You Have to Be There
“God is here, and I didn’t even know it!” Jacob said. God is HERE. Here in the middle of this mess, which had him running like a fugitive and sleeping on a stone. How he couldn’t know God was there, is both a mystery and obvious, of course. It was the difference between knowing about God and knowing God for himself. And there is no formula, really, for calculating so great a difference as that.
I remember the exact day I could read without even trying. I was probably seven years old. I felt like I knew magic; I felt powerful; I felt like a whole new person. I was an adult the first time I saw the ocean. It wasn’t as powerful a difference as from not knowing how to read to reading, but it was pretty powerful. And the first time I saw a baby born, the first time I held my own baby, the first time I saw a person die, the first time I saw a person die who was not ready to go, the first time I tasted whiskey, the first time I tasted a mango.
Nothing I had seen or read or heard or learned about these things compared to knowing them with my own eyes and ears, my own hands and mouth and nose. “God is here and I did not even know it!” Of course Jacob didn’t know it. But also, how could he not? He’d heard about God his whole life. And the promise too; his dad surely talked about it and about his grandad too. No doubt he could recite the promise by heart, if there was a prize involved. But none of it prepared Jacob for encountering God himself one night, in a place called Luz. That is our story for today. First let’s pray.
When we live on other people’s leftovers, O God, when we don’t pray or study or worship you for ourselves, may the resulting hunger, doubt, and exhaustion drive us back to your waiting table, a table laid with grace, wisdom and faith enough for whoever comes to be filled. Amen.
So, picking up where we left off last week, Esau despised his birthright, and famine fell upon his family’s land. His father Isaac picked them up and went looking for a new place to farm, possibly Egypt, he thought. This is a bit of foreshadowing, but for now God says, “No, not Egypt. Here is where I mean for you to stay. This is the land I promised your father Abraham, and here’s where I mean for you to stay.” This is the longer text in which the promise of Abraham is transferred to Isaac, the promise of land, descendants as numerous as the stars, of a future and a hope. You know it well.
So Isaac tries mightily to start over in a new place, there among the Canaanites upon whose land he is. The problem being, as happens everywhere, every time he settles down and digs a well, the people who were there first come along and say, “Hey, that’s our water!” And Isaac is forced either to fight or move along. In one place, a place called Gerar, Isaac pulls one of his father’s famous tricks of trying to pass his wife off as his sister – not for her sake, mind you, but to save his own skin.
Thankfully, unlike his mother, Rebekah isn’t abducted and raped before Isaac’s scheme is discovered. But you can see why she might be put out all the same. Anyway, a Philistine king named Abimelech runs Isaac off because of this close call over Rebekah, and Isaac starts over yet again in a place called Beersheba where, it turns out, he finally can settle down for good. Abimelech has a change of heart, and they make a peace accord, and things go along swimmingly for a few decades, except for Esau marrying a pair of Hittite women who are mean to Rebekah. Rebekah could be a sermon miniseries all her own, let me tell ya, for all that she puts up with.
Somewhere after Isaac’s 100th birthday, he decides it’s time to officially confer the birthright blessing to his firstborn son, Esau. Isaac is so blind and crippled and oblivious to what goes on in his own house, Rebekah is able to trick him into speaking the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. The scene is absurd and heartbreaking. Absurd, because people like us place so little value on the power of speech, while in the Bible speech is action. Words cause things to happen. God spoke and there was light. Words make something from nothing.
Isaac blesses Jacob. Everyone knows it is a mistake, but it cannot be undone. The words have been turned loose and cannot be brought back. Esau is shattered. His crying belies his age – he’s forty, maybe even fifty years old, and sounds like a child. “Bless me, me also, Father!”
Isaac blames Jacob. He blames Jacob and claims a level of impotence that is staggering, really. He’s the dad, the father, the patriarch! And says he can do nothing? He could take Jacob out back and whup the tar out of him. At least take the blessing back, split it in half and give Esau his share. Only, it’s not candy, is it? And they aren’t children. And this isn’t 2020. This is the Bible, and blessings are words, and words can’t be taken back or split or divided because we think things are supposed to be fair. Esau pleads, “Have you only one blessing, Father?” The Bible says he lifted up his voice and wept loudly.
