If you stripped away the material – your safe neighborhood, your healthy family, your job – how would you know God loves you? Simply, prayer. Years and years of prayer. One minute, five minutes, ten minutes a day. Sips and tastes, like a hummingbird at a flower, over the course of a lifetime. The answer is no more interesting than that, friends, nor less. I am spending the next few weeks in the epistles. If the series has a name, it might be “Faith Is an Inside Job.” That job, friends, is prayer.
Let’s go there now. What keeps us from your presence, O God? What could possibly be more important? We think we are busy. You must laugh at that, all the while calling us to your side, into your lap even. We are your children, after all. In your name we pray. Amen.
Two thousand and some years after Jacob stole one from his brother, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome to say that in Christ there is no such thing as a birthright. In Christ, there are no first and second sons. And if we want to run three doors down to the book of Galatians, chapter three, he says that in Christ there aren’t sons and daughters at all, that all are ONE in Christ. We are one, in that all have sinned. All have fallen short. Christ died once and for all. For eleven chapters, Paul lays out this Christology, the fundamental equality of Jews and Gentiles in Jesus Christ, an undeniable kinship between them, sealed in crucified Christ.
Therefore, chapter 12 – our chapter – begins. (Any time the Bible says “therefore,” we probably ought to duck. But maybe not this time.) Therefore – in the absence of such birthright, therefore – in the reality of this undeniable kinship, here is how you are to live, you believers, you the church. Twenty-plus injunctions, just in chapter 12. I want to consider two and treat them as one. Let love be genuine, from verse 9. And persevere in prayer, from verse 11.
“Genuine”: your Bible translation might say authentic. I like both of those better than sincere. Original even. Let your love match Love in its truest form, its truest form being God’s own self, for God is Love. This is the Love Paul describes in I Corinthians 13: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. That is genuine love.
That love, Paul says, let that be the love with which you love. “Good idea!” says my preacher self. “Noooo, it’s too hard,” whines my Christian self, as she stomps her foot. My Christian self is pretty much a toddler, you see. She wants her own way ALL the time. She’s selfish and demanding and sassy. She behaves better for other people than she does at home. She also knows what people will praise her for, and she lives on praise the way some kids would live on candy if they could. Friends, no matter what you think of my preaching, on my worst day I am a better preacher than I am a Christian.
A good amount of the reason is my fault. But some of the reason is that it is difficult to grow in Christ, given that we only truly grow by praying. We have to pray. For our love to be genuine, we have to persevere in prayer. We have to pray. For our love to be genuine, we must be loved by that same love we seek to use to love others. We must recognize the feel and taste and smell of being genuinely loved so patiently, so kindly, so unconditionally. We must submit ourselves to the tedious surgery whereby genuine love draws out the shrapnel of fear and anxiety we’ve carried for so long, and the sweetness of it as well, of being invited into the presence of the One who never tires of listening to us, who never sighs or grunts or rolls his eyes, who never checks his phone while we are talking.
This is persevering in prayer, friends, chasing that love that isn’t even running from us. We don’t have to move our bodies an inch, just our thoughts, just our attention. Around the veil of our busy minds, Genuine Love is waiting.
Here’s something I wonder. I wonder how my life would be different now if my first grasp of faith had been “God wants me to be loved” instead of “God wants me to be good”? If I had been raised learning to pray as well as I learned to work? Not to ask for things I wanted or needed, but to receive what was already mine: the unconditional love of the Creator of the Universe.
I wonder how a church full of believers raised on that might move across the earth: rather than treating other human beings as broken things to be rescued, treating them as children of the same Father-Mother-God. Lovingly, I would think; we’d move lovingly toward each other with patience, kindness and generosity. Like grown-ups instead of toddlers, grown-ups in the faith, that is. Because that’s the trouble, friends. These bodies of ours, our minds included, they don’t need much help growing up. Feed them and they grow.
But our spirits, they don’t work like that. Spirits will stay in preschool forever unless we choose to do the work. (For scholarly work on this subject, check out Sharon Daloz Parks.) And most of that work, friends, is praying. Think of praying as our work, the same way eating is a hum- mingbird’s work. They eat to live. And to live, they need twelve times their own body weight in nectar, plus a few aphids for protein. They have to eat, just to have the energy to eat!
Imagine prayer not just as food, but as eating itself! Praying as the very thing that keeps us alive. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all, if being alive in Christ is what we mean by alive. Alive in Christ, that’s who we say we are. But is that the center from which we do our lives? From which we face everything this world puts in our path? That nectar, that love of God, we fetch it, sips at a time – because who can manage more of the love of God than that, right? We carry it back and forth between our prayers and the world, always making sure to fill our own selves up first with its grace and its justice.
Yeah, justice. That’s big in Romans, our justification by faith – another sermon I don’t have time to preach, but a super important one! The point here being, friends, all these injunctions of Paul’s regarding how to live together with folks we don’t especially like, they all amount to an inside job. Knowing ourselves as beloved gives us proper tools for loving other people. Knowing our own undeservedness goes a long way toward being patient, kind, and longsuffering with others. It’s always difficult. It’s about to get more difficult. Quarantine is headed into shorter, colder days, while all around us, culture wars are heating up. The next few months will be some of the ugliest of my lifetime, I expect. None of which will encourage us to sit still and let God love us.
Do it anyway. Sit. Breathe. Recognize your breath as God loving you, not just now, but with every breath you draw; when you thank Him and when you don’t; when you are good and when you aren’t. Nothing about this Love depends on you. We have this Love for no reason apart from Love itself. Because Love loves. Love is what Love does. And praying, we let Love love us all the more.
Let’s pray together now: A moment, a drop of your pure and perfect love poured into our hearts can drown a day’s worth of worry and sorrow, O God. Whatever else falls away, whatever else is taken from us, your love remains, and we can hold fast to you. In your peace we pray and rest. Amen.
God goes by the name “The Fear” in several Frederick Buechner novels, including The Son of Laughter. The blessing I stole from Esau was The Fear’s idea, Jacob says in this memoir posing as a novel (read from page 86-87). I have no idea upon what Bible page the story of the blessing ends or if it has ended yet. But Genesis 33 is where our Sunday morning time with Jacob ends, with this reconciliation, such as it is, between Jacob, his brother Esau and The Fear, apart from whom there is no reconciliation to speak of.
First, let’s pray. Perhaps we have feared you too little, O God, treated this life too casually for the frail and fleeting gift it is. Perhaps we could do with greater reverence for the breathing sacredness of life that surrounds us all the time. Perhaps then we would be more receptive to the courage you offer, to tend the irreconciled places in our lives, in our relationships, the still so tender bruises in our memories. May your word offer us new hope, O God, that we might find new healing. Amen.
He might have left the lot of them a mile or two behind when he went out to meet his brother. Or even taken a company of grown men with him. That’s what Esau himself did. But from his nose to his toes, Jacob was a coward. He brings his women and his children with him, counting on the decency of other men not to attack him in their seeing. Lining them up according to his own favoritism, Rachel and Joseph furthest back, concubines up front, Leah and her kids in the middle.
