Friday, August 8, 2014

Reflections on the text: Genesis 33:1-11

Please note - I am replacing the Lectionary text appointed for Proper 14 with this text. This text is the climax of the narrative we have been hearing for the previous 3 weeks.  I will say that I think it odd that this text was not included in the series of texts appointed this summer.  Leaving the story and jumping to the Joseph cycle over this climactic story is kind of like following Captain Ahab on his quest for Moby Dick and then jumping to a new story just about the time that they lower the whaling boats.  So, here is the climax of the story: Genesis 33:1-11
Confrontation!
As morning breaks Jacob moves from his campsite and there he sees his brother approaching with 400 (armed?) men.  After the experiences of the previous night his fear and foreboding seems to have been replaced with a sense of inevitability.  He spent the night wrestling with an unknown and unknowable assailant and in the morning he has determined that in this assailant he has experienced and come face to face with God-Yahweh.  He is now resolved and moves forward intentionally towards the confrontation with his wronged brother.  He arranges his family by order of most importance – the slaves first with their children, then Leah and her children and finally Rachel and Joseph.  And then Jacob and his family move slowly towards Esau, Jacob bowing seven times during the approach (this being a tradition and expectation of court life when approaching a king or important and powerful person - this says something about how Jacob now sees his relationship with his twin brother). We are not kept in suspense for very long, for as soon as Esau sees Jacob he runs to him and embraces him, and the text tells us they hold each other and weep.
It is hard to find words to describe this scene.  It is a powerfully emotional scene. After the intensity of the loss and sense of betrayal back when Jacob first deceived Esau; after the intensity of Jacob’s fear during the build up to this meeting it is hard to find words to describe the intense emotion of the scene.  And this is true for the two men as well, for there are no words that pass between them.  There is only action – the action of repentance and forgiveness and it brings weeping – weeping of joy, but also weeping of sorrow and regret. It is one of the most powerful scenes in the bible.
Finally Esau looks up, the two men, presumably, compose themselves and only then does Esau speak and ask about Jacob’s family.  Then he asks Jacob what was with all the presents, “I have plenty of property, keep what you have” he tells Jacob.  But Jacob persists and Esau relents and accepts the gifts.  And then the scene is over.  Esau suggests they continue on together for a while, but Jacob gently refuses and they part.  And as far as the biblical narrative goes they never meet again.
It is important to note what is and what is not contained in this story.  It IS a story of forgiveness – intense forgiveness.  It is important to notice that Jacob makes no attempt to make excuses, or to seek any kind of self-justification.  His behavior from the beginning of this part of the story to its end reflects the actions of complete and honest repentance.  But this IS NOT a story of reconciliation.  This is not a story of a restored relationship.  Jacob and Esau may have put the anger, mistrust, fear and betrayal that had characterized their previous relationship behind them, but it is not forgotten.  There is no “forgive and forget” here in this story. 
What then can this incredible story teach us about God, relationships and forgiveness?
1. Forgiveness does not mitigate consequences.  There have been some terrible consequences to Jacob’s behavior towards his brother.  He may have successfully stolen the birthright, but it nevertheless resulted in his being a fugitive from his own home.  Afraid to return, he lived as an exile for 20 years.  It is true for us as well.  If you have been victim of a betrayal you might very well be able to come to a point where you can forgive your betrayer, but this does not mean that then there are no consequences for either of you.  There may in fact be serious, life changing consequences for both of you.  Forgiveness does not eliminate consequences.  Jacob’s life is forever, shaped by that act of betrayal, as is Esau’s. 
2. Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget!”  Repeat: Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget.”  This is not a biblical imperative or value.  How this attitude to the contrary ever developed I do not know.  But it is completely unbiblical.  The ending of this story makes it clear that there is no forgive and forget between Jacob and Esau.  They will never be able to restore their relationship.  But they can learn and grow and live the rest of their lives now knowing that they have made peace with each other.  When we forgive we too need to have learned and grown through the experience – and the same with the one whom we are forgiving.  This comes up all the time – but if forgetting is part of the equation then we will never move forward. 
3. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  Jacob and Esau do not completely reconcile.  They do not restore their relationship.  We also may be able to come to a point where we can forgive a hurt or betrayal that we experienced, but it does not necessarily follow that we can be reconciled with the perpetrator.  Maybe, but it is a very different process.
After his night of wrestling with the mysterious assailant Jacob notes that he had “seen God face to face” (32:30) in his night’s struggle.  The experience of repentance and the forgiveness he receives from Esau prompts him to say this: “…truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (33:10). True and honest repentance and forgiveness is a truly holy experience, through which we receive an experience of the Kingdom profoundly come into our lives.  There is a lot of confusion about the Kingdom of Heaven in our society, but the New Testament is pretty clear – the Kingdom of Heaven is not off in the future in some distant place removed from our earthly lives.  The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, and to truly repent and to receive the gift of forgiveness is a gift of a “foretaste of the feast to come” when we shall experience God’s presence eternally.  True repentance and forgiveness is an experience of God – maybe that is why it is so hard, for like Jacob, we too often must wrestle, for it requires complete honesty – which is not always very easy!

