Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God the Heart-Searcher

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Though I won’t spend much time on the adventures of our friend Jacob today, how can I let that first reading go by without making a few observations?

Jacob the deceiver, Jacob the trickster, has been outclassed, outgunned, by his Uncle Laban, the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebekah. Jacob has fallen head-over-sandals for Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob agrees to seven years’ labor (oh, what love will make a fellow do) as a kind of dowry for Rachel. Those years seemed but a few days because of his love for her.

Meanwhile, on a lower plane of life, Laban has spun a web of deceit. First, he gets Jacob drunk at the wedding feast. Add some poor lighting and the strategic use of a veil, and when morning comes and Jacob rolls over in the marriage bed, he finds it was Leah he had married!

When Jacob objects, Laban plays his final hand by claiming that local custom prevents marrying the younger before the older.

“Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Doesn’t it make you want to scream? Imagine Jacob’s outrage… and helplessness. “Completing the week” means staying the course with Leah, making her his wife by honoring the customary bridal week of celebrations. So Jacob agrees, and at the end of that week Laban gave Jacob Rachel in betrothal—in essence Jacob emerges with two wives, though it will cost him a second term of seven years’ service to Uncle Laban.

The story has a preposterous side, doesn’t it? Remember that these Genesis stories have two levels. One is the surface story about the legendary individuals of Israel’s past, a family album of the chosen people. The other level is rather like a survey course: these stories help explain Israel’s becoming a nation. In that larger story, Jacob will be renamed Israel (stay tuned, next Sunday) and will be the progenitor of twelve children, twelve tribes, eventually clustered in two geographical units, a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Today’s installment can be seen as explaining that two-state division: Jacob had two wives (not to mention their handmaids, who also bore him children… but that’s best left for another day).

What makes us want to scream is how Leah is violated by her father’s elaborate deception. She knows she is not loved by Jacob in the way that he loves her sister, but she is consigned to that loveless future. In the full story, God will hear her lament and, while Rachel remains childless for some time, Leah bears several children, establishing her security and her influence. The point of God’s blessing her with children appears to be that God is also peeved with her male oppressors.

But, as we saw last Sunday, all this deceit and violation is in the raw material, the messy stew, the pottage God gets to work with, and it does not diminish God’s covenant love and faithfulness towards God’s people. Redemption works its way across the years and generations. Jacob, for instance, finally gets a taste of what he dished out to his brother Esau. Now he knows, with a wounded heart.

And God is the heart-seeker. That is how St. Paul describes God in today’s second reading, and that I would like to explore.

There is knowing, and there is knowing. Jacob’s saga teaches us this. He knows what he wants (a wife and family), so he sets out on a journey to get what he wants. That journey requires him to know himself, to know the full complexity of human nature, to know an intimate struggle with God, and, rising out of all these intimate knowings, to return to his alienated brother Esau with a new capacity for knowing him.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, he teaches that all we need to know about the Church—its God-given nature and mission—is learned by knowing Jesus, the Messiah sent by the love of God to liberate creation from the bondage, corruption, misery, and injustice that were known to characterize the world in that first century. That these traits still describe the world is evident from reading the morning’s news… which tells us that the Messiah’s work is still underway, or, to put that another way, Paul tells us in his letter that in the resurrection life that believers are given in Christ, those who share the glory of the Messiah will have the world entrusted to their care. The Messiah’s work is still underway through God’s people.

To know the Messiah is to know the Church, and the Church is charged with knowing the world. That’s an awful lot of knowing. Refreshing to me is the opening verse from Paul today: We do not know how to pray. We see and feel the suffering of the world and what Paul told us last Sunday is so true: the creation seems subjected to futility and in bondage to decay. Then he said, The creation is groaning, yes--but groaning in labor pains, for God has enfleshed God’s own love in the Messiah Jesus to make him what Paul today calls “the firstborn within a large family” of people who are being conformed to the image and likeness of Jesus.

In that first-century world, the fast-growing religion was the Caesar-cult that claimed the emperor’s divinity, winning people to that belief by sending into all communities images of Caesar and building temples to house those images. Bishop N. T. Wright comments on this: “Paul states that God’s purpose is for Christians to be ‘conformed to the image of God’s Son.’ They are to be image-bearers, forming the Temple of the living God, the people through whom in the present as well as in the future it is to be made known that the God of Abraham is the only God, that Jesus, God’s Son, is the world’s true Lord, and that one day the world will be liberated from its present slaveries, as Israel was from Egypt, to be the true Empire in which justice, peace, and freedom will make their home.”

Knowing how to bring all this about might be an emperor’s way to proceed, but God, says Paul, is prepared to work with our not knowing even how to pray for all this to come about. Bishop Wright says, “Paul holds together… the intimate prayer that knows exactly what to call God (Abba, Father—we may wish to add Mama, or its Aramaic equivalent) and the groaning prayer that has no idea what to ask for or even what words to use. Prayer itself is a matter of both knowing and not knowing, of security and insecurity, of ‘having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:10).”

In Paul’s words, God is the heart-searcher. Out of God’s heart comes that Spirit that unites us to God by working deep within the human heart, and there we learn not so much how to pray, but to love God. Once more, Bishop Wright: “This hints at something deeper than merely praying in the way God wants or approves; God’s own life, love, and energy are involved in the process. The Christian, precisely at the point of weakness and uncertainty, of inability and struggle, becomes the place at which the triune God is revealed in person.”

This knowing, this loving of God, engages us (mind and heart and will and senses) in what Paul calls the working-together for good of all things. Bishop Wright insists that our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible gets it wrong in translating, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” as if this were a law of the universe. The New International Version, he says, has it right: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” I take that to mean that if we are willing to engage with God on terms of love, then we will discover God working with the raw material, the messy stew, the pottage of our lives in ways we could not know apart from God’s covenant love and faithfulness.

Paul asks and answers five questions, starting with, “If God is for us, who is against us?” “No one” is the apostle’s answer to that and to each question. Typical of these questions is the third, “Who is to condemn the people of God?” The answer is again, “No one.” But if the words are not read carefully, they can be misleading: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” Not “It is Christ Jesus who will condemn us,” but “he in particular will not condemn, for he has perfectly embodied the love of God.”

For many years, a very dear and feisty lady, Fran Chaffee, taught Sunday School here. She taught all her children to memorize the closing words of Paul today: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nor shall we be separated from the call of God to embody that love in the world.

Our medical missioners will return from Bolivia in two weeks freshly convinced of that.

Doctors Without Borders and other NGO workers aiding Somalian famine victims in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia embody that love, whether or not they ascribe it to God.

Interfaith volunteers here in the North County do also, as they help people suffering from food insecurity.

And in more ways than we can count, including the intimate orbits of families and friendships, God’s people are privileged to embody that love which is the ongoing work of the Messiah to liberate the creation from its slaveries.

(Bishop N. T. Wright's commentary is found in Volume X of "The New Interpreter's Bible", Abingdon Press, 2002.)