Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Real Miracle in Joseph's Story (Genesis 45:1-15)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 20, 2017, Proper 15)

From Feud to Funny Story: The Great Wall of Pillows

Much of the Old Testament is about kings and foreign nations, imperial intrigue and war, which are all very fascinating but are also things that I’ve never experienced in my life.  One of the reasons I love Genesis is that it’s on my level.  It’s the story of a family.  Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, arguments and roadtrips.  Love and loss and new life.  I can understand Genesis.

Growing up, my brother and I would occasionally have to share a bed.  It would usually be at one of those little motels.  They were all the same: white, starchy sheets and two pillows per head.  Neither my brother nor I needed the extra pillow.  So instead we put them to good use.  To ensure that neither of us encroached on the other’s space, we each contributed a pillow to what became known as The Great Wall of Pillows.  There in the middle of the bed, we built a wall.  It was a diplomatic masterpiece, guaranteeing equal space and a sleep free from flailing arms.

The Great Wall of Pillows kept the peace between us brothers.  Until one morning, when it did not.  The Great Wall protected us in the middle, but it could not protect us at the head or foot of the bed.  And that’s where the trouble happened.  One of us had gotten turned around in the middle of the night.  I don’t know how.  All I remember is my brother crying out in the morning: “Get your feet out of my face!”  To which I responded: “Get your face out of my feet!”

Parental arbitration did little to resolve the conflict.  We were fuming for minutes.  It was not until a half-hour later, when we had made our way through the motel’s cereal bar and were forced to sit at the same table, that peace returned and the feet-in-face skirmish was put behind us. 

In fact, in the days and years to follow, that incident took on an entirely different tone and meaning.  It became a joke, part of the family mythology, a tale told to kindle laughter and good cheer.

A Forgiveness That Takes Time and Tears

Today’s scripture is also a tale of brotherly conflict and reconciliation.  But here the conflict is not simply a matter of sleeping space and feet-in-face.  It is a matter of one brother whose self-important dreams are a kick in the face of the other brothers, who hit back by selling him into slavery.  And here the reconciliation is not a matter of minutes but of years.  The reunion happens not over cereal but over hugs and wordless tears.

If you remember the story, after Joseph goes to Egypt as a slave, he rises from rags to riches.  He becomes a governor of Egypt.  Then, twenty-three years after his brothers sold him into slavery, they encounter one another again.  A famine has driven the brothers down to Egypt to seek food.  They do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them.  He does not, however, reveal himself immediately.  Several times we are told that Joseph cannot keep from weeping and must remove himself from their company.[1]  He clearly is torn.  Part of him must want to reveal himself.  But another part resists.  Why open the lid on a painful past?  Why revisit such a hurtful history?

When he does finally reveal himself, we see that his brothers are similarly conflicted—confused.  How could this possibly be the brother they left for dead?  More importantly, how can they trust his goodwill?  The story tells us that initially they cannot even answer him, so stunned are they.  According to the storyteller, only after Joseph has wept and embraced them can they talk to him (cf. 45:14-15).

In other words, this isn’t a simple end to a brotherly squabble, the easy half-hour resolution to a sitcom drama.  Forgiveness sometimes takes a whole lot more than cereal.  In the story of Joseph, forgiveness takes time, and it takes tears.  Joseph does not simply reconcile with the brothers who left him for dead.  It takes him months to open himself up to them.  And likewise, the brothers do not simply receive his forgiveness and carry on like their offense never happened.  It takes tears and hugs to liberate them from the past.[2]

Traditionally a Tale of Divine Providence

Traditionally the story of Joseph is read as a tale of divine providence.  As Joseph himself says, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).  In other words, you thought you were selling me, but really God was sending me.  To many readers, these words suggest the image of a divine puppeteer hidden behind the clouds, imperceptibly directing the drama toward survival.  Everything that has happened—their father’s lopsided love, Joseph’s self-important dreams, the brothers’ hate, Joseph’s slavery, his rags-to-riches glory in Egypt—all of this has been invisibly choreographed by a divine director.  God orchestrated Joseph’s roller-coaster journey so that he would end up as governor of Egypt, where he could then provide food for his famine-stricken family.  That, according to many readers, is the miracle in Joseph’s story.