Ultimately forgiveness is a gift from God.  Jacob and Esau could not do it alone and neither can we.  We need to pray for God’s help in being able to honestly repent and forgive others, and to forgive ourselves.  God is offering this gift to us abundantly and extravagantly, but too often we would prefer to turn our backs on the gift so we can continue to nurse the hurts, live with our constructed delusions and remain in the familiar surroundings of our prisons. But the gift God is holding out to us is the same gift that Jacob accepted: forgiveness.  For in forgiveness we will see the face of God.
The listen to the preached version of this sermon go to wartburgparish.com and look for the sermon on the media player entitled "Confrontation and Forgiveness."

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 32:22-31

Read the text here: Genesis 32:3-31

Who Are You?
When we left off the story last week, Jacob had finally been able to marry Rachel after working for his Uncle Laban for 14 years.  He now has two wives – the sisters Leah and Rachel who have born him 7 sons and a daughter; and 2 female slaves who have born him 4 sons – that is 11 sons and a daughter (a 12th son, Benjamin, is still to be born).  But after all of this time Jacob is getting tired of working for his manipulative and exploitative uncle and decides it is time to return to his own home.  There is some further trickery, and angry confrontation with Uncle Laban and a final reconciliation with him.  But he no sooner bids Laban farewell then he receives truly terrifying news: Esau is on the march north to meet him, and he is bringing 400 (armed?) men. 
When we last saw Esau it was right after his twin brother and mother had conspired to successfully deceive and betray their father Isaac, steal the blessing and heritage that was rightfully Esau’s.  It is a passionate and painful story (Genesis 27).  At its conclusion a hurt and angry Esau swears to exact revenge and to kill Jacob.  And now – 20 years or so later – Esau is on the march to finally have this confrontation.  And Jacob is terrified.  He has not had any communication with his brother and as far as he knows Esau is still angry and still looking for revenge.  Jacob then goes to great lengths to prepare for this meeting: he divides his property (which is quite extensive) into two separate camps in hopes that at least one will survive (note – everything in this story is in twos – 2 brothers, 2 sisters, 2 slaves, 2 groups of sheep and the struggles occur when a division is not possible – such as Isaac’s blessing which cannot be halved!); he sends his family across the river, he sends a series of extensive and expensive gifts ahead of him to Esau, but receives back no word from Esau, only confirmation that he is on the march.
So the stage is set, he will meet up with his wronged brother in the morning.  There is no way to avoid this.  And so, alone and afraid he camps for the night, but he does not sleep.  Instead he wrestles all night with an unknown “man” whom he does not or cannot recognize. Jacob is not defeated, but neither does he win this wrestling match either.  As dawn begins to break the match is a draw.  “Let me go,” cries the assailant.  “First, you must bless me!”  Responds Jacob.  This cycle has centered on the issue of blessing, and the receiving of blessings.  But for Jacob a blessing is something to be taken by force or trickery or deception; for Jacob blessings are rare and are to be pursued.  He tries to force a blessing in this situation, perhaps as a way of hoping that this will help him in his confrontation with his brother Esau.  But the assailant counters with the central question of the story – Who are you? What is your name?
This is a good question and one that has come up before – kneeling before Isaac he is asked by his old father, “Who are you my son?”  The response is a lie – “I am Esau, your firstborn.”  But now he answers truthfully, “I am Jacob.”  The name Jacob means “heel or one who struggles” indeed – Jacob means “the one who wrestles.”  And certainly Jacob’s life has been one of constant wrestling for domination – with Esau, with Laban and now with the unknown assailant.  “No longer will you be called Jacob, you shall be called Israel.”  And the name Israel means: “God contends or God struggles.”  And this new name constitutes the blessing Jacob receives, an insight into God, and into God’s own struggles. 
God struggles!  That is an interesting image for us isn’t it?  We don’t often think of God struggling or God grieving or God experiencing loss.  But yet, reading through Genesis to this point we get to see and to know a God who is constantly struggling to establish and maintain a relationship with the creation God has made and the humans to whom God has given the gift of creation.  And God is rejected and thwarted all along the way.  But God stays involved. God does not abandon the struggle in disgust but continues to look for new and unique ways of accomplishing this goal.  And this culminates in Jesus, God incarnate – who is rejected and crucified but who is also raised to new life!  God’s struggles are the abundant blessing with is freely and generously bestowed on Jacob and on Jacob’s heirs – which include us!
