whose son, a college sophomore had spent most of the school year in one kind of trouble or another. This son received a postcard from his parents who were vacationing in Greece. It read: "Dear Son, we are now standing high on a cliff from which the ancient Spartan women once hurled their defective children to the rocks below. Wish you were here." (2)
A functional family is a place for reassurance and support. Functional families realize, know instinctively or have learned that as human beings our physical, emotional and spiritual needs are fulfilled through relationships. So, they nurture those relationships.
Does that mean there won't be conflict or mistakes? No. But strong families realize that there's probably a good explanation or at least reasons for the particular behavior. As a consequence, they don't get all their exercise from jumping to conclusions or jumping to blaming and criticizing.
And when mistakes in judgment or action are made, especially by children or adolescents, the family seeks to facilitate change through love, reason and example rather than power and control.
B. In the movie Cinderella Man, it's the depression. The boxer Jim Braddock comes home after failing to find shift of work at the docks. He's greeted by his daughter Rosie, who tells him that, "Jay stole!" Jim is stunned at being told that his son might be guilty of theft, and he immediately turns to go into the house, followed by Rosie. She points at the table and says, "See, it's a salami!"
Mae, Jim's wife, says, "Young lady, your brother's in enough trouble without you telling on him! You understand?" Mae turns her attention to Jim, "It's from the butcher's and he won't say a word about it, will you Jay? Will you, Jay?!"
Jim takes a long look at his son, who won't meet his eyes, "Okay, pick it up and let's go." When his son doesn't move, Jim's voice takes on an icy tone, "Do not test me boy. Right now!"
Jay gets up, picks up the salami, and both head out the door to the butcher's shop. Inside, Jim makes Jay give the salami back and also apologize. They come out of the shop, and Jay says that one of his friends, "Had to go live in Delaware with his uncle." When Jim asks why, Jay says, "His parents didn't have enough money for them to eat."
The light dawns on Jim, and now he understands why Jay's stole the salami. He tells Jay, "Yeah, well things ain't easy at the moment, Jay, you're right. There's a lot of people worse off than what we are. But just 'cause things ain't easy that don't give you an excuse to take what's not yours, does it? That's stealing, ain't it? We don't steal. No matter what happens, we don't steal."
Jim makes Jay promise that he won't do it again. Jim tells Jay, "And I promise you that I will never send you away." Jay falls, sobbing into his father's arms. Jim holds him and says, "That's okay. You got a little scared, I understand." (3)
It must have been humiliating for Jim Braddock to have to walk his boy down to the butcher. And had to have been painful to watch his son have to apologize and ask forgiveness for his sin. But that's what a father does. And then that father offers understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation and guidance for the future. Does that mean voices won't be raised? Probably not. Does that mean feelings might not get hurt? Probably not.
But for a strong, functional, Christian family it probably means there won't be any emotional, spiritual or physical scars associated with the event. You see, members of a functional family believe in the inherent "goodness" of one another. As a consequence, they believe that lives and actions can be changed through love and guidance.
A. Another area that dysfunctional families fall down on is Trust. Family is supposed to be a safe place where opinions can be expressed and discussed as part of the maturing process. When there is trust then there can be humor and joy. Both of which are a response to the intimacy of a trusting family.
Often times in dysfunctional families there is humor but it's at the expense of someone else in the family or it's a denigrating kind of humor about people who are of different national, racial, religious or economic origins.
When there is no trust, then you get the actions of Jacob and Rebekah, conniving to get their part. When there is no trust, then there's not a lot of room for intimacy and pretty soon it all becomes about power and control: the power of control and the control of power.
B. Within a strong, functional family where trust and intimacy are prevalent, it's simply about the power of love and how that love influences and shapes lives.
Nell Mohney in her book, DON'T PUT A PERIOD WHERE GOD PUT A COMMA, tells about a young lady named Kathy. There was an aliveness about Kathy that was evident as soon as you met her. She exuded energy and interest, joy in being alive, and openness to those she met. Kathy wasn't always like that. She had grown up in a dysfunctional family where she was a victim of verbal abuse by her mother and physical abuse by her alcoholic father. As she described it, she "felt like a big zero."
