You are here


Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jul 3 2011


Remember Jacob and Esau? Twins. Esau, the older, was born just minutes before Jacob … but it might as well have been years. In ancient Israel, to be the first born son was destiny. It was to take pride of place in the family. It was, upon the death of your father, to receive a double share of the inheritance …to assume leadership of the family … to become the next Patriarch … responsible for the younger brothers, the widows, the wives and the unmarried daughters. Esau’s birthright is an inheritance of privileges and responsibilities protected by ancient law. Let’s be clear. The practice of birthright isn’t fair, isn’t democratic, isn’t even vaguely egalitarian. Imagine the injustice of having been born Jacob, just minutes after your twin brother. You might have thought an exception could have been made for twins. Perhaps two equal shares in the birthright. Or, if not that, their parents, Isaac and Rebekah, might have invented for the sons who occupied a single womb a fraternal partnership—a 60-40 or 70-30 split.You might have thought the ancient world could have made an exception for twins. But it didn’t. Esau was born first, by minutes, and all the privileges and all the responsibilities of the first born were laid as a princely mantle upon his young shoulders. The next we read of them the boys are grown up, which probably means—the rabbis believe it means—the twins are about 15-years-old. Esau, the firstborn, is out in the fields. We don’t know for how long. We don’t know for what purpose. Has he been gone for days and nights in brave, selfless, dangerous pursuit of a wild beast large enough to feed an extended Israelite family? Is he playing hooky with a pal or playing something else with a girl? Is lolling about in the sun, idle and day-dreaming? Is he up to good or no good? We don’t know. We know that when he finally returns he is famished. Ravenous… the way only a teenage boy can be. The Bible says he is faint with hunger and near to death. As the ravenous Esau nears home he smells a savory stew. Weak-kneed and weak-limbed, summoning a last bit of strength, he drags himself the final hundred yards and falls upon his brother. “Brother Jacob, I am faint with hunger. Give me a bowl of that stew.” Jacob, cynical and opportunistic, says, “Why, of course, brother Esau.” Jacob ladles out a generous portion of the savory stew, holds it beneath his starving brother’s nose and adds, “for a small price. Let’s swap: my stew for your birthright.” When you are ravenous, faint with hunger, near to death and all of fifteen-years-old, what is the concept of birthright against a hearty, savory-smelling, hunger-abating bowl of stew? For a bowl of stew Esau sells his birthright to his twin brother. With that, Esau forsakes the ancient custom of his people. He shows contempt for his heritage, for his parents and for God. He scorns the order of things, his people’s social mores, his spiritual inheritance. And here’s the terrible truth: that 15-year-old’s short-sighted, immature impulse follows him the rest of his life … follows him to his grave. Nothing is ever quite right for Esau again. For the rest of his life he is out of kilter with himself, with his brother, with his family and with his God. Birthright is not democratic, or egalitarian or fair. It is how the cards fall … the way the stars align. Everyone has some sort of birthright. Whatever it is, it is not to be squandered. And you, what is your birthright? What have you inherited from your parents, from your country, from your skin color, your gender, your sexual orientation, your nationality? What privileges and responsibilities fall to you as a consequence of your birth, your upbringing, your education? Old South Church has a birthright, an inheritance. It isn’t fair, but there you have it. Because of the way the cards fell and the stars aligned, we were present at and engaged in the dawning of this nation. That inheritance has followed and shaped us for hundreds of years. It is as a mantle upon our shoulders …both privilege and responsibility. Like Esau, we have not always cherished it. It is a mantle that sometimes chafes. Here’s the story. It is late November of the year 1773. Patriots and Loyalists gather in Boston to debate the tax on tea. They begin meeting at Faneuil Hall. But the swelling crowds quickly outgrow that space. Where to go? Upon our invitation they relocate the tense, thrilling, fiery meetings to the single largest building in Colonial New England …our Meetinghouse. Bostonians—Patriots and Loyalists—surge into our Meetinghouse, filling it up, filling it to the rafters. They fill the aisles, sit on the pulpit steps, hang out of windows, push and squeeze into the doorways, craning their necks to see and to hear. There, for four or five days they carry on the tense, heated debates. They debate liberty and government, justice and integrity, representation and station. There, when the Patriots’ anger and frustration reaches a boiling point—when it is deemed they have reached an impasse and that no compromise with Britain can be reached—Samuel Adams gives the prearranged signal. At his word, two hundred and fifty men—many of them dressed as American Indians—pour out of our Meetinghouse, surge out onto the docks, clamber aboard the vessels, The Dartmouth, The Beaver and The Eleanor. One by one they heave 342 chests of tea over the rails and splash them into Boston Harbor. An action John Adams later described as ‘dignified, majestic and sublime … Such is our inheritance … fiery free speech, protest, activism, roiling the waters, revolution … a shaping hand, head and heart in the dawning of this nation. With privilege comes responsibility. We paid for it. When war broke out two years later, in 1775, the British occupied Boston. Still furious at us for the part we played in the Boston Tea Party, British troops took over our meetinghouse. And not only that. They gutted the interior, ripping out the pews and pulling down the pulpit. They brought in bushels and bushels of dirt and gravel, spread them on the floor and turned our sanctuary into a riding ring for horses and soldiers. In the Gallery Red Coat officers enjoyed liquor while they watched feats of horsemanship below. When the British finally left, our Meetinghouse was ruined, uninhabitable. It took eight years for this congregation to raise the funds and do the work to restore it to a sanctuary fit again for worship. No other church has such an intimate association with the dawning of this nation. For better or worse, this is our inheritance and birthright: fiery free speech, roiling the waters, protest, activism and revolution. So, when in 1861—150 years ago this year—Fort Sumter was attacked Old South Church took it personally. Old South erected a platform and speakers outside the building. The flag was flung to the breeze from the church’s Tower “and a vast concourse of people surrounded the church.” One of Old South’s ministers at the time, the Rev. Jacob Manning, was a radical abolitionist. For Manning, the attack upon Fort Sumter was an attack upon abolition, upon freedom and justice, upon equality. Mounting the platform, addressing the throngs, pointing to the flag snapping in the wind he said this: “God’s temple welcomes the star-spangled banner today—for that banner has ceased to be the sign of corrupt fellowship, or of subserviencey to wrong, and has become the symbol of justice and loyalty to human rights.” Pointing to the flag, anticipating emancipation, he concluded, “There floats the ensign of the free.” Under Rev. Manning’s leadership our Meetinghouse became a recruiting station for the Union Army. Manning himself volunteered as a Union Chaplain and joined the 43rd Massachusetts regiment. To Manning and many members of this Church, what was at stake in the Civil War was liberty, equality and emancipation. What was at stake was the very soul of this nation. Old South Church has a birthright, an inheritance. It does not always sit easy with us. Matters of church and state, of religion and politics, of activism and advocacy are tricky, treacherous even. Yet, it has fallen to us like a mantle upon our shoulders, to enter the fray, engage in the rough and messy work of freedom and of justice, rather than retreat to a safe spiritual distance. For Old South Church this has meant bringing our discipleship to inform our citizenship: measuring our national wealth, not in the GNP, but in healthy and educated children; loving patriotism but despising nationalism. This is who we are. It is our lot to assume the mantle of our birthright … to respect it, even as we reckon with it. And you, friends, what is your birthright? On this birthday of our nation, what have you inherited from your parents, from your country, from your skin color, your gender, your nationality? What privileges and responsibilities fall to you as a consequence of your birth, your upbringing and your education? Birthright is not democratic, or egalitarian or fair. It is how the cards fall … the way the stars align. Whatever it is, it is not to be squandered.