He does. But the blessing Isaac comes up with is somehow worse than no blessing at all. “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”
Interesting, what Esau does with that blessing. I might preach it at the end of this tale. Of course you can read ahead to find out. For now, he hates his brother for it. Not his daddy, mind you. His daddy he will go still another mile to please. He decides to kill his brother and take a third wife to ease both the hatred and the hurt inside him. Rebekah cons Isaac one more time to get Jacob out of town – she to save him from his brother; he to get him married to a girl from home.
As for Jacob, I expect he felt like he’d won the lottery. Finally out from under his simple-minded brother, about to score a wife or two. Night is falling in a place called Luz. He decides to make his bed. A stone for a pillow, the Bible says, which is another name for a grave, don’t you know. We know because he wakes up in heaven, at the foot of the stairs anyway – angels coming and going like waiters from the kitchen to the dining room, God’s own self standing next to him, saying words Jacob may have known by heart but this time is hearing for the first time:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob rises from this grave and declares, “God is here and I didn’t even know it.” From not knowing to knowing, it’s always a kind of resurrection, isn’t it, like the soldier at the foot of Jesus’ cross? He says practically the same thing Jacob says here, “Surely this is God, right here.” I wonder how his life turned out. Or that rich tax collector Zacchaeus, who went and dumped his fortune on the kitchen table once he’d met Jesus. Money simply didn’t mean anything to him anymore.
Resurrections, don’t you know? Folks who went from knowing about God to knowing God personally. And not just in the Bible either. Years ago a woman called me at my office. She said she wanted to tell me something she was too embarrassed to tell anyone she knew.
Jesus came to visit me in my bathroom, she said. It was the middle of the night and I got up to pee. I was on the toilet in my bathroom and the window was open and there was this breeze, and Jesus was there. I thought I was dreaming but Jesus said, “No, I’m really here.” The thing is, I don’t think about Jesus much one way or the other. But this was real. And except for telling me I wasn’t dreaming, he didn’t talk with words. He was just there and his being there made me absolutely sure that everything in the whole world was okay, and that I didn’t need to worry about anything, even though I am not particularly worried about anything. Just that I don’t need to worry, ever. After a minute he wasn’t there anymore. But that was okay, because he had been there and I knew it.
She asked me if I thought she was crazy. I said no, I definitely do not think you are crazy. And I thanked her for calling me. I don’t know how it changed her, but I do know how it changed me. I could tell more stories. But I think the ones that count the most, the ones that count as resurrection stories, the ones almost too embarrassing to tell out loud – at least to people that we know – stories so close to the bone of our fears and disappointments, are so intimate, so on the verge of crazy, we don’t much know the words for them.
One other time, a woman told me the story of her childhood. It took hours. I wanted to run away. There was so much violence and terror. I only stayed because I was too embarrassed to tell her I was afraid. She said she was afraid her whole life but eventually, as a grown-up, she came to believe God had always loved her. And even though she didn’t know how not to be afraid, she was also loved. And that being afraid and loved is better than only being afraid. God came to her and raised her from a grave of fear. And friends, sitting with her that day at Bryan Park so many years ago, I also knew God again, and more. Raising me again, and more – I can’t explain it.
You had to be there, we say when someone doesn’t get the joke. You have to be there too, if you want to know God, because knowing about God will only ever take us so far. And there is so much further to go in this life, so much further. May we go, knowing for ourselves, and with all our hearts, that God is in this place.
Would you pray with me? The courage to walk in your spirit is not easily maintained, O God. We prefer more convenient paths. We ask for brave hearts and a pace that keeps us together. For all you give by way of grace, wisdom and faith, make us ever grateful, we pray. Amen.
Two Brothers, One Birthright
Despite the title, today’s sermon is brought to you by the letter P. You are invited to list all the “P” words as you hear me say them. In the 1960s a white church in our town had a statement on their sanctuary wall that went something like this: “Christ died for all; thus, all men are brothers.” At the time it was a bold statement of racial justice. But times change and it began to seem too sexist to keep it on the sanctuary wall. Feminism notwithstanding, I think a case could be made to keep it. Brothers do have such a terrible time of it. Some of the worst injuries I ever heard of were inflicted by brothers playing or fighting with each other.