Jacob bows seven times to Esau. Esau falls on Jacob, hugging him, kissing his neck. Both of them weeping great, big, snotty weeps. The tenor changes once the crying’s over. It’s slow and tense and guarded, a negotiation wherein neither trusts the other. When it’s over Jacob has conceded nothing. Esau accepts Jacob’s terms, almost without comment. Esau goes home to Seir. Jacob limps off to Shechem where he buys a plot of land. And right there, as the Bible story goes, that is the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau.
Every grown-up human being I ever met has at least a handful of broken relationships. One that doesn’t work right; one that is still estranged; one that is festering and tender, just begging to be picked at and squeezed; or one so full of battery and abuse, you now wish you hadn’t started listening to this sermon. I do have a good word, if you can try to stay with me.
Church – religion – has led some of us to confuse Hollywood with heaven, and heaven with this world, to imagine that biblical reconciliation looks like the ending of the movie The Notebook. No, it doesn’t. It looks like this, two brothers negotiating like they are Kennedy and Khrushchev and reconciliation is nothing more than détente. Religion has also, at times, led to believe that reconciliation is entirely on us. No, it isn’t.
Jacob has to deal with his God before he deals with his brother. And even then, he gets them mixed up, remember? Twice in a day he says, I have seen the face of God: when he wrestled with God and didn’t die, and again when Esau welcomed him instead of killing him. When it comes to reconciliation, The Fear – that is, God – does the heavy lifting. Jacob wouldn’t have gone, save on orders of The Fear. He would have run away, except The Fear caught him by the collar and made him stay. The Fear, I would offer, had already worked on Esau. And it only took twenty years to get them both in the same place.
Think what we know of God, friends, that which is hard to know when our minds are on those itchy, broken and bruised relationships of ours. The work of reconciliation is done by God in Jesus Christ. Remember – once and for all? Once and for all doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Once and for all dealing with our own brokenness and estrangement from God. Once and for all removing fear of death from our lives and from our life together. Once and for all relieving us of doing for others what God has already done for them.
It is not all on us, friends. God has done the heavy lifting. We need to take that with us into our memories and into the work of real time reconciliation, the lesson for which I suggest we look to Esau. I’ve no idea what went on with them those twenty years before. But when his abuser shows up, I see evidence of healing. He had a message, “Jacob is on the way,” and so goes out to meet him, taking an army that he hoped he didn’t have to use. But he didn’t take his family. Because a wise father wouldn’t do that. A responsible, grown-up adult human doesn’t barter with his children. Now Esau does fall to weeping when he sees his gray-bearded twin. But his broken heart doesn’t cloud his judgment for a minute.
Esau can love Jacob without trusting him. He can feel his feelings, twenty years of grief and rage, without letting Jacob’s craziness breach the boundary of his healing. And Jacob tries. Esau loves his brother but he does not trust him. Love and trust are not synonyms. Esau doesn’t trust Jacob. Neither does he argue with him. Offers are made. Counteroffers too. Jacob gets everything he wants. Esau nothing, yet does not seem disappointed.
No satisfying happy ending. Just Esau going home, Jacob limping into the sunset with his four baby mamas and their children. Twice more they are mentioned in the same paragraph: “Esau settled some distance from his brother Jacob because their possessions were too great for them to live together; the land could not support all their livestock.” And then, “When Isaac died at 180 years old, he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob.”
Who’s to say they weren’t as happy as they could be, this side of heaven, friends? And who’s to say that can’t count as reconciliation, where every one of us is broken and in need of prayer? My four takeaways from our last look at the story of Jacob are these, friends:
First, The Fear is always, always in the mix. (Jacob had it out with The Fear before he met up with his brother, but only because God got in the way. Jacob was going the other direction – remember? – because it was hard and scary.) That’s because we can make much bigger messes than we can clean up. Jacob is the father of the nations who were to be a blessing to the world, except the nations are always trying to annihilate each other. So God has to intervene, so we don’t self-destruct. God has a stake in our reconciliation. We might use that to our own advantage, friends – fret less about what we have to do with the enemy; spend more time seeking God’s wisdom and courage, since we know God is on the side of reconciliation.
Secondly, forgiving someone, even to their face with witnesses all around, does not require us to trust them. Especially when they have a rap sheet like Jacob. Reserving our trust for people who treat it faithfully is a faithful way to live.
Third, this side of heaven, expectations about reconciliation are best kept low. Reconciliation is not fairness. It is not the offender getting what they deserve. And reconciliation is not the evaporation of all that happened that was sad and hurtful or wrong. Jacob and Esau might have met and talked it out, had they been twentieth-century westerners. Instead, Jacob brought lots of presents that Esau didn’t want and took anyway. Esau offered help Jacob wouldn’t take and Esau didn’t push. Then they lived decades more as neighbors. And sometimes that’s what reconciliation looks like, friends, this side of heaven: two broken human beings doing the best they can with a truth too hard to speak between them.
There’s a lot that we don’t know, because there is a lot the Bible doesn’t tell. Who knows what The Fear might have been doing in those later decades? Maybe they started over there and became good friends who never spoke of the past. Maybe when Rachel died, Esau stood by Jacob while he cried. Who knows what The Fear is doing in each other’s hearts? Who knows what The Fear might do in mine, should my past come ‘round asking for my favor like Jacob asked for Esau’s? The reconciliation we need most is business already taken care of. What taste of it we get this side of heaven is peace we make mostly make with ourselves and on our knees, ready to receive whatever the Fear has for us. Would you pray with me?
In Will Campbell’s novel Brother to a Dragonfly, the preacher explains the gospel to his alcoholic, drug-addicted brother this way: “We’re all bastards, and God loves us anyway.” It is a truth that both saves and cripples us. It saves us, in that God’s unconditional love is the foundation, the very floor of our existence. In Christ Jesus, we are saved. Once. For all.
It is our incapacity to accept our unworthiness of this truth that cripples us. We want to be good enough. We believe we’re capable of being good enough to have this salvation, if you will; that we can work hard enough to earn it. We can’t. And not because we haven’t tried. It’s because the love of God is just too big. The love of God bends time; it shifts nature, it drives nature; we could work a thousand lifetimes and not earn it. Most of us don’t, of course. Most of us are selfish brats. Our greed and fear leave us oblivious to the banquet God has prepared for us: just like Jacob. Jacob the Liar. Jacob the Trickster. Jacob the Fugitive, again, still in pursuit of what he already has, what he has always had.
First, let’s pray: The raccoons have been on the deck again, O God, and the chipmunks in the garden. Tearing up my tomatoes. Ripping up my flowers. Like they don’t have enough already. I’m forever clearing up their plunder and destruction. We know that we are hardly better, tearing up your creation for no better reason than our cravings. Striving to silence the sins and traumas of our past. A reckoning will come one day, according to your word. May we be ready for you and the word you bring. Beyond the reckoning, O God, may we wear our scars as boldly as we now wear our vanity and pride.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Jacob spent the next decade-and-a-half making babies and trading dirty tricks with Laban. After a complicated scheme of crossbreeding sheep in which he essentially steals from Laban outright, the Lord conveniently tells Jacob it’s time to go back to Canaan. So Jacob packs the livestock, and the women pack the kids, and on the way out of town Rachel hides her dad’s idol-gods in her apron – unbeknownst to Jacob, or so he says. Laban doesn’t find out for three days. It takes seven more for him to catch up with them. By then Jacob’s caravan was across the Euphrates and south in the hill country of Gilead, less than halfway to their destination.
