Old Testament Parable

A sermon for Proper 12: Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 

This morning’s story is complex, and we only hear just a part of it; but, it is important to get the bigger picture, so here is Jacob and his Wives, the shorter story.

Jacob leaves Bethel heading to Laban. He comes to a well, and whenever we hear about a well we need to remember wedding bells. Remember Abraham’s servant finds Isaac’s wife at a well, it happens again and again (Gaventa and Petersen). And you are right, Jacob meets Laban’s youngest daughter at the well. He and Rachel fall in love. She takes him to meet her father, who takes a liking to Jacob. The next thing you know Jacob asks for Rachel.  We heard that story this morning. Jacob does not have a bride price, yes, in those ancient days men literally bought brides for a bride price; and it is not likely Isaac will give Jcob a bride price, given their recent history. So, Jacob suggests he works seven years for Rachel. It seems strange to our modern-day ears no matter what. And seven years sounds like a really long time; but, it does indicate the depths of Jacob’s love, and his valuation of a dowry for her (Fretheim). The deal is done. Seven years later, Jacob asks for his wife. Laban throws a big wedding feast. And in the morning, it was Leah! Jacob is stunned. He wants to know what happened. Laban tells him that here, the younger daughter is never given in marriage before the older daughter. However, Laban offers Jacob another deal, just seven more years for Rachel. Jacob accepts.

Some observations about this story. Jacob favoring Rachel over Leah is yet one more instance of the Genesis’ tradition of the younger over the older (Gaventa and Petersen). And at the same time Laban’s trickery results in a reversal of Jacob’s deceit of Esau, here the older replaces the younger (Harrelson). Even though he was clever and accomplished at deception it is not completely a surprise that Jacob is deceived, (Tanner). The ancient Near East custom was that the bride was brought veiled to the bridegroom. And it was a wedding with customary festival drinking (Ellingsen, Fretheim). There is an element of turn-about, Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s vulnerability just as Jacob took advantage of Esau. The cheater is cheated, the deceiver has been deceived (Fretheim). It may cause us to wonder if a birthright and a blessing are worth fourteen years of indentured servitude (Bratt). It may cause us to wonder if Jacob feels something of what Esau felt (Fretheim)? I also wonder how Rachel feels that her father replaces her with her older sister. It may be custom, nonetheless, as we shall hear, Rachel deeply loves Jacob. I also wonder how Leah feels that her father agrees to another marriage before her week of wedding celebration has barely started (Tanner).

 What follows is as disturbing a story as, well the whole story of Abraham’s family to this point. Jacob makes no effort to conceal his love for Rachel. However, Rachael, following the custom of wives in Abraham’s family is barren. But Leah, Leah is a bit of a baby factory, and has four sons (Bratt). Rachel not wanting to be out done and seeking the honor of bearing children and following Sarah’s example gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob to be a surrogate mother for her (Harrelson). She has two sons. Leah notices she is no longer producing children so she gives her maid Zilpha to Jacob to be a surrogate for her, and she has two sons. Rachel discovers that Leah has some mandrakes which are supposed to improve fertility (Harrelson). Leah isn’t likely to give those up so Rachel makes a deal with Leah and gives her access to Jacob, and Leah has two more sons! and a daughter. And then, finally, Rachel conceives and gives birth to Joseph, who we will hear much more about him. And some years later Rachel has a second son, Benjamin, who we also hear about.

This competition to produce the most child for Jacob, by any means sets up one more dysfunctional set of family relationships and conflicts (Gaventa and Petersen). The whole ugly story is deeply rooted in Abraham’s family history; and foreshadows the conflict between Joseph, a child of Rachel, and his ten brothers who are children of Leah and the surrogates (Fretheim). Maybe, the only redemptive aspect of this story is that, finally, we are introduced to Jacobs twelve sons who become, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

It is tempting and rather easy to judge Leah and Rachel for their maternal competition. It may be easy to judge Jacob and Laban, for their deceitful manipulative ways. But we judge we miss the point of the story. Beth Tanner writes They are not “them.” They are us (Bratt). Which brings us to the question of how we glean real wisdom from this or any other of the many sordid, despicable stories in the Old Testament.