My husband put his little brother in the dryer once. His brother loved the WWF, and body-slammed him so hard, my husband thought his back was broken. They were in their twenties. I know three brothers whose mom caught them jumping out of an upstairs window to practice different falls, always making the little one go first. Literature has not yet exhausted the topic – all that love and jealousy and rage between brothers, the bottomless competition for the father’s approval and affection.
Outside the Bible, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has to be the best American novel on the subject of brothers, and it borrows from the Bible copiously. My son Ben said that finishing it is sad because you know no other novel will ever be as good. The brothers in Steinbeck’s story all have names beginning with “C” and “A” for Cain and Abel. But “J” and “E” work equally well. Jacob and Esau, a template for all brothers, bound by blood and otherwise, in a world with just one birthright. I plan to spend three weeks in the Jacob and Esau story – the story of birthright and brothers; what it might have to say to people who have chosen the gospel of Jesus Christ as the story of our lives.
It hardly ever happens this way but, I was doodling around with sermon ideas Friday morning and in that net of purple ink the words primogeniture, pregnancy and porridge were sitting there like three little candy Easter eggs tied up with a bow. Primogeniture is just what it sounds like: the primacy of being born first, the firstborn of the same two parents. In the Genesis narrative, primogeniture goes by the name birthright – the rights to which one is entitled by virtue of being born first. Those rights consist mainly of privilege, power and property. Each one of those – privilege, power, and property – contains a great deal more rights in and of itself.
As the story of these brothers will show, birthright is both a gift and a terrible burden. Biblically, the birthright belongs to the oldest son in a family. But as Numbers 27 details, God is clear that daughters without brothers are entitled to their father’s property. The fact that people didn’t follow the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t say it.
As Isaac’s firstborn son, Esau would inherit all of the promises, privileges and power of Abraham along with two-thirds of his possessions – possessions that had greatly increased in value over Abraham’s lifetime and will again in Isaac’s. It was the way of things in the Bible that the older got the most. Just the way things were – and are still, lots of places, in lots of families.
Esau was born with his brother’s handprint on his heel, making him firstborn by no more than a minute or two. Say what we will about Jacob, he was scrappy. He was grabbing for the birthright before he could breathe.
The Bible is big on barrenness, because in the Bible pregnancy isn’t a biological predicament but a theological one. Pregnancy results not from procreation but from Divine promise and faithful prayer. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. This is how Bible babies get made, how Bible people become parents.
And while she may have prayed for a baby for twenty years, Rebekah didn’t even have one before she was praying the universal prayer of parenting, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The sentence takes many forms: These kids are going to be the death of me; I don’t know why I bother; Are you kidding me; Never mind, I’ll be fine; I can’t have anything nice. Her baby tumbled and kicked her so much, Rebekah didn’t even know she was praying, until God answered. Not with a promise this time, but with a proclamation, a prophecy if you will: the truth at hand, in her belly, coming into the world.
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
And when she delivered, it was twins, which explained all the kicking and pressure, her heartburn and backache. I wonder how long it took to realize only one of her kids caused most of those pregnancy problems? 95 percent of her pregnancy problems? Weeks, probably, if that. Jacob was probably a picky eater. (We know Esau wasn’t.) I bet he was a fussy baby and a terrible toddler. The Bible says he was Rebekah’s favorite, which isn’t surprising at all. He needs her more, so she worries about him more. She’s the one who sees him banging his head against an unlocked door, always making everything harder than it has to be. She’s the one who sees his sadness and disappointment, when other people only see his deceit and his rage – like with the porridge, the red lentil stew Jacob had ready the exact moment his brother would come home starving – this word for “red” being one of those Hebrew play-on-a-word moments we don’t understand when reading in English. The essence of which is that Esau was too simple-minded to realize what is happening to him, while everyone listening does understand and has a glorious laugh along with Jacob. Which just makes the prank that much meaner, but also funnier. But also sadder.
The boys had to be teenagers at this point, young men. So no way could this have been Jacob’s first mean trick. Nor the last. How was Esau to know it was the one that would break everything? His own heart first of all; and his father’s. Break up his family, to keep him from killing Jacob. All that comes later. All because, the Bible says – or will say – God meant Jacob to have the birthright’s worth. Even now, for all his trickery, only Jacob seems to know the birthright’s worth.
