Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God Counts on that Rat Jacob

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Here’s another parable about seeds. Last week’s was tame. Turn this one into a movie, and call it “Seeds of Wrath”. Give it an R rating for faith-based violence. And we think the Qur’an condones violence?

This exchange is said to have been between Jesus and his disciples who have gathered with him after another of his public appearances before a large crowd. The disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable he used in speaking to the crowds, a parable that does not, on the face of it, sound as violent and raging as the explanation he proceeds to give the twelve. Maybe this is like the coach and team meeting in their locker room at half-time in a high-stakes game where the score is tied, venting together over the tactics of the other team and fanning the flames that will burn that other team right off the field.

Maybe. And we need to hear it… why? It helps us in our spiritual practice… how?

In our summer education series, Sundays @ 9, we’ve started identifying a few edgy questions relating to our spiritual practice, and we hope to share with one another what we’re learning on those raw edges. For example, I named a question today that I struggle with: How to read the morning paper with an open heart, not shutting down in horror as my eyes move from the dismemberment of a child to the murder of a family by a step-son, to the discovery of fresh mass graves in South Sudan, to the latest installment of the saga of budget politics in Washington. How do I pray through a reading of the news of the day?

Or do I react to what I cannot control, and lapse into an old narrow range of emotions, retreating from a world evidently divided sharply between bad people and good people? Is my experience of the morning news preparing me to be the publican in the temple (Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men…) or to find common ground with the troubles of others? Am I secretly finding solace of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-variety, or can I find a way to pray the news as I read it, recognizing how grace is needed, is already at work, and may call me to care, not retreat?

I’m not proposing to talk more about that today. Come to Sundays @ 9 if that question interests you, but notice how the question itself may relate to today’s Gospel. Reacting to current events can bring a person to see the world in black and white terms, sharply cast between good people and evil people, and evidently can tempt even the religious to imagine horrific final solutions.

Sometimes we can understand why. Christians were being brutally persecuted near the end of the first century, when Matthew wrote. Hungering for justice, the early Christians were powerless to achieve it. But they could take a grim comfort in the conviction that God would have the final word, some day. In the meantime, their words were laced with fire and brimstone in the language of apocalypse and Armageddon.

By contrast to that black and white view comes today’s portion of the Jacob saga in the Book of Genesis. This is what I would like to talk about, because in Jacob we see how it simply doesn ‘t work to divide the human race into categories of good and bad. As we saw last Sunday, Jacob is a rat, a deceiver, a trickster—and yet there he is in the Mount Rushmore of Hebrew patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His twin brother, Esau, you will not find so remembered and celebrated. Yet it was by cutting in line, taking advantage of the gullibility of his brother and the vulnerability of his aging father, that Jacob gained his prominence.

It was also by being his mother’s favorite, which may tell us how matriarchal a society these forebears actually had. She favored Jacob because of her two sons he was the refined one, the reflective one, the man who would maintain home and family, the thinker, the creative one, the artist. Her husband Isaac favored their son Esau, a skillful hunter, the son who could lead by the strength of his arm and be in charge of homeland security.

Remember that these great Genesis stories are allegedly about individuals, but certainly about the nation Israel. By the time we are done with Jacob’s saga this summer, we will see that he is renamed Israel, showing that all the struggles we see him pass through constitute what it means to be Israel, the nation. But that’s yet to be revealed. Stay tuned.

Today’s installment sets Jacob on a long journey. It will last twenty years. What prompts it? Dread of his brother, Esau; recognition that Esau’s strong arm will come down on him if he stays in town. But also Jacob knows it’s time to do the patriarchal thing and find a wife and raise a family. By the time we complete his saga, he will have had tricks played on him resulting in his having two wives, and a correspondingly large number of children, but again I’m fast-forwarding…

Now, running away from much, so much that he is truly a divided man, and one who frankly doesn’t call much upon God but tends to create his own solutions (as we have seen), now Jacob stops in a certain place to camp for the night. There was something about this place that suggested a good campsite, but there was nothing noticeable to suggest it might be holy ground, no stone pillars erected as was done in those days, no sign advertising divine worship at 8:00 am and 10:00 am.

Or pm, as in this case. God comes to Jacob in a dream. Elie Wiesel, writing about this story, poses the question, Why is it that often the Bible tells stories in which God appears to a person, often a man, in his dreams? Because that is when a person is completely alone. And if that person has a Type A personality, it is in the liminal state of sleep that God might have a fighting chance to be noticed.

That Jacob’s dream is so rich and full may witness to what his mother Rebekah knew, that he was a reflective person, receptive not just to things seen and touched, but to their inner spiritual meaning.

And is there a hint that Jacob, on the lam, needs to be alert even in sleep, perhaps explaining why he’d lay his head on a stone?

But on to the dream: a ladder is set up on the earth, reaching to heaven. A stairway, a ramp, would be better translations, says a commentator. A dramatic message is given: we on earth can count on the resources of heaven. And they flow to us not because we earn them or even know enough to ask for them. They come because God wants them to come. They come as gift.

Gift and grace are therefore the foundation of the covenant love binding humanity to God and binding God to the human race. And that whole historic monumental relationship depends, at this juncture, on God’s trusting a deceptive and tricky man, Jacob. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you,” says God to Jacob.

Jacob may not expect it to take twenty years for that return. He thinks he’s going to Haran, his grandfather’s homeland, to find a wife from among the extended family. Nothing about this will be simple, as we shall hear next Sunday and the Sunday after. And it will all contribute to the birthing of the nation Israel, called by God (according to the Genesis story) to settle in the land of Canaan that has been gradually claimed by the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, one settlement at a time.

Arab peoples have a very different narrative to tell, one that explains their claim to the land. The current events we agonize over, thousands of years later, still swirl around the collision of these stories.

Whether it may be Palestinians and Israelis facing their future, or Democrats and Republicans negotiating fiscal responsibility, it does not work to vilify opponents and paint the world black and white. God counts on Jacob. Jacob must face Esau. It is in face of the full complexity of human nature that our baptismal vows require us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving each as we love ourselves, respecting the dignity and worth of each person. We do not get to consign people to hell for their treachery, because we answer to a God who can utilize even treachery to achieve evolution towards a high global purpose.

We don’t have to like that, but it is part of the biblical message.

It is the revelation of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, and Jacob’s God: that right where we are, the raging waters of current events eddying around us and the day’s news being what it is, right there (not just right here) is holy ground where God is to be recognized, known, loved, and obeyed. And our calling is, like Jacob’s, to take each stone on which we fitfully sleep and set it up as a monument to grace and pardon, a reminder that God is in the place with us and calls us to a miracle: the turning of stumbling blocks into stepping stones.