We tend to, and we have been taught to read it as history, and there is value here. But there is also other deep source wisdom to recognize. It might be interesting to read the Old Testament stories as parables. There is an old saying that the key to success was to care enough about your objective not to care (Epperly). If we can resist seeking historical accuracies or explanations or definitions then perhaps we can allow these stories to tease us into a different kind of active thought wherein we may just catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, we would otherwise miss. Even in Jacob messes, the ones he is in, and the ones he created, we can see the Spirit, we can see God’s purpose moving forward, overcoming obstacles one by one. We can see God’s abundance strewn, seemingly recklessly, everywhere (Epperly). After all, with twelve sons the promise finally seems to be on track (Bratt). Throughout Abraham’s family’s story we have seen and we will see how God’s presence continues to quietly sneak in unannounced influencing the movement of the story of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Have you seen God’s quiet presence sneaking around St. Stephens? I have. In a time when large congregations, in much larger cities struggle to find an organist, in one week two parishioners find two separate organists; and now St. Stephen’s two organist to succeed Ruth; or to follow Ruth, I don’t know if anyone can succeed her. I’ll be honest this is not the outcome I expected. Not only could I not find a pianist, I couldn’t find the little MIDI musical boxes that have these things pre-recorded, I’m relieved.

Another trait of reading the Old Testament as history is that we know all the decisions the characters have made; we know where all the characters have gone, we know the path they have trod. So, imagine for a moment any given Old Testament story is a context, a setting for decisions we face, for paths we have yet to trod, for ventures we are in the midst of, or perhaps have yet to begin (Skinner). They can be the source of imagination that allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s grace, of God’s abundance, of God’s remarkably continual presence, especially when we can’t feel it.

There is one more gleaning truth in the story of Jacob’s children’s birth. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah and through to Jacob, Rachael, and Leah there has been confusion about the story, confusion about who the story is really about. Abraham and Sarah thought it was about them, they thought that they were first. Hagar and Ishmael thought it was about them that they were first. Rebekah and Jacob thought it was about them that they were first. Isaac and Esau thought it was about them that they were first. Rachel thought it was about her and her kids, that they were first. Leah though it was about her and her kids, that they were first. We think it is about us, that we are first, we are being told, again and again “America first.” Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah are all wrong. The Kingdom of God is first. We are wrong, the Kingdom of God is first. Only when we begin with the Kingdom, first and foremost, that we can see how a tiny seed will grow, how leaven can work its way through the entire mass, how a hidden treasure is truly present, how everything will be sorted out (Skinner). Only when the Kingdom is first can we live believing that nothing has been, is, or ever can be, between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ that is right here, right now.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 12A Genesis 29: 15-28. 30 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clavier, Tony. “Training for the Kingdom of Heaven.” 30 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 30 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 30 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lose, David. Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil. 30 7 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Skinner, Matt. Hide Away. 30 7 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Tanner, Beth L. “Commentary on Lamentations 1:16.” 30 7 2017. Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020&gt;.

 

 

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Where Are You in Jacob’s Story?

 A sermon for Proper 11: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

 

We continue following Jacob’s story. A lot has happened since last Sunday, and at least a bit is important for setting the stage for today. Last week Jacob took advantage Esau’s fierce hunger and bullied him into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Between then and now we read that Isaac is old and nearly blind. And while Jacob had successfully taken possession of his older brother’s share to his father’s estate, he does not have his father’s blessing, which includes the passing on of God’s promise and covenant.  Rebekah over hears Isaac telling Esau to go hunt game and prepare it so he may bless him. She schemes with Jacob to disguise him with lamb’s wool and a lamb stew to deceive Isaac into thinking that he is Esau and bless him. Yes, the plan is to steal Esau’s blessing. Taking the birthright was an opportunistic action. This is just plain deceitful, no matter how acceptable it might have been in matters of dynastic succession, think Game of Thrones, it is not justifiable. But the plan works, Isaac blesses Jacob. When Esau returns and discover s the ploy he is fiercely angry and promises to kill Jacob; which, of course, Rebekah over hears, and she warns Jacob and sends him off to her brother Laban, on the pretense of getting a wife, which works in part because Esau has a Hittite wife, which displeases both Rebekah and Isaac.

Rebekah watches Jacob set off on a journey that basically reverses his grandfather Abraham’s original journey. She believes it will only take “a little while” which literally means just a few days; (Schifferdecker). We will see. It will be a hard journey, with at least one night out under the stars (Ellingsen). Jacob is vulnerable, alone in dangerous territory (Schifferdecker). He is essentially banished from his family; which in those days is about the worst thing that could happen to someone. It is virtually a death sentence (Bratt).

This is also the first time Jacob appears by himself,   and it becomes a new beginning that comes to him in a dream (Fretheim). It is significant that at the moment that he is most vulnerable in his life, God appears not to judge, but to confirm that he is the one who will carry the promise (Fretheim).

I think it is a wonder that Jacob wants to or can sleep, but he does, and in his sleep, he dreams and in his dream another reality to slip into his life (Bratt). God communicating through dreams is common in Scripture   (Harrelson). Mary had a dream, Joseph had a dream, perhaps we should wish each other something more significant than sweet dreams.

Ladders are associated with judgment. Psalm 75, verse 7 reads:

It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (Butterworth).