Esau just wanted to eat. And the Bible says Esau despised his birthright. “Despised” is tricky. “Hated” isn’t quite right. He hated Jacob. Instead of despised, Eugene Peterson translates the word shrugged off. He shrugged off his rights as the firstborn. He didn’t care about it. Didn’t care about it, not as if it were not important, but rather as if it were something presumed, this destiny of privilege and power and property. He could leave it lying around, knowing it would be there when he needed it.
Everyone knew whose it was. As much as his hand or his foot, it belonged to him. Trading it for porridge was just another one of his brother’s stupid pranks. He has no idea, of course, how wrong he is. Birthright may sound redundant to Esau, and to his parents for that matter, but only because they’d never been invited to imagine otherwise – or don’t realize they’ve already been informed otherwise in their own prayers some fifteen or twenty years earlier, back when they discovered pregnancy to be a theological predicament. And birthright itself was not a thing, remember? The elder shall serve the younger. God said that, thus rendering the word birthright an oxymoron.
There are no rights attached to birth order, as far as God is concerned. No privilege, no power, no property – essentially a dismantling of life as they knew it, had they believed and acted accordingly. But naturally, they didn’t. Instead, they did – what? They did what people benefitting from the system always do: they blamed Jacob. Jacob the problem. Jacob the trickster. Jacob the troublemaker. Jacob the agitator. Jacob the liar. Jacob the cheater. In a system wherein no matter how good he was, Jacob was never going to reap the benefits of that system, Jacob figured out how to work that system to his own advantage.
I kid you not, this happened on Friday as I sat in my bedroom writing this sermon. My high school friend Alan, a woodworker, made and sent me this picnic table which I filled with seed for the squirrels on my deck. This squirrel’s name is Pancake, because he lies flat as a pancake to take his naps after he eats copious amounts of seeds. He gets the table and the seed and the shade and the water for free. But when another squirrel comes along, what does Pancake do? Yep. He is a selfish jerk. The other squirrel gets the crumbs that fall from Pancake’s table.
He has no prior privilege or power. The seed is a gift – to him, to his brother, to the birds, even to a raccoon. And yet, here’s Pancake, in the middle of the table, as though getting there first gives him the right to decide who else is welcome. I expect you get the point. The only thing new going on in this Bible text is our recognition that nothing new is going on here.
As the wise women of Thursday Bible chat said, This has something to do with Jesus, I can tell. The one who says the first shall be last, who also told a story about two brothers, who focused on the shady younger one; who struggled to get his own listeners to imagine a God who sided with the poor and the prisoner, the last, the lost, the least and the left behind. To believe that the word said they matter more to God than property or power or privilege, and that anybody who wanted to be in his party better get that straight. You bet brothers and birthright has to do with Jesus.
Faith for an Unknown Future
Sarah was 127 years old when she died, so God knows she needed the rest. At 175 years old, Abraham had one foot in the grave himself, but not before he gave his son Isaac one last gift: a wife. Her name was Rebekah. The story would have been told aloud for years and years, to a people who would have caught its bawdiness and slapstick in ways we miss, not knowing Hebrew, and also because of the uptight way we read the Bible in general. So, after we pray, my idea is to read a little, talk a little, and see what we might find useful from this story in Genesis, chapter 24.
I am grateful for the Word, O God, showing us that folks are folks and that so little in this world changes outside the details of time and place. When the world is changing all around us, help us be flexible of heart and mind and personality. Help our faith lean into the future with no other expectation than that you are with us. Amen.
Beginning with verse 1:
Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
Summing up the whole next part, the servant asks, What if she won’t come with me? Should I take your son back there? To which Abraham replies, Absolutely not. The Lord was clear that this land right here is the land I am to possess. So if you can find a girl, you’re free from the oath. But DO NOT take my son back there. So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.