God told Jacob to go – though not like a fugitive, it seems to me. God also told Laban not to stop them. But he does want his gods back. That’s a good story. He kisses his kids and grandkids goodbye, and thus ends an entire section of the biblical narrative.
Jacob turns his face to Canaan – and Esau. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know he’s coming; that his wives and children and all his property are with him; that he comes in peace, seeking Esau’s favor. The messengers return with news from Esau. “He’s coming to meet you. He’s bringing 400 of his men with him.” Unable to imagine Esau might be a better man than he himself has ever been, Jacob is terrified. It’s an army, come to slaughter them all!
First he marshals his family into two camps some distance apart, hoping to fool Esau into thinking one or the other is everyone, thus only sacrificing half. Then he prays – prays God will get him out of this mess. Then he slaps together a complicated bribe wherein 580 animals are to be delivered one drove at a time and presented as gifts to Esau – droves of camels and goats and bulls and calves that the men will have to wrangle, burdening their ranks and slowing their march toward Jacob. Once the camps are set and the bribe is organized, Jacob and his immediate family bed down in their camp.
But apparently Jacob can’t sleep, so he gets everyone up and moves them across the Jabbok, it says, and I for one cannot shake the sensation that there is a significance in the text right here in verse 24: “And Jacob was left alone.” Anyone who has spent any time with this rascal can guess what he’s up to. He’s about to “slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; drop off the key, Lee” … anything to get himself free. Hit the trail, set sail, take a hike, fly the coop, beat a retreat, take flight, cut and run. Anything, anything at all, rather than face the consequences of his own choices and decisions. Including, believe it or not, placing his own children between himself and the enemy.
At which point, into Jacob’s life there comes a reckoning. A moment when he is finally able to hear God say, “Enough, Jacob, enough.” Have you ever seen a daddy wrestling with a child, how the kid is fighting so hard and the daddy is being so gentle? It’s over when the little one is worn out. Or the little one is getting too rough and the daddy says, “Okay, that’s enough.” Jacob never wears out, even at daybreak when God says, “Enough.” Jacob keeps fighting. “Jacob, enough!”
My mom’s favorite story to tell about little me was really about my dad. About how I was just like him. How once when I was three he was determined that I pick up some toys. I was just as determined I wouldn’t. He asked me to. He told me to. He put me in time out. He spanked me. He finally put me to bed. But I never picked them up. My mother said she never saw him any angrier than when he lost an argument with a three-year-old.
I won the battle, not the war. Jacob lost a hip and won his very own soul. Even after God dislocated his hip, a devastating injury, he kept on fighting God. Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, been that desperate to disbelieve our own helplessness?
Have you ever seen a big kid crying from some hurt or humiliation – crying all the harder because they believe they are too big to cry? I expect Jacob cried like that. I expect he cried for the pain in his ruined hip, but even more so for the decades of consequences he’ll never outrun now. I like thinking he cried a long, long time, and God just sat with him while he cried.
When it was finally time for God to go, Jacob sounds a bit like Esau back in chapter 27, after Isaac gave HIS blessing, his birthright, to Jacob instead of him. “Daddy, don’t you have anything left for me? Please don’t go until you bless me!” says the birthright boy, the one favored from his mother’s womb. “Please don’t go until you bless me!”
How does a human being forget something so fundamental as a birthright? How does one with so much end up so empty? It might be a mystery, were we not so much like Jacob is right here, all red-eyed and snot-nosed from crying over getting blamed for what we did.
Exhausted and feeling like exiles and fugitives, never quite admitting that our aloneness is built from the denial and dodginess and divorce we have used to distance ourselves from the messes we ourselves have made, be they personal or marital, familial or professional – not from malice so much as fear, ironically the fear of being alone, of not having what we want. And the failure to trust what we say we believe. That’s the big one, of course.
We may not be as bad as Jacob. But the difference is in scale, not quality itself. What Jacob calls blessing, we call grace. Grace is OUR fundamental birthright as God’s beloved. The truth of the universe, remember?
And all that is just what’s going on, on the inside. Every bit of it has consequences on the outside – in our relationships, in our work, in the creation, in our life together. Until, if we are very, very lucky, we have our own reckoning; until there comes a day, or a moment in which for whatever reason or for no reason in particular, we are ready to hear God say, “Enough. Enough. Enough of living your life apart from what you believe.”
The story is almost over when God asks Jacob, “What’s your name?” Jacob answers, “Jacob.” The name itself means trickster, supplanter, someone trying to be someone else. “No more,” God says; “from now on you will be called Israel, for you have striven with God.” To be rid of the name Jacob amounts to being forgiven everything.
Other people might have said thank you. Not Jacob. Notice the text does not, in fact, call him Israel from now on. God love him, Jacob simply HAS to argue, HAS to have the last word. “What’s YOUR name?” he wants to know. Can’t you just see God closing her eyes, rubbing her temples for a minute and then smiling, “Sweetpea, you don’t need to know my name,” and then blessing him again after all. Just like every parent who ever said, “I’m not reading one more bedtime story.” And then did read one more bedtime story.
Jacob had the last word. And then, he limped into the day, less crippled than he’d been in a very long time, to face his brother and his past knowing, maybe for the first time in his life, that God loved him no matter what; God had redeemed him from death; and God was with him as he went.
God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us now. Believing that, we have all we need to be okay for as long as this current crisis lasts. Or any crisis, for that matter.
It was March 22nd, the last time I preached to live human beings other than my husband. For 21 weeks I’ve preached to birds and flowers and dogs and chickens, but mostly to my iPhone. Preaching to people is easier. And faster. I’d go back in a minute if it was necessary for our life together.
But what is necessary is that we testify to the spirit of Jesus, that spirit which is always giving life and nurturing life in a world so terrified and full of death. What’s necessary is that we testify to Jesus’ life-giving Spirit, even when it’s inconvenient; even when it’s costly; even when it takes a long, long time. “When is your church going back?” I get asked all the time. As soon as it’s safe, I say. Twenty-one more weeks? Maybe. A year? Maybe. As soon as being together doesn’t put a single one of us or our neighbors at risk of contracting this terrible, incurable disease. “We can’t control every risk, you know.” True that. But we can control this one.
And doing so, we shall describe as keeping faith; as loving one another and our neighbors as Jesus first loved us; as laying down our own wants and wishes for their very lives for as long as need be. And not stoically either, friends. Not morosely as if we are martyrs spilling blood upon the ground. But cheerfully, with the same good humor we muster for Vacation Bible School. It’s hard work, sure. But hard work worth doing, knowing that we gain more than we give, find more than we lose. Amen? Amen.
That said, I want to pray and look at our next Jacob text. As our friend Donna used to say, nothing in a movie, show, or book was ever as funny, sad, terrible, or outrageous as what happens in a real-life family. The story happens in one geographic place – a difficult place for each character, for his or her own reasons. They are stuck; confined, if you will, doing the best they can in a world they cannot control.
