Sunday, July 27, 2014

No Task is Simple

Genesis 29

We would be well served to remember that seldom is something as simple as it appears. You would think once Jacob encountered God, the rest of his life would be smooth sailing. Jacob had this promise, “I will be with you always.” As mentioned last week this is a promise that continues to live on today. But this promise does not guarantee privilege nor does the promise begin to suggest our lives will no longer be complicated.
Jacob left Bethel convinced that the answers to all his problems lay before not behind him. His plan was to find his uncle Laban, offer to work for room and board, find a wife and eventually go back home to claim all that was his. It seemed like a reasonable plan. Jacob felt sure that God endorsed the plan. All Jacob had to do was keep out of trouble, work hard, and reap the benefits of his labor. But nothing is a simple as it might first appear.
The first thing Jacob did on arriving in the Land of Haran was to fall in love. The children of Abraham seemed to always fall in love with the first woman they met and Jacob was no different. Jacob stopped at a well to ask for directions and there he met the daughter of his uncle. I know, this seems a little creepy but remember the primary intention of the Biblical message is not to be a handbook on sexual ethics. Sexual customs recorded in scripture usually reflected the cultural mores, an observation often lost on us as we pick and choose what we use in our present debates over sexuality.
But I ramble. Let’s return to the story. Jacob fell in love. Worse than that, Jacob fell in love head over heels. Nothing was going to deter him from marrying the woman of his dreams and taking her home. Being a proper gentleman, he introduced himself to Laban by saying, “Hi, I’m Jacob, the son of your sister, the grandson of Abraham. I will do anything to obtain the hand of your daughter Rachel.”
Laban, remembering his first encounter with the sons of Abraham must have thought, “Where is the livestock? Where the gold I received for my sister Rebekah? Does this fool think I will give away my daughter for nothing?”
Laban responded, “Son, you seem to be traveling a bit light. You have nothing to offer for my daughter. What about we agree to you working seven years for me? At the end of the seven years my daughter is yours.”
 I guess Jacob figured he had waited all his life for the birthright so what was another seven years. An agreement was reached and Jacob got to work.
You know the story. At the end of seven years it was time for a celebration. Jacob was drunk with joy and perhaps a little too much wine. How else can one explain the situation in which he found himself? Jacob went through the ceremony, the celebratory party went deep into the night, and the newly wedded couple had completed all the rituals necessary to consummate the marriage before the young man realized his new wife was not his beloved Rachel but her older sister Leah. This story has all the makings of a bad country western song.
Jacob woke up both confused and furious, but mostly furious. He got out of bed, ran straight to Leban’s tent and demanded an explanation. Unfortunately for Jacob, Laban had prepared for the moment. The father of the bride lamented that when he and Jacob had struck their bargain, how could he possibly have known his oldest daughter would still be unwed. It would have been improper for the younger to marry before the older. But now that Leah had been wed, the way was clear for Rachel to marry. There was only one slight problem. What did Jacob bring to pay for the honor of taking such fine young woman as his wife? And with that explanation, the seven year cycle began again.
Jacob had his mind set on only one thing. He wanted to be the proud husband of Rachel. Of course Leban was equally determined to marry off all his daughters and make a profit in return. Life is never about just the desires of one person.  Each of us has a path we seem destined to follow and often that path is complicated by personal intersections that easily become roadblocks. Further complicating life are the others we encounter such as Rachel and Leah? Should their dreams be dismissed? How does each person’s narrative fit into the telling of life’s story?