But what good would it have been—all the twisted events of Joseph’s journey—if at the final moment he and his brothers had not reconciled?  Imagine for a moment that Joseph didn’t reveal himself, but instead simply gave his brothers food and sent them on their way.  They would have returned home to a father still grieving the mysterious loss of his son.  They would have returned home still broken themselves, restless with the guilt of the past.  And Joseph would have remained in Egypt, confused and teary-eyed.  What sort of life would that have been?

What Really Saved Their Lives?

The question I want to ask, then, is what really saved the lives of Joseph and his brothers?  Was it a hand in the sky, orchestrating events just for them?  Is that really where God’s power lies?

When Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be distressed…because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life,” I don’t think he’s theologizing.  I think he’s forgiving.  I don’t think he’s theorizing about God and providence and omnipotence, I think he’s liberating his brothers and himself from the past. 

Normally there are deeds and there are consequences.  Normally the past determines the future.  But forgiveness disrupts the normal order of time.  Forgiveness throws a wrench inside the gears and chains of time, separating deed from consequence, crime from guilt, wrongdoing from revenge.  Forgiveness means that our story can be changed.  Forgiveness is the way our story gets edited.  You can never erase what happened, but you can cross through it and write in a new meaning.  That’s precisely what Joseph does.  Listen again to what he says: “Do not be distressed…because you sold me here”—in other words, you sold me here, but let’s cross through the original meaning of wrongdoing and guilt—“for God sent me before you to preserve life”—which is to say, let’s put a twist on the story (45:5).  I will not hold your crime against you.  Quite the opposite, I will seek instead the opportunities that it has offered, which include not only saving the famine-stricken lives of many but also reconciling with you.

What really saved the lives of Joseph and his brothers?  Was it the food Joseph provided?  That gave them biological life, for sure, but just because a heart pumps blood doesn’t mean it pumps love and life.  In my eyes, what really saved everyone’s life—the real miracle of the story—is not the fortuitous twist of events that put Joseph into power and his brothers back in his presence.   What really saved their lives is forgiveness.  It is the twist that Joseph puts on the past, which gives him and his brothers their lives back.

The Miracle That Gives the Past a New Meaning

In the case of my brother and me, forgiveness transformed a fraternal feud of feet-versus-face into a tale of laughter and good cheer.  In the case of Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness turned a hateful conflict into an opportunity for saving the lives of not only the hungry but also the heartbroken.

I wonder about today. Our nation bears many wounds wrought by a hurtful past.  These wounds cannot be undone.  But they can be healed.  The past cannot be erased, but it can be edited.  History cannot be unwritten, but it can be overwritten with a new meaning.  The power of God is not the power of an omnipotent puppeteer.  It is the power of the heart, the miracle of forgiveness, the only thing that can transform a hurtful past into a healthy future.

But here’s the difficult thing.  Who forgives whom?  Normally we would read today’s scripture and say, Okay, I need to forgive others.  Normally as Christ-followers, we think of ourselves as the agents of forgiveness.  But for myself, I wonder if this time I’m not on the other side of the fence. 

I’m not the wounded one.  I’m the one who went from strength to strength, unimpeded by poverty or a broken home or underfunded education or inadequate transportation or student loans or the prejudices of people who give grants and scholarship and jobs to people who look and talk like them.  I’m the one who has lived as if there’s no problem, the one who’s said, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.  I’m the one who has been complicit, and by complicit, I mean not asking questions and not seeking answers; I mean wanting to turn the news off before I hear about someone else who has been hurt by a culture that has never really hurt me.  I’m not the wounded one.  I’ve been the one who wants to pretend like there’s no wound.  I’m the one who needs the miracle of forgiveness.  Only then could there be true reconciliation like there was between Joseph and his brothers, or my brother and me.

Forgiveness can overwrite a hurtful history with a new meaning.  But it must begin with the hurtful history.  How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins?  In Montgomery, Alabama, which used to be one of the busiest slave ports in the US, there are 59 markers that commemorate and celebrate the Confederacy but not a single marker that acknowledges slavery.  How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins?  “It took only ten years to erect a memorial to the victims of September 11,” but “to this day there is no national monument to slavery.”  How can there be forgiveness where we do not confess our sins?[3]

Forgiveness is neither simple nor easy.  Today’s scripture shows that plainly enough.  To confront the sin of the past takes time, and it takes tears.

