A Sermon for Covenant
“Cook Your Own Stew”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
July 13, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
A psychologist once explained to me that a person with a narcissistic personality disorder is like a bucket with holes. For some reason—life experiences, upbringing, or whatnot—they never learned to plug the holes in their bucket. They are desperately needy for you to fill their bucket with love and attention, then more love and attention, but no matter how much you give—even if you pour your whole self out—it will all drain away and they will be left unsatisfied, maybe even angry at you for failing to fill them.
I’m sorta curious as to whether we all have a touch of narcissism, that is, a hole or two we still haven’t learned to plug. Maybe it’s just me, and you know how to stay perfectly filled, but my heart feels perpetually leaky. No matter how many hugs I get, I still need another one. No matter how many tough-girl boards I nail over cracks, no matter how many clever patches I plaster over pinholes, affection drains out and I want/need more.
If ever there was a narcissistic pair, it was these two brothers, Esau and Jacob, both so self-absorbed in meeting their own needs. But then, what sibling pair isn’t that way? If you have a brother or a sister, surely you played this game growing up. In my family, it was getting my youngest sister to do our chores by paying her a penny, she being too young to understand she was being duped. The goods exchanged vary from family to family, but the general principle is the same: one sibling strikes an unfair bargain and the gullible sibling takes the bait.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, Esau was technically the oldest, but only by half a second. So you can understand Jacob’s jealousy and also imagine their propensity to try and outsmart one another. We do not know how many times growing up Esau may have tricked Jacob, trading his old dingy toy for Jacob’s new shiny one, but overall, the Bible characterizes Jacob as the devious one, and Esau comes across as a bit of a blundering idiot.
“Give me some of that red stuff,” he demands, as if he doesn’t even have the wits about him to name what he wants. Notice: the soup is red; Esau himself is described as red (and hairy) when he emerges from the womb. He is renamed Edom, meaning red or bloody. Red is a color of desire and earthy passion; maybe passion is what drove him to hunting, the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of a catch. When Esau returns from hunting, he is sweaty and red-hot hungry.
Jacob knows that look in his brother’s eye. Esau is vulnerable, hunger overtaking reason. While we are quick to fault Esau for his stupidity, we’ve all known a time when desire and the hunger for immediate gratification overtook our better judgment. This is not an experience limited to blundering idiots in ancient stories; this is a regular human occurrence. Discernment gets subjected to desire with occasionally disastrous consequences.
We can hardly leave all the blame with Esau. Here’s the thing: Esau gave up his birthright for a pot of stew, but Jacob gave up his family for a birthright. Things get exponentially heated in this tale between two brothers. Eventually Jacob steals Esau’s blessing too, and the whole family is torn asunder. Rebekah participates in deceiving her ill husband; Jacob is forced to leave home for many, many years out of fear that Esau will kill him for stealing the birthright and the blessing. The family lives divided for a long, long time, mostly because of Jacob’s unchecked greed.
It was not just Esau who acted from shortsighted lust; it was both brothers who valued a lesser thing to the point of self-destructive behavior. We could take this to be a lesson in detachment and the letting go of desire, because look where wanting stuff leads you. But I’m not entirely sure that is the whole story . . .
Later, when Jacob returns after many years away, he is terrified Esau will try to kill him and his family, so he sends gifts out of ahead of him. But Esau needs no such peace offerings. He rushes to Jacob, embraces him, and kisses him.
What could have inspired such reconciliation on Esau’s part? Was it contentment? Was it that Esau learned to be content with what he got—despite the loss of his birthright and blessing? He ended up with plenty of stuff after all, so he no longer needed revenge on Jacob . . . was that what happened?
I think if plain contentment were the sole factor at play here, Esau’s reaction to Jacob would have been passive indifference—no need to kill, but certainly no need to hug. I conclude the only thing that could have prompted a reconciling embrace was desire. Esau wanted his brother back. He wanted restoration and a reunited family. We witness in Esau something of a transformation of his desires. First, he just wanted food. Then, he wanted his birthright back. Now, he wants a relationship with his brother. Though cast in the beginning as rather dense, his heart is softening and Esau is maturing in his old age. His desires are being changed.
The spiritual journey is sometimes characterized as ever-increasing detachment. We achieve peace by learning to let go of our desire for lesser things. But this is only half the story. The other half is letting our desire for better things run high. Esau let the desire for reconciliation override the desire for getting his justice.
The refining and reshaping of our desires is by no means a clear-cut path. We seem to go in circles: we want, we let go, we want, we let go. We get what we want, then realize it wasn’t what we really wanted. We do not get what we want, and we cannot comprehend why God seems to taunt us with a carrot on a stick. We allow desire to squelch discernment, then let logic drown out the beautiful cries of the heart. We mess up relationships and miss out on opportunities and life-expanding risks. But somewhere down the road, it occurs to us that our desires are being refined, that some of our desires are good and right and holy, that most of our desires are a strange blend of divine calling and selfish ambition, that who we are is hopelessly complex and hopefully full of potential for a lifetime of stunning reconciliations and free gifts we did not have to trick anyone into giving us.
Maybe we are not meant to be buckets at all. Maybe we are sponges, capable of holding water, but plum full of holes. Capable of absorbing what we’ve been given and letting it sink in, but not so solid and grasping and tight that we can never let it go. Maybe life will often squeeze us nearly dry, and maybe we will feel a little more needy and ravenous than is comfortable. Maybe the discomfort has the potential to make us holy in the best sense of the word—wide open to the waters of God, equally open to the water flowing through us and on to others.
It occurs to me that it was never wrong for Esau to be hungry. Hunger isn’t what did him in. He had to eat eventually, and there’s nothing wrong about that. It was the need for immediacy that got him off track. Esau could have said, “No, I won’t you sell you my birthright. I’ll just cook my own stew instead.” But that would have taken too long, so he attempted a shortcut, but he had to forfeit something crucial to his identity to make things happen faster.
Maybe it isn’t desire itself that gets us into so much trouble, but impatience. I say: Cook your own stew. I don’t mean go at it alone. What I mean is: don’t run through the fast food line expecting to get the nutrition you need. Cook your own stew. Take your time cultivating what you need, letting your dreams simmer slow. Don’t try to manipulate your way into answers or control your way out of messes or steal what isn’t yours. Cook your own stew. Take the life you’ve been giving and stir that pot. Add spices. Taste test. Linger with the aroma. Tinker. Linger with what doesn’t quite seem right. Bring it up to a boil; take it back down to a simmer. Tinker some more. Keep living the life set before you without trying to make it a different life than the one you’ve got. Cook your own stew.
God, may you take merciful heed of our appetites. Sometimes we are selfish and sometimes we are understandably hungry, and it is hard to know the difference. Take our wants and make them holy. May we not be greedy buckets, taking, taking, taking, and never feeling full. Grant us spongy hearts, soft and sharing, able to sit saturated in the grace that surrounds us. When the pressures of life render us parched and wanting, grant us the necessary patience to endure. May our taste for lesser things fade and our desire for what is good grow ever stronger. Amen.