Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 26th June 2016

Genesis 27:1-40, Isaac blesses Jacob; Mark 6:1-6
Jacob and Esau. Twins. Twins who didn’t get on, even before they were born. Rebekah their mother found that ‘the children struggled together within her’, and she asked the LORD, the Lord God, why. (See Gen. 25:22-23.) The Lord answered, ‘Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels [which means, born]; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.’ 
Yes, ‘.. the elder shall serve the younger’. As indeed it turned out. With his mother’s connivance, Jacob conned his aged, blind father Isaac into thinking that he was ‘a hairy man’ like his elder brother Esau, and was in fact Esau – whether one has to imagine some luxuriant chest foliage like the Bee Gees’, I don’t know, but anyway, he was hairy. 
Rebekah dressed Jacob up in his brother’s clothes, and covered his neck and hands in goatskins. Isaac was a bit doubtful – ‘the voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau’, he said, when Jacob first went to see him. The smell of his borrowed clothes seems to have persuaded Isaac – ‘he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, …’ His raiment, his clothes. But they were not really his. They were Esau’s.
Isaac was taken in. He ‘blessed’ Jacob. He confirmed that Jacob would be the one to inherit. Then in came Esau, the real Esau; it dawned on Isaac that he’d been conned. It’s interesting to see how he reacted. He acknowledged that he’d been taken in. But, for whatever reason, he had given his blessing, and his blessing was his blessing. Jacob would get the inheritance.
The Lord God had been accurate in his prediction. Normally the elder would inherit, by the ancient principle of primogeniture. It still occurs today. When I was little, my younger brother and I had a cousin, older than us, whom we called Uncle John. Uncle John was a kind uncle, and he gave us extra pocket money when he saw us. But he always gave me, the elder one, twice as much as my little brother. Once she found out what was going on, our Mum organised an evening-out of Uncle John’s gifts, so I gave away the surplus and we both had the same.
You can imagine Isaac’s dilemma. Who was telling him the truth? And it wasn’t just an inconsequential thing. Who was going to lead the family when he was gone? 
How does one know whom to rely on? Even Jesus had a credibility problem. ‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his kin, and in his own house.’
Jesus had a problem that all young solicitors know about. It’s never a good idea to stay on at the firm where you served your articles. The older clerks and secretaries will always see you as the callow articled clerk, and not the well-read young assistant solicitor, on his way up. The people you’ve grown up with tend not to be dazzled by your brilliance. 
But the problem is the same. Whom do you believe? Whom do you rely on? Two tribes went to war, as the pop song puts it. Sweeping generalisation follows! The metropolitan elite in London and the Home Counties, educated, graduates, young, not bothered by boundaries or nationalities, on the one hand: and the older, poorer, less educated people, for whom globalisation has not been helpful, in the manufacturing areas on the other. In – or out?
The politicians made strong statements: if this happens, these things will turn out better – or worse. Whom to believe?
In Biblical times, democracy was far more limited than it is today. You would never have had a referendum like the one we’ve just had, in the Roman Empire, or more specifically in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Only the free-born, male, Roman citizens could vote. Educated men.
But even in ancient times, if a popular politician came up who appealed to the masses, unimaginable consequences happened. Here’s what one modern Classics professor has written:
‘For most of its history, the Roman Republic was governed by old political families and reliable power brokers who knew how to keep the masses in line. Elections were held, but they were deliberately designed to give the ruling classes the lion’s share of the popular vote. If the Roman aristocracy, which voted first, chose a man for office, officials often would not even bother to count the ballots cast by the lower classes.
‘On occasion, disgruntled farmers, tavern owners and donkey drivers would rise up and press their rulers for debt relief and a real voice in government, but these revolts were put down quickly with promises of better times ahead and by hiring a few off-duty gladiators to rough up the chief troublemakers. In the late second century BC, the aristocratic Gracchi brothers tried to bring about a political revolution from within only to be killed by the conservative nobility.
‘The man who ultimately brought down the system was a wealthy and ambitious nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue who refused to play by the rules. ….
‘Nothing was sacred to Clodius. The more audacious his behaviour, the more the public loved him for it. In Rome, for example, Clodius, a noted ladies’ man, committed sacrilege by dressing up as a woman and infiltrating the female-only religious festival of the goddess Bona Dea, with the aim of seducing Pompeia, Julius Caesar’s wife. The scandal led Caesar to divorce Pompeia and gave rise to the famous quip that Caesar’s wife needed to be beyond suspicion.
‘After escaping punishment by employing a large legal team and doling out generous bribes, Clodius entered politics in an effort to secure the respect of the ruling class, which was quick to dismiss him as a buffoon. What Clodius’s critics failed to realise was that he was smart, determined and very much in touch with the frustrations of the common people’. [Prof. Philip Freeman in Huffington Post,
‘What Clodius’s critics failed to realise was that he was smart, determined and very much in touch with the frustrations of the common people’. He didn’t, however, lead them on towards enlightenment or good government. His leadership of the democracy resulted in the dictatorship of the emperors, and the eventual decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Could this remind you of anyone in politics today?
What, then? Should we distrust democracy? Canon Dr Giles Fraser has written an article [] in which he writes about ‘post-truth’ behaviour. Although it may be stupid to elevate completely uneducated people to high office, there are often ordinary people who can assimilate good theological and philosophical writing, and criticise sloppy thought most incisively. But it is to be regretted the way in which during the referendum campaign academic experts, particularly economists, were shouted down. 
If this is what being in the age of ‘post truth’ means, we should worry about it. During the campaign it was asked about one politician, who was dismissing the possibility that certain adverse economic consequences would follow a vote to leave, whether, if he had appendicitis, he would be content for one of his colleagues to operate rather than a qualified surgeon. He had argued that economists had failed to predict the 2008 crash, so they should not be trusted. This is dangerous nonsense. Sadly, we are already finding out that the economists were right.
Archbishops Justin and John issued a statement on Friday morning, in which among other things they said,
“The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.
As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.”
Enlightened. Postmodern. Post truth. It isn’t new. But remember that, whether someone’s forecast turns out to have been ‘Project Fear’, or actually a serious assessment of current reality, let’s pray that our two tribes don’t turn into Jacob and Esau.