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July 20, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11):
Genesis 28:10-19a & Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
To listen to earlier homilies click here.
Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. (New York: Norton, 2004).
Beuchner, Frederick. The Son of Laughter. (San Francisco: HarperOne. 1994)
DRAFT text of the homily—please do not cite without permission.
One of the great gifts of now using the Revised Common Lectionary is that we get to hear more of the Hebrew scriptures.
Part of the particular story we heard today used to show up only on the feast of St. Michael or Michaelmas—that’s Sept. 29th for those of you keeping score at home.
The only other part of the Jacob story we heard in the Book of Common Prayer lectionary was him wrestling with the angel.
We heard that once every three years.
For many of us our knowledge of Jacob came through Sunday School
or reading through Genesis on our own,
or absorbing knowledge of him through cultural references.
Ever make a Jacob’s ladder out of string…
ever sing, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder?
Now, we get to hear more of the stories of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons.
This summer, using Robert Alter’s translation, both in church and in our bible study we’re spending July (and part of August) with Jacob.
Jacob is worth spending time with.
He’s one of my favorite characters in the bible.
He’s a flawed, deeply human and recognizable character.
He may lack the bone-deep faith of Abraham,
but he has the tenacity and intelligence to make his faith real.
Jacob’s faith does not come easily.
It is hard won, maybe like yours—certainly like mine.
Jacob struggles with faith, wrestles with God (and with other humans).
Is wounded and blessed.
Just like all of us.
Despite the fact that two of the four readings relate stories of Jacob’s dreams
He’s really not a man particularly given to dreams and revelations.
—Jacob is not a prophet.
God is not constantly appearing to him and giving him directions, and every time Jacob encounters the divine he is greatly surprised.
Again, very human.
He is often described as a rascal, a trickster, a cheat.
Last week we heard how he emerged from his mother’s womb griping his brother Esau’s heel.
His name is related to the Hebrew word for “heel.”
It’s also a verb in Hebrew that means something like “supplanter” or one who wrongfully takes the place of another.
However, Robert Alter points out that the name Jacob probably originally meant something like “God protects” or “God follows after.”
His is name alone evokes a string of images not unlike those heavenly messengers going up and down that ramp.
Jacob grasping after Esau, and God following (grasping?) after Jacob.
We also heard last week how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright.
Esau comes in from the field starving.
Jacob agrees to give Esau some lentil stew IF Esau will sell Jacob his rightful place as firstborn.
Which Esau does.
The next Jacob story we skipped over.
Isaac is ancient, near death, and blind, and wants to give Esau—his favorite son—his blessing before he dies.
Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, overhears this and talks Jacob into dressing up like Esau and claiming his father’s blessing for himself.
Jacob plays along.
He covers his hands and neck with goat skins—because Esau is a hairy man—and he brings him a stew cooked by Rebekah.
And although Isaac is suspicious—”Who are you, my son?” he asks—in the end he gives his blessing to the duplicitous Jacob.
Up to this point, Jacob appears not to have a spiritual bone in his body.
He never mentions God, or is shown praying.
When Isaac becomes suspicious of Jacob’s disguise and says, “how is it that you have found game so quickly?”
And Jacob (as Esau) replies, “because the Lord YOUR God gave me good luck.”
Jacob has no God.
God is not Jacob’s God, simply the God of his father Isaac.
In Frederic Beuchner’s novel of the life of Jacob, called The Son of Laughter, Jacob refers to his father’s God simply as “the Fear.”
Esau, returning from a hunt, discovers that Jacob has received the blessing that should have been his.
And “seething with resentment” says, “As soon as the time for mourning my father comes around, I will kill Jacob my brother.”
Rebekah finds out, and she sends Jacob into hiding.
Which is where we find him today: fleeing across the desert, to Haran and his uncle Laban—more than 500 miles away.
He’s all alone, and running for his life.
Jacob might be what some would call a “bad seed.”
Yet, he can’t really be a bad seed.
Because it is Jacob, this clever, and very imperfect human whom God continually seeks out.
Seeks out and renews the promise with—the promise that God made with both Abraham and Isaac.
“Look, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go…
The promise that is echoed by the Psalmist today.
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
And despite all the talk about fire, and weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Gospel reading today, it is also the promise that Jesus reiterates to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel.
“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It is the promise that God has made to each one of us.
Jacob awakes from his dream amazed.
Sets up the pillar, anoints it, expresses his amazement that “The Lord is in this place”—this desolate place (which is often where God shows up).
And then the designers of the lectionary abruptly stop the narrative.
Which is too bad, because what happens next is significant.
When God makes the same promise to Abraham, and to Isaac, Abraham is at first speechless, then he laughs.
Isaac builds an altar and invokes the name of the Lord.
But Jacob is Jacob.
Jacob hears this incredible, barely believable promise and he makes a very Jacob-like vow beginning with the word, “if”
“If the Lord God be with me and guard me on this way that I am going and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house, THEN the Lord will be my God.”
Jacob responds to God’s promise with…
a hedge, a bargain…
Ok, IF you really do all that, THEN I’ll accept you as God.
He is so, so human.
How many of us…if we’re really honest with ourselves make that same hedge?
Ok, God, if you really do all this:
make it so the poor and the meek are blessed
make it so justice rolls down like water
make it so the righteous shine like the sun and the evil ones are all toast.
IF you do all that, THEN we’ll go all in.
And if not…?
Well, there really is no alternative.
God has already made the promise.
And God is always faithful.
We can’t really negotiate the terms, although we try.
And we don’t have to accept the covenant in order for it to be valid, although we think we do.
What we can choose to do is uphold it, live by it, try and faithfully live into it, or not.
There are several more chapters of Jacob wrestling with both God and humans, but from this moment we already know that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, AND Jacob.
Even in his very human dissembling, Jacob is sought out by God.
Just as we are.
There’s no “ifs” about it.
I used to read the parable of the wheat and the tares as “there are good people and bad people, some are in and some are out.”
Jacob, the heel, the supplanter, the “bad seed” helps me to see it differently.
There is clearly evil in the world, but I’m no longer so sure what those bad seeds are; maybe distractions, maybe addictions, maybe ego, maybe false self, maybe choices based solely in fear and anger, but they are not human beings.
God does not sow bad seeds.
Jacob’s story reminds me that it doesn’t matter what you done, or what you think you’ve done, (or not done)
God is continually reaching out, meeting us, luring us into deeper and deeper relationship.
God’s promise remains: I will be with you always.
We know Jacob’s response.
How do you respond?