Let’s pray. Quarantine, O God, not our favorite. We aren’t used to being equalized with every human on the planet. To being so bossed around by a power so unwilling to negotiate. A force that plays by no rules at all. Perhaps, O God, our wants and wishes for ourselves exceed your intentions for our lives. Perhaps contentment is the mark of faith these days. If so, may we consider contentment worthy of our effort. In your name we pray, amen.
Jacob loved Rachel from the first. So much so, apparently, he wasn’t thinking with his brain. Because nobody in his right mind would have agreed to the deal he struck with Uncle Laban –essentially seven years of slave labor, or so he believes, not a clue that Laban has tucked seven more up his sleeve. So for love, off to work Jacob goes, herding sheep. 7 years – 84 months – 364 weeks – 2,555 days. Notice, Laban wasn’t counting. But Jacob was.
On Day 2,556: “Uncle Laban; my time is complete. I want to go in to my wife,” says the New Revised Standard Version, the only one I can quote with a straight face. It’s daylight the morning after before Jacob figures out the prank. It’s horrible. Horrible to men imagining Jacob’s humiliation. Horrible to woman imagining Leah’s degradation – and Rachel’s – by their own dad!
Or, it’s impossible. It’s hyperbole, exaggeration for storytelling effect. And, thus, hilarious. Bawdy. The trickster finally gets tricked. Jacob is furious, “What have you done?” Laban is cool as a cucumber. “This is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn.” Oh the irony. Don’t you know that always being the smartest guy in the room is as good as it gets, until you aren’t?
A prank seven years in the making and Jacob fell for it hook, line, and sinker. If he wants Rachel, he has to take Leah too. He’d never have agreed to it but there ain’t nothing he can do about it now. So he has a two-week honeymoon: seven days with Leah, immediately followed by seven days with Rachel. And hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s back to work he goes, waking up for the next 2,555 mornings knowing he is the dumbest in all the land.
Throw in two more baby-mamas, Zilpah and Bilhah, and the result is a story of rivalry, envy, and dispute that bleeds into the next generation and even, I would say, into the DNA of Israel herself. Jacob fought with Laban. Leah fought with Rachel. Rachel fought with Jacob. Rachel and Leah fought with their dad.
No doubt each of them, in their own minds, believing they were doing the best they could. Laban had no sons and a daughter no one would marry. As awful as his trick was, by it he secured a future for Leah. He made sure she didn’t starve once he was gone. Using Rachel for bait, also terrible. I suspect it’s partly why she is so ready to abandon him later. But she also lived to hate him. And maybe Laban figured those costs in too – the cost of saving his girls was that they’d hate him for it. Being a parent is really, really hard.
Rachel and Leah had no decisions to make. Their choices were their father’s business until it was their husband’s. And marriage was business. Daughters were wages, as the text says. Bought and sold like the sheep in Laban’s pens. Their agency comes with motherhood and is limited even there. And Jacob. Jacob, Jacob, Jacob – people love to name their son Jacob, but hope he doesn’t turn out like this guy.
Do you know the Mark Twain short story “The Million Pound Bank Note”? Two gentlemen in London bet that a poor person with nothing but a banknote worth $1M will either be rich or in jail within thirty days. So they give it to a sailor and he carries it around, trying to spend it.
That’s Jacob in Haran. He has a fortune and a blessing in his pocket he can’t cash anywhere but home. It’s just 200 miles, here to Chicago, more or less. But he can’t go home, remember, or his brother will strangle him on the spot. So he too is stuck. Laban, Rachel, Leah, and Jacob, every one of them is stuck in their own way. Quarantined, if you will, by rules and consequences they can’t change.
Doesn’t matter if they caused it, like Jacob; or not, like Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah; or if they manipulated this world’s rules and conditions to suit their own needs and ambitions, like Laban. They are all in the same boat now – a boat much too small for this many kids and sheep, this many meals and this much laundry, for so many Zoom meetings and on-line kindergarten classes. So little work; too much work. So much anxiety; so little information. Are you with me? I can’t tell if you are with me.
And in the story, nobody much speaks of God. Laban did once, remember? Way back when that servant of Abraham first came to fetch his sister Rebekah, and he saw all that gold they were willing to pay for her. Leah and Rachel do too, when they name their children. And then Jacob does, of course, twice when he dreams at Bethel which we’ve read already, and again when he wrestles with God on the way home. But that’s thirteen years away.
But theophanies and baby days – those are like High Holy Holidays. In Ordinary Time, the time when the days are long and the years are short, God doesn’t get mentioned. Ordinary Time is for surviving. In the story, over the next thirteen years of ordinary time, twelve baby boys and an untold number of baby girls are born into Jacob’s household. Only one girl is mentioned by name. Do you remember her name? Dinah. You can read her story in Genesis 34. That story probably explains how Jacob ended up moving his whole tribe to Bethel. Joseph is the next to the last boy. Through him, Israel ends up in Egypt, eventually in slavery there for 400 years, and then exile with Moses.
Over, over and over again, God’s people found themselves in a world where they don’t get to make the rules. Rules that bear down on them, push them around, quarantine them to certain places and situations, where they are forced to make a life out of the choices they do have. And no doubt, often it is a crummy set of choices. According to my missions professor, when times were really hard in his African village, people would joke with each other asking, “Would you rather be eaten by a lion or crushed by an elephant?” The answer: “I’d rather the lion eat the elephant and leave me out of it.”
For Laban, the question went like this: “Would you rather let your child starve to death or force her into the wedding tent with a man who doesn’t want her?” All of time is like that for some people. Ordinary time has become like that for people like us. The world offers us no good choices. And friends, there’s no use pretending that inside a choice like that we are going to find a golden ticket called “God’s perfect will for our lives.”
God didn’t work that way in scripture. I haven’t known God to work that way in the lives of saints I’ve known. In both I see God at work in the midst of the mess, among people doing the best they can in the mess. People who wake up in the daylight and finally realize what a mess this world is. Whether they made the mess themselves – which Jacob did, obviously, whether he wanted to admit it or not – or they were simply born into it, like Rachel and Leah, and also Jacob, weirdly.
Or, if it is some of all of that, like a deadly germ that jumped off a strange little animal onto a human on one side of the world. (The virus didn’t buy its own plane ticket.) And because humans do love our technology, and we love crisscrossing this world by the minute, that germ is now in every nook and cranny of human existence, utterly un-beholden to our wants and wishes, refusing to play by this world’s rules. Those rules which go something like: Life is a game of getting what you want by whatever means necessary. Other people are either assets or liabilities to be used accordingly.
Those were Laban’s rules. And Jacob’s. And governments’. And businesses’. Of every organization which prioritizes their own survival over the wellbeing of the human beings they supposedly serve. And maybe they have to. But church doesn’t. Believers don’t – because Jesus is our teacher and example. He prioritized his own survival over no one’s. Not even his enemies’. People who were wrong about him.
If the church dies in service to her people, what is more Christlike than that? But if she were to kill, risk and sacrifice their lives out of some misguided fear for her own survival hasn’t she just treated human beings as property, like assets or liabilities to be used accordingly? When Jesus saw his own religion doing business like that, he smashed their game tables and drove them from the place. Just sayin’.