Mark Heyer, the father of the young woman whose life was taken by a white supremacist, recently spoke about forgiveness.  He had tears in his eyes.  He had a long, slow future in his eyes. “I hope all this stuff that’s come out,” he said, “isn’t twisted into something negative but there comes a positive change in people’s hearts, in their thinking, in their understanding of their neighbor.”[4]  I hope so too.  I hope that forgiveness can cross through the hurt of history and write in a new meaning.  It is the only hope we have for the future.  What has happened—last weekend, these last five hundred years—cannot be undone.  But it can be healed.


Whose power is not of the fist
But of the heart,
Whose forgiveness
Writes a new story:
Humble us
To walk the long, tearful path
Of forgiveness,
With those we have wounded
And those who have wounded us.
We trust that new life
Can come from anywhere,
Even a cross,
Even a grave.

[1] Gen 42:24; 43:30; 45:1-2.
[2] In fact, it takes years too.  After their father dies, they become frightened again that Joseph will turn on them.  Joseph must repeat his forgiveness (cf. 50:15-21).
[3] This analysis comes from D. L. Mayfield’s excellent essay, “Facing Our Legacy of Lynching,”, accessed August 19, 2017.
[4], accessed August 16, 2017.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Why Reuben Doubted (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 13, 2017, Proper 14)

Jacob’s Lopsided Love

Genesis could just have as well have been titled “Family Feud.”  Nearly every one of its stories features conflict on the home front—between husband and wife, mother and maidservant, one brother and another.

Today’s episode finds us moving from one generation to another.  The last several weeks we followed the story of Jacob as he struggled first with his brother and then with his father-in-law.  Today we meet Jacob’s sons, among whom the next conflict brews.  There’s responsible Reuben, the firstborn, who has the oldest brother’s sense of duty.  There’s Judah, the mischievous and mercenary middle child, always asking what’s in it for him.  And then there’s Joseph.  The baby.  The child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel.  Daddy’s favorite.

A curious fact about the father Jacob: he “loves” more than any other character in Genesis.  First he loves his wife Rachel more than his wife Leah.  Now he loves Joseph more than any of his other sons (37:3-4).  This, I believe, is the key that unlocks today’s story.  There is much that the narrator leaves unsaid.  But if we consider Jacob’s lopsided love, his favoritism, much becomes clear.

First, it explains Joseph, who comes off a little like a “spoiled” child in today’s story.  For not only does his father favor him; he knows it.  He tattles on his brothers.  And then to add insult to injury, he tells them about his dreams in which they are bowing down to him.  Joseph flaunts his favor.  It is no real surprise when we hear that the brothers “hate” him and cannot find a good word to say to him.

Not only does Jacob’s lopsided love help to explain Joseph and how his brothers feel about him.  It also helps to explain how brothers like Reuben and Judah feel about themselves.  For they are not sons of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife.  Not only do they grow up less loved than Joseph.  They also see that their mother is less loved than Joseph’s mother, Rachel.  How could they not feel like second-class sons?  Their dad prefers their brother Joseph to them, and he prefers Joseph’s mother to theirs.  It is only natural that Joseph should feel superior, and they resentfully inferior.

Reuben Runs Off Script

Let’s fast-forward, then, to the drama in today’s episode.  Joseph’s brothers are pasturing their father’s flock.  Where is Joseph?  Not under the hot sun with them.  Already we can imagine their anger.

Jacob eventually suggests to Joseph that he go check on his brothers in the field.  He won’t stay and work, of course.  He’ll just bring back a report.  And by now we can guess as well as the brothers what kind of report this tattletale bring back. 

So Joseph wanders out after his brothers.  While he is still at a distance, his brothers start talking.  “Here comes the dreamer.  How about we put an end his dreams?” (cf. 37:19-20).

