Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon; Proper 12A; Genesis 29:15-28

Think back two weeks ago to when we were first introduced to Jacob.  I said that there was an overarching theme of struggle and conflict in his life.  His life began in conflict when Rebekah was told by God that the children she was carrying were two nations struggling against each other.  It continued as the boys grew up and Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright, and when he deceived Isaac into giving him the family blessing.  We got a little break last week when, on the run from his murderous brother, he rested in the wilderness and dreamed a powerful dream.

Today Jacob is once again in the midst of conflict.  The Lectionary does a poor job of filling in this part of the story, so let me give you a general overview of what's going on.  On the run to Uncle Laban from his brother Esau, Jacob arrives at a covered well.  He meets some shepherds and asks about his uncle.  He then sees Rachel coming to the well with a flock of sheep and, wanting to impress the young lady, he uncovers the well and waters her flock.  Rachel, without a nose ring, goes and tells her father about the visitor.

Jacob and Laban strike a 7-year deal for the transfer of property; but those years pass like a few days because Jacob is in love.  On the wedding night, however, Laban pulls a bait and switch, sending Leah in to be with Jacob instead of Rachel.  After Jacob finds out, Laban gives him Rachel in return for another seven years of labor.

The story continues on to include Leah struggling to earn Jacob's love, Rachel and Leah engaging in an ever-escalating fertility war, Jacob and Rachel blaming each other for her infertility, some kind of sheep rustling or swindling, Rachel's theft of Laban's household idols, a final confrontation between Jacob and Laban, and a tense reunion with Esau.

As his story is recorded, Jacob lives most of his life in conflict.  Why is that?  You could say it's because he's a trickster and swindler who has a habit of making people angry with him.  I once worked with a sales person who had that affect on people.  You could say that a life of conflict was his destiny as God foretold to Rebekah.  Or you could say that when God calls you into relationship, or into the family, things are never easy and just might get more difficult.  And while that last one may be true, I don't recommend using it as an evangelism tool.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what happens when we are called by God.  We are asked to love God more than the world, which causes conflict.  We are asked to love those whom the world hates, putting us in conflict.  We are asked to pick up our cross in a willingness to sacrifice our self for the goal of “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Following God, following Christ, being led by the Spirit puts us in a position to be at odds with the world.  Jacob is following God's promise, and he's at odds with everybody.

This story not only reaffirms that a calling by God can and will put us in difficult places at times, but it also asks us to examine the person of Jacob.  Although God has a part in his life, although God has said the promise would run through Jacob, and although God told Rebekah he would be one of two struggling nations, the fact remains that Jacob was indeed the stereotypical politician.  He was always looking out for himself.  He was always trying to find loopholes and deals.  His life was one of scandal and deception.  And yet . . .

And yet, God is willing to work with and through that person.  We need to remember that God often works through the lowly, the oppressed, the scoundrels and others whom polite society tends to shun.  This does not mean that we don't need to have standards of behavior, nor does it mean that we can act like jerks while saying, “God is working through me – deal with it.”  But it does mean that we need to work to find where and how God is working in the lives of others rather than looking for ways to control them or run them out of town.

Finally, this story today shows us that God doesn't much care for how we've always done things.  Jacob, remember, is the first character to overturn the earthly system of primogeniture.  Now he is confronted face-to-face with that very system when he is given the older Leah in favor of the younger Rachel.  But, as Laban says, “That's how we do things here.”  And Jacob is offended when he has to play by the same rules that he broke.

Jacob is more than offended, though.  Jacob, like us, is forced to work with and through earthly systems created to maintain the status quo.  Jacob is forced to work under a system that strives to keep power in the hands of the powerful.  Jacob is forced to live in a system that values the Always-And-Forever-Amen traditions of the tribe over and above the benefit of the people for no other reason than that's how we've always done it.  Even so, God inserts himself into the story and uses a bad situation for ultimate good – just like he will do with Joseph a little later on, and just like was done when Jesus was nailed to a cross.

God has a plan and a promise to keep.  That plan and that promise will be fulfilled even when God has to work through difficult situations, difficult people and people we don't expect God to work through.  That plan and that promise will be fulfilled even when we create earthly systems and traditions that work to deny equality and keep God under our control.

Maybe the lesson we can learn from Jacob isn't that we can be faced with difficult struggles when God calls us, even though that happens.  Maybe the lesson isn't that God uses all sorts and kinds of people to accomplish his goals, because we know he does.  Maybe it isn't even that God's purpose will be accomplished in the end, because our faith says that is true.

Maybe the lesson here is for us to examine how we do things and try to make it a little less difficult for God to fulfill that plan and keep those promises.  Instead of holding onto those Always-And-Forever-Amen traditions because we've always done it that way. forcing God to work through our barriers and objections, we should be willing to evaluate, modify, change or keep traditions based on how we might make life easier for God.  That could be everything from the change that left the altar rail open at Communion to who we welcome and who we allow to become members and leaders of the parish.

As we move forward with Jacob and his struggles and conflicts, let's ask ourselves this question:

Are we working to maintain our earthly systems because it's easier for us, or are we working to establish Kingdom goals on earth as it is in heaven regardless of what it costs us?



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