Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



Dealing with Our Older Brothers

Sunday, August 9, 2009



I Samuel 17: 20-30



 Rev. Dean Snyder

You know about birth order theory? Some psychologists think the order in which we were born into our families shapes our personalities. Here’s a few things writer Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen[i] says about birth order.

First, if you are the oldest child in your family of origin but not an only child, raise your hand, please. Thank you.

One of the things Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says is that oldest children in a family tend to be smarter than their siblings. So if you the oldest child and you are smarter than your siblings, raise your hand again.

Just about everybody. That seems to be a pretty objective verification of the theory, don’t you think?

Middle child. If you are a middle child raise your hand. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says middle children are more mysterious than their siblings because their identity growing up changed from last-born to middle child. If you are a middle child and you are more mysterious than your siblings, raise your hand please.

Not as many hands.

Last born children, please raise your hand. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says that last-born children are funnier than their siblings because they’ll be outrageous or funny as a strategy for getting attention.

If you are a last-born child and you are funnier than your siblings, raise your hand.

Again, lots of hands, objective verification.

Any only children here? If you are an only child, raise your hand. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen doesn’t say anything about you. Sorry. Some psychologists say you have to be all of the above, but on the other hand, there isn’t a lot of competition.

I am actually pretty agnostic about the significance of birth order. It is not that I think birth order doesn’t matter, I just think it has a relatively small impact compared to other things. So I am a birth-order agnostic.


Birth order does seem to be a big deal, however, in the Bible. Have you noticed? Older siblings, especially older brothers, do not seem to do well in the Bible. They are not usually the heroes of biblical stories. Youngest siblings seem to do much better.


Cain was the older brother; Abel the younger. Whose sacrifice does God favor in the Bible? Abel’s. When Cain kills Abel, Adam and Eve have another son to take Abel’s place and it is the youngest brother Seth who carries on the family name rather than Cain who lives out his life as a fugitive.


Ishmael is the older brother; Isaac is the younger brother. Who does God seem to favor in the Bible? Isaac is the hero of the story.


Esau is the older brother. Jacob is the younger brother. Esau is portrayed as slow and brutish while Jacob is quick and smart.


Joseph’s older brothers sell him into slavery. He ends us as the secretary of state of Egypt, and eventually his older brothers come to him begging for food.


Aaron is the older brother. Moses is the younger brother. Aaron makes an idol for the Israelites to worship while Moses is off transcribing the Ten Commandments.


Absalom is the older brother. Solomon is the younger brother. Absalom dies while leading a coup d’état again his father. Solomon ends up as the king of Israel who builds the temple.  


Even in the New Testament, in one of our favorite stories Jesus tells, there is a younger brother, a prodigal, who wastes his inheritance on parties and drinking and women, and he ends up being a hero, and it is his older, much more responsible, brother who comes out looking bad. How did that happen?


This is so consistent a pattern in the Bible that someone has written a book about it. Frederick E. Greenspahn wrote a book entitled When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible.


Greenspahn even identifies several cases in the Bible when younger sisters seem to be favored over older sisters – Leah and Rachel, for example.[ii]


Greenspahn’s thesis is certainly true in the story of David and Goliath. David’s older brothers do not come off so well.


The story of David and Goliath is a paradigmatic story. It is the story of what happens and what needs to happen when one age ends and a new age begins. It is the story of what happens and needs to happen when you’ve managed to win your freedom from slavery in Egypt and the Philistines move in next door and set out to make you slaves again. It is the story of what you need to do when the Philistines have weapons made of iron and armor made of bronze and you are trying to fight with sticks and stones, and everybody in their right mind knows there is no way you can win.


In the story of David and Goliath, what do David’s older brothers do? David’s older brother tries to keep him in his place. When Goliath and the Philistines are terrorizing Israel and King Saul and all his soldiers are paralyzed by fear, and David shows up at the battlefield, David’s oldest brother scolds him for being there where he doesn’t belong and tells him that his place and his role is to be tending his scrawny sheep, not to be in the battlefield which is a place for men, not boys.


So in the paradigmatic story of David and Goliath, older brothers are everybody in your life and mine who try to tell us our place and who try to keep us in our place.


Let me say a word about knowing our appropriate place and our appropriate role. It is not a bad thing to know our appropriate place and role.


In most cases it would be appropriate for me to speak on behalf of Foundry Church. But unless I had the bishop’s permission, as a rule, it would not be appropriate for me to speak for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.


