Proper 12, Year A, 2008

Today, we get to Jacob’s love story, which ends up being a story about Esau! Remember that Jacob’s mother has sent him to her homeland to meet her brother’s daughters and to stay clear of Esau, the brother that Jacob has betrayed.  Well, Jacob can run from Esau, but he cannot hide from conflict and strife.  As Jacob finds out when he meets his uncle, Jacob does not have the lock on trickery in his family! 

Before our passage today, Jacob reaches the well of the town. (Remember we’ve already learned that the well is the place to meet the ladies in the Bible.)  He sees Rachel the shepherdess from afar.  The scripture reads, “And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban his mother’s brother and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother that he stepped forward. . .”  Jacob’s story is not entirely romantic.  Yes, he seems enamored of Rachel, but he is just as enamored of the sheep-which represent Laban’s wealth.  Marrying Rachel will make Jacob’s mother happy and will make him a wealthy man.

But Jacob has one serious problem.  Rachel, like Jacob, is a second born.  Jacob has been subverting “the way things ought to be” for years now.  He has stolen birthrights and blessings and he has run away from the consequences.  Yet, here we find Jacob again, eager to bring his subversive behavior to his extended family.  Well, unfortunately for him, Laban has a lot more in common with Rebekah than Isaac.  Laban is sharp as a tack and ruthless to boot.

Jacob offers to work seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel.  And after all that time when the wedding day finally comes, Jacob discovers he’s been had.  Laban has substituted his weak-eyed oldest daughter, Leah, for his beautiful second born Rachel.  Jacob still gets the sheep, but he doesn’t get the girl.

Jacob has finally been out-trickstered.  For seven years he has worked his tail off, and the whole time Laban coolly watched him, knowing marrying Rachel was not in the stars for Jacob.  But Jacob is persistent, and he loves Rachel and commits to working seven more years to earn her hand in marriage.

Can you imagine what family dinners were like with this group?  Poor Leah gets stuck married to someone who does not love her.  Rachel and Jacob long for each other but can’t do anything to change their situation.  And you know Laban is the kind of father-in-law who presides over dinner looking entirely amused by the whole situation.  Their households must have been filled with tension.  In fact, Jacob has not been able to relax since his betrayal of Esau.  Nothing works smoothly from that moment on.

Even after Jacob marries Rachel, their domestic life does not settle down into harmonic bliss.  How could it? Two sisters are suddenly pitted against one another for the affection of one man and the power of being the favored wife.  (I love my sister, but I’m not about to let her share Matt with me.) The sisters go through years of painful reproductive tensions as they try to out-breed each other so that they can “win” power over the other.  Like Jacob’s grandmother Sarah, they even throw their maids at Jacob until between the two wives and two maids, the family has twelve sons and at least one daughter between them. 

Finally the tension of still living with Laban becomes too much and after Joseph, the 11th of the 12 boys is born, Jacob gathers his flocks, wives, and children and puts some space between himself and Laban.  Naturally however, in that parting was a bit of trickery on both sides and so the parting is very filled with tension.  At one point, when Jacob hears that Laban is coming after him, he tells his wives they have the option of going back to their father’s land.  Finally, FINALLY, their complicated family bands together as the women speak in unison and say

Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s house?  Why, we have been counted by him as strangers, for he has sold us, and he has wholly consumed our money.  For whatever wealth God has reclaimed from our father is ours and our children’s and so, whatever God has said to you, do.

For the first time, we get to hear what Rachel and Leah think about this whole situation.  The only dialogue we’ve heard from them is related to their competition to have children.  Now, they are given the opportunity to have a voice and to finally express their frustration and their anger at having been sold to Jacob by Laban. 

This family is tired.  They are tired of the conflict between Jacob and Laban.  They are tired of the conflict between Rachel and Leah.  They are tired of the conflict between each of the wives and Jacob. 

The three band together and begin. . .you guessed it. . .a journey.  And we know enough about Genesis now to know that if a character is on a journey, we ought to pay attention because something big is going to happen. 

