Delivered at Ames UCC on September 27, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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FAMILY OF ORIGIN
Unlike so much of the gospels, which have pretty discrete stories, Jacob’s saga is long and complicated. We cannot read any of the episodes independently as we might a parable.
Jacob is the child of Isaac and Rebekah. Remember, Isaac is the miracle child of Abraham and Sarah. So Jacob is part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah: that they would have a home and a great many descendants.
Jacob was born a twin. His brother is Esau. Esau was born first, with Jacob holding onto his heel as if to hold him back or shove him aside so that Jacob himself might be first born. Even as they grew, Jacob wouldn’t let the issue go. Esau came home very hungry one day. Jacob offered him some lentil stew on the condition that Esau give up his birthright. Esau did.
But it wasn’t really up to Esau. It was their father Isaac who had the power to bestow the inheritance. So later on, when Isaac was old and failing of health, Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him the formal blessing reserved for the first born. Unsurprisingly, Esau then plots to kill his twin brother Jacob, so Jacob flees to the safety of his maternal uncle Laban.
But the drama continues: On his travels, Jacob has a dream. In the dream there is a stairway to the God. God proclaims that the land Jacob is lying on will be his nation, and Jacob will have many descendants himself.
“Remember,” God says, “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28.15)
Jacob thinks that is pretty great, but he is unwilling to take God’s blessing at face value. Jacob makes a counter-vow, so to speak:
“If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house (then) the Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28.20–21).
Jacob does not love his twin, does not respect his father, and does not trust God.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Jacob journeys on, finding his uncle Laban’s house, and falls in love with his cousin Rachel at first sight. Jacob doesn’t get to marry Rachel right away, but only after Laban tricks him into marrying her sister Leah first. Leah has four children in quick succession and Rachel none. Jacob then has children with his wives’ maids, at the behest of Rachel and Leah (we don’t know how the maid-mothers feel about this). Both wives then have more children by Jacob.
Jacob’s relationship with his uncle/father-in-law continues to deteriorate as they engage in an extended feud with lies and deception over material goods and resources. (Feel free to use this story as a retort to people who want to make arguments about Biblical marriage. Biblical marriage actually involves men and women in semi-incestuous/polygamous arrangements along with the coercion/human bondage of servants/slaves.)
So we are now close to 20 years since the day Jacob deceived his father and brother and God promised him a nation. Jacob is wealthy with livestock and servants. He decides to approach Esau, sending messengers first. They return with the news that Esau is coming with 400 men. Understandably scared, Jacob divides his assets into two camps and sends gifts of livestock to Esau.
Then, as we hear today, Jacob sends his family off. Jacob is now without possessions and alone in the dark. Along comes an unidentified and unidentifiable man. They wrestle. The man injures Jacob’s hip, hoping to be released. No, Jacob says, I won’t release you without a blessing. The man gives one in the form of this new name: Israel, meaning “God rules.”
After all of my talk last week about pregnancies, this imagery got me to thinking about the womb. In the darkness of his mother’s uterus, Jacob was also without possessions, alone except for one he perceived as a threat. On the shore of the Jabbok river, Jacob is returned to that primal state .Only this time he wrestles holiness instead of another human.
Jacob does manage to equal that strange being for a long time. They go at it all night. It is only when the dawn signals some kind of end that the “man” touches Jacob in just the right way to leave permanent injury.
Jacob may have been able to best his brother, father, and uncle but he cannot overcome God. And just to make sure Jacob gets the message, the “man” not only marks Jacob’s body, but replaces his name, too. Who rules? Not Jacob, but God.
Jacob, who felt entitled to everything he wanted is given permanent reminders that only God has such privileges. Jacob had to learn the hard way that it is within God’s realm, not his own, that he has always lived and will always live.
Our contemporary society encourages us to be Jacobs.
Through workforce competition and other social hierarchies, we create a sense that we live in an economy of scarcity, which drives us to push others out of the way. We also perpetuate that dangerous old narrative that if everyone just worked hard enough, everyone would succeed thus placing the blame for poverty on the poor and releasing the rest of us from any obligation.
It’s a hyper-individualistic state, one that makes greed and violence inconsequential. It gives us the same permission Jacob felt to reject our siblings, our parents, and the divine.
But as Christians, Christ-seekers, we reject those narratives. We say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We can feed the five thousand, the five billion. We see the Godspark in all people and joyously accept responsibility for tending and protecting its flame.
To that end, soon our elected church leadership is going to start asking for our time and talents to replace outgoing leaders on our teams and committees. Today I am asking you as I did last week and will again next, for your treasure, which goes to tending to creation here and in Ames and across the world.
You will find bright yellow pledge cards in today’s bulletin. Another copy will go out in the mail tomorrow. Please bring either one back next week to put in the offering plate.
Our own life stories are long and complex. No one episode can tell the whole tale of who we are: Jacobs and Esaus, Abrahams and Sarah, Rachels and Leahs, maids. But our presence here today is a public witness to our relationship with God. Here we take a break from the constant striving and grappling of the kingdoms of humanity that we are trained into from birth. We do not leave injured, but we hope to leave transformed, blessed with a new name: Israel, God Rules.
Jacob’s wealth did nothing to protect him from his dark night of the soul. The generosity of our pledges are a material expression of that truth. It is an acknowledgment that, if it is in God’s realm that we live, it is to all God’s people we must give.
God rules. Thanks be to God