Ladders, which are more like a ramp, or stairway (Bratt), (Harrelson) are a bi-directional connection heaven and earth (Fretheim). Think of them as a sort of divine portal; they are holy places, not built by us, but are places in time and space that are revealed by God (Gaventa and Petersen). They provide an avenue of communication between heaven and earth. Angels, the divine intermediaries, or messengers, going up and down the ladder, or stairway; their motion reveals the reality of divine – human communication. It’s interesting that in this story these messengers never speak (Fretheim). They and the ladder are another sign that we are not alone (Bratt).

In Jacob’s  dream,   the angels may not speak, but God does (Fretheim). God confirms that Jacob is the heir of the promise and the covenant and that his descendants will be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Ellingsen) a repeat of the blessing he received from his father with Isaac. Then God adds to the promise (Schifferdecker)

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.

Jacob wakes up, remembers the dream realizing that

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” awesome -! it is none other than the house of God, and the gate to heaven (NRSV Genesis 28:16-17)

He takes his pillow rock and makes it a pillar, which is a common religious symbol, then pours oil on it and names the place Bethel, which is literally beth – house and el – of God, “the house of God” (Schifferdecker), (Harrelson). You know from other stories whenever we hear something named in scripture it is a significant event, and that makes this story significant. This particular time it emphasizes the continuity between the immediate experience and the ongoing significance of receiving God’s promise. In this place, in this time, ordinary place and an ordinary rock have been divinely transformed to become a sacred symbol. Pouring oil on the rock is a form of anointing, which you know sets it apart for God’s use. It also stains the rock so that anybody who comes by can see and know it is a sacred place (Fretheim).

But I have to wonder; is all of this, that Jacob does, is it simply actions of grandeur? I wonder that because the very next thing Jacob does is to revert to his old self, as he makes an if- then bargain (Schifferdecker).

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you. (NRSV Genesis 28:20-22).

 In short,  if God keeps the promises, then I will remain loyal accepting Yahweh as his God, he will construct a sanctuary, and offer a tithe (Fretheim). It makes you wonder how or if Jacob really changed? The bargain reveals that Jacob still thinks he is on his own (Schifferdecker). It’s true Jacob’s proclamation and actions about Bethel indicate that he has moved from not knowing to knowing about God’s presence. However, his grand bargain reveals his knowing is just a little bit shallow; sort of like the shallow soil of Jesus’ parable of the sowers and the seeds.

Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that this story isn’t really about Jacob; this story is really about God. Jacob’s dream comes entirely at the initiative of God. The world continues to be a place of meetings and times, like Bethel, which dreams come in a troubled night’s sleep, and God uses both that place and that time to get through to us (Fretheim).

We intuitively know that there is a transcendent, or otherworldly, quality of God. And there is some thought that if we get to close to God we compromise the divine perfection. Jacob’s story assures us this is not so. The story assures us that God is mysteriously able to be both transcendent and awesomely present at the same time; as you hear me say the Kingdom of God is right here right now (Fretheim). The story also reveals how this interaction affects God; because from this moment on, from this story on, God self-identifies as “the Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Schifferdecker). Our relationship with God matters ~ to God and it matters for God’s presence in the world.

So, I am wondering where we might be in all this? We tend to believe that how God is present to us is how is present, should be present to everyone. It’s not true, if we read Abraham’s family story, we will see how God is present to everyone in Abraham’s family, differently. Every person has a different relationship with God.  When I was doing my work at MTS, we were discussing how God acts in the world through physical manipulation, moving molecules and stuff around, or does God work through inspiration that makes use of required human participation. I disagreed with every one of my classmates. I came to understand I didn’t need to push my argument; we understood how God acts differently because I needed to believe that God to act one way and my classmates needed to believe that God to act another way. Mysteriously, it is not a contradiction of God’s being.

A lesson from the stairway to heaven is that like Jacob, we often believe, or think, or act as if we are alone, all by ourselves (Bratt). We assume we too have to clamber up some sort of ladder to make ourselves successful. Notice, no matter the words to the song we sang, notice that Jacob never climbs the ladder; no human is on the ladder. That ladder is a pathway for the divine messengers between us and God; which is a role Jesus now permanently fills. But the ladder still assures us that we are never alone; we never have been, we never will be. We may be slow to accept God’s gracious promises to make us a blessing. We may be slow to accept that we don’t have to do this all by ourselves. We may be slow to accept God’s promise to make it for us ~ and with us. We may be just like Jacob in thinking that we are alone , he was not, God was at his campsite, and at his side forever.  And he is for us. We have our own campsites, they look like the places where we work, and they look like our homes, and they look like parks, and they look like churches, and they look like church camps. God is present in every one of those places and all sorts of other places, just as God is present in communion we are about to celebrate. We take common bread and we take we common wine and then we profess, we do not make, we do not put in, but profess that God/Jesus/Spirit is present in them. We don’t even know how it happens, we can’t even agree how it happens, but we all know that God/Jesus/Spirit is present (Bratt). The is true wherever you are, God is present.