Last week I participated in the building of a ramp. Eighteen Presbyterians from various churches in the Charlottesville area traveled to SW Virginia to spend a week working in one of the poorest sections of our nation. Sarah and I represented Rockfish. Once we arrived our group was divided in half and given a task. My group went to a local community center and was asked to repair a handicap ramp that provided the only entrance to the building. The door was more than six feet above ground level.  There are government requirements on how rapidly a ramp can descend.  The previous ramp met none of those regulations. That proved to be the least of our problems.
Each member of our group brought a narrative, a history, that would play a major role in the success or failure of our project. This was particular evident at the top where our leadership was divided among three qualified yet headstrong individuals. Each had a plan and none of those plans had any clear lines of intersections.  Each had built a ramp as an addition to their private homes. But none of those ramps had started six feet above ground. The first day our group might as well have been six feet under.   
  Our leadership consisted of a retired engineer who owned the majority of the tools, an environmental engineer who had considerable experience in Southwest Virginia, and a retired Colonel who promoted himself to General by the end of the first day. Each of the three was determined that the daunting task would be completed by the end of the week. Each of the three had a heart filled with gold, but each of the three forgot why we were there.  Sometimes when we feel we are called by God, much like Jacob felt he was called by God, we forget there are parallel stories reminding us why God put us in that a particular place.
The first day was a mess. One leader wanted to restore the old ramp, one leader wanted to start from scratch and other leader tried to find some sort of compromise. The rest of us stood around waiting for the gang of three to come to some sort of peaceful resolution. I am proud to say one of our own, Sarah, took that time to meet some of the folks in the community and got them to share their stories. Thanks to Sarah, it became clear to the majority of our leadership that we weren’t there to build a ramp. We were there to build a bridge between two distinctively different cultures.  We were there to celebrate the incredible impact a woman named Sherry was having on a town that had lost hope long before the mine closed. We were there to be inspired by Wayne, a man stricken with cerebral palsy from birth. We were there to let Ernie, a difficult person to like, explain to us what kind of ramp the community center could really use. We were there to let Max, a five year old boy, hand us screws. We were there to be reminded that trusting folks begins when we listen each other’s stories. A by-product of those stories was a very stable ramp built by folks from the Charlottesville area and the village of Clinchco.
Through my years of ministry I have been involved in multiple mission projects. I continue to question if these efforts “in foreign lands” make a difference. We certainly feel good about our efforts. We almost always structurally leave the place better than we found it. We claim to have made new friends. But as we drive off in our convertibles, our BMW’s and our Mercedes, the truth is one week will not change their economic plight nor has any of my “one week” experiences altered my views on how my lifestyle choices might be impacting the friends I left behind.
Jacob and Laban had conflicting ideas on what was best for Rachel and Leah.  Jacob felt his choices were justified because he was doing the will of God. Leban felt his actions were warranted because he was doing what was right for his family. Neither thought to ask Rachel or Leah what they thought. In the end the children of Rachel and the children of Leah grew up hating each other.  Is that really what God had in mind?     
Let us continue to be a church defined by our compassion and generosity. Let us continue to be a church inspired by God’s calling to do acts of justice. But let’s make sure our ears are as open as our hearts. We might be surprised to find out who God uses to speak to us.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Searchng for Grace

