24 When her (Rebekah’s) time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Today marks the beginning of our church’s annual stewardship campaign. If you grew up in the church, you’re probably familiar with that term, “stewardship.” If not, it’s kind of like the NPR or PBS annual pledge drive (please don’t change the channel!). Like those institutions, we rely on generous donations from our members in order to keep the building running, feed the pastor’s family, and provide the programs and services that are so meaningful to so many in our community.
But why do we call it a “stewardship” campaign, and what does that word, “stewardship” mean? Well, it comes from the Old English word “steward” (stew – ward) which referred to the person who was the guardian or “ward” of the stew. So stewardship is the effective management of the family’s most valuable dinner resource–the stew.
Actually I just completely made that up. There’s not really any linguistic connection between stewardship and the stew that you eat for dinner…but it sure sounds great, doesn’t it? Never believe a pastor in the midst of a pledge drive!
Still, when I was preparing for this sermon series, and because of that convenient play on words between stew and stewardship, I thought to myself…”I wonder what the Bible has to say about stew?” I was kind of surprised that it had anything to say about stew at all, but amazingly a quick google search of the Bible (yes, you can actually do that) revealed that the word “stew” shows up in three places–which fits perfectly into the three weeks that we’ll be talking about stewardship. And I promise I didn’t make THAT up!
The Hebrew word for stew, in those three places where it appears is נָזִיד (nazid), which means stuff that is soaked and boiled. So, pretty much the same as what we mean by stew today.
And the first of those references is probably the most famous–the story of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau; how Esau came in one day famished from a hunting trip, and how Jacob sold his brother a pot of stew in exchange for Esau’s right of inheritance as the first-born son.
Now, to be fair to Esau, in an ancient hunter-gatherer society, going hunting was not something leisurely. The life of the tribe (and availability of any future stews) depended on it. It would have been a physically intensive activity–one that spanned many miles and even days. It is absolutely plausible that one might come in from such a trip at the point of near starvation. What’s an inheritance worth if you don’t survive to actually inherit it? So perhaps Esau’s seemingly rash decision wasn’t so rash after all.
It is also true that this story has all the markings of an etiological myth–an origin story meant not so much to convey actual historical people or events, but to explain where our people come from and how we relate to those people over there. According to the story, the descendants of Jacob are the Israelites, and the descendants of Esau are the Edomites. This story, then, is a convenient way of explaining why they are all such red, hairy, hunters, living by their strength; and why we are merchants who live in tents, bartering and exchanging goods, living by our wits. And also why we think we have a better claim to the land, even though they are an older people and have been here longer.
What does any of this have to do with stew, or stewardship? And what do stew and stewardship *really* have to do with each other for that matter? There may not be a linguistic connection, but I think there is a metaphorical one.
It comes from an old folk tale–one that shows up in many different cultures, with different names. I first heard it as the story of Stone Soup. In the story, a poor, hungry traveler comes to an Inn and asks his fellow guests if they have any food? The other guests are just as poor and hungry as he, and no one has any food to spare. So the traveler takes from his coat pocket a “magic stone” which he says has the power to make a delicious stew. All it needs to work is a pot and some boiling water.
Someone produces a pot, and someone else some water. Yet another produces wood and matches to make a fire and boil the water. After placing the stone in the water and boiling it, the traveler tastes it and declares that it is almost ready, it just needs a little seasoning. Someone produces some salt, another produces some pepper which are added to the mix. The traveler keeps tasting it and saying it’s almost ready, and the other guests keep producing the few, meager goods they each have–a carrot here, a potato there, until the story ends with all the guests enjoying a delicious (although not-so-magical) stew that is truly the product of their collaboration and sharing.
By now, you probably get the metaphor. The church is the stew. We exist to feed those who are hungry for spiritual community, and yet those same hungry people who come to this place are also the ones who create the stew through their contributions. Everyone has something to contribute to the stew. Some of you bring the meat and potatoes, and for that we are truly grateful. Some of you may only have a pinch of salt or pepper to throw in, but without it, the stew would be bland. Some of you bring the water that blends everything together, and some of you bring the fire that brings us to a boiling point!
Everyone has something to throw into to the stew, and all of it is equally important. And in that vein, good stew is good stewardship.
So this month, as you consider what or how much you are willing to throw into the stew that is First Presbyterian Church, I’d like to draw your attention back to our story of Jacob’s stew, and some good “stew”-ardship lessons we can glean from it. Three, to be precise.
The first lesson is this: You don’t have to be the oldest, the strongest, or the wealthiest to make a good stew. Jacob is none of these things in the story, and yet he’s the one making the stew. I often hear church folks say things like, “if only we were a bigger church, a wealthier church, or a church with an xyz program.” But we don’t have to be any of those things to be exactly the church God has called us to be. For what it’s worth, Jacob made bread and lentil (bean) stew. Nothing fancy, but it was enough. Likewise, our stew, our church, will be whatever you make it…and it will be enough.
The second lesson is this: A good stew can open the door to new opportunities, and turn the world upside down. God likes to do that trick, where the elder son serves the younger, where the last become first and the first become last. But our part is to be ready. When we give to the church, when we contribute to the stew, we are helping the church to be prepared for that day when God-given opportunity comes rushing into our door, hungry and open to what we have to offer.
And the final lesson: A good stew can help people, save people, and bring the near-dead back to life. When Jacob feeds his brother, we read that Esau “ate and drank, and rose and went his way.” Not only that, but Esau lives and thrives and even helps his brother later in life when it’s Jacob’s turn to be in need.
We contribute to the stew, we give to the church because we know what it has given to us when we were hungry and near to death…and we want to share that healing, that life with others. Even if we have never walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we know that someday we will. And so we contribute to the stew, we give to the church, because we know that in that day this community of saints will stand with us and by us, surrounding us with love and life and hope.
For Esau, no price is too high for the life that Jacob’s stew offers, not even his birthright and all the wealth and privilege and possessions that come with it.
Jacob’s stew is totally worth it.
So is ours.
What will you throw into such an amazing, life-giving stew?