I believe that deep – deep -deep down we know this. And it is one reason why we   value all sacred spaces; no matter where they come from, or who makes them sacred, we value all of them. We value them because they reflect one way that we are connection with God. Our experience rudely tells us that our life’s being moves up and down, and left and right, and all over the place, but in this story, we are assured that regardless of all that action God is with us. No place is forbidden to us, every place can be, ~ every place is, ~ that place where we can be certain of the God’s presence. You know those special ones, Will, just got back from one, Camp Mitchell, it is one of those thin places we deeply cherish (Fretheim). This story of Jacob nurtures our awareness of consecrated space and the certainty of our eternal relationship with God (Butterworth). It affirms that Heaven is not just connected to the earth, but is also interested in the earth; that Heaven is not just connected to us but is interested in you. God/Jesus/Spirit and angels don’t just have access to the earth, God/Jesus/Spirit wants to be involved in both your life’s circumstances, just as God is involved with Jacob’s (Bratt). None of us, I don’t think, none of us are as scheming as Jacob is; but scheming doesn’t really matter there is no divine criterion about that, but his story gives us hope that God will ~ no ~ that God has blessed us, and will continue to bless us.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 11A Genesis 28: 10-19a. 23 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Butterworth, Susan. “Stones, Wheat, and Weeds, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.” 23 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 23 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a. 23 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah is right

A Sermon for Proper 10; Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

A classmate of mine was once a caterer. Enough of her clients were from the high social circle that she has some great stories. My favorite is a lady who was jealous of the old families with long genealogies, so, she decided to have hers done. She spoke with her friends to learn how this work is done. She contacted the local library to learn who was worthy of such an enterprise. She interviewed several candidates who were willing to research her family genealogy and settled on one. She made her decision and eagerly awaited her family’s long-lost story. The final project arrived in the mail. She eagerly began looking at all the material, beginning with an amazingly detailed generational fan chart, and she was pleased to see how old her family is. Then she began reading the history. She stopped ~ suddenly ~ at an unexpected bit of family history that she’d just as soon stayed undiscovered. One of her great-great-grandfathers had been hung as a horse thief! She carefully put the beautifully bound family history on the shelf. The consequences of her great-great-grandfather’s actions would be more than her social status would bear. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago, when Sarah put Hagar and Ishmael out? Sarah is right; family squabbles interacting with God’s promise can cause troubles.

We have heard a lot of family dysfunction, recently. Abraham’s and Sarah’s impatience with God’s timing of keeping his promise of an heir, never mind the rest of it leads to the decision for Hagar to be a surrogate mom. Family troubles. On Isaac’s behalf, Sarah gets into a conflict with Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham is caught in the middle. Family troubles. You might wonder if there is some conflict between Abraham and Sarah as Abraham and Isaac set out to the mountain of offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Family troubles. Today we hear about the conflict between Esau and Jacob, that expands to be a conflict between Isaac with Rebekah as part of the conflict that Rebekah and Jacob have with Isaac and Esau. It is an important story; it is the beginning of Jacob’s story, which is about half the story in Genesis. One way we know it is important is that Israel gets her name from Jacob become Israel (Bratt).

Isaac and Rebekah have been married for 20 years but they have no children. Once again, is the promise at risk again? This time, Isaac prays, Rebekah gets pregnant, great, with twins, better yet, until they start wrestling with each other while Rebekah is still pregnant. It is unsettling and painful enough that Rebekah prays. God answers in an oracle that explains what the struggle is; that it is a sign of the future; and that it is not the results of divine action, which raises the importance of human activity (Fretheim). Her two children will be two nations; just like Isaac and Ishmael are becoming two nations. The elder will serve the younger is another example of the common Genesis theme of the selection and favoring the younger sibling over the elder siblings (Gaventa and Petersen). Again, Ishmael and Isaac set a precedent. Rebekah knows the broad shape of her children’s and her future.

Her twins are born. The first, named Esau, is all red which is a word play on ‘Edom’ the nation Esau’s descendants become. He is also hairy, “se’ar,” the Hebrew for hair, is a word play on “Seir” (se’ir) which is where Esau eventually settles (Gaventa and Petersen). Jacob, the second child is born holding onto Esau’s heel.    ‘Jacob’ come from the same word root as “heel”, and also “to supplant” or displace and also to “cheat”. The boys grow up to be what their names imply and as different as their names imply (Fretheim). Esau enjoys the outdoors and is a skilled hunter.   Jacob is a quiet man, who prefers tents to the open range. Genesis tells us that   ). This family relationship structure established the relationships that lead to the conflict to come (Fretheim) . You can see how this family dispute is similar to the dispute around Ismael and Isaac (Fretheim).