Genesis 28:10-19a

         A line in one of my favorite songs is, “I’ve been searching for grace and grace ain’t so easily found.” Jacob could have written that line. The son of Isaac and the grandson Abraham should have been the son of destiny. He should have had the road paved and the wind at his back. But nothing was easy for Jacob. He was born a moment too late. That minute cost him the privileges that could have naturally been his. He was sixty seconds from being the king. Instead, he was destined to always be a contender.
        Last week we talked about how Jacob decided to take destiny into his own hands. I have to admit he showed initiative. The misfortune of being born second was not going to stop Jacob from securing what was supposed to be his. No one, not an older brother, and certainly not an aging father were going to keep Jacob from being the head of the family. He schemed and succeeded. The birthright and the blessing were his. All Jacob lacked was a place to lie down and peacefully sleep. But a peaceful rest was the last thing Jacob was about to experience.
        Am I the only one here who has trouble sleeping at night when something is eating at me?  Maybe that is just a Southern white male thing? During the day we Southern men proudly stick out our chest and dare anyone to knock the chip off our shoulder. But at night, when we are captive to the intense scrutiny of our thoughts, our insecurities begin to rise. Pride, our last bastion of defense, crumbles away exposing our fears and anxieties. Jacob, for all his scheming in the sunlight, struggled to make it through the night. He had sold his soul for a birth right and it was about to catch up with him. Jacob was going down to the crossroads and he wasn’t going there to meet Robert Johnson.
        Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) has just released a new CD called Trouble and Love.  It is so dark you had better turn the lights on if you are going to give it a listen. She might have been thinking about Jacob when she wrote,
       When you sell your soul, it opens a deep dark hole;
When you sell your soul, drink will leave you thirsty,
                             And fire will leave you cold.