They begin scheming.  But it’s not long before the oldest—responsible Reuben—butts in.  The storyteller says that when Reuben heard all that his brothers were saying, “he delivered [Joseph] out of their hands” (37:21).  Now if the story ended there, we would simply assume that Joseph was saved.  That’s what it means to be delivered, right? 

According to some ancient rabbis, this is the pivotal moment in the story.  They read this sentence very literally—Reuben delivered Joseph out of their hands—and then point out the obvious contradiction.  Reuben did not deliver Joseph.  Sure, he keeps him from death, but he does not save him from the mercenary machinations of Judah.  Joseph ends up sold into slavery.  So what’s happened?  Why does the story mislead us, telling us Reuben “delivered” Joseph?

The rabbis suggest a delightful solution.  It’s not the story that has made a mistake.  It is Reuben.  God called Reuben to deliver Joseph.  Responsible Reuben intended to deliver Joseph.  But at the moment of truth, Reuben ran off script.  He did not deliver Joseph.  Why?  He doubted himself.  The rabbis lament his hesitation: “If Reuben had only known,” they say, “that the Holy One…would write of him, ‘And Reuben heard and delivered him out of their hands,’ he would have picked Joseph up on his shoulders and carried him back to his father.”[1]  In other words, if Reuben had known that God believed in him, was counting on him, had gone so far as to write his deed in the book of life—if he had known this, he would have indeed delivered Joseph.

The Difference It Makes When Someone Believes in You

Why did Reuben doubt himself?  The story does not tell us.  But do you remember what we observed earlier?  That so much of today’s story is explained by Jacob’s lopsided love for his wife Rachel and his son Joseph? 

Maybe Reuben doubts himself and hesitates at the crucial moment because he lacks his father’s love and affirmation. 

It’s remarkable what a difference it makes when someone loves you and believes in you.  I’ve noticed this in the smallest of things, like the way I become less and less self-conscious in public if I’m with a good friend, or the way I played my best soccer when I had a coach who believed in me.  Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.  When someone believes in us, it makes a big difference.

The tragedy of today’s story, then, happens not only when Joseph gets sold into slavery.  It happens much earlier, when Reuben grows up without the full love and affirmation of his father.  It is a tragedy that comes full circle, when responsible Reuben knows the good thing to do but does not do it.

What Reuben Did Not Know, We Do Know

If only Reuben had known, the rabbis say.  If only he had known that God believed in him, had so far as written down his deed in the story, then he would have done it.

The difference between Reuben and us, is that we do know God believes in us.  Even if we have lacked the love of our father or our mother, we trust that we have an even deeper love.  There is a beautiful line in the Psalms: “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in” (Ps 27:10).[2]  And in today’s gospel, we see that Christ has more faith in us than we have in ourselves, that if only our faith matched his we would walk strong amid the storm.

It is a tragedy when like Reuben we live without the love and affirmation of others, and especially when that means we doubt ourselves in pivotal moments.  It is a tragedy when it is written of us one thing, but we do another.

But our stories are not finished.  We are not tragedies.  The good news of Christ is that God loves us and affirms our goodness, that where our earthly fathers and mothers might fail, our heavenly one does not.  What a difference it makes when someone believes in us.  When the one who brought the universe to life, believes in us.  When the one who is writing our story, believes in us. 

What Is Being Written of Us Right Now?

I wonder: what is being written of us today?  Where are we like Reuben hovering between intention and deed?

The events that happened at Charlottesville have me hovering right now.  I find myself asking: how should I respond to such violence, such racism, such a wound in our nation?  I must begin in my own heart.  I say I am not a white supremacist.  But I live in a world where white is supreme.  And I have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness.  I have inherited a world that grants me advantages and denies them to others, that looks unsuspectingly on me and suspiciously on others, that believes in me but not in others.  Today’s scripture asks me: What will I do about it?  Maybe I will doubt and dilly-dally, like Reuben, feeling that something should be done but not doing anything.

But why doubt when God loves us, when God believes in us, when God is writing down our deeds right now?  Maybe God is not writing something as heroic as Reuben delivering Joseph and carrying him home on his shoulders.  Maybe God is writing down smaller things like more welcoming eye contact with folks whom we would normally avoid, more conversations with strangers, more listening.  Maybe God is writing down some uncomfortable realizations.  Some uncomfortable changes.