So this, friends: there simply is no way to be the church according to this world’s rules. The rules of faith are and have always been small, simple, and pretty much impossible to live by. And yet they persist, plain as ever: God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us.
Just that. All that. And it’s enough. God loves us. God has redeemed us from death. God is with us now. Amen. Amen. And amen. Let’s pray.
“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.
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.
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.
Hi friends! This is Scout. Scout’s my girl. She’s a six-year-old golden retriever. Dogs don’t get any sweeter than a golden retriever in its prime. Scout is a good dog. Or, shall I say, Scout knows what it means to be a good dog. A good dog stays on the driveway or in the yard, even when she’s not on her 40-foot chain. A good dog does not sneak around the house when I’m not looking and run off to wallow in the septic field.
She will be good dog for days on end … until one day, she smells something on the air and she’s gone. Usually only for twenty minutes or so. But it takes thirty more to give her a bath. And then another thirty for me to take a bath and start the laundry. She knows what’s going to happen after one of her breakouts. It’s back on the chain for her for days and days. She cries, but she accepts her punishment.
I can’t trust her, but I do love her, because she’s my girl. I’d put her in every sermon if I could. But today I can make it work, because in today’s text, the prophets talk a lot about yokes. Not egg yolks. This kind of yoke. The kind that keeps animals tied to something else, like Scout’s chain for when she chooses not to be a good girl. The people of Judah and Israel hadn’t been good like God wanted for a long, long time.
That’s what I’ll be talking about today, right after we pray. We want to be good, O God, most of the time and when we don’t want to be good, we want you not to mind. But that isn’t how anything works in this world. May we so thrive in the joy that comes with being good, that it becomes the deepest, widest, highest desire of our hearts. Amen.
King Josiah was the next-to-the-last king of Judah before Babylon wiped them the rest of the way out. He was probably also the best king of the lot of last kings. He did try to make some reforms. Then he died and his son Zedekiah came to power. Of course, every prophet rushed to the palace to get his two cents in as soon as possible, before King Zedekiah picked who his favorite prophets were going to be. It didn’t really matter, because Judah didn’t last very much longer and everyone got deported. But Jeremiah was one of the first prophets there, and chapter 27 of Jeremiah is his long two-cents sermon – more like $2. The gist is this: his word from God is that the whole earth belongs to God, including all the wild animals. Therefore, God can choose whomever God pleases to run things.
No doubt Zedekiah thought Jeremiah was going to say, “You, boss! God has chosen you to run things.” But he didn’t. Instead, Jeremiah says that God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, to run the world. You can imagine how that went over. And the whole time he’s preaching this $2 sermon, Jeremiah’s holding a yoke in his hands and drilling down on the point that Judah will either submit to the yoke of Babylon or the one God is going to visit on them through the people of Babylon, through the armies of Babylon, through the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. With the sword, with famine, and with pestilence they will suffer the consequences. War, famine, and pestilence are the three he mentions.
And just in case King Zedekiah was not already convinced, Jeremiah goes on to say, God also told me to tell you not to listen to any other prophets but me. Not prophets, diviners, dream-ers, soothsayers, or sorcerers. Only me. Which is bold talk, even for Jeremiah. Only not really, because he was crazy. Or, more likely, depressed. See if you can find a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of him – a portrait of misery. Who would want to be Jeremiah? War, famine, and pestilence are a hard sell in any administration – amen? Amen!
And of course King Zedekiah didn’t do what Jeremiah said. No sooner was Jeremiah off the dais than along came the next prophet – Hananiah, a one-hit wonder of the Bible. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says the quickest way to spot a false prophet is to listen for the one saying what kings and presidents most want to hear.
That’s Hananiah. His sermon went something like this: Babylon is defeated. The people and the property already in exile are on their way back to Jerusalem. Within two years Jerusalem will be back to normal. There is nothing, nothing to worry about. All will be well; all will be well; all manner of things shall be well. Whose sermon do you think the king liked most? Whose do you think the people liked most? “Good times are just around the corner” or the one which said “surrender and submission are our only hope!”?
Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah’s response is our text this morning.
It begins with “Amen!” And, as I understood the Commentary, if we knew Hebrew we’d laugh at that very first word. We would hear Jeremiah’s sarcasm, “You wish!” we might hear, You wish! Don’t we all wish God would make this situation disappear and life go back to how it was. But listen to what I am telling you, you Hananiah, you King Zedekiah, you Judah: God has never sent a prophet to tell us everything is fine just the way it is, that there’s nothing to worry about, that there is nothing required of us. When the word of the prophet who preaches this comes true, everyone will know what prophets God has sent.
He also said one more thing the lectionary never includes. He says directly to Hananiah, Oh, and you will be dead in a year. And Hananiah was. It’s not critical to our story, but too good a detail to skip since we are in the neighborhood. Not every day was a bad day to be Jeremiah. But I feel for Hananiah, I do. I’ve preached that same sermon, more or less. That “God will not abandon God’s people, no matter what” sermon. That word is all over the Bible. It’s a word we like a lot.
Thing is, the word Jeremiah preaches is also all over the Bible. Times when God put up with and put up with people’s disobedience and Israel’s corruption – until God didn’t: Adam and Eve, remember; that bunch in the desert, forever fussing and complaining; that one time God just sent out poisonous snakes to bite and kill them; then King David, remember – the very height of Israel’s power and glory – that one brief shining moment she held every inch of dirt promised to Abraham.
But then, like Scout off her chain, David caught the scent of something, And stood on that roof sniffing the air, deciding what kind of man and what kind of king he would be next. He knew it was wrong. He knew it would defile himself and his country. He didn’t need it; he had plenty of it already. And yet, he took it anyway. He raped a woman and he killed her husband and he straight-faced lied about it to God and to his people. And from that moment, from King David to King Zedekiah, anyone who can read can trace the continual descent of Israel from glory to destruction.
Only the prophets could see it at the time, of course. 500 years of pleading with the kings to reform their ways. If it was a contest, we’d have to call Jeremiah the winner. Sword and famine and pestilence. Occupation. Deportation. Exile. His litany is terrible, and spot on.
Yet, Hananiah was right in ways he himself did not figure. Babylon was defeated. He was right about that. Mostly it was his timing that was off, 70 years more or less. And then the remnant of exiles did return to Jerusalem, along with a wagonload or two of treasures and the story composed by the priests in exile, sitting and sifting their history through the sieve of that exile to find the essential truth of their lives and their life together in God. No wonder we’re in exile under a yoke we do not like. We spent 400 years resisting a yoke under which would have thrived.
They finally understood. And of course, this is but a sliver of what they understood. This is but a sliver of the prophets we have to read. There is no book of Hananiah, amen? What they understood is that as much as they hated hearing prophets preach about war and famine and pestilence, what they hated even more was prophets preaching submission. They hated being told they had to do what they didn’t feel like doing, what they didn’t want to do. It just burned them up. So they simply turned their ears to different prophets who told them what they wanted to hear.
Guess who didn’t care who they listened to? Babylon. Babylon just kept being Babylon until it got eaten by a bigger Babylon named Persia. And the Jews who didn’t die in Judah died in exile, most of them still kicking their feet about the unfairness of it all.