Remember, that all the years of conflict, all the years of discontent and emotional discomfort began with Jacob’s betrayal of Esau.  So, it makes sense that they should end with Esau, too.  And while the editors of the lectionary don’t include Jacob and Esau’s final confrontation, I think the whole arc of Jacob’s story is leading us to that climactic event.

While Jacob, Rachel, Leah and their family are on the journey, Jacob gets word that Esau is in the neighborhood.  Not only that, but that Esau has 400 men with him. 

To say that this makes Jacob nervous is a giant understatement.  Esau owed Jacob some serious payback and Jacob is fully aware of the risk of meeting with his brother.  So because Jacob is very, very brave he sends the following people in front of him:  the slavegirls and their children, then Leah and her children, then Rachel and Joseph.  Only then does Jacob present himself to his brother.  I’m not sure what Jacob is doing here.  Maybe he’s trying to say, “Look at all these cute little children I support!  If you kill me they will suffer.  You don’t want little children to suffer, do you?”  When Jacob and Esau finally meet face-to-face, Jacob bows down before him seven times. 

Years of tension and fear coalesce into this moment, but Esau does not take his revenge.  Instead, Esau throws his arms around his brother and weeps.

All of Jacob’s story has been leading to this moment and Jacob is met with such grace and forgiveness that he no longer has to strive and struggle.  In fact, in many ways the reconciliation is the end of Jacob’s story. We hear more about him, yes, particularly when Rachel dies in childbirth shortly after the reconciliation, but the focus of the narrative shifts to Joseph, Rachel’s first son.  The reconciliation is so powerful that Jacob can literally stop-stop manipulating, stop tricking, stop running-and can enter his old age with some dignity.

In our prayer book, one of the possible offertory sentences, based on verses in the fifth chapter of Matthew reads, “If you are offering your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift.”

We are invited to join Jacob and Esau in the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are asked not to receive Eucharist when we are harboring resentment or a grudge or are in the middle of a feud.  And that is not to punish us, but to give us a motivation to reconcile.  Because when we are not reconciled with someone we love, nothing feels right.  And let me say that I am not naïve, and I fully understand that there are times when a violation is so deep, or someone is so entrenched in patterns of bad behavior that reconciliation is not even an option. However, at the very least, for everyday grudges and misunderstandings and trickery, we are called to seek reconciliation. 

Forgiveness and reconciliation is extremely difficult work, but it is the exact work Christians are called to do.  We are uniquely positioned to forgive and seek forgiveness because we have each experienced the profound love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.  Like Jacob, we each know what it means to be fully accepted by God, warts and all.  We know what it means to be offered a second chance, to have our slates wiped clean.  Thus, we are able to take a deep breath, swallow our pride and offer that chance to others.

And if you have not experienced that grace of God; if you have not had a moment of awareness of Christ’s forgiveness, know that God waits for you.  He waits to show you love so deep and wide that it can forgive any harm you have caused another and make you feel so accepted and whole that you could even forgive those who have hurt you. After all, our God is a God who could love Jacob.  He’ll definitely love you. 

Proper 11, Year A, 2008

Preaching on Genesis this summer feels a little bit like preaching about a serial soap opera. 

Last time we met Jacob, he had just stolen his brother’s blessing.  Will Esau kill him or will Jacob get away?

However, passages like this week’s remind us that Genesis is not just about family drama-the Book of Genesis is about God’s utter commitment to developing a relationship with the human family.

Before we get to Jacob’s life changing encounter, though, let’s recap where we are. 

Last week we talked about how Jacob was a manipulative, greedy creep who stole both his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing.  The implications of this were that the second-born Jacob usurped the role properly belonging to his older brother Esau.  Esau was not happy about any of this, and threatened to kill Jacob. 