The next story is the first of the continuing conflicts that define Esau’s and Jacob’s relationship. We shall see in the weeks to come how many relationships that dispute affects. You remember the story. Esau comes back from hunting and is really hungry.   Jacob is cooking some red stuff; probably Lentil soup (Bratt). True to his name Jacob take advantage of the situation. Unlike Abraham, he does not show generous hospitality; although he does cover his legal bases (Fretheim). Is this about Jacob stealing or is this story about Esau’s distaining his birthright (Bratt, Richter)? Why would he distain his birthright? It gives him two-thirds  of his father’s estate. But it also comes with the responsibility of leadership (Fretheim).

On this point, Scripture is silent   We do know Esau is ravenous, all he can think about is filling his hunger. We also know the conflict grows. It defines their lives and the lives of their descendants (Harrelson). Esau is the father of the Edomites, who were enemies with all of Israel’s Kings (Sakenfeld). Not unlike Ishmael’s descendants the Ishmaelites who also skirmished with Israel often, but occasionally were Israel’s ally (Sakenfeld).

The last phrase of this story is powerfully revealing; it framed around the verbs ate, drank, rose, departed, and despised. It reveals that perhaps Esau realizes his lapse in judgment is more significant than it appears (Fretheim) . There is no question that Jacob took advantage of his brother. His actions were legal, but not an act of hospitality. There is also no question that Esau bears a responsibility for his indiscretion (Fretheim). Stepping back, we can see that both are guilty. Jacob ignores the expectations of hospitality and his familial responsibility and sets in motion a family conflict that will last generations and threatens God’s promise to Abraham. Esau is careless, neglects the responsibility of his birthright, and conceivably sets aside God’s call for the sake of convenience (Fretheim). You are justified is wondering why God would choose either Esau or Jacob to be heirs of the divine promise and covenant.  Then again, God always seems to choose human weakness over human strength (Fretheim).

Two quick asides before exploring some of the depths of family dimensions of all this. First, in the Oracle response to Rebekah’s prayer, God reveals the future of the promise and the covenant.    We would expect that to be given to Isaac. It may suggest God is more confident in Rebekah than Isaac. I suspect it is another example of God turning things upside down, by empowering women as much as empowering men. And it is an example of God’s response to prayer, not by creating the twins’ temperament, but by explaining to Rebekah what is going on.

The second aside is, there is a strong caution here for anyone who believes that they are among God’s elect. As one of God’s chosen, it is easy to justify Jacob’s actions as consistent with following God’s will. This is dangerous thinking. It can lead to justifying acting as we please because we say it is God’s will (Fretheim). At times, I wonder just how common this behavior is in today’s religious and political driven conflicts; and I am talking about conflicts within the United States.

Now, what about the family dynamics in all this?  In Exodus (20:5), Numbers (14:18) and Deuteronomy (5:9) we hear that God punishes three or four generations for the iniquity of parents, or who reject me. We hear from Ezekiel (18:20)

A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

These appear to be conflicting statements; however, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make it clear our actions have lasting consequences, And Ezekiel reminds us the grace of God is always present and therein has lasting consequences.

How we deal with conflict, our behavior in general, in our families, business, friendships, community and/or church makes a difference, it has lasting consequences. We will see over the next several weeks how this continuing family conflict emerges in different forms; we will see how these conflicts shape the Oracle, the Promise, and the Covenant of God. God is faithful and always present. Our daily lives, including conflicts, interact with, and can be influenced by God’s presence; they also interact with and influence the shape God’s promise takes, in a moment in time, and over time, with lasting consequences.

Sarah’s solution is not so thoughtful; however, she is right family conflict is a dangerous thing that can influence how we and others experience God’s presence. The socialite reminds us that the behavior of our ancestors may not always be what we believe or want them to be; and that while they are influential, they are not definitive. There are other forces influencing our personal, social, political, and economic lives, including the ever-present grace of God; i t is influential in time and forever.

 


 

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 10 A Genesis 25: 19-34. 16 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 16 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 16 7 2017.

Richter, Amy. “The Good Sower, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 16,” 16 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34. 23 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

Living a love song

A Sermon for Proper 9; Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

 

There’s a wren in a willow wood
Flies so high and sings so good
And he brings to you what he sings to you
Like my brother, the wren and I
Well, he told me if I try, I could fly for you
And I wanna try for you ’cause

I wanna sing you a love song
I wanna rock you in my arms all night long
I wanna get to know you
I wanna show you the peaceful feelin’ of my home

Summer thunder on moon-bright days
Northern lights and skies ablaze
And I bring to you, lover, when I sing to you
Silver wings in a fiery sky
Show the trail of my love and I
Sing to you, love is what I bring to you
And I wanna sing to you, oh

I wanna sing you a love song
I wanna rock you in my arms all night long
I wanna get to know you
I wanna show you the peaceful feelin’ of my home


In a culture where all marriages are arranged, why would anyone introduce the story of Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah with a love song, never mind one titled “A Love Song.” But, maybe I’m more creative than my choice of songs; let’s see.