But some didn’t. Some submitted and lamented and repented and grew into the lives, the life together with God, that God had been offering since Sinai. That’s the best treasure they brought back. The gift of covenant. A relationship with God that is not made of this world and cannot be taken from us by any threat this world might muster. Not war or famine or pestilence, not disease or quarantine or a failed economy. This covenant, this relationship with God, is breathed to life and kept alive by fidelity and obedience. What is fidelity? Trusting God for what we need. Trusting that all we need is what God gives.
Obedience, organizing our thoughts, words, and deeds according to what God desires of us: justice, kindness, and humility. We are living in a kind of exile now, aren’t we? Exile from the lives we had six months ago, from lives we very much want back. And maybe, like those kings and citizens in Judah, we’d very much like someone with authority to tell us what we want is on the way, that this crisis is almost over. It won’t be me. For all I know this could go on for years. For all I know that old way is never coming back. It would hardly be the first time, for our country, for humanity.
Here is what the Word tells me: Every day we breathe upon this earth is another day spent in exile, a day we have not yet known what it really means to be in the presence of the Lord. And time spent pining and wishing for days gone by or different days to come, whatever freedom or happiness we think those days hold, is wasted time, time that we might have been brave and faithful and full of joy at how God is with us here and now, showing us how to love and be loved in the world as it is NOW. Not yesterday and not tomorrow – NOW! in a world aching to be loved.
We can kick our feet all we want, friends, and when we’ve worn ourselves completely out, right here’s where we’ll be, with the same choice God’s people have faced over and again, to resist these days, or months or years, of exile by being mad about it or denying it is even real or pretending it really isn’t all that big a deal, not really. Or we can submit ourselves to the yoke of covenant, wherein we may just discover God trying to teach us something important, something we have had all wrong for a long time and didn’t even know it. Or maybe God is about to do a brand new thing and has in mind for us to be part of it, if we can only let go of our death grip on the past and the future.
Wouldn’t it be something to be part of that, friends? Wouldn’t it though? Let’s pray.
In chapter twenty, verses 7-13, we hear Jeremiah praying. He’s just come off two really hard days of preaching. He’s both furious with God and completely in love with God. All at the same time, he wants nothing more to do with God and he’s grateful God will never leave him.
That is kind of the whole deal, isn’t it – our life in God? We can’t stand it and we can’t get out of it? We’d leave in a heartbeat, if we had anywhere else to go? Like a strong marriage. Like daughters with their mothers. Like preachers and the Word. “I love you. I hate you. I love you. Leave me alone. Thank you for always being here.”
I want to pray first, then look at those two tough days of preaching; then Jeremiah’s prayer; then reflect on at least some of what it means.
We mean to love you without hesitation, O God. But honestly, sometimes you give us too little to go on. Or what you do give seems crazy. And, of course, we can be so weak and cowardly sometimes. Thank you for not getting too fed up with us. Thanks for so many chances to try and try again. Amen.
Jeremiah loved God. Jeremiah loved his country. And Jeremiah loved his religion. When he could see the three diverging, he chose to love God with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind and all his strength. Supposedly his country and his religion also loved God most. They had the same history Jeremiah had. The same commandments and the same covenant. Had they chosen to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jeremiah likely wouldn’t have been a prophet, as God wouldn’t have needed any. But they didn’t, so he was – a prophet, one of those voices crying in the wilderness. In the end, it cost him everything: his country, his religion, his friends. His life.
You can read the larger story of Jeremiah on your own time. I’ll tell you just this one, from chapters 19 and 20, as context for his prayer. It was the middle of the 5th century BCE. Assyria was declining and Babylon was rising, making incursion into the Middle East. Egypt was in the mix, promising protection against the two larger empires. Little countries like Israel and Judah were entertaining offers, playing empire against empire.
Yahweh had forbidden foreign alliances. And one shape these alliances took was that Jewish kings married foreign wives and built altars to their gods, then worshipped at them – also strictly forbidden by Yahweh. Jeremiah drummed on these issues – as did other prophets, major and minor, through the decades – along with others, like how they treated the poor and hoarded national wealth unto themselves, all the while continuing to call themselves God’s people when they ought to have known better.
How many preachers had gone before to remind them (and us), only two things qualify people to call ourselves “God’s people”: Obey the commandments and keep the covenants. In his practice of the same, Jeremiah came to believe God would act through Babylon to correct Israel. The day before Jeremiah prayed this prayer, he went to a market and bought a clay jar, maybe one sort-of like this, and then he rounded up a few priests from the Temple and a few local officials and had them follow him to a valley outside the city gate of Jerusalem, an ancient place called Topheth, where once upon a time, supposedly, the Canaanites would have child sacrifices. But at the time Jeremiah preached, it was a garbage dump. A burning garbage dump.
And there he held the jar. Preached another version of his usual sermon about how defiled and faithless they and the nation were and that there was coming a measure of suffering and destruction they could not imagine. Siege and starvation, slaughter and deportation. It’s as graphic as British crime TV.
He goes on for a bit, and then he smashes the pot to the ground like this and he says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. In Topheth they shall bury until there is no more room to bury. Thus will I do to this place and to its inhabitants; and the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah shall be defiled like the place of Topheth—all the houses upon whose roofs offerings have been made to the whole host of heaven, and libations have been poured out to other gods.’”
It was all very dramatic, as you can imagine. And then he goes back inside the city and into the Temple where people have apparently already heard about the whole thing, because he announces to them, “Yep, I said that and I meant it,” and as he’s winding up for a second wind, a senior priest named Pashhur comes up and punches him in the mouth and has him put into stocks for the rest of the day and night.
Is this a great story or what? I love the Bible so much. It doesn’t actually say he punched him in the mouth. I made that part up – but it doesn’t say where he punched him and that does make sense, given that he wanted to shut him up. Anyway, he failed to shut him up because as soon as morning comes, Pashhur lets him out of the stocks, and through his split lip and broken teeth comes a new sermon for a new day. Except, it was pretty much the same one he’d been preaching from the beginning, which was: Your name is no longer Pashhur (or Judah, or Judaism, or Temple) but rather Terror All Around.
As Walter Brueggemann says it, “You have mouthed peace and embraced terror!” Now you shall watch as your city is crushed, your temple is razed, your wealth is looted and your people are deported. You yourself will be deported and buried in Babylon.
For whatever reason, Jeremiah isn’t rearrested then and there. Maybe he went home. What I know is that preachers who preach to nice people go home exhausted as ditch diggers. I can’t imagine how the ones who get punched in the mouth and locked up even find their way home. Good for Jeremiah for not taking it out on his dog. He takes it out on God. Not that that English Bible is that helpful. “You have deceived me. I am deceived” is at least ten degrees too weak a translation. Some will use “abused”: You have abused me. I am abused. “Assaulted” would not be too strong. Jeremiah has clearly been assaulted, after all, by one who claims to speak for God. Think of all the uses for that verse, rightly translated, these days!
The second half is translated some better. You overpowered me and I am overpowered.