What we did not talk about last week was the fact that in the midst of all of this, Esau got married to a Hittite woman.  The Hittites were the local girls.  The families of Rebekah and Isaac were miles away and apparently Rebekeah did not care for these local girls too much! The last verse of Chapter 27 reads, “And Rebekah said to Isaac, ‘I loathe my life because of these Hittite women!  If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?'”.

Hee!  Now, I know none of YOU feel that way about your daughters-in-law, but I’ve heard that this feeling may not be isolated to the fine women of Paddan-Aram, like Rebekah.

Rebekah’s irritation is relevant to us today, because instead of just telling Jacob to run to the  hills to escape Esau, Rebekah tells him to run for the hills in the direction of Paddan-Aram so that he can go to Laban’s house and meet a nice girl.  Rebekah once again exerts her power over the men in her life to simultaneously save her son’s life and get a daughter-in-law she can live with.  I love the character of Rebekah, but I don’t think I’d want to serve on a committee with her!  She is a tough cookie.

So, Jacob takes off in the general direction of his uncle’s house.  He travels all alone, which is unusual for Genesis, where people usually travel in family groups or at least have some servants with them.    He is isolated, maybe lonely, hopefully feeling some measure of remorse.  He is journeying to an unknown future and has put the relationship with his family in jeopardy.  Jacob, for all his bravado and manipulations of the past, is probably feeling as vulnerable as he has ever felt in his life. 

He is alone, the sky is growing dark, so he pulls up a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep.  Remember, Jacob is not a spiritual guy.  We have no previous indication that Jacob was interested in God at all.  Though Abraham and Isaac were both faithful in their way, Jacob seems pretty dis-interested in following God. 

Jacob may not be interested in God, but God is very interested in Jacob.

After Jacob falls asleep on his hard pillow, he has a dream.  This dream is trippy.  In the dream, he sees a big ladder that stretches all the way to the heavens.  Angels are floating or walking up and down this ladder and then, before Jacob has time to absorb these wild images, God speaks.  God identifies himself as the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather.  God then goes on to repeat the promises he has made to Abraham to Jacob:  Jacob will be the father of a great people who will stretch all over the earth.  Jacob will own land.  The families of the world will be blessed through Jacob’s family.  And finally, God will not leave Jacob until his promise is complete.

Jacob is not the only person over the course of time to whom God has presented himself through dreams and visions.  God interjecting himself into our subconscious when we least expect it is one of the ways he communicates to us. 

The great theologian Augustine tells of his conversion experience in his great book of Confessions.  Augustine was a lot like Jacob, actually.  He was famously self-absorbed, and got into a lot of “romantic” trouble to boot.  God intervened in his life in the following way:

“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart.  And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know:  but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, “Take and read, take and read.”  I ceased weeping and immediately began to search my mind most carefully as to whether children were accustomed to chant these words in any kind of game and I could not remember that I had ever heard any such thing.  Damming back the flood of my tears I arose, interpreting the incident as quite certainly a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the passage at which I should open. . . .So I was moved to return to the place where Alypius was sitting, for I had put down the Apostles book there when I arose.  I snatched it up, opened it and in silence read the passage upon which my eyes first fell:  Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupisecenses.  I had no wish to read further and no need.  For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.”*

And if you think these kind of experiences are relegated to great theologians of the 400 hundreds, think again.  Anne LaMott, a hilarious and insightful writer struggled with alcohol, drugs and relationships throughout her early adulthood.  One day, in the midst of a very dark time, she had the following experience:

“After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there-of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this. 

And I was appalled.  I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.  I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I just felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that ‘s not what I was seeing him with. 

Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”**

Jacob, Augustine, Anne LaMott:  all three had memorable, personal, transformative experiences with the living God.  Each of them experience God’s personal, intimate desire to be in relationship with them and to heal them. All three of them go on to become faithful followers of God, who do their best to live in such a way that is pleasing to God. 

