Sunday, July 30, 2017
Dysfunctional Families and a Loving God
James Sledge July 30, 2017
After stealing his brother’s birthright, Jacob must flee to escape Esau’s plan to kill him. He seeks refuge in the far away land of Haran, with the family of his mother. When Jacob arrives in Haran, he encounters shepherds at a well and asks them if they know Laban, the uncle he’s never met. They do, and they inform Jacob that the young woman coming to water a flock of sheep is Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob is overcome with emotion. He weeps and embraces Rachel, who runs to tell her father of Jacob’s arrival. There is a warm, family reunion, and Laban invites Jacob to stay with him.
During the midst of this family reunion, the story offers an odd note. It says, Jacob told Laban all these things, with no explanation as to what “these things” are. Does he tell of stealing Esau’s birthright and fleeing to Haran,? Does he tell of his dream at Bethel and God’s promise to be with him? The story doesn’t say. It leaves us to guess or assume.
But our story tellers surely chuckle as Jacob the trickster is himself tricked. Laban invokes the tradition of the older sister taking priority over the younger, a reversal of what Jacob did to his older sibling. Perhaps when Jacob told Laban all these things, Laban took offense at how traditional lines of inheritance had been tossed aside in the house of Isaac.
Regardless, the dysfunction we saw in Isaac’s house seems only to get worse as Jacob joins his uncle’s family. We see a bit of this in our reading today. Jacob now has two wives, one that he loves and one that he doesn’t. Laban has used his own daughters as pawns and bargaining chips to make Jacob serve him. If Laban knows about the dream at Bethel, knows that God is with Jacob, perhaps he thinks he will benefit from Jacob’s presence. Now Jacob is bound to Laban for another seven years. And we’re just getting warmed up.
As the story continues, a bitter rivalry develops between Rachel and Leah. They vie for Jacob’s attention and to be mothers of his children. God comes to the aid of both women in times when they are ignored or oppressed. And both women give their maids to Jacob in order to produce more children. In the end, the unloved Leah will be mother to eight of Israel’s twelve tribes, with Rachel mother to four.
Monday, July 24, 2017
Sunday, July 23, 2017
The Crack Where the Light Gets In
James Sledge July 23, 2017
Jacob is alone and on the run. The con-job that stole Esau’s blessing has backfired. Now his brother seeks to kill him, and he must flee for his life. He runs toward Haran, the homeland of his mother. Presumably her family will take him in.
Jacob is in grave danger, but he is not the only thing at risk. God’s original promise to Abraham and Sarah is in jeopardy as well. When God first spoke to Abraham, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” the country God told him to leave was Haram. But now Jacob has left the land of promise, returning to the place Abraham and Sarah had left.
This danger to the promise was spoken by Abraham a generation earlier. When Abraham was old and near death, he sent one of his servants to Haran to find Isaac a wife. But he made that servant swear a solemn oath that he would not let Isaac accompany him, would not let Isaac journey back to Haran. And so our story speaks a double sense of threat, of danger, the threat to Jacob’s life as well as the threat to God’s plans.
Jacob may be unaware of that second danger. Up to this point, the story has been silent on Jacob’s knowledge of the promise, or of God for that matter.
And so Jacob, alone and on the run, stops to rest for the night. He must have been terribly frightened. Perhaps Esau is in pursuit. And if Jacob knows about God and the promise, he likely fears that God is angry with him as well.
In the midst of the threat of his brother and possible divine punishment, sleep must have been difficult. But harried and worn out by his journey, he takes a stone for a pillow, and somehow falls asleep.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Genesis 25:19-34 (27:1-45)
Remembering Our Stories
James Sledge July 16, 2017
“A wandering Aramean was my father.” That famous line is the opening of a statement the people of Israel were to say when they offered their first fruits at the Temple. The full statement traces that wandering Aramean’s journey to Egypt, where living as an aliens, the descendants become great and numerous, were oppressed by the Egyptians, rescued by God, and finally, were brought into the good and bountiful land of the promise.
The statement functions a little like a creed such as the Apostles’ Creed. However, it is not primarily a statement of beliefs. Rather it is a claim to a particular and peculiar identity. This is who I am. This is my story. This is what it means to be this strange community of Israel that is called by God and exists only within its relationship to God.
Identity is rooted in story. Families have stories; communities have stories; cultures have stories. Many would argue that the partisan splintering in our nation today has been greatly aided by the loss of a shared story, a family story. They exist, but we’ve forgotten them, lost them, or can’t agree on them, and so, in a very real sense, we don’t know who we are. Something similar may well be happening in the Church.
Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of individualism paired with consumerism, to reduce each of us to agents of wanting and acquiring with identities built solely on what we can accomplish and get. But we have a deeper identity, a true identity as God’s beloved children. It is an identity rooted in stories of faith that need to become our story. “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
People often think of Abraham, that consummate man of faith, as this wandering, Aramean father. He fits the bill, but so does his grandson, Jacob. If anything, Jacob is the one in whom Israel sees itself. His stories are Israel’s stories. Israel’s identity is deeply bound to that of Jacob, its wandering ancestor.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Provision and Testing
James Sledge July 2, 2017
I had a relative who was missing a good bit of one finger, and there was a family story about why. I don’t know that the story was true. I suspect not, but it goes like this. When this person was a child, her sibling or cousin – I don’t remember which – told her to put her hand down on a bench and he would cut off a finger with a hatchet. She complied, and he swung the hatchet. She assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it; he assumed she would move her hand. Like I said, I doubt it’s true, but it’s a good story.
That story came to mind as I was thinking about the story we’re going to hear from Genesis where God commands Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. As with my family story, it seems like a story that could go horribly awry with one false move.
It is a frightening, even terrifying story. Christians have sometimes played that down by saying it prefigures Jesus and resurrection, trying to distract our attention from the horror of a story where God demands that Abraham put his son’s life in danger.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Why on earth would God do such a thing? Surely this is simply some primitive story from a time when human sacrifice actually happened. Surely it has nothing to say to us. And yet this story was probably just a startling and frightening to the people of Israel. Israel abhorred the human sacrifice practiced by some of the cultures around them.
And while the origins of this story may well be primitive, the story as it appears in Genesis is quite sophisticated. It has a remarkable symmetry to it, a pattern that seems intended to guide our understanding. Three times Abraham is addressed and three times he responds with “Here I am.” Abraham is addressed by God, then by Isaac, and once more by God in the form of an angel. But in only one of those times does Abraham actually converse.