Personally, I see no reason to let God off the hook if Jeremiah doesn’t. He’s the one with the stuffing knocked out of him for being faithful. He gives God credit, why shouldn’t he give God the blame? If God demands the truth, surely God can hear it. I did what you said and got my face bashed in. Thanks for that, God. Seems fair to me. And you know what I really hate, God? I hate how if I preach what you tell me, I get my face bashed in. If I don’t preach it, I get a burning in my gut that hurts just as bad and I end up saying the very things that get my face bashed in. My mother called this hell if I do and hell if I don’t.
And then Jeremiah goes down the most terrible preacher rabbit hole of all, the what I think other people are thinking about my preaching rabbit hole. This is a very dark place, friends. It’s the place where preachers believe that their friends or their listeners believe the real problem is the preacher themself. They call me “terror all around.” Not the Temple; not Judah; not the faithless, disobedient people of God; not Babylon. Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the problem. If he would just be quiet, everything would be just fine.
And not that preachers can’t be the problem. Of course, they can. We can. We can be irrelevant. Because irrelevancy is exactly what some folks most appreciate about their preachers. But we can also be afraid and weak and cowardly, and we can listen to our own worst selves – the disobedience and the infidelity in our own hearts and minds always whispering to us. Jeremiah turns it off. Maybe he ate lunch. Maybe he took a nap. Maybe he just took a breath. Whatever he did, he got enough perspective and light to start again and call up a new name for God: The God of Angel Armies or, as the NRSV chooses, Dreaded Warrior.
Dreaded Warrior sounds like a video game my nephews would play. Except this Dreaded Warrior runs a backwater country in the middle of nowhere, about to get creamed by one of three empires at her borders. Do you know the movie True Grit? The remake with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is far and away better than the John Wayne one. Near the end, Rooster Cogburn single-handedly prepares to gunfight the entire Ned Pepper gang. He yells across the valley, “I mean to kill you or see you hanged in Fort Smith.” To which Ned Pepper responds, “I’d call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”
God is the one-eyed fat man in this illustration. The outnumbered, outgunned God of this tiny nation about to be crushed beneath all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood, as Isaiah, one of Jeremiah’s fellow prophets, described it. A tiny nation with just one God. JUST ONE!
Calling all these tiny little prophets to preach their silly little sermons, with their silly little props, to convince a surrounded, terrified people that they don’t need any military protection; that simple obedience and fidelity is the only protection they require. Obedience and fidelity to the one God who – Who, mind you! – doesn’t protect his own prophets from getting punched in the mouth.
Of course, God is not only the one-eyed fat man in the movie illustration. God doesn’t have to be just one character, ever. He is also the Texas Ranger on the ridge no one knew was there, with the Sharps Carbine Rifle, a rifle capable of things no one knew a rifle could do. Through all of this, the one-eyed fat man prevailed. As did the Dreaded Warrior, or so the biblical story goes. All Jeremiah preached did come to pass. Invasion. Slaughter. Siege. Devastation. Occupation. Solomon’s Temple razed to the ground, its wealth looted and carried off. Deportation and exile – exile that lasted more than seventy years.
When Babylon was defeated and Persia came to power, a remnant of Jews went home. Israel was rebuilt and fully believed herself to have prevailed. Which is a funny word to attach to a people who was forever after a remnant of who she had been, who never again had her own homeland. And yet, what has the world’s definition of “prevailed” ever had to do with faith and fidelity? With keeping the covenant and obeying the commandments? Isn’t that what always gets God’s people sideways with God – our appetite for this world’s version of safe? I bet I say the words safe or safety ten times a day in the context of church these days. Staying safe. Keeping people safe. What does that mean? How shall we know if we are accomplishing it?
Jeremiah never spoke of safety. He spoke of faith. When I was a student, I’d hear missionaries say, “The safest place in all the world to be is in the center of God’s will.” Twenty-year-old me had no idea what that meant. Fifty-six-year-old me suspects it’s probably true. Jeremiah loved God more than he loved his country or his religion. He lived as obediently and faithfully as he knew how. You know what happened to him in the end? He was deported to Egypt by other Jews who worried about him offending the Babylonians. Tradition says he died there when some fellow Jews stoned him to death, because they were sick of his constant preaching about their wicked ways.
He was as faithful as he knew how to be and still didn’t escape a single consequence of the infidelity of his people. That stinks, doesn’t it? It also foreshadows a Savior who came and suffered the sins of his beloved people, so that we might inherit grace upon grace. And maybe just maybe, along with that grace the courage to be just a bit more patient, and decent, and kind, and humble toward the people around us still coming to the faith we already know.
There is a good word in all this, friends. The word of the Lord is a strange word in this world, calling humanity to a kind of courage that seems more crazy than brave. And yet the word stands, without apology, for those willing to believe that God never, ever, ever means to leave us on our own with it. Would you pray with me?
Hey friends, as you probably have heard, a group of UBC folks is meeting to plan returning to in-person worship later in the summer. Doing our part to keep our congregation and our com-munity as safe as possible is our first priority. We also really want to hear from you about gathering again. Hopefully, by now you’ve either filled out a survey or talked to your deacon about it. You are also welcome to call or email me if you have questions or thoughts to share. Whatever our return to in-person worship looks like, friends, we will continue to produce some version of online worship service every week for people who cannot join us on Sunday mornings. That said, let’s pray together and then turn to the scriptures for today.
We pray for people the world over, O God, who call themselves – ourselves – the people of God. May we hear your voice above all others, directing our lives, focusing our vision, so that we see humanity as you see them, desperate for the compassion only you can give. Find us at work in this world, O God, like people who have been moved by that same compassion, to live according to your word. Amen.
From Exodus 15, I want to pull one thread, from verse 5. The Israelites are a few months out of Egypt and have arrived at Mt. Sinai. Through Moses, God says to them, 5 “Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” If you obey my voice and keep my commandment, you shall be my treasured people out of all the peoples. This is one of the earliest biblical statements about what it means to be the people of God. The people of God are the people who do – what? Listen to, or obey, God’s voice.
Listen and obey are the same in our lingo, right? If a child doesn’t do what we tell her, we say she isn’t listening. People of God are people who listen to God and who keep God’s covenant. A covenant, mind you, they don’t even know yet. And yet, as Laura Beth read to us, the people agree, 100%. Why wouldn’t they? They don’t need to read the small print. The offer comes from the One who set them free. They are all in. But what else do we know about them? Listening turned out to be harder than they imagined. Keeping covenant, the same.
Two years later they haven’t moved ten miles, are on the verge of open rebellion, and God has set fire to their camp. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my people, the people of God. This arrangement is warp and weft of the entire Bible story of God and God’s people: the people knowing what they are supposed to do, and being mostly incapable of doing it two days in a row. Jesus enters the story as Messiah, in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 8 and 9. He has been healing person after person. He looks up from that work and sees – what? Crowds more people waiting to healed. “Harassed and helpless” is how Matthew describes them, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless, especially the word harassed, has a very sheep-y meaning. It means to be flayed open, as by a predator, a wolf maybe. Also torn, injured, crippled.
