Proper 12A

July 21, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 29: 15-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Jacob is presented honestly by the author of Genesis. Jacob is very much a “warts and all” type of figure who has a predilection for deceit and trickery. Even after his dream of the ladder to heaven, still Jacob could not resist the language of wheeling and dealing in striking a kind of bargain with Almighty God. Lots of other people might have responded to such a vision by declaring, “My Lord and my God! I will worship and serve you forever!”

    But not Jacob.

    Instead he says, “OK, God: if you do what you promised, then I’ll consider making you my God after all. But I’m going to wait.”

    All along in the Bible we know that God’s purposes are going forward. The fact that they did go forward is the only reason anyone ever bothered to preserve these stories in the first place. But Scripture is honest in showing us that many times the plans of the Holy One moved forward through some very ordinary events and, sometimes, even through what could accurately be described as some real shenanigans!

    Genesis 29 is a case in point. The tale of Jacob’s arrival in Haran at his Uncle Laban’s ranch and the subsequent story of the years he spent there are full of humor, irony, deception, and no small measure of dirty tricks. Curiously, God is not much mentioned throughout the bulk of these stories. In Genesis 29, the only reference to Yahweh comes from Leah but even she invokes Yahweh mostly as her partner in taking revenge against Jacob and Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel far more than Leah, but Leah was the one who ended up having all the children in this little ménage á trois and she sees it as Yahweh’s way of blessing her so as to insult Jacob and Rachel. Leah may or may not have been onto something, but it’s not exactly the way you expect God to show up in a “Bible Story!”

    Most of this chapter is just a cracking good story, albeit it very mundane in its day-to-day details. Jacob arrives in Haran at last only to fall completely in love with the beautiful Rachel. In a testosterone-fueled burst of machismo, Jacob single-handedly removes the cover stone from the well so Rachel’s sheep can drink. He then discovers that Rachel is none other than his cousin and so rejoices at having found family again after being exiled from his own family of origin. Laban, for his part, grandly welcomes Jacob, but it doesn’t take too long to discover that when it came to being a trickster, Jacob had met his match in Uncle Laban. (Who knows, maybe Laban was even the one who taught his sister Rebekah how to pull off the kind of deception she and Jacob had recently pulled on witless old Isaac and equally witless young Esau. There is a kind of family tradition of being sneaks!)

    So Laban lets Jacob work for seven whole years, knowing the whole while that when that entire long time was up, he’d be pulling a fast one on Jacob. He wouldn’t get Rachel who had the lovely face of an angelic beauty but Leah who had the misfortune of having a nose like a camel and eyes like a basset hound. The story of the much-anticipated wedding night is filled with humor. As was traditional, Jacob slipped into the nuptial tent after dark, made love to his new wife, and then fell asleep with her in his arms. In the light of the morning, however, Jacob nudges Rachel awake only to find Leah’s sad sack visage turning toward him! Throwing his bathrobe on, Jacob dashes across the ranch to where Uncle Laban sleeps and all-but throttles the old man in incredulous rage!

    Then, in a marvelous twist of Genesis irony, Laban defends himself by invoking the very same tradition Jacob and his mother had subverted back home: the tradition of primogeniture, of the firstborn coming first in all things. “Maybe you sidestepped this tradition back at your home,” Laban as much as says, “but you’re not getting away with it here. Leah is your wife. You can have Rachel only second.” Jacob has indeed met his match! But he will still marry also Rachel. The text is dismally dismissive (and even derisive) when in verse 28 we are told that Jacob blandly “finished out the week with Leah” before finally getting the girl of his dreams. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a most unhappy way to start a marriage!

    Before the chapter is finished, however, Leah starts having babies, and we quickly see some famous names popping up for the first time. These children will be the heads of what will eventually become the twelve tribes of Israel. Through deception and chicanery, God’s covenant is lurching forward. Promises once made to Abraham, to Isaac, and now recently reaffirmed also to Jacob, are actually coming to fruition. Amazing!

    The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg notes that history is the necessary horizon for all theology. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel believed it was serving a living God who was orchestrating an historical progression that proceeded in a linear fashion. History was not cyclical but linear; not just a repeating cycle that kept trudging around the same meaningless circle but actually a story that had a beginning, a middle, and some day a final and glorious end. What motored history forward was the tension between promise and fulfillment and the ways those promises ended up coming to fulfillment.