In many cases it would be appropriate for me to ask a Foundry office staff member to type a letter or do a mailing. It would probably not be a good idea for me to call your secretary at your workplace and to say that, because you are a member of Foundry, there is some work I’d like him or her to do for us.


I was thinking this week about a minister of a generation earlier than mine I knew back in Philadelphia. Lyle was one of those people who had little sense of personal space. He always spoke to you with his face two or three inches closer to yours than was comfortable. So you’d back up a step, and he’d take a step closer until you ended up talking to him pressed against the wall. He did his ministry the same way.


A young man who grew up in a church Lyle served told me that, when he was a boy, once or twice a year he would hear a noise at his bedroom window at 6 or 6:30 in the morning. It would be Lyle throwing gravel up at his window. When he opened the window, Lyle would say, “Go tell your mother to get up and put coffee on. I’m here for a pastoral visit.”


A friend of mine was once an associate pastor at a church Lyle served. Lyle told him to accompany him on a pastoral visit once. It was to a family where the wife attended church and the husband did not. At the end of the visit Lyle put out his hand to shake the husband’s hand. When the husband held out his hand Lyle grabbed it and said he would not let go until he promised to attend church with his wife. The husband was evasive. It took more than five minutes until he agreed to attend church. When they were leaving the house, Lyle said to my friend, the associate, “Young man, now that is the way to do evangelism.”


Knowing our appropriate place and role is not a bad thing.


I worked with a church once where the church secretary spent her week having long phone conversations with church members and the custodian spent much of his day praying with people who stopped by the church’s chapel during the week. The pastor spent his Saturdays typing and running off the bulletin and he came in on his days off to strip and wax the church floors. Before our staff begins to applaud, let me quickly say that this church was a confused and sorry place. When someone needed help making a decision they didn’t know whether to go to the church secretary who was their friend, the custodian who prayed, or the guy who ran the copier and waxed the floors.  


I have on my desk a copy of the policy manual of one of the most successful and effective nonprofits in our city. I think the organization’s success is largely due to just 15 pages in that manual. The pages say what it is appropriate for the executive director and staff to do and what it is appropriate for board members and board committees to do.


The manual makes it clear that the board sets the organization’s policies and goals. The staff manages day-to-day operations


There is a list of the ways the executive director is expected to treat staff. There is also a clear statement that board members do not get involved in individual personnel decisions or issues. If you’ve ever been part of an organization where that happens you know how harmful it can be.


I think this kind of role clarity is essential for an organization’s success. It is good to know our appropriate role and place.


It is also true that no significant change happens in our world unless there are persons who are willing to refuse to stay in the place their older brothers have assigned to them.


Just the fact of young David’s presence on the battlefield made a difference. Just being in the room can make a difference.


During the debate about Justice Sotomayor’s nomination last May, Adam Liptak wrote an essay in the New York Times entitled “The Waves Minority Judges Always Make.” In the essay he repeated something Justice Scalia said about Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. Justice Scalia said: “Marshall could be a persuasive force just by sitting there. He wouldn’t have to open his mouth to affect…how seriously the [court] would take matters of race.”[iii]


No significant change has happened in human history without persons being willing to take the risk of being in rooms where older brothers have said they did not belong.


If you are a woman, a person of color, openly gay, or differently abled, there are rooms where some people will say you do not belong and you just being there will make all the difference.


If you are openly a member of a reconciling congregation, there are rooms where your presence will make all the difference.


Before I became Foundry’s pastor, I would sometimes be in conference meetings and we would go around the room and everybody said their name and home church. When someone would announce that their home church was Foundry, it would change the conversation in the room. When I was asked to think about becoming Foundry’s pastor, there were those who thought it would not be a good thing for my ministerial career for me to come here. Part of the reason I made the decision I made was that I wanted to be the pastor of a church where somebody from that church just being in the room made a difference.


Ronald Heifetz says there being two kinds of change.[iv] One kind of change is technical change. Technical change is when you apply the knowledge you already have to fix a problem and find a solution. You make an adjustment, you do more of something and less of something else.


The other kind of change Heifetz calls adaptive change. Adaptive change is a change that requires rethinking everything you know and being willing to reinvent yourself in order to respond to a new reality.


If your car has lots of scratches and scraps and you figure out that it is because the car is out of alignment, you can take it to the dealer and get it realigned. This is a technical change.