“And who are you?”  Asks Jacob.  Good question, and a question that is left unanswered.  We are left to wonder along with Jacob who this mysterious assailant is.  It is not an angel or one of God’s messengers, this is certain.  Despite the popularity of artists depicting Jacob wrestling with an angel there is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that the assailant is an angel or messenger (transplanted from the 1st dream – Genesis 28).  So then who is it?  There are all kinds of suggestions in the history of interpretation of this text.  Some have suggested it is the spirit of Esau and the wrestling match is an anticipation of the coming morning confrontation.  Some have suggested that Jacob is wrestling with himself since his entire life has been a life of wrestling and struggling and contending.  And Jacob himself seems to believe that the assailant is none other than God – Yahweh.  Maybe the assailant is all three.  Note that when asked his name the assailant refuses to give it.  God-Yahweh will finally reveal the holy name to Moses on Mount Sinai during the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3).  But despite the refusal to give a name remember God-Yahweh has appeared to Abraham and to Jacob himself during the ladder dream. 
Perhaps the most significant piece of evidence regarding the identity of the assailant is the fact that after wrestling the night away the match is nevertheless a draw.  Neither Jacob nor the assailant is victorious.  In fact, Jacob is injured.  Jacob has always managed to some extent to be victorious, but the victories have often been hollow.  Jacob is victorious over Esau in stealing their father’s blessing, but it has resulted in Jacob’s exile and the enmity of his brother – so it is a hollow victory.  But if the assailant is God-Yahweh, then how is it that a human is able to emerge from this match undefeated?  But remember, this is what God does.  God sets aside God’s power and enters into human life and into the creation.  God is born in Bethlehem as a weak and powerless infant.  This infant grows into adulthood where he contends with the powers of the world and looses.  Jesus is pinned to a cross and crucified for us.  Yes ultimately God wins a decisive victory in the resurrection, but only after loosing, being pinned to the cross.  And only after calling on those who would follow to also set aside power and take on weakness for the sake of the world - loving God and loving our neighbor – as God through Christ loves us!
God is struggling to continue to shower blessings upon the creation and we are called to wrestle as well; to struggle in this world for the sake of God’s love and grace and for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  We are however not called to win, but simply to enter into the struggle knowing that like Jacob we may be injured but also out of the struggle we are blessed beyond words.  In fact the struggle itself is part of the blessing! 
Jacob awakes and limps now toward the final confrontation.  He will meet up with his wronged brother Esau…

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 29:15-28

Read the text here: Genesis 29:15-28
What Goes Around…
We are about halfway through the Jacob cycle and it might be a good time to pause and consider where we are in the story.  We began this entire set of stories with God speaking to Abraham – 1. you will be a great nation; 2. you will be blessed; 3. so that you will be a blessing to the nations.  This promise is at the foundation of the entirety of all three narratives.  With the Jacob cycle we have shifted the focus from the concern of securing the inheritance and having children of promise to the issue of blessing.  And Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob have all bought into the belief that God’s blessings are scarce and unique.  This consequently fuels the conflict that divides this family.  Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his birthright (which would have included the blessing – Genesis 25); Jacob and Rebekah conspire to deceive and steal Isaac’s blessing for Esau (Genesis 27); Esau is so incredibly angry about this betrayal he resolves to kill his twin brother, Jacob.  And so Jacob becomes a fugitive, running away for his life.  (Genesis 28)  Stopping to rest he dreams, and in the dream he sees a ramp with God’s messengers ascending and descending and then God descends and stands right next to Jacob and repeats the promise: 1. you will return to the land and be a great nation; 2. you will be showered with blessings – I will be present with you no matter what; 3. so that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.