        Jacob lay down to sleep and that is when his mind began to churn 1,000 miles an hour. Jacob is not the first person to suffer from insomnia. I suspect guilt is not the only thing that keeps us awake. Sometimes it is a problem that seems to have no solution. Sometimes it is a relationship that has gone sideways. Sometimes we worry about our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are perplexed by the unknown. Our world is filled with such complexities and at night, when there are no chores to finish and no games to play, our anxieties flood our brain just when we are so desperate for sleep. But no sleep is forthcoming. The next morning we awake but are not refreshed. Jacob was about to have one of those nights.
        Jacob had a dream of a ladder that extended into the heavens. Many of us have been singing about that ladder most of our life. Because of that song we may have lost the intention of the story. Jacob, conflicted, tired and lonely lay down on the hard ground. With his mind churning, he imagined a ramp opening out of the heavens. Contrary to the words of the song, Jacob was not about to do any climbing that night. God was the one on the ladder and God descended down the ladder to have a word with Jacob.  Jacob had tricked his brother, Jacob had deceived his father. He had run away from home and showed hardly any remorse. Can you imagine what was going on in his head when God Almighty decided it was time to pay him a call?
        In the age that Jacob lived, gods did not make social calls. Should a god appear, usually it meant something really bad was going to happen. A thunderstorm was understood as the anger of God. A whirlwind depicted the rage of God. Jacob looked up and figured this was going to be the last night he spent on earth. Then two extraordinary things happened. God spoke, not through the fire or the fiery wind but with words. Second, the words God spoke were not condemning but rather words of comfort.
        In the days of Jacob, the relationship between the gods and humans was basically a one way street. Humans were created to be at the disposal of the gods. People believed wars were actually games played by the gods and humans were no more than pawns in these celestial competitions. In the cultures surrounding Israel, specifically Egypt, Babylon and Syria, their gods had no relations with humans unless humanity sought them out, usually to beg for mercy. Some of the great stories from those traditions depict the quest of one man climbing a mountain or traversing a great sea in search of either a blessing or forgiveness.
        But in the Jewish tradition the relationship between God and humans was far different. True, the God of Sinai had high expectations but this God also cared and protected these wayward souls. Nowhere in the Old Testament tradition is this more obvious that the story of Jacob and the ladder. In case you were sleeping let remind you what has happened. God is descending to Jacob. God is going to have a personal conversation with Jacob. And unbelievably, God is about to tell this no good wretch of a man that God will watch after him and be with him no matter what.
        This radical concept is one I fear we now take for granted. We hardly think twice about laying our burdens upon the Lord. Unfortunately, when nothing happens, often our next response is to question the very existence of God. The One who understands anguish better than any of us is pushed from our consciousness as we begin to travel a new road……...alone. And that is sad.
        An old Jewish fable tells of a Rabbi who concluded human suffering was beyond endurance. He went to heaven and knocked at the Messiah’s gate. “    What is taking you so long? Human kind is expecting you.”
        The messiah answered, “It is not me they are expecting. Some want good health and riches. Others desire serenity of riches. Many want peace at home and happiness. It is not me they are awaiting.”
        The rabbi cried, “But you are bread for those who are hungry. You are a voice for an old man without an heir. You are sleep for those who fear the night. You are the truth that rarely is told. You are hope for those have nothing. If you can’t understand that, then stay here. You are not what humanity really needs.”
        The Rabbi came back to earth, gathered his disciples around him and forbid them to despair. “Now”, he said, “the real waiting begins.”
        We who live on this side of the resurrection of Christ have based much of our religious beliefs on the concept of the Messiah. He is the one who has redeemed, he is the one who has saved and he is the one who offers life everlasting. New Christians revel in those promises. We older Christians look at our situation or perhaps we look at the world, and too often we ask, “God, what have you done for me lately?”
        Perhaps we need to return to the story of Jacob. Perhaps we need to hear the words spoken to the wayward son. Perhaps we need to be reminded the promise God gave was, “I will be with you.”
        Remember when Jesus was on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.  The waves were crashing against the boat and the disciples were afraid for their lives. With a word, Jesus calmed the waves and said, “I will be with you.”
        Remember when Jesus was talking with the disciples recorded in the 14 chapter of John. He told them he was leaving. The disciples responded with utter anxiety. Jesus said, “Don’t worry, I will be with you.”
        Remember Jesus hanging on the cross, moments from death. One of the criminals turned and made a dying confession to which Jesus responded, “I will be with you.”
        Remember the words of Paul who in that monumental 8th chapter of Romans summed up the very essence of grace by stating, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God will be with us.”
        Sometimes the search for grace is difficult because we expect to find an elixir that will eliminate all our problems, all our confusion and all our pain. That is not the way grace works. Instead we are promised that in the midst of our problems, in the midst of our confusion, even in the midst of our pain, God will be with us.
        Many years after Jacob’s first midnight encounter with God, a young man was hiding out in the caves below the city of Jerusalem. The King declared him a traitor and there was a bounty placed on his head. David had been pulled into the intrigue of the court by an old man who had anointed him and by a giant that proved to be less than a capable adversary. But David’s popularity challenged the ego of the deranged King Saul and the young poet was banned from court. Alone and frightened, David prayed and then be began to write his own answer to that prayer. Using words that mirrored his former occupation David wrote a song that is been imbedded in the hearts of all believers.
        God is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
        God leads me to still water and restores my soul.
        I will not fear even as I walk in the darkness,
        for God is with me.
        Even if I am among enemies God prepares a table.
        Surely grace will be upon me as I dwell in God’s house
        all the length of my days.