If your car has lots of scratches and scraps and you figure out it is because you are driving the car under the influence of alcohol, this will probably require an adaptive change. You may need to rethink everything.


Heifetz says technical change can be managed by the people in the places of authority and position doing what it is their job to do. He says adaptive change can happen only as a result of someone being willing to take the risk of exceeding their authority.


When the Bronze Age has ended and the Iron Age has begun, and the Philistines are your new neighbors, and you have weapons made of wood and they have weapons made of iron, technical solutions will not be enough. This is a time for adaptive change, and there will be no adaptive change unless somebody is willing to do what needs to be done, even if it means exceeding their authority, which it always does. Somebody has to be willing to do what their older brothers say it is not appropriate for them to do.


There were people in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 that had been working for years to go through the proper channels to modify the rules about who could sit where on the city buses. A group called the Women’s Political Council was doing the slow hard work of appealing to the proper authorities in the proper ways to modify the rules to make things a little better for the African-Americans who rode the buses of Montgomery to work and back[v]


Rosa Parks knew all about this effort being done in the appropriate way by the appropriate people. When she refused to surrender her seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955, no one had given her the authority to do it. She exceeded her authority…and she set off a movement that led to profoundly adaptive change in America.


This is a very, very small thing, I know, but it is one of the things I am somehow proudest of in all my years of ministry. It was an experience that gave me a confidence in ministry I very much needed at the time. It happened while I was a seminary student doing an internship in the United Parish of Lunenburg, Massachusetts.


We had a member of the church named Walt who had multiple sclerosis, MS, and his symptoms were worsening. He walked with the kind of crutches that wrap around your arms. I loved Walt. He liked to discuss theology with those of us who interned there. (I hope some of you are discussing theology with our seminary students and fellows and US2s.)


One of the first things I was told when I got to Lunenburg was never to help Walt. Never! He hated to be helped. He would snap at you and scold you in no uncertain terms if you tried. I saw him do it again and again. He so valued his independence that he made it clear he was to receive no extra help. Everybody in the church was well trained.


One Sunday a group of us were walking toward the church and Walt slipped and fell flat on his back. All of us froze. It was clear to all of us that we had no authority to help Walt. It was clear to me that there was no way Walt was going to get up without help. So I walked over to Walt, made sure he was okay, and then wrapped my arms around him and lifted him to his feet.


Everyone stood in shock waiting to see what Walt would do. He quietly thanked me and made his way into the church. Everybody let their breath out.


After church, Walt thanked me for not making him ask for help. “I needed help,” he said, “but it would have killed me to ask.”


When my internship ended, at the party the church threw, Walt made a toast for the intern who had lifted him high when he was down low…literally. Such a small thing, I know, but it somehow confirmed that I could do this work…that I knew when to exceed my authority.


I don’t have much use for defiance for its own sake…being defiant just to be defiant. I know too many people who have failed to fulfill their potential because they could not be part of a team. They always had to do things their own way. They always had to prove their independence. They always had to undermine. I don’t have much use for defiance for defiance’s sake.


But when we can’t win, and no one else is doing it, there is no hope unless you or I are willing to not listen to our older brothers and are willing to take the risk of exceeding our authority to do what needs to be done.


If it hasn’t happened yet, every one of us will face a Goliath in our life. I promise. Every one of us will face a situation when we will not be able to win doing things the way we know how to do them now.


The pink slip in our mailbox. The life savings almost depleted. The house upside down. The work we used to love, we now dread showing up for. The doctor’s call. The news that we will never be able to be biological parents.  The dreams we’ve had for our child or a nephew or niece dashed by an addiction. Our partner’s affair. The lost election. The getting caught. The scandal. The addiction we used to control that now controls us. Our parent’s homophobic comments whenever we visit home.


Doing more of the same will not work.


Our older brothers, including the older brothers inside us, especially the older brothers inside us, will try to keep us in our place, but our only hope then will be to claim an authority we don’t have and do what needs to be done with nobody’s permission at all, except the permission of the God who made us.








[i]Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen,  “How Birth Order Changes Your Life,” at

[ii] Frederick E. Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 13.

[iii] Adam Liptak,  “The Waves Minority Judges Always Make,” New York Times (May 30, 2009) at

[iv] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 13-26.

[v] Stewart Burns, ed., Daybreak of Freedom The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997) 58.