Who do you think you are? We are a people immersed in story
‘Who do you think you are?’ asks a television programme that explores some celebrity stories. From Judge Rinder to Ian McKellen. Mary Berry to Julie Walters.
What often makes the programme memorable is how relevant and helpful it is for people to learn how something of their ancestors’ story lives on in them. Of how they shared similar interests and motivations – knowing about them helps them know more about themselves.
As the youngest of six children I didn’t know my Mum’s parents at all. And though I knew my Dad’s indeed Nanny came to live with us for a time they were aged and not so interested in a youngster.
So, most of my sense of those who went before me comes in the form of the memories of others. Of hearing their recollections about what they were like, what they did and so on.
For example, there’s the entertaining Uncle. The not so nice Great Grandfather. The deaf Aunt with a lovely smile. I’m sure you all have similar stories to tell.
And to return to that beginning and the question ‘Who do you think you are?’
It’s interesting for us to discover as adults how traits of character appear in different generations. Perhaps skipping one and then appearing in another. Discovering this can sometimes help make sense of things. Help us discover a richer and fuller sense of who we are.
Of course the memories of others are flawed and imperfect but they are what we have and part of being human is to share the stories we have with the next generation, to help them answer the question ‘Who do you think you are?’
The Bible is filled with family stories, not so much an individual family but that of a people. And before the age of television and internet. Before the written word became the principle means of communication. Family stories were passed on by word of mouth from one generation to another.
Eventually of course they were written down but by then such was the accumulated weight of wisdom these stories contained that they would have an enduring quality. A quality that would stand the test of time.
And rather like learning about those traits of character and behaviour present in members of our families whom we have never known, these stories of our ancestors help us understand ourselves as part of God’s family story.
Like the story we have heard this morning in our Old Testament reading. The latest chapter in this rich seam of Genesis that we have been hearing for the last few weeks.
In this story we hear of a sibling rivalry begun in the womb. Seen at the birth-as Jacob tries to grab his brother Esau’s heel as if to pull him back so that he can be born first. Then lived out, one the favourite of the father the other the mother.
It ends, at least this week, with Esau, hungry and desperate selling his birthright to the alert and savvy Jacob. The tale goes on. There’s more to come, manipulation, deception and reconciliation.
Of course as we think of both this and our own family stories, we probably all know stories of the favoured brother or son.
We know too the role we have and perhaps still do play within that family, the rivalry, the jealousy, the envy, the frustration and maybe even the anger as we reflect on our place.
Perhaps we feel some sense of sorrow too. For we know the things we have thought and said and done to those we love which probably don’t show us in the best light.
But before we feel too bad perhaps this story helps remind us too that we should not be too hard on ourselves. That who we are is complicated.
So we should be gentle, patient and kind as we explore this territory because sometimes so deeply are these motivating factors at work in our stories that we are often blind to them. ‘The children struggled within her’ as our Old Testament reading memorably put it.
It seems to me that to answer the question ‘Who do you think you are?’ is one we answer again and again over a lifetime’s patient work, accompanied by friends and family, living and departed who act as our guides.
To use language from the Gospel for today, we keep walking along the path mindful of how easily it can become rock strewn or weed infested striving to live and grow in the good soil where the seed of the divine planted in the womb can grow.
And along the way we will have moments when we ‘hear(s) the word and understands it’ in such a way that it ‘bear(s) much fruit’ in our lives and we discover how truly beloved we are. How our deepest identity made in the image and likeness of God is not found in what we have done but in our belovedness.
These last few weeks as we have journeyed through a few chapters of Genesis we have remembered where we have come from, we have recalled names we know – among them Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob. And their story mingled with ours helps us make sense of our lives.
I’ve come to treasure these tales from the Bible more and more, bizarre and strange as they can sometimes be. Treasured them because they are part of our story as God’s family.
These stories have sustained us and our fellow pilgrims down the ages because they speak to us now. They are stories that help me make more of mine. Stories that in all kinds of ways ask of us the question ‘Who do you think you are?’
Well I’m still – as I think we all are – learning. But it’s a journey I undertake rooted in my conviction that I’m a beloved child of God. That belief grounds my identity so that I can discover more about the who and the why of me and become more whom God longs me to be.