Sarah has died at 127; Isaac is all grown up, but is not yet married; at 136 Abraham yet again, ponders if God’s promise is at risk. So, he tells his servant to pack up, go back to the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, his home and find his son a wife from his father’s family, really his father’s home town. He takes ten camels loaded with gifts and heads off on the first impossible mission. I mean what desirable young lady would leave her father and mother, her friends, and move all the way across the dessert to marry a man she has never met, even if he is supposedly the son of one of her father’s relatives, who’s been gone for 136 years. But, she may not have had a choice, in these ancient days all marriages were arranged, and if the bride price is right, well (Schifferdecker, Fretheim). Ten camels can carry a big bride price.

Abraham’s servant gets to the village. Now what? Where would you start? Abraham’s servant starts in prayer, asking God for a clear sign of who Isaac’s future’s bride is. He is bold enough, or trusting enough, to name the sign: the woman will offer him something to drink, and also water the camels (Bratt, Schifferdecker). Almost immediately a young lady does exactly what he asked. And it is a bigger task than you think, each of these ten camels can drink 20 to 30 gallons of water; that comes to 200 to 300 gallons of water, from a pitcher (Schifferdecker, Genesis)! Reminds me of the thousand plus bottles of wine Jesus produces at that wedding in Canna. Both are signs of abundance. When the servant asks who she is, and if they have room for a guest she gives her father’s name and also invites him to stay. The servant immediately gives praise and witness to God (Schifferdecker, Genesis).

At Rebekah’s home, after proper introductions, the servant tells Rebekah’s father and brother the whole complex story. A deal is agreed to. In the morning, there is a customary attempt at delay; this leads to Rebekah being asked if she chooses to leave now or later. Showing the same courage as Abraham does all those years ago, she chooses to go now. Her mother and brother bless her:

May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.” (Genesis 24:60).

which is very similar blessing to what Abraham receives when he left home (Gen. 12:3, Harrelson). Then Rebekah heads off to her new life.

As they approach Abraham’s camp, Rebekah looks up and sees Isaac walking in a field. She slips off, the literal translation is she falls off, (Schifferdecker, Genesis). her camel, before she even knows who he is. It’s starting to sound like a love song.

And you know what? We have heard two this morning; the one cleverly titled A Love Song and the other a poem from Song of Solomon. Yes, there are love songs in the bible. They are about silly, frivolous young people going all starry-eyed over each other (Hoezee). They are full of lush and sometimes sensual imagery you don’t think about being in the Bible, but they are there (Schifferdecker, Song). And even if the couple is all playful and lighthearted, the poems’ message is a significant revelation of the divine vision of human love and relationships. The poems revel an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship. The couple express their love for each other’s physical bodies, which are beautiful and beloved, no matter how Greek thinking influenced early Christian thinking (Gafney). The couple declares their exclusive affection of their mutual belonging My beloved is mine and I am his. (v. 16) The poetic riddles and references to foxes and vineyards divulge that they belong together; they belong to each other (Weems). The poetry in Song of Solomon describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality – loyalty and like-mindedness; the couple is faithful to each other, they have eyes for no other (Weems).

The poems frame the life God desires for every couple. It is the life Isaac and Rebekah have before them. Although it gets all caught up in tents, and Sarah’s death, we should not overlook that this story specifically says Isaac loves Rebekah. We hear from both Genesis and Song of Solomon that

Life in God’s good creation involves more than divine promises and religious practice; it includes such creational gifts as the love two people can share (Fretheim). But the gleaning is more than this.

These stories reveal a depth of divine presence in ordinary life, like falling in love, or setting out to accomplish your bosses impossible mission.

So just what do these stories say about God in everyday life? God is never mention, but is always present in the poems of Song of Solomon. Although invoked by Abraham, his servant, and Rebekah’s family, God does not speak, and God does not intervene. God’s will is discerned in prayer and observation. God’s presence and love is seen in human actions. The servant’s model is: to prepare, pray, wait, watch; and then to be quick in praising God and witnessing to those around you. The servant knows the boundaries of whose job is what; he does what he can and then leaves the rest to God (Schifferdecker, Genesis). Notice how God’s presence does not diminish the servant’s ability to do as Abraham asks; God’s presence enables him to be an active divine partner in healing the world, in making the world whole (Epperly). by taking this one next step in fulfilling the divine promise.