    Even so, however, the Bible and its authors were honest enough to admit that although history proceeds from some past point toward some future point, that line is not usually razor-straight as though drawn with the use of a ruler but zig-zaggy and jagged, full of ups and downs, unexpected tricks and even woeful setbacks. History moves and God acts, but as often as not it happens through the foibles and flaws of real people who lead gritty lives.

    Historian Theodore White once claimed that the job of the professional historian is to tell later generations what the past means. To do that, White says, the historian allows the passage of time to burn off all the details, leaving behind just the bare peaks and ridges of broad historical movements. So history gets divided up into epochs with names like “The Dark Ages” or “The Middle Ages” or “The Renaissance,” and we quietly end up assuming that those labels suffice to tell us the past. Never mind that countless individual people and families lived in each of those periods. And never mind that the details of their lives may or may not have had much in common with the broad, epochal strokes of the historian’s brush. The big things are the main thing. The rest seems somehow less important.

    But in this Genesis, God is in the details, even if the details are tawdry, typical, and mundane. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t have to think that we are subsumed into some broad epochal historical movement that steamrolls over us. Nor do we have to think that to be elevated to the status of a saint, we need to lead the kind of life that stands out, that deserves to be immortalized in stained glass. After all, if Jacob can be considered a patriarch of the faith and so his own kind of saint, there’s hope for every last one of us!

    God does get his plans and purposes achieved through even the details of the most ordinary of our lives. There may be ups and downs for all of us, as well as for the church generally, but God is the Persistent One who keeps moving things along in and through (and let’s admit, sometimes also despite) our lives. God doesn’t give up.

    A while back I stayed at a retreat center in a quite old house. In one of the bathrooms was a sink with a leaky faucet. Every fifteen or so seconds another drop of water plopped out of the spigot and onto the hard, stone porcelain of the sink. Apparently it’s been like that for a while because in that same sink I noticed a small trench, maybe an eighth-of-an-inch deep and an inch long, that had been worn into the stone. Now porcelain is very hard and water is very soft, but it’s the persistence of the water that eventually makes even the stone give way.

    God is like that, I think. He is relentless and persistent. Even through a story as full of human foibles as this one, you know all along that the Holy Persistent One of the cosmos is at work, carving out of this world’s history and out of the lives of individuals like Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Laban, you, and me the path that someday, and in retrospect, we will see leads straight into the glory of God’s kingdom.

    Illustration Idea

    What does a sacred life look like? How might the life of a saint be described?  In the fine film The Third Miracle, a Catholic priest is asked to investigate the life of a woman named Helen, who was reputed to have performed some miracles in her life and who, after her death, was credited with the healing of a child suffering from lupus. So the priest checks into the woman’s history and background but finds a mostly unremarkable life that even included conceiving a daughter out of wedlock.

    Later, when the bishops and cardinals gather to hear the priest’s report and so weigh whether or not to recommend her to the Vatican for canonization as a saint, one bishop is assigned the formal role of playing the “Devil’s Advocate.” And he quite easily was able to mention details from Helen’s life that seemed to disqualify her as a saint. So much of her life was common, even now and again sinful. Ironically, in the end, the miracles are deemed to be genuine, and so despite the ordinary nature of Helen’s life, the movie ends with the live possibility that she may be declared a formal saint one day after all.

    The preacher and novelist Frederick Buechner has written many books about Christian people, including a series of books about a preacher named Bebb and his Pulitzer-nominated novel Godric about a Medieval saint. But his books are full of the common, the ordinary, even the tawdry because Buechner is convinced that the life of a saint is not generally going to be so very different from any other Christian person’s life, replete with struggles, doubts, failures, sin, fears, and the rest. Buechner has even gone so far as to say that if you actually set out to write a novel about a saint, you’d likely end up making a hash out of it. You’d likely end up trying to create a story that you think would look like a saint’s life, full of piety and spine-tingling events and elevated holy language. What would result would perhaps look very spiritual but it probably would not look at all like the life of anyone who actually ever lived. Instead Buechner suggests that when writing novels, Christian writers could better simply create a flesh-and-blood character similar to any number of real people we already know and then show how the holy permeates that person’s life even so.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 8: 26-39

    Author: Stan Mast