Jacob got up the next morning. There was no great reversal of his sins Truth is there will be seldom be a great reversal of the pain and anxiety with which we live. But Jacob took the first step toward a new life knowing he would never be alone.
        And neither will we.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Most Scandalous Story

Genesis 25:19-34

        A quote from the Midrash; “Like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob was chosen by God. But God did not hold him close.”
        We continue our stroll through the book of Genesis with a story of deceit, craftiness and lies. It is our introduction to one of the most compelling figures in all of The Bible. Jacob both delights and repulses us as we are drawn to his mischievous spirit like a moth to a flame. Jacob is dangerous, Jacob is self-serving, and Jacob is the one chosen to continue the line that runs from Abraham to Mount Sinai. I wonder when Moses was chiseling out the sacred commandments if he thought to himself, “I believe Jacob broke every one of these.”
        As often happens in the Old Testament, the story begins in barrenness. Rebekah, the wife chosen for Isaac is unable to have children. Walter Brueggemann wants us to pause and carefully note the sacred significance of birth within the family of Abraham. He writes, “Other families are free to invent and govern their own future. But this family is marked by the promise of an unexpected gift. This promise requires an end to certitude and an embrace of instability. Any pretence that the family is in charge is a deception.”
With this thought we wade right into the story of the lost birthright. In the culture of Isaac, family security was based on a time honored pecking order which radically favored the first born. Societies found great solace in the establishment of rules and regulations which helped to determine a sense of stability within that society. The first born was granted both the family blessing and the birthright.  Each established who would be in charge of the family fortune. With Isaac’s wealth, this would be quite a financial windfall. But something bigger than the claim of a few acres of land was transpiring. When Isaac prays for a son, he is not just praying for an heir. Isaac is praying for the continuation of a holy promise. Isaac is relinquishing any claim on the one that God delivers. If there had been only one son, God’s claim and societies expectations might have existed simultaneously. But Rebekah was pregnant with twins, marking the beginning of a lifelong conflict.
        Many of my heroes come from that long list of men and women who have consciously made the decision to transgress against the laws of society because they were called by God to observe a holier directive. Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonheoffer and Dorothy Day were not without flaws. But basically they were good, descent folks following a holy and often dangerous mandate to perform unselfish acts of justice and compassion. Jacob, the second born, possessed none of these qualities and yet Jacob, the second born, is the one called by God to fulfill the covenant made with Abraham. What on earth did God see in Jacob?
        The story tells us Jacob and Esau began fighting in the womb.  Esau was the first born but Jacob was holding on to his brother’s ankle at birth. All his life Jacob wanted to be first but in birth and in life Jacob was physically too small to overcome his brother. Esau became hunter; Jacob became the gardener. Esau would pick up his bow and dash into the woods. He was motivated by the thrill of the hunt. Jacob planted seeds and waited. The hunt might last a couple of days but the harvest took an entire season. Jacob the schemer learned a valuable lesson that served him well.  Jacob the schemer developed patience.
        When the time was right, Jacob began to cook a pot of stew. Slowly he allowed the soup to develop that distinctive flavor which only comes when one is patient enough to allow each ingredient to celebrate its uniqueness. Jacob sat, waiting for the aroma and the moment to intersect.   His patience was rewarded when both the soup and his brother came to a boil. Home from a long hunt, Esau was drawn to the smells that dominated the camp sight.
        “Little brother, I am famished. Give me a bowl of whatever it is you are cooking.”
        “Dinner is still a couple of hours away. You can wait just like the rest of us.”
        “I will be dead in two hours. I know the soup is ready. What’s wrong with me eating now?”
        “If you want to eat now, it will cost you.”
        “Anything you ask. Just quit talking and start serving.”
        “You can have all the soup you want if you will give me your birthright.”
        “My birthright! What kind of deal is that?
        “It is the only one on the table.”
        Esau, intoxicated by the aroma of the stew threw his hands up in the air and declared, “What good is my birthright if I am dead before dinner? I still have the blessing.”
        Patience won the day, just as it would years later when Jacob was trying to win the hand of Rachael from his Uncle Leban. But that is another story. As this legend is shared by Jacob’s descendents who are held captive in Babylon, the lesson to be learned is Israel might be small, Israel might be second-rate, Israel might even be in exile, but those who wait on the Lord can trust in the sureness of God’s promise.
        If we stop here and acknowledge that Esau had a major role in his own demise, maybe we could live with Jacob. But the boy was just getting started. With the birthright in his back pocket, Jacob schemes for the whole enchilada. How hard could it be to trick an old man into bestowing the family blessing upon his younger son? In this case, it was easier than one might imagine. It is as if Isaac knew what was happening and simply got out of the way. Still, we don’t particularly care for our heroes stealing candy from babies or committing fraud against someone who is on their way to the nursing home. As much as we want to like Jacob, his priorities kept destroying his family. He acquired both the birthright and the blessing but could use neither. Jacob ended up having to flee for his life. Conventional wisdom suggests this is the kind of trouble you run into when you step outside the mores of an established culture. Godly wisdom would suggest that God works mysterious wonders even when the chosen display no Godly qualities.
        Our New Testament reading from the book of Romans claims, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ for they have been set free from the law of sin and death.”
        Was the story of Jacob an early encounter with the grace of God? That would mean the resurrection of Christ was the public demonstration of what God had been doing all along? God has always condemned sin. But could Jacob be an example of how God’s grace has always been part of the human equation? Follow the story. In the coming weeks we shall see God never stopped loving Jacob and Jacob never stopped trusting completely in himself. And yet God eventually blesses Jacob and gives him the name Israel. Translated it means, “The one with which God wrestled.”
        How appropriate! Who among us does not find ourselves in some form of wrestling match with God? Our existence is difficult and uncertain. Often in desperation or even self-preservation we dare claim privileges over life and death as if OUR birthright is our most prized possession.
        Then, like Jacob, we are forced to stare into the wilderness of our own discontent. This wilderness is an exile void of cultural privilege and expectations. This wilderness exposes everything as it really is rather than how we would prefer it to be. The wilderness is empty of human benevolence but filled with Godly possibilities. Like Moses and later Jesus, Jacob went into the wilderness to face his demons and discovered the presence and grace of God.
        It would be so perfect to say end this story pretending Jacob saw the error of his ways and turned his life around. But Jacob, the poster child for human behavior will not surrender his birthright so easily. The purposes of God and the self-interests of Jacob continued to be in tension for the remaining days of his life. God never deserted Jacob but neither did God embrace the choices of this wayward rebel. Such is the confounding ambiguity of God’s grace.   Amen.