Whatever God is writing of us, know this. What held Reuben back, no longer holds sway.  We are loved.  May we live like it.


God who has more faith in us
Than we do in ourselves,
Who affirms our good intentions,
Who goes so far as to write them down
In the story of our life:
Reach out to us
Where doubt drags us beneath;
Give us faith
To turn good intention into good deed.
In Christ, who encourages us. 

[1] Vayikra Rabbah 34:8.
[2] Much of this homily—the portrait of Reuben’s character and the pastoral invitation to reflect upon where our love comes from—reflects the interpretation of Reuben offered by Jonathan Sacks in his chapter “The Tragedy of Reuben” in Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Covenant & Conversation Series; New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2009), ebook loc. 4142- 4273.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Blessing of God Is in Our Defeat (Genesis 32:22-31)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 6, 2017, Proper 13)

Is Blessing Happiness?

Today concludes our journey with Jacob.  We began four weeks ago.  Jacob was wrestling then.  Even before he was born.

Today he is wrestling still.  Not much has changed.

But today, everything is changed.  Today Jacob receives God’s blessing.

What is God’s blessing?  That is the question we have been asking this last four weeks.

According to Jacob, blessing is whatever you’re able to get your hands on.  Blessing means taking what’s there for the taking.  Blessing means success: power, prestige, wealth.  So far, Jacob has had a lot of success.  He has been able to get his hands on his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, his father-in-law’s daughters, and much of his father-in-law’s fortune.  Jacob has done alright for himself.  I would say he’s probably happy.

Happiness.  That’s about as much of a blessing as anyone could ask for, right?

The Dark Side to Jacob’s Happiness

Perhaps.  But in Jacob’s “happiness” we also see a dark side.  The dark side to getting what you want is struggle.  Not only the struggle to get ahead, but also the struggle to stay ahead.  The struggle not to lose what you’ve won.

In the verses that immediately precede today’s story, we are told that Jacob is “greatly afraid and distressed” (32:7).  Why?  His brother Esau is coming to meet him.  With four hundred men by his side.  To Jacob, this is dark news.  All that he has won could soon become lost.  The struggle never ends.

At the beginning of today’s scripture, night has fallen.  Jacob sends his family and all that he has across the river ahead of him.  It seems a rather odd move.  Why doesn’t he join them?  Perhaps he is a coward and simply wants a shield between him and his brother.  But more likely, I think, he’s in a reflective mood. 

They say that before you die, your entire life flashes before you.  Perhaps sensing the end, Jacob wants to stand back for a moment, separate, alone, to try to drink it all in: to look across the river upon the sum total of his life, all that he has won, all that is his.  Perhaps he is trying to claim the happiness that he has been struggling for his whole life.  Perhaps he is trying to feel it.  Because perhaps right now all his success feels strangely hollow.  And so he stands back and gazes upon all that is his, and he tries to savor it.  He tries to convince himself that this is happiness—he has been happy, hasn’t he?

“Like a Drowning Man”

And it’s in the pitch black of that moment, when Jacob’s happiness feels hauntingly hollow, that a shadow seizes him and throws him into the dust of the earth.  Dislodged from his lonely thoughts, Jacob does what he has always done.  He wrestles.  He and the stranger tumble about the ground, seizing at each other’s heels, holding fast to whatever can be grabbed, never letting go.

Jacob exerts every last ounce of energy and appears to be gaining the upper hand.  But then as the night nears its end, Jacob suddenly feels his hip put out of joint.  How did that happen?  The stranger merely touched it.  It is almost as though the stranger had been waiting to touch his hip just so, as though he had been waiting until Jacob had given everything, so that when he was overcome, he would know that he was truly and completely overcome.  With his hip thrown out, the tide has turned.  Jacob still hangs on—only now he grabs the stranger “not [out] of violence but [out] of need, like…a drowning man.”[1]

As the dark of night gives way to the hazy glow of morning, the stranger speaks for the first time.  “Let me go, for morning is upon us.”  But Jacob holds on for dear life.  “Not until you bless me,” he gasps.  So the stranger asks his name, and Jacob tells him.  Then while the two remain in an embrace that looks less and less like fighting and more and more like friendship, the stranger proclaims: “No longer will you be called Jacob, but Israel” (32:28).