In this text Jacob finally arrives at his Uncle Laban’s camp.  Now we met Rebekah’s brother Laban earlier when Abraham sent a servant to secure a wife for Isaac.  And we noted at that time that he was crafty and manipulative.  The next few chapters are interesting to see how these two very manipulative men manage to trick each other – Laban gets the upper hand first, but eventually he is bested by Jacob.  That is later in the story – for now, Laban takes the initiative and perhaps suggests that Jacob should be working if he is going to stay.  They agree that Jacob’s wages for working 7 years will be the hand of Rachel in marriage.  But at the wedding Laban pulls a fast one and substitutes the older sister Leah and Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel (See note below).  It is poetic justice that the deceiver gets deceived, that the trickster gets tricked, and that the issue is about who is born first.  This, of course, was the issue in Jacob’s deceit when he stole Esau’s blessing.  So what goes around comes around.  And eventually Jacob marries both sisters and in the text that follows we learn that Leah bears 7 children (6 sons and 1 daughter), her maid Zilpah bears 2 sons, Rachel’s maid Bilhah bears 2 sons and eventually Rachel bears two sons – Joseph and Benjamin (though Benjamin’s birth, and Rachel’s death in childbirth do not come about until we are into the Joseph cycle – Genesis 35.  So, that is twelve sons – who are the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel + 1 daughter, Dinah.

This is all pretty mundane stuff.  And that is the point.  Jacob and Laban haggling and tricking each other over wages for working with the livestock, negotiating and arranging marriages, human deceit and betrayal - that is all very human stuff.  But yet, God’s promises are fulfilled though these very mundane, simple and less than holy events.  In the dream God descends to Jacob – comes down to his level.  In the dream God promises that God will always be with Jacob no matter what and that the promise will be fulfilled.  But God doesn’t zap it into being – God works through the mundane events of daily life; through the conflicts and the disappointments and the struggles; God’s promises comes to fulfillment because God is active in the nitty-gritty of human life, even the messy parts and even the dark parts.

This is what “Incarnation” is all about.  Every year at Christmas we use this word – “Incarnation.”  But then it is like we put it away with all the Christmas decorations.  But we simply can’t do that – Incarnation is central to how we understand how God acts in the world and how we experience God in our lives.  And this story reminds us that God is at work through the ordinariness of human life – with all of its joys and sorrows, struggles and celebrations and highs and lows.  Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus – through the cross we are reminded that God is at work in our lives and we experience the presence of God usually not in supernatural ways, but – like Jacob – in ordinary events and interactions: a kindness expressed, people coming together to feed the hungry, to care for those who are lost, welcoming the sojourner, healing the sick, comforting the grieving and so on and so on – we can go on all day and we will never exhaust all of the ways we experience God in our lives.  Too often I think we miss it because we aren’t looking in the right place – we expect supernatural, miraculous events.  But instead we get a cross – we get the water of Baptism – we get the bread and wine of Holy Communion – we get ordinary men and women striving to live out their faith in the world in a vast variety of ways, some great and some small, but all essential.

We cannot exhaust God’s blessings.  God showers blessings upon us all freely.  We cannot escape from God’s presence.  We cannot earn God’s love – it is given freely.  In his interactions with his Uncle Laban, Jacob learns that what goes around comes around – but nevertheless God is at work and is active with him, and with us – now and always and nothing can separate us…
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(1) Part of the difficulty with this text is that the process for courtship and marriage is vastly different from our own time.  In antiquity and in the bible marriage is a property transaction!  Love is not the driving force and is basically irrelevant.  Isaac loves Rebekah, we are told in passing, but it questionable whether she feels the same; Jacob is mad about Rachel, but what exactly does that mean and regardless we are never told how Rachel feels.  Indeed she has no choice about it at all.  Laban, her father makes the deal without consulting her (at least Rebekah got the right to refuse!) and then switches her out with her older sister, Leah.  Neither of these girls had anything to say about this.  They were property to be traded and used as a commodity. This is not a model for love and marriage for us today.  We have come a long way and we have come to understand that both partners have to be committed to a marriage for it to be successful.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 27:41-45, 28:10-19a

