Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Seeing the Face of God
James Sledge August 6, 2017
What a strange story marking the end of Jacob’s exile from his homeland. When he first left Canaan, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, he slept alone in the wilderness, fearing for his life, dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and there encountered God. To his surprise, God promised to be with him and bless him and bring him back home once more. Now, as he returns, Jacob encounters God once more.
Jacob is almost home. But the night before he arrives, he finds himself alone once more in the wilderness, yet again fearing for his life, fearing his brother Esau. He returns a rich man, with vast herds and flocks, and many servants. He also has two wives and twelve children. God has indeed been with him. God has also told him it is time to come home. But there is still the issue of Esau. Is he still angry? Does he still seek Jacob’s life?
Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau that he and his flocks and servants and family are coming, hoping to find favor with Esau. The messengers return with a report that Esau and 400 men are coming to meet them. Jacob is, understandably, terrified.
Jacob remembers God’s promises and the command to return home. He prays for God to protect his family. He also sends waves of offerings to Esau, hoping to appease him. Servants take flocks and herds toward Esau at regular intervals. Finally, Jacob sends his family and all that remains with him on ahead, leaving Jacob alone.
Jacob is alone and afraid, just like all those decades ago at Bethel. But this time there is no dream of a ramp to heaven. This night a man wrestled with him until daybreak. People sometimes speak of an angel wrestling Jacob, but as the story opens, it simply says “a man.” It soon becomes obvious, however, that this is no ordinary man.
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.
Monday, June 26, 2017
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Meeting God in the Story
James Sledge June 25, 2017
Unless you know the book of Genesis well, you are likely unaware of a small problem with the story we just heard. When Hagar walks out into the wilderness with her meager provisions of bread and water, she also carries her child, who by the way, is in his mid to late teens. You hear a lot about helicopter parents, but I’ve never seen a mother carrying her teenage boy on her shoulder.
Now some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The story doesn’t say a thing about how old the boy is.” True, but an earlier story that tells of the child’s birth, as well as his name, Ishmael, says that Abraham was 86 years old then. He’s 100 when Isaac is born and children were typically weaned at around three. You do the math.
Of course now that I’ve pointed out this problem, I should add that the problem isn’t really with our story. The problem is modern people who don’t know how to listen to Israel’s faith stories, our faith stories.
Like some other parts of the Old Testament, Genesis is a collection of stories, many of which existed independently before being woven together. And because the editors who do this don’t share our interest in precise history or facts, they make no effort to harmonize our story, one clearly about a very young child, with another that makes him much older.
These editors were not stupid people. They were the intellectuals of their day. But they were not writing history or recording events. They were perfectly willing to leave intact and honor stories as they received them, stories that people probably already knew anyway. They wove these into a larger fabric to help Israel wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God, especially in a time when Israel had suffered defeat and exile.
Monday, June 19, 2017
give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil will not sojourn with you. - Psalm 5:1-4
I suppose there is some small comfort in knowing that psalmists in ancient Israel strained to find God in the events of their lives. According to some authorities, the cry of lament is the most common of all the psalms. There is nothing new about looking at the world and wondering why God does not act to set things right.
Events of recent days surely qualify. A politically motivated shooting just miles down the road from the church I serve. The horrific loss of life in a London apartment fire where the dangers were known but ignored because it was low income housing. The death of a college student detained and abused by a repressive North Korean regime that does the same to its own citizens on a daily basis. A terrorist attack against Muslims in London that may well have been "revenge" for previous terror attacks by ISIS. Yet another horrific act near the church I serve, a 16 year old Muslim assaulted and killed as she and friend walked from early morning Ramadan services, headed to IHOP for breakfast before the day of fasting began. It may not have been a hate crime, the local Muslim community is understandably on edge. I could continue endlessly. Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry.
I occasionally reread a sermon from the great John Claypool, originally preached following the death of his young daughter from leukemia. In it, he recounts a letter he received from his friend and fellow preaching great, Carlyle Marney shortly before his daughter died. Dr. Marney admitted to having no word for the suffering of the innocent, but he added, "I fall back on the idea that our God has a lot to give an account for." (from A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. editors, page 120)
I know quite a few people of faith who would be troubled, even offended by such a statement, but I feel certain the psalmist would resonate with it. How could God be a God of justice, a God who cared especially for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and the hurting, and let things go so awry? The psalmists ask such questions regularly. Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (from Ps. 44)
Perhaps it is an act of faith to acknowledge that the world is not a God intends and that we feel helpless. Perhaps it is an even greater act of faith to beseech God, even demand that God rouse Godself and act, while we align ourselves with those who suffer in this world so bent on hate and destruction.
Yet all too often, we people of faith become agents of hate and destruction. From terrorists who distort and tarnish their own Islamic faith, killing in the name of God, to Christians motivated by fear who discard the teachings of Jesus in order to abandon the refugee, neglect the sick, and hate their neighbor, we people of faith are all too often guilty of working against God.
Forgive us, Lord. Hear our cry. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (from Ps. 44)
Click to learn more about the lectionary.