Jacob Wrestles Now with Something Else

In the Old Testament, names contain entire stories.  Do you remember the story of Ishmael and Hagar?  Put their names together—Ishmael Hagar—and you get “God hears” “the outsider,” which is, in fact, the truth of Ishmael and Hagar’s own story.  The name Jacob means something like wrestler.[2]  The name Israel means something like wrestler, too.[3]  In other words, Jacob’s new name is not a great departure from his old name.   But there is one tiny difference, and it makes all the difference.  It’s the “El” in “Israel.”  “El” means God.  In the past, Jacob wrestled with the world: his brother, his father, his father-in-law, all in an effort to get ahead, to get what they had.  But now the terms of conflict have been reversed.  No longer does Jacob wrestle with the world.  Now he wrestles with God.

From “Jacob” to “Israel.”  The names tell the story.  The stranger seems to be saying, “In the past, you, Jacob, held onto the heels of others.  Now you will hold onto God.  You will not let go, and neither will God.  Now…let go of the heels you have been grasping at so that you can hold onto God.”[4]

And sure enough, when Jacob meets Esau the next day, he lets go of his heel: he gives him many of his possessions and also a blessing.  Which blessing?  The Bible does not specify.  But I’d like to think that what Jacob gave Esau was the birthright and blessing that he had taken earlier from Esau.  Power, prestige, wealth—whatever happiness can be found in these things—this is no longer what Jacob is grabbing after.  Now he is wrestling with something else.

Wrestling with God, Hoping to Lose

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis recalls from his early years a visit to an old monastery.  There he spoke with an old monk, Father Makarios. 

He asked the monk, “Do you still wrestle with the devil?”

“Not any longer, my child,” Father Makarios replied.  “I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me.  He doesn’t have the strength….  [Now] I wrestle with God.”

“With God!” Nikos exclaimed in astonishment.  “And you hope to win?”

“I hope to lose, my child,” the monk said.  “[But] my bones…continue to resist.”[5]

Our Defeat Is Love’s Victory

The good news of God’s blessing can also be difficult news.  Because it means losing.  And losing is something we resist.

Do you remember when Jacob first got an inkling of God’s blessing?  It also happened at night.  It grabbed him in the one moment when he was not grabbing, in the one moment when he had made himself vulnerable.  Vulnerable to sleep.  Vulnerable to a dream.  God’s blessing was not something he could seize.  It was only something that could seize him when he was not in control.  But when Jacob woke the next morning, the dream slowly faded and he returned to his heel-grabbing ways.

The second time that God’s blessing grabs Jacob at night, though, Jacob is changed.  This time, Jacob emerges from the night a new man.  No longer does he return to wrestling with the world, struggling, taking what’s for the taking. 

Now he knows that his real struggle is with God.  And now he knows that the real blessing is in his own defeat.  When our egos are defeated, when our self-seeking will is broken—when we forgive instead of indulging our selfish desire for payback, when we welcome someone who upsets our routine, when we give to the point of self-sacrifice, whenever we lose our life for the sake of others—then God wins.  And although this experience may feel at first like a fight, like a wrestling match, like a cross…we will discover if we hold on long enough that we are held in the arms of love, the arms of blessing, the arms of God.

When we win, it’s only ever with small things and the victories themselves make us small.  But when we are defeated by the undying grip of love, then we are made anew in the blessing of God.[6]

Jacob emerged from the dark night with a limp.  Jesus emerged from the dark tomb with scars to show.  From what darkness are you emerging?  From what fight with God?  What is your blessing?  Maybe it doesn’t feel like a blessing.  Maybe it feels like a deep wound.  Maybe you’ll limp for the rest of your life. 

But if our fight is with God, then let us hold on.  And like Jacob, we might find that those fearsome arms holding us are in fact the arms of love, whose victory is our defeat.