These stories show us that divine love and human love are not mutually exclusive. They show us how human love, at its best, can be a glimpse, a reflection, of God’s love for all of us (Schifferdecker, Song). It is what we see in the servant’s actions. It is what we see in Isaac’s loving Rebekah. These stories also show us that interpersonal relationships, like person to divine relations, must be cultivated, nurtured, safeguarded, and cherished. Take your beloved on a date. Later, take your kids on a special outing. Observe Sabbath, keep your one on one time with God; and whatever works for you, works for you; being with God is far more important than the form that takes. Also come to church, and share your personal and divine relationship stories with each other. Your neighbors need to hear yours and you need to hear your neighbors’ stories, for all sorts of reasons. And by the way, coming to church is not the same as Sabbath; church is community time, Sabbath is just you and God. And while you are at it, make sure your kids and your neighbors witness you nurturing your love it will teach them to nurture the love they share.

At work, or at play or with family, or at church, Mark Zuckerberg notwithstanding, all the world is relationship, and all relationships, just as does all creation, need tending. The servant’s model of prepare, pray, wait, and watch works. But I have suspicion it is all the better when prepare, pray, wait, and watch sounds like a love song.

Amen


References

Bowron, Joshua. “Taking on Jesus’ Yoke, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A).” 9 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Bratt, Doug. 5th Sunday after Pentecost Genesis 24:34-38,. 9 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 9 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 9 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gafney, Wil. Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13. 9 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. 5th Sunday after Pentecost Song of Solomon 2:8-13 . 9 7 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-. 9 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Weems, Renita J. Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections Song of Songs. Vol. III. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

 

Seeing

A Sermon for Proper 8: Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

Some months ago, Angie and I cut the cord, the TV cord. We just were not watching live TV; we were streaming all sorts of stuff. We enjoy seeing our favorites shows a second and sometimes 3rd time. We watch these shows differently; we know what’s happening, which lets us hear with different ears. Recently we were watching a BBC murder mystery, and I heard a musical phrase that sounded like a musical phrase from one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan movies. Curious. We see with different eyes; as an example, the facial expressions of a character in the background, that gives you a clue to what’s happening; it was all there the first time, but our attention was else were because it’s how the scene was designed. It is a Yogi Berra said, “Deja-vu all over again.”

As I was reading this week’s lesson from Genesis, I could hear familiar phrases. In my imagination, I was seeing familiar scenes. I just knew we had been here before.

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is far more and far less than what we read into it. It is highly disturbing to many readers today, in a culture that is rightly concerned about child abuse. There are some commentators who think the story is an argument against similar ancient practices. However, one commentary says such a reading runs the risk of being too narrow (Harrelson).

So, what I want to do is walk through the story, pay attention to what is written, and what is not written, what context knowledge helps us understand, and what the déjà vu phrases are.

God calls Abraham and tells him

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you (Genesis 22:2).

Remember Genesis was written while Israel is in exile in Babylon, as was much of the first five books of the Old Testament. This means the readers know about Exodus and the events after Israel’s escape from Egypt including God’s demand that the firstborn of all humans or animals shall be God’s (Exod 13:1) as a remembrance of God’s actions; and how God also provides for their redemption, how they can be released or reclaimed (Fretheim). It is true Abraham doesn’t know this; however, the writers and the first audience do; and oh yes – so do we.

In what God tells Abraham is the phrase Take, go to the land of Moriah, that I shall show you (Genesis 22:2). It is very similar to Abraham’s call Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1). This Abraham does know, and after these 100 plus years, he will remember, because it is the beginning of his extraordinary journey with God. The meaning of ‘Moriah’ is connected to seeing (NISB). File that away.

The next verse begins Abraham rose early in the morning (Genesis 22:3) Wait didn’t we just hear that last week? We did. Sarah tells Abraham to throw Ishmael and Hagar out of the camp, which is the middle of the wilderness, and that ensures their death, which greatly distresses Abraham. However, God assures him Ishmael and Hagar will be okay. The very next verse begins So Abraham rose early in the morning (Genesis 21:14). If we are aware of the parallels between the beginning of Ishmael’s and Isaac’s story, surely Abraham is; after all, both are his sons.

On the third day of their journey to the mountain, Abraham sees the place far away and tells his young men Wait while the boy and I go to mountain and sacrifice, then we will come back. Another link to Ishmael is that Abraham refers to him as the boy the only way Ishmael is referred to in the story of his banishment. Yes, it puts distance between Abraham and Isaac, possibly a foreboding sign. At the same time Ishmael is safe, so perhaps it is a hopeful sign. And note the phrase ends then we will come back. “WE will come back.” not “I will come back.” There is no indication here that Abraham does not expect to return with Isaac. It is true he may have been hiding something from his servants, but he could have just said: “Wait here.” Also file away the meaning of ‘Moriah’ which is the place Abraham sees far away.