What is wonderful, is that none of them lose their identity and character when they begin following God:  Anne LaMott continues to be creative and irreverent, Augustine continued to be passionate and articulate.  And Jacob. . .well, Jacob continued to be a bit of a pain in the neck.  For whatever reason, our lectionary cuts our reading off a few verses before it actually ends.  After Jacob has this profound encounter with the God of his fathers, he gets all excited and marks the spot, but then he goes on to say:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

 Jacob cracks me up.  He has a profound, personal encounter with God and then tries to bargain with God!  Instead of just thanking God  and moving on, Jacob tells God that if God gives him food, and clothes and safe travels then the monument he builds will be God’s house and then Jacob will give a tenth of all he has to God.

I don’t know if God has a face, but I would have loved to see God’s face when Jacob came back with a counter-offer to God’s promise!  I picture God rolling his eyes, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head a little, “These humans. . .”

Lucky for Jacob, God seems to take Jacob’s response with a grain of salt and continues to show faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s descendents.  God reminds us, through Jacob, and Augustine and Anne that his faithfulness to us is not our behavior, our attitudes, our nice-ness.  God pursues us and wants us for his own no matter how disordered our lives are.  He chases after us, and reaches out for us and reveals himself to us even when we are least expecting it and not at all prepared.

The idea that we could be adequately prepared to meet the living God is pure arrogance.  Thank goodness He comes when we’re not ready, or we might never encounter him at all!

 

*Augustine, Confessions, Hacket Publishing Company:  Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1993, p. 146.

** Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies, Anchor Books:  New York, 1999, pp. 49-50.

Proper 10, Year A, 2008

Ah, siblings.  Those members of our family that we do not choose and yet with whom as children we are forced to co-habitate.  Siblings can be our best friends or can undermine us our whole lives.  They can support us in times of trouble or disappear when the going gets tough.  Siblings can compliment us one moment and take the wind out of our sails the next.  No one knows us like a sibling.  No one else has shared our family stories, and yet an adult sibling can feel like a stranger.  But one thing is sure, very few tales of siblings tops the epic battle of Jacob and Esau.

Even before they were born, Jacob and Esau were doomed to be opposed to one another. Our reading today picks up at the 19th verse of the chapter, but the very first verse reads like this:

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.

Yes, you heard that right, Abraham disinherited all his children but Isaac.  They had not betrayed him.  They had not done anything wrong.  And yet, perhaps out of an understanding of God’s promise, perhaps out of guilt for what happened on Mt. Moriah, Abraham leaves all that he has to Isaac.  Already, one generation before Jacob and Esau seeds of sibling dissension are sown. 

To further complicate their relationship, when Rebekah is pregnant with the twins, she receives a vision that tells her that instead of the elder son being the big shot, as was the tradition of the times, the younger son was going to usurp the elder’s role. 

And thus, the environment that would lead to trickery and stupidity and unfairness was born.  In my family, fairness was incredibly important, so I find this story very stressful!

I grew up with one sister, Marianne, whom many of you have met.  She is three and a half years younger than I am, and if we had one tenet growing up it was the importance of being fair.

My parents were very clear that they loved us equally.  If I was their favorite twelve year old, then she was their favorite eight year old.  If I got a portable stereo for my tenth birthday, she got a portable stereo for her tenth birthday.  My sister and I took this to heart.  Every year, the Easter Bunny visited us and left a trail of jelly beans from our beds to our Easter baskets.  Now, our beds were different distances from the baskets, and so we ended up with uneven numbers of jelly beans.  To solve this terrible crisis, we would pool our jelly beans, divide them by color, distribute them equally between us by those colors, and give any leftover flavors and all the licorice jelly beans, to our parents.

You might say our interest in fairness was even a bit compulsive.

And while Marianne would occasionally bribe me with small amounts of cash to make her bed for her, neither of us would have thought to deceive the other of any family rights or inheritances.  We would have thought it mean. . .even un-Christian.

Yet here we are, with one of the seminal families of the Bible.  Here we are with Jacob, who will become father to the twelve tribes of Israel.  And it turns out that Jacob is a sneaky, advantage-taking, conniving meanie-pants.  Jacob is not fair.