Beloved Opponent,
Who demands of us everything,
Before giving us everything—
Lead us from the struggles of this world
To the struggle with you,
Where we are defeated
And where your love emerges victorious,
With blessing for all.
In the name of him whose glory is the cross, Jesus Christ. 

[1] Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 7.  Much of this sermon reflects the interpretation offered by Buechner in his sermon, “The Magnificent Defeat.”
[2] More literally, “he grabs at heels.”
[3] More literally, “he contends with God,” or “God contends.”
[4] Adapted from the story’s retelling in Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Covenant & Conversation Series; New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2009), ebook loc. 3872.
[5] Conversation from Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (trans. Peter Bien; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 222-223.
[6] Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching.”

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Deceiver Deceived, and the Case of the Missing Blessing (Genesis 29:15-28)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on July 30, 2017, Proper 12)

One of the Bible’s “Good Ol’ Boys”

Last week after the service, John playfully pleaded Jacob’s case: “Why the bad rap?” he asked.  It’s a fair question.  If you’ve been here the last couple weeks, you’ve heard me refer to Jacob as a scoundrel.  Why?  By the letter of the law, he hasn’t done anything wrong, has he?  The two counts against him are questionable.  There’s no law against taking advantage of your brother’s stupidity, is there?  If he’s too foolish to protect his birthright, that’s on him.  And then that whole business of masquerading as his older brother—putting his brother’s clothes on, making himself hairier than usual, all to trick his father and win his blessing—well, that was really orchestrated by Jacob’s mother, Rebekah.  Can a young man really be held responsible, if his mother’s told him to do something?

Maybe I have been too harsh on Jacob.  Maybe the responsibility for his actions really belongs to others: to his brother for being a fool, to his mother for being a bad influence.  Maybe Jacob just happens to be an innocent beneficiary of others’ irresponsibility.

The problem is, as I make all these excuses, I can’t help but feel that I’m coddling Jacob.  Which is perhaps to be expected.  He is a momma’s boy, after all.  But he’s more than that.  Jacob, I believe, is one of the Bible’s “good ol’ boys”: you know, he’s a winsome guy from a good family.  Yeah, he may have dabbled in some dubious behavior, but cut the guy some slack, give him a break.  Can’t you see?  He’s destined for greatness. 

If my cards aren’t completely on the table yet, let me put them there.  I don’t approve of Jacob.  He’s a hero in countless children’s Bibles—but why?  What has he done to deserve our adulation?  If anything, Jacob shows us how not to live.  Jesus invites us to make ourselves last.  Jacob strives to be first.  Jesus teaches us to wash each other’s feet.  Jacob grabs them by their heels.  Jesus invites us to serve others.  So far, everything that Jacob has done has been self-serving.  He may clean by the letter of the law, but not at all by the rule of love.

A Romantic Drama Up There with the Best of Them

Which is why a part of me rejoices when I read today’s scripture.

Jacob, remember, has run away from home.  All his heel-grabbing had finally caught up to him.  After he swindled his brother Esau of his birthright and then beat him to their father’s blessing, Esau was furious.  He was planning to be done with Jacob once and for all.  So Jacob flees.  His mother has suggested he visit the home of her brother, Laban, who lives up north in Haran. 

That’s where we find him today.  What happens next is a romantic drama right up there with Romeo and Juliet or Pride and Prejudice—full of uncertainty and heartache, deception and surprise.  Laban has two daughters, Leah and Rachel.  Both have their features, but Jacob is smitten with the grace and beauty of Rachel.  So when Laban asks what it would take for Jacob to stick around and do some work for him, Jacob makes a deal: “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (29:18). 

Even I, who do not approve of Jacob, cannot begrudge him this tender love story.  For once, he is not struggling to get ahead.  For once, he seems to have a heart.  The storyteller puts it most poignantly: “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (29:20).

As touching as Jacob’s love is, it wouldn’t be much of a story without a twist.  

