Sunday, September 26, 2021

Phil Kniss: The people God rolls with

Called with a promise: Jacob’s Dream
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17

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It’s strange, the kind of people God chooses in the Bible.
When something must be done that’s really important,
that could make or break God’s whole cosmic project
of restoring shalom to all creation,
why is it that God ends up depending on
such a motley crew of sometimes-shady characters?
Makes you wonder who’s running the HR department
inside the pearly gates?
Did they even think of running a background check?

Sure, God’s chosen people have their shining moments,
and we appreciate them for their occasional acts of courage,
and self-sacrifice,
and humble service.
But on the other hand,
there are some really bizarre things going on in these stories.

Just the fact that these stories made the cut in our holy scriptures,
ought to convince any skeptic of the Bible’s authenticity.
If the Bible was only a collection of religious propaganda,
it would be mostly larger-than-life hero stories.
There wouldn’t be so many stories,
that make our religious ancestors look so flawed, so human,
look so much like . . . well . . . like us!

Jacob is in focus this Sunday.
And he, alongside his mother Rebekka,
is portrayed as a deceiver, and outright liar,
in order to get what he believes he has coming to him—
the blessing of the first-born.

Well, lying for the purpose of self-enrichment,
seems to run in the blood of this holy family.
Jacob got it honestly.
He is the grandson of Abraham,
who lied to a foreign king, saying his wife Sarah was his sister,
so they would treat him well,
which meant his wife was claimed by the king,
and likely not treated well,
and after the truth came to light,
the King, in order to avoid any public shame,
gave Abraham all kinds of privileges, wealth, and protection.

Any many years later, lo and behold,
Abraham’s son Isaac does the very same with his wife Rebekah.
Lies about their relationship,
watches his wife get carted away,
and then the king makes amends,
by giving him all kinds of privileges and access.
And he got so wealthy and powerful,
that the king asked him to leave that land,
and go live somewhere else.

I mention all this,
because there is a lot of back story to this narrative we heard today
in Genesis 27 and 28.
A lot of back story, and a lot of baggage.

By necessity,
we don’t have the luxury of covering the whole narrative this fall.
So we jump over large sections of the story,
and even in the story,
we jump over certain parts.

Let me remind us of what we didn’t read
in this story about Jacob and Esau and the birthright.

First of all, before they were even born,
God spoke to Rebekka, and gave her a prophecy,
“the older will serve the younger.”
And when the twin boys were born,
Esau came out first,
but Jacob was right behind,
and holding on to the heel of his first-born brother.
Hebrew scholars point out that even Jacob’s name
points to deceit.
Hebrew is a language of consonants,
with vowel sounds thrown in to alter the meaning.
So the same three Hebrew consonants
that make the name Jacob,
also make a word meaning “to come behind”
or “to supplant, or overreach.”
And . . . the same three letters make the word for “heel.”
So Jacob has come to mean, “heel grabber”or “supplanter.”

But setting aside Jacob for a moment,
think about Rebekah.
She had been lied about by her own husband,
and handed over to a king’s harem,
and according to Genesis 26:8,
it was a “long time” later,
that the truth came to light.

Perhaps we might be less harsh with Rebekah,
and the scheming and deceit she helped mastermind.
Yes, she developed the plan to have her favorite son Jacob
trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the first-born,
before Isaac had a chance to get it.
When you consider the multi-generational practice
of gain by deceit, with the men in this family,
and when you consider the years, perhaps,
or at least many months that Rebekah paid the price
for being lied about by her husband,
and when you consider she was only acting
to help fulfill a prophecy God had already given her,
then maybe we could at least admire her
for using her own strength and smarts and ingenuity,
to help bring about God’s plan for Jacob.

In any case, Rebekah and Jacob do not stand alone in their deceit.
This family system had a long, illustrious history
of using morally suspect ways to “help” God
bring about God’s plans.
And it plays out on the pages of our holy scripture,
in some sad and tragic ways.
Jacob and Esau become blood enemies.
Jacob is forced to relocate far away,
and Rebekah lives out her life separated from her favorite son.
And Jacob’s deceit comes back to bite him later,
when he gets similar treatment from his father-in-law.

At least, that’s how these stories are written.
Some argue these stories
were handed down orally for generations,
and served the purpose of explaining
how things turned out in the end,
like how Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, dominated
Esau’s descendants, the Edomites.
But this Jacob and Esau story, as it is written in Genesis,
is part of the Torah that shaped Jewish faith for all time,
and which continues to shape us.