Jacob did have a little help getting this way.  Instead of his parents banding together, they each chose a favorite child. It is almost as if they did not have any copies of Dr. Spock lying around from which to learn! Isaac chooses Esau, the hunter as his favorite..  Rebekeh chooses Jacob, the gardener.  Maybe Jacob is not manly enough for his dad.  Maybe his dad just does not know how to love two sons equally since he never had it modeled for him.  Whatever the case, the boys grow up in opposition to each other.

And then one fateful day, Esau is reallllllly hungry.  Did Jacob know his brother was always starving after a hunt?  Was it just happenstance that Jacob was cooking this flavorful red lentil stew when Esau returned from the field?  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that Esau is willing to sacrifice his birthright for a hearty meal.  He might not be the brightest bulb in the drawer.  The words used to describe the way Esau eats are words normally used for how animals east.  Esau is portrayed as a dense, unthinking pig of a man. 

By giving up his birthright, Esau is giving up the right to lead his family after his father dies.  He is also giving up a double share of his family’s inheritance.  Jacob’s actions are certainly manipulative, but Esau was just as responsible for the choice as Jacob! 

Where Esau really gets the short end of the stick is when it actually comes time for Isaac to give his blessing.  Jacob has already won the birthright, but he wants his father’s dying blessing, too.  Isaac has become blind in his old age, and asks Esau to go and hunt some game and fix him a nice stew and then Isaac will bless him.  Esau goes off to hunt, but Rebekah, who prefers Jacob, has heard this whole exchange.  She finds Jacob, tells him what is going on, and then instructs him to get two goats from the flock so she can make a stew.  She quickly makes the stew, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and has him wear the goat skins so that he feels furry to blind Isaac.  Isaac is fooled, and blesses Jacob, who he thinks is Esau.  When poor Esau comes back from the field, he asks for his blessing, but Isaac only had one blessing to give.  When he hears this, Esau cries:

‘”Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept.’

Have you ever heard of anything more heartbreaking?  The desire to be blessed and loved by our parents is deeply rooted in us.  Not receiving that love can cause a lifetime of struggle and regret.  Esau is deeply, deeply pained by the whole experience.

Esau does not take the slight lying down.  He immediately concocts a plan to kill Jacob and Jacob gets out of town fast!  The next few weeks we will track Jacob on his long journey.  Will he live?  Will he be killed?  Will he fall in love with a pair of sisters?  Only time will tell.

In the meantime we’re left with the struggle of why meanie Jacob gets to be the heir and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel?  We’re left with questions about why God doesn’t choose the most fair and honest among us to lead. Why is God not fair?

We’ll be struggling with the question through the rest of Old Testament, I’m afraid.  God has a bad habit of choosing people that do not meet our criteria.  He chooses leaders who are scrawny, and unfaithful, and murderous.  He chooses leaders that are more passionate than pious, more clever than kind. 

But God does not let those leaders stay that way.  I promise you that Jacob will have some profoundly transforming experiences over the next few weeks.  God’s willingness to choose broken, imperfect people to do his work is really good news for us.  It means even on our grumpiest, most mean spirited days, there exists the possibility that God will use us for good.  This also means that God is not done with us.  Even if we’re wounded souls whose parents chose our sibling over us, or vice versa, God will push us and deepen us to face all the hurt of rejection, but then to grow as a result of our experiences, rather than staying mired in resentment.

To do God’s work we may, like Jacob, need to get out of Dodge, and out of the way of the family that we have hurt.  Or, like Esau, we may need to leave town and get a little space from a family that failed to live up to expectations. 

There is a time for reconciliation, and we will get to see Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation in a few weeks, but there is also a time to flee our families of origin and explore our identities as individuals God has made, rather than staying entrenched in family dynamics that are hurtful.

And if you make a journey like Jacob’s, watch out!  God may use you to create something larger than you could ever have dreamed.

Amen.