At the end of seven years, Jacob approaches Laban and reminds him of their deal.  Laban acknowledges that it’s time, and so he arranges a wedding feast.  In the charged darkness of the evening, Jacob is waiting in the tent to embrace his new wife.  She enters.  They consummate the marriage.  The original story in the Hebrew captures the next moment wonderfully, with what I would consider both comedy and horror: “Then, the next morning—look!  It’s Leah!” (29:23).  Jacob has been duped.  He angrily confronts his father-in-law Laban, who says, “Oh yeah. I forgot to tell you.  We have a custom of giving away our firstborn daughters in marriage first.  How about this?  You agree to serve me another seven years, and I’ll give you Rachel in marriage now too” (cf. 29:26-27).

What Goes Around…

You know what they say about karma?  She’s—she’s a mean one.

Jacob duped his brother into forfeiting his firstborn privilege.  Now he’s been duped himself into fulfilling Leah’s firstborn privilege.  Jacob pulled the wool over his father’s eyes.  Now his father-in-law’s pulled the wool over his eyes.  He had deceived his father into giving him his blessing, and his father-in-law has deceived him into seven more years of labor.

One ancient rabbi with a delightful imagination guesses at the conversation between Jacob and Leah that first morning after.  “Deceiver,” he imagines Jacob saying to Leah, “did I not call you Rachel last night, and you answered me?”  To which Leah slyly replies, “Did your father not call you Esau and you answered him?”[1]

What goes around, comes around, they say.  And finally Jacob’s deception has caught up with him.  It has come full circle.  Jesus once proclaimed that those who live by the sword, will die by the sword (cf. Matt 26:52).  We see the truth of this in Jacob’s tale.  He who gets ahead by heel-grabbing, will fall by heel-grabbing.

Where Is God’s Blessing When Our Heels Have Been Grabbed?

That is a rather retributive logic—measure for measure, like for like, an eye for eye.  It satisfies our human urge for payback.  But it falls short of reality.  Do only the heel-grabbers get their heels grabbed?  Sadly, no.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Jesus had his own heels grabbed.  The message of today’s scripture is not that Jacob got what was coming to him—although I would dare say he did.  The message of today’s scripture, I believe, is simpler than that.  It’s that our heels get grabbed all the time, whether we deserve it or not.  They get grabbed by enemies, by greedy business, by cancer, by bad news, by laws out of our reach.

So what about God’s blessing?  Remember, Jacob has already had a dream that has promised God’s presence and goodwill.  Jacob has already been assured of God’s blessing.  So where is God’s blessing now?  Has it left Jacob?  Is it missing?  And where is God’s blessing in our lives, when our own heels are grabbed through no fault of our own?

Today’s scripture doesn’t have an answer.  And neither do I.  

Maybe God’s Blessing Looks Different

But I am beginning to have a hunch as I read Jacob’s story.  Where is God’s blessing when it hurts?  When things don’t go our way?  Maybe it hasn’t gone anywhere.  Maybe it simply doesn’t look like what we’re looking for: success or happiness or personal advancement.  Maybe God’s blessing is as intangible and immortal as a dream, as invisible and eternal as love; maybe God’s blessing has less to do with what we can get, and more to do with what we give. 

Jacob gives fourteen years of his life as a mark of his love for Rachel.  Maybe the blessing in Jacob’s life right now isn’t what he gets, but rather his love and his dream and all that he is willing to give.

A friend recently shared with me the story of a recently divorced single mother, who was facing the threat of eviction and living off food stamps and the kindness of others.  Her journey back to stability was slow and difficult.  But when she tells the story of how she survived, she doesn’t talk about so much about her struggles.  She tells instead how at her lowest ebb, she decided to throw a great dinner party for her friends and neighbors.  She went to the dollar store, scrounged up whatever she could with what little she had, and sure enough, she threw a feast.  That more than anything, she said, was what kept her going.  She found blessing—just a little bit, just enough to keep on—in giving rather than grasping, loving rather than lashing out, dreaming rather than despairing.

The tale of Jacob tells us not only that karma can be mean, but simply that life can be mean.  Our heels will get grabbed, whether we deserve it or not.  Where is God’s blessing in this?  Maybe it looks different than what we’re looking for.


God of deceivers,
God of the deceived—
You share your blessing
With us all,
But so often
We look for it
In the wrong places;
Grant us grace
To give up the struggle for what we can get
And to celebrate the gift,
Both given and received.
In the name of Jesus,
Who gave his life freely for all.

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 70:17.