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.