Then something happened that changed her life forever, even though it didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Kathy was in the sixth grade when the girl seated behind her invited her to attend Sunday School. The girl explained that her Sunday School teacher had challenged them to each invite a friend. "Do you go to Sunday School and church?" the girl asked Kathy. "No, I don't," was the reply. "Would you meet me at the front of my church at 9:30 this Sunday?" asked the girl. And Kathy attended her first Sunday School class.
Mrs. Parsons, the sixth grade Sunday School teacher became, in Kathy's opinion, her guardian angel. She took special interest in Kathy, often inviting her into her home where the two of them had long talks. She told Kathy that God loved her. She said that Jesus' death on the cross shows how much God cares. Mrs. Parsons made a world of difference to Kathy.
The story doesn't end here. A friendship also developed between Mrs. Parsons and Kathy's mother. Her mother felt as alienated as her daughter. It was Mrs. Parsons who led both mother and daughter to a heart-felt commitment to Jesus Christ. A strong friendship developed between the teacher and the mother as well as with Kathy herself. And it was when Kathy could finally forgive her father that she experienced her greatest breakthrough of all.
"The Zero has changed to a number Ten with an exclamation point," says Kathy of her new life in Christ. "I see myself as a person of great worth not because of what I have done, but because of what God has done for me through Christ." (4)
The power of love, especially the power of God's love as experienced through Christ, is the most powerful force for change there is. It is in our relationship with Christ that we discover trust, intimacy, love, mercy, grace and forgiveness. These in turn allow us to build trusting intimate relationships.
A. As we look back at Isaacs relationship with his wife and sons, we see sort of a skewed value system. One which seems to espouse Godly values but really values power more. One which seems to value trickery and deception instead of faithfulness and trust.
From a Christian perspective, we're called to have a Christian value system and a Christian family. But we have to be very careful that we don't allow our family or the work we do in church or anything else in our lives to take the place of our relationship with Christ. Because that's the number one relationship we're called to develop and maintain, first and above all others.
B. But the truth is He is the only one who can take first place. We come to God through His Son, our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So, Christ has to come first. That's the basis of the Christian value system. Jesus makes it very clear that in order to be a disciple we have to put him first. He says, "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21, 9:49-53; 14:26).
We put Christ first because Christ is first. And when Christ is first in our lives, we learn through that relationship how to live our relationships with others. We learn first hand what it means to love and be loved. What it means to live without secrets, deception, selfishness, walls and animosity. We learn what it means to live with a spirit of love and grace that isn't dependent upon the other person response.
Robert Schuller tells about a little girl who was hearing-impaired. As a consequence, she could never hear her father's most important message: "SARAH, I LOVE YOU."
Her father traveled a great deal as part of his job. He had the habit of calling home every evening before dinner. As he talked with his wife, he always asked about Sarah, their six-year-old deaf daughter.
"Just a minute," his wife said one night. "I'll put her on the phone." The next voice the man heard was wonderfully familiar to him. "Hi, Daddy!"
"Hi, Sarah. I love you."
But Sarah couldn't hear. Instead, she started chattering nonstop as only a six-year-old can do. "Wait till I tell you what we did in school today," she began. "We had so much fun! First, we . . ."
Whenever she paused for a breath, her father would say, "Sarah, I love you." But Sarah couldn't hear and would continue her excited recap of the day.
"Sarah, I love you."
No response. Finally, little Sarah simply ran out of steam. "Well, gotta run, Daddy," she said. "See ya later." Click. She was gone. She never heard her father's simple, but very important, message: "Sarah, I love you." (5)
I wonder how Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Esau would have reacted if one of them had simply said, "I love you." Often times we get so busy telling each other our side of the story, our position, our wants and our needs that we become deaf to the message our family is trying to convey. A message that simply says, "I love you."
The family is a supposed to be a place of nurture, development, discovery and support of every kind. From a Christian perspective, Christ has to be the first priority in our lives. But when Christ has first priority, then we can be about the business of Changing Dysfunction Into Function. And we are able to both say and hear those all important words in a family: "I love you."
1. Preaching Vol. 15, #1
2 Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990)November 1983.
3. Cinderella Man (2005)
4. Nell W. Mohney, DON'T PUT A PERIOD WHERE GOD PUT A COMMA, (Nashville: Dimensions for Living), 1993, pp. 17-19.
5. Family Resemblance a sermon by King Duncan
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