The people Jesus sees aren’t just needy. They are mistreated. Abused. Unprotected. Sheep without a shepherd. “Sheep without a shepherd” is Matthew’s political nod, for the readers quick enough to catch it, to remember it from the prophet Ezekiel speaking of pre-exilic Israel, when God saw the people abandoned and abused by one corrupt king after another, calling them sheep without a shepherd. [Ezekiel 34]
God did not stand for it then. Jesus cannot stomach it now. He was filled with compassion, Matthew wrote. In English, “compassion” is a synonym of sympathy, pity or soft-heartedness. The Greek word has nothing to do with the heart, but rather the gut. Literally, he was moved in his bowels. We don’t like thinking Jesus had bowels. But I rather like the literal translation here, the idea that the sight of human beings beaten and torn up by the predators of this world turns God’s stomach, makes God sick – nauseating, gut-wrenching, nasty sick, right-down-to-the-very-pit-of-God’s-self sick.
Once upon a time, before I actually ever had food poisoning, I thought I’d had it. I’d get a belly-ache, throw up a few times and then fall asleep. Sometimes I’d just lie really still and make it go away. And then I’d think, “Oh, I must have had a touch of food poisoning.” Then two summers ago, I was flying to meet Carl for vacation. At the Detroit airport, I bought what turned out to be a poisoned sandwich. I ate it later on the plane. Later still, in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Seoul, South Korea, the poison in that sandwich poisoned me. The details I will not share, except to say that my body’s singular purpose was to rid myself of that poison.
Invoking the literal translation of the Greek word for compassion as the deep discomfort, or suffering even, that comes with seeing his beloved sheep mistreated and abused – and seeing it, he himself suffers – brings it into new focus for me. Suffering, he must correct or relieve the cause of the suffering before he can proceed. He does not rename what he sees or what he feels. He does not turn away from what he sees. He sees it. He suffers. He must address it. He turns to his disciples and he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
This is a statement by the Jesus I call “the tricky Jesus,” asking his disciples to pray God would send some workers, when he already knows who those workers are, and suggesting those workers will be gardening or farming. The workers are them. The work is not gardening. Our scripture reading for today stops at verse 8, but Jesus keeps talking, saying things about how they should watch out for predators who will be after them; wolves in sheep’s clothing, he calls them. He talks about being dragged into court, being questioned and beaten; he talks about not being afraid of those who can only kill the body. I know gardening, friends. That’s not gardening. There are no wolves in gardening, just stickers and chiggers. No wolves.
Jesus picks out twelve of the people listening, and here in Matthew we learn their names: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and John, another set of brothers; Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas; Matthew, the author of this gospel; another James and another Simon; Thaddaeus and Judas Iscariot. Some fishermen, a tax collector, a doubter and a spy. Not a seminary graduate in the lot. Not a single credential among them, except that they listened; they heard him when he called their name. They could not possibly have been ready for what he was about to send them to do. They had only ever watched him at this business of healing other people. They go, not because they are ready, but because Jesus’ compassion requires it. Compassion must be relieved. His compassion trumps their inexperience. It trumps their fear.
Matthew calls them apostles, his one and only use of the word, a word they themselves had never heard. Apostle means one who is sent. (It came to mean one who knew Jesus personally and was sent by him.) They were sent exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel – a sermon in and of itself I wish I had time to preach. Sent with instructions to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near; to bear witness to that kingdom in real time, in the most physical, hands-on ways: by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons, AND – maybe by the most outrageous instructions of all – by taking no payment for their services. If you want to be different from this world, Jesus says, do what you do for free.
As Matthew tells it, these newly-minted apostles trot off one way and Jesus another. Their partnership relieves his suffering. However convoluted his power became by their fear and inexperience, Jesus is relieved and, for the time being at least, he can proceed with his mission. The apostles for their part, go – to learn to see with his eyes; to feel with his gut, if you will; and to flex the power of his spirit within them and among them, to relieve the suffering this world inflicts.
My husband has taught in Korea every summer for years. After I’d been sick for a day and a half, he called up one of his former students who, along with her mother, came ‘round to the hotel and collected my sorry self and took me to a clinic where my hero, Dr. Yoo, pumped me full of antibiotics and new fluids. Then they took me to the pharmacy for my medicine. Then they took me to a tiny porridge shop, and explained my predicament to the owner, who went to her kitchen and cooked up a bowl of chicken-y mush that felt like life flowing back into my body. In their way, the student, her Oma, Dr. Yoo, and the Oma who made my porridge, “raised me from the dead.”
I don’t think a “miracle” is necessarily or even usually a supernatural miracle, like the widow’s son at Nain or the ten lepers on the border of Samaria. More often than not, I think it’s just a whole lot of ordinary work that takes up a lot of time and sometimes costs a bit of pocket too. Remember the Good Samaritan? – remember the man who took two days out of his ordinary life and who-knows-how-much money out of his pocket to take care of someone he didn’t even know?
The compassion of Christ may be a state of being in which we expect to be interrupted by the things God cares about, a state in which we are prone to see because we listen to God’s voice and see with God’s eyes. And seeing what God cares about, we aren’t surprised when our bellies start to bubble. Can you imagine, friends, what kind of world this would be, what kind of church this might be, if the sight of human beings suffering stopped us in our tracks, made us so sick we could do nothing until we had relieved ourselves and relieved this world of it? Until we had obliterated the source of that suffering?
But, instead of relieving the suffering, I wonder if we haven’t just relieved ourselves of the meaning of the words? Making compassion synonymous with sympathy? Or maybe even pity? And soft-heartedness? Because that allows us to feel bad and keep on walking. Allowing us to shake our heads and say a prayer, while staying focused on our own business? And relieving the term people of God from any instructions that we consider too embarrassing, scary or inconvenient to obey. Even the word obey makes us more itchy than we want to be, doesn’t it?
So what’s the takeaway? That the compassion of Christ is somehow like a bad sandwich from the Detroit airport? That Jesus wants us to go over to Bloomington Hospital and start raising dead folks in the morgue? Head up to the 2nd floor, healing the ICU patients? That’s not my ministry.
How about this: Jesus Christ has called his church to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near, and that we proclaim it best when we move through this world seeing with his eyes, hearing with his ears, and feeling with his gut. What hurts him, hurts us. And what hurts the Lord is seeing his beloved sheep constantly flayed and crippled by the outright meanness this world not only inflicts, but tolerates and justifies. It hurts the Lord to see people helpless and harassed. And if we are his people, if we are listening to him, it hurts us too. Hurts us in a way that won’t let us just keep living our lives and our life together as if nothing is wrong.
And listening isn’t easy. Hurting over the things that hurt God isn’t fun. But who said life was supposed to be easy or fun? Our privilege. Who else? Nobody. Not your mama and certainly not the Lord. The compassion of Christ may have us feeling anxious and scared sometimes, especially at the thought of getting closer to a person’s pain or trouble and suffering, when we’d much prefer to get further away.
The thought might come: That seems like something for the pastor to do; she seems better at this kind of thing. Maybe. But if you are even having that thought, I suspect there’s a good chance God means for you to step up. Why would God put on your heart what God means for someone else to do? And remember Matthew 10: Jesus calls people to do stuff they have no idea how to do, that they have not been trained for, and that they never imagined themselves doing. Their only credential is that they heard their name called when the Lord began to call.
So if you take the call, friend, the job is probably yours. And the job: it’s the compassion of Christ. Let’s pray.