Isaac and Abraham walk for a time when Isaac observers that they have everything they need for a sacrifice except for a lamb. A couple of things. How old is Isaac? He is old enough to carry a load of firewood. He is old enough to be knowledgeable about sacrificial rituals. Is he as old as Ishmael, 16 or so? Or perhaps he is about 12 the same age when Jesus goes with his parents to the Temple for the first time. Or is he older? We can’t know, but it is curious; because even at 12 I suspect he could escape his 112-year-old father. I’m not even sure how old Abraham is n0w, could be 125 or older. Anyway, Isaac could get away when Abraham tries to tie him up when they get to where they are going (Gaventa and Petersen).

Another thing to know is when Isaac asks about the lamb Abraham answers God will provide. An avoidance? Possibly, except that ‘provide’ is literally “see about it” (Harrelson). This is the second of five times a form of “see” appears in this story. Seeing maybe a pivotal theme.

They get to the place God has shown Abraham. Abraham builds the altar, lays out the wood, and then binds Isaac. This is where Isaac’s age raises the interesting question, of trust. Regardless of Abraham’s mixed past behaviors, in general, Abraham trusts God. He knows Ishmael flourishes after he abandons him and Hagar wilderness, in part with God’s assurance. He trusted God enough all those years ago to leave behind everything that provides security and meaning to go to an unknown place on the word of an unknown god. Basically, Abraham trusts God. Does Isaac trust God because Abraham does and therefore he does not resist being bound? Or is Isaac simply a willing sacrifice (Gaventa and Petersen)? Again, all we know is that Isaac is bound.

Abraham takes the knife to ‘kill’ Isaac. The word translated ‘kill’ is customarily used to indicate the slaughter of sacrificial animals (Harrelson) (Genesis 22:10), which keeps us in a holy state of mind unless of course, you are the sacrifice. God does not waste time immediately calling Abraham and commanding him not to harm the boy. Again, the impersonal language raises the possibility of a connection to Ishmael. Immediately Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket; which is exactly what happens with Hagar who does not see the well until she answers God’s call. The well was already there. The ram was already there. Neither could see clearly, and then they did. How many times have you been taking one path, until God/Jesus/Spirit showed you the true path? God/Jesus/Spirit helps us to see.

Our reading ends

 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided (NRSV) Genesis 22:14;

or

So Abraham called that place “The Lord will see”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” (Genesis 22:14).

These are the last two references to ‘seeing.’

There are commentaries worth of discussion about what is going on between God, Abraham, and Isaac in these verses. I know, I’ve read a few. But what I’m drawn to this morning is seeing, specifically, divinely enabled seeing. We live in a world divided in many – many ways. Everywhere you look ~ or listen ~ multiple voices or visions are thrust in your direction. There is a vision of manifest destiny proclaiming our right to take what we want. God/Jesus/Spirit vision enables us to see the blessings that are already showered upon us; we don’t have to take, just accept (Lose). There is the latest NRA ad that proclaims I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place (Bertrand). It separates us into warring camps saying one is using violence against the other and implies that the NRA is the only safe place. The shooting in Little Rock doesn’t help. It frightens people, sets us to looking for safe places. It’s an example of how we use violence to settle casual disagreements. God/Jesus/Spirit enables us to see that whatever separates us from each other separates us from God and is, therefore, sin (Epperly). God/Jesus/Spirit empowers a radical welcoming that is part inclusion, part reciprocity, part hospitality, part doing for others and part including the stranger as neighbor (Blasdell). God/Jesus/Spirit sees. God/Jesus/Spirit provides.

All of us are challenged to discern what is false from what is divine. That discernment does not appear out of nowhere. For both Hagar and Abraham the ability to see, or hear, the truth comes from an abiding trust in God. For Isaac, and perhaps Ishmael, trust begins with witnessing Abraham trusting God all his young life.

So, this morning, I think we are left with two takeaways; if you want to see clearly begin looking by trusting in God/Jesus/Spirit to guide you. And oh, by the way, it may be a roundabout journey, how long has Abraham’s journey been? Secondly, if you want someone else to see clearly, witness your trust in God/Jesus/Spirit. Then trust God/Jesus/Spirit.

As we prepare to celebrate our political independence clear seeing for all will begin the process of healing divisions and nurturing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Amen

 


 

References

Bertrand, Natasha. “A chilling National Rifle Association ad gaining traction.” 29 6 2017. businessinsider.com. <businessinsider.com /national-rifle-association-ad-call-to-violence-2017-6>.

Blasdell, Machrina. “Whom Ought I Welcome?, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.” 2 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 2 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Matthew 10:40-42. 2 7 2017.

Kiel, Micah. Commentary on Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. God Said Yes to Me. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 4 A: “Even”! 2 7 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 22:114. 2 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.