Okay, so, nobody is actually putting their hand under anyone else’s thigh. It’s much worse than that, which is why English won’t translate it precisely. Let’s just say handshaking hadn’t been invented yet, and what was going on was more intimate, but also more threatening when it happened between two warriors. But remember, Abraham is 175 years old. Sooooo,
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor – in modern Syria. Nahor was Abraham’s brother. The servant made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show stead-fast love to my master Abraham. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’-- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here we have a man, a foreigner, hiding outside a known gathering place for young women – a stalker essentially – praying a creepily specific prayer for God to help him catch the right one. Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. So creepy.
She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. Okay, seriously. I have seen camels up close. They are enormous, and a little revolting. But they are work animals. They weigh 1500 pounds and can carry 900 pounds for 25 miles a day. Want to guess how much they drink?
Did I do the math? Of course, I did. 53 gallons at a go. And the Bible says she watered ALL of them? Until they were finished? No way! That’s 530 gallons of water! One gallon of water = eight pounds. 4248 pounds of water!! If she could carry ten gallons at a time, that’s 428 trips to the spring and back, which at five minutes each would take 35 hours. It’s comic relief! Biblical hyperbole. Teenage girl watering ten camels, Haa! Haa! (Check out this camel video.)
When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” Rebekah is the great-niece of Abraham, thus Isaac’s second cousin. She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
Obviously, the servant prays A LOT! because he’s the only narrator for the God of Abraham in the whole story. All of Rebekah’s people are polytheists. At least they were, until they see ten camels carrying 9000 pounds of presents for the family with a marriageable daughter. As soon as Rebekah’s brother, Laban, saw the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of his sister Rebekah, he went to the man; and he said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?” Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” Laban said, “Speak on.”
And for the next sixteen verses, the food goes cold while the spotlight shines exclusively upon the servant retelling the whole story, with himself as the hero, naturally. He wraps it up in verse 49. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.” Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
At this point, lots more gifts come out; and of course, there’s lots of drinking and eating. And everyone goes to bed. The next morning the servant was ready to hit the road, but Rebekah’s brother Laban, who we will find out soon enough was not a good guy, tried to talk him into staying longer. But the servant said, “No, we really need to get back.” And Laban said, “Let’s let Rebekah decide,” no doubt imagining she’s on his side.
Instead, she says, “Let’s go.” And they go, but not before her family gathered around her and blessed her, saying, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” Thousands upon thousands, that’s a myriad, may your family grow and grow. Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she fell quickly from her camel. That’s what my favorite translation says: “When she saw Isaac, she fell right off her camel.” She fell quickly from her camel and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Such a great story. And I spent so much time just reading it, I hardly have any left to talk about it. Just this, then. Five minutes before the stranger and his ten camels showed up, what do you suppose the teenage girl Rebekah was thinking about? A math problem maybe? Maybe a prank she was working on for her brother? They were both conniving pranksters.
I doubt she was thinking that she was destined to be a major player in the history of her husband’s people, Israel. Rebekah was Israel’s mother. Grandmother to the twelve tribes that became the kingdom God had promised. The kingdom of her own people’s blessing. I doubt she was thinking about that, standing there with her water jar. She didn’t know her future, any more than we know ours. And it cannot be said that she was faithful to this God she had not met. We know, don’t we, that God was faithful through her. Faithful to the promise God had made and to the people to whom God had made it, including us.
God is faithful whether we are or not. I’m glad about that; you know why? Because these days, more than most days, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. At this moment, for example, I am preaching, if you want to call it that, to my tomato plants. And before you roll your eyes, remember: you are watching me preach to my tomato plants. And we are all acting like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world to do this and call it church.
“Folks can get used to anything,” writes Toni Morrison in her novel The Color Purple. I hope so. That would mean it’s possible to get used to having no idea what I’m doing, to get used to not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If I’m learning anything, I’m learning I don’t know anything about the future. I can buy airplane tickets and book a hotel. I can leave my office one Thursday, and the next Tuesday I’m moving it home because of a newscast about a virus hijacking its way around the world. The joke’s on me and you, friends, if we think we know a single thing about tomorrow. And all the faith that is required is the same faith Rebekah showed, even when she didn’t know she showed it, when she said Let’s go – the faith to do the next thing, however crazy the next thing seems. Climbing on a camel, preaching to tomato plants, or saying our prayers. Let’s do that, in fact. Let’s pray. For all we know, O God, there’s so much more we don’t. For the peace of not knowing, we pray. Amen.