So what do we gain from this story,
for our complicated and contemporary life?

Obviously, the key elements here are foreign to us.
We lack reference points
to understand an ancient patriarchal society,
where marital relationships were so
transactional and economic,
where the oldest son’s birth-right was all-important,
and gave him power and control over his siblings.

But maybe . . . God’s basic modus operandi
hasn’t changed all that much.

Maybe God still looks to flawed people to carry out God’s mission.
Maybe God still has the same HR director,
who doesn’t do background checks.

Because otherwise,
who of us would have been chosen?
We all have checkered pasts,
and a few skeletons in our family closet.

I’ve come to the conclusion that God is a very patient God.
More patient than we are.

The group of local pastors who meet weekly
to talk about the narrative lectionary texts,
includes a Lutheran pastor from Mt. Sidney, Derek Boggs,
who asked a question of us during our discussion of Jacob and Esau.
He asked,
“Do you think God intended to use all this lying and deceit
to accomplish his will,
or did God just roll with it?”

Thank you, Derek, for inspiring my sermon title,
“The people God rolls with.”

Yes, actually, I think God did not design it to unfold in this way.
But God rolled with it.
God rolled with Jacob and his whole dysfunctional family.
And God rolls with us.

That is who God is.
God has a primary motivation behind this whole project.
It is love.
And love is not possible without free will.
So God does everything possible to see that
those purposes are fulfilled.
Everything possible, that is.
Coercing us to be in a relationship,
is the one thing that is impossible for God.
Because to do so, would betray God’s core character of love.

Brothers and sisters,
we have disappointed God in the past.
And we still disappoint God today.
And I assure you, we will keep on disappointing God.
We miss the mark.
We also lie, to ourselves and to others, and sometimes to God.

The Good News is, God rolls with us.
The will and purposes of God are persistent.
They persist beyond our bumbling efforts to obey,
even beyond our sometimes purposeful disobedience.

And if that is the case with us, then let’s also remind ourselves—
God rolls with other people, too,
including those we’d rather God didn’t roll with.

As I said, God is more patient than we are.

We look around and we see dysfunction everywhere—
a dysfunctional political system,
a dysfunctional widening gap between rich and poor,
a dysfunctional society fueled by white supremacy and other evils,
and of course, dysfunction in our own
churches and neighborhoods and families.

We may well be tempted to throw in the towel.
“This cannot be fixed!”

But what is God’s response?
God rolls with us.
Now, this does not mean God approves of our dysfunction
or blesses it.
God hates injustice.
God does not turn a blind eye,
or ignore the evils we perpetrate on each other.
God lets the consequences play out.
Just as God let Jacob and his beloved mother
remain cut off from each other,
and let anger and hatred fester for years
between the twin boys.

Yet, even as these consequences are playing out,
God keeps showing up, again and again,
looking for a little receptivity.
That’s what happened to Jacob,
in the latter part of today’s story—
Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s dream in the desert,
during a 500-mile journey to escape his twin brother.
He dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven,
with angels going up and down.
God stood at the top and spoke to him.
Assured Jacob that the promise still applied to him,
despite the fix he was in,
despite his broken family,
despite everything.
I am still with you, Jacob.
I am still rolling with you.

The take-away, for us, seems to be—
God will not reject us, or refuse to work with us,
whenever we do open ourselves, even slightly,
to doing God’s work and will.

If God can roll with the likes of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham,
maybe God can roll with some people today
who call themselves Christian,
but whose values are so at odds with mine.

When I take into account the people God rolls with,
I am moved to gratitude and compassion.
Gratitude for God’s grace extended to me.
And compassion for those I am tempted to despise.

Let us say and sing our confession of faith.
Pick up your bulletin,
and also, turn to Voices Together #542, Christ Calls to Me.
We will read this confession together,
and then go directly into the song.

one We are less than perfect. Far less.
all Yet God calls us to join God’s work in the world.
one Like Jacob, we are impatient.
We try to hurry up God, and in so doing,
hurt ourselves and others.
all Yet God stays with us, for our sake, and for the world.
one We miss the mark,
our eyes are clouded, our senses dulled,
we do not see the path to heaven’s glory.
all Yet God bids us dream God’s dream.
one God throws open the gates of heaven,
we see what God sees, and we say,
all Surely the Lord is in this place, and we were not aware of it.
one Not because of our merit, but because of our need,
all God calls, welcomes, blesses.
Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, September 26, 2021

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