Sunday, July 30, 2017
Sermon: Dysfunctional Families and a Loving God
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.
Meanwhile the struggle between Laban and Jacob continues. Laban becomes wealthy with Jacob working for him, and he resists when Jacob thinks it time to return home to face Esau. Laban does not want to lose the services of Jacob. But Jacob does leave, aided in part by his two, rival wives working together against the father who used and even abused them. And the final trick, the final act of deception in the story is done by the younger daughter, Rachel, against her father, Laban.
When Jacob and his family and his servants and his flocks slip away from Haran while Laban is off on business, Rachel steals the household gods from her father. These are not only valued religious items, they are symbols of Laban’s authority and power over his family, likely inherited from his father as symbols of his birthright and blessing.
When Laban discovers Jacob gone and the household gods missing, he sets out in pursuit. He overtakes Jacob, confronts him, and accuses him of stealing. Jacob, unaware of Rachel’s theft, vows that anyone possessing Laban’s gods shall be killed, and Laban begins to search the camp. After searching various tents, Laban finally enter Rachel’s. He searches all around while Rachel remains seated on her camel’s saddle, the gods hidden beneath it. She apologizes to her father for not getting up to greet him, but, she says, “I cannot rise, for the way of women is upon me.”
In ancient times, a woman’s period was considered a weakness. It brought temporary, religious “uncleanliness” so that she could not touch others or participate in community life. But now this weakness, this uncleanliness, becomes the very means by which Rachel dupes her father, the way Jacob gains the upper hand over Laban, who has “falsely” accused him.
Most every family has a bit off dysfunction, but Jacob and his families take things to a whole new level. What a messed up group. So why do the people of Israel cherish these stories so? Why remind themselves over and over again that their origins are not rooted in greatness, power, achievement, or an impressive résumé, but rather in conflict, dysfunction, suffering, and scheming? Why revel in these stories that celebrate what unlikely and unfit candidates they were to be the vehicle for God’s blessings to enter into the world?
Israel’s storytellers understood something that Jesus also knew and embraced, something that Western Christianity forgot over its many centuries of power and dominance. God prefers the weak and the lowly, the broken and the lost, the messed up, over those who are impressed with themselves. And so Jesus speaks of the kingdom belonging to children, who were totally without power or voice in Jesus’ day. He says, “The first will be last, and the last will be first,” and he tells religious leaders impressed with getting religious things just right, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
We religious sorts have often reflected Jesus’ opponents more than his teachings. We’ve made faith mostly about morality, respectability, and the status quo. We’ve forgotten our origins in the messy stories of Israel. We’ve forgotten that those we look down on, whether drug dealers or those whose theology doesn’t measure up to ours or single moms on food stamps or those whose worship isn’t as impressive as ours or anyone else we imagine inferior, are in line for the kingdom ahead of us. At least that’s what Jesus says.
The perpetual temptation for every religious group is to think our religion affords us special status. Whether it’s because we think we’re more enlightened and sophisticated or we’ve figured out just what God wants or we just happen to be the group God prefers, we use religion to draw lines that put us on the inside and others, therefore, on the outside. But the stories of Jacob and the stories of Israel and the story and life of Jesus keep tossing aside our conceits and breaking down our boundaries, revealing a God whose love is so big it embraces, includes, and make use of the most messed up and undeserving among us. God even seems to prefer such folks.
And when we remember that, we can become agents of God’s radical, boundary breaking love. We can embrace those we once looked down on, those we imagined inferior, wrong, beneath us, or undeserving, with the same astounding love and mercy and grace that embraces us no matter who we are or what we’ve done or failed to do. And God’s new community of love grows. And Jesus smiles.