Read the text here: Genesis 28:10-19
A recording of the sermon - preached on Sunday, July 20 is available here: Wartburg Parish

“On the Run” or “Jacob Didn’t Climb No Ladder”
I am climbing Jacob’s ladder, I am climbing Jacob’s ladder… Every step gets higher, higher, Every step gets higher, higher…  Because of this well-known camp song this story in Genesis 28 may easily be the best known of entire set of Patriarchal/Matriarchal story cycles.  But at the same time just because we know the song and have a familiarity with at least the overall theme of the story doesn’t mean we get the point, in fact I think the opposite is true – we often miss the point of this story because the popular and well-known song provides an image that completely contradicts the story itself – who is actually climbing the ladder (which in Hebrew is more of a ramp and not really a ladder)?  Hint – it’s not Jacob!
Last week we focused on the first part of chapter 27 and heard how Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to cheat Jacob’s twin brother Esau out of the Blessing from his father, Isaac, which would have bestowed on him the inheritance of all of his father’s property and possessions – including making Esau the heir of the promise.  But Jacob tricked his father, stole the blessing and then has to run away to escape from Esau’s anger.  Jacob is now at his most vulnerable, he is tired and afraid and he encamps at an anonymous place in order to get some rest.  As he sleeps the Lord God – Yahweh – the God of his fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah – comes to him.  In the dream he sees a ramp that extends from heaven to earth and on this ramp the messengers of God are ascending and descending.  And then God comes to him, standing next to or behind or hovering above him (the Hebrew is vague here) but the point is that it is God who descends to Jacob.  God then reminds Jacob of the promise that he will remain faithful to Jacob and Jacob responds by honoring God.
So what is the point of the ladder/ramp?  A couple thoughts – first, this is not the central point of the dream.  The song makes it seem as if it is the most important thing in the story, but it is not.  God’s descending to Jacob and re-affirming the promise is the most important part of this story.  The ramp however tells us something really important about God – and that is heaven is involved with earth!  Heaven is not up there and earth down here; God is not watching impassively from a distance.  God’s messengers in this dream are busy at work being involved with human life.  Heaven is not some remote Godly place far away – heaven has to do with earth! 
And 2nd – It is the messengers of God who are using the ramp.  Jacob does not climb it, and no one else does either.  The problem with the song is that it misses this point and seems to suggest that what we Christians are called to do is to climb higher and higher towards Godliness – but this is a direct contradiction of the dream.  It is just the opposite.  Jacob is a scumbag.  He has cheated his twin brother.  He has deceived his father.  He has run away as a coward in order to preserve himself.  He is not climbing anything toward Godliness – just the opposite in fact.  But yet, he is given this vision to remind him that despite his unworthiness, despite his unfaithfulness, despite his sin, God is still involved with him, God still loves him and God will continue to be present with him – no matter what.
The center of God’s promise to Jacob is exactly this message – “I am with you!”  And this is a message that is repeated over and over and over again in the bible’s history of salvation.  The Gospel of Matthew begins with the proclamation that the child Jesus is to be called “Emmanuel” that means “God with us!” (Matthew 1:23).  And at the end of the Gospel in Matthew 28:20, Jesus’ last words to his disciples are this: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age!”  And consider again the beautiful words of our Psalm – 139:
7Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
9If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.
Not only does God promise to be with us no matter what, but the promise to Jacob and to us is that we can’t get rid of God, no matter how hard we try.  God will remain with us always no matter what.  As Paul says, “What can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus… Nothing can separate us…”
Jacob is running away, he is controlled by fear; Jacob is vulnerable and it is in the midst of his fear and vulnerability that God comes to him to assure him of God’s everlasting and never-failing and unconditional presence.  What about us?  When we are at our most vulnerable, in the midst of our fears, in the midst of our uncertainties God comes to us and assures us that nothing can separate us from God.  No ladder climbing required!  God descends into the midst of our world and our lives and is present with us - forever.  
Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000): Unendlichkeit Ganz Nah.