Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon -- 24 July 2011 -- Proper 12

PROPER 12 / 5 PENTECOST — 24 July 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Genesis 29:15-28
Ps 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

When morning came, it was Leah!

I would love to write a screenplay of this episode for a TV movie. Dawn is breaking; the birds are singing; the sheep are bleating; Jacob wakes up in his tent and turns over toward his new bride, and looks into her eyes (which the New Revised Standard Version says were “lovely” but it admits in a footnote that the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain; God knows my Hebrew is uncertain; the lexicons seem to support translating the word as soft, delicate, or weak. Take your pick.) And she says, “Good morning!” And Jacob says, “OMG!” Hmm. Maybe it was Jacob’s eyes that were weak! Or maybe he just should have been more careful about how much wine he drank at the wedding reception.

Just to remind ourselves of the setting of this story a little, since the selection we heard doesn’t quite do that: Isaac is sending his son Jacob back to the Old Country to find a wife, much as his father Abraham a generation earlier had sent his servant back to the Old Country to get a wife for Isaac. Perhaps you heard that story as the First Reading three Sundays ago.

(This really isn’t all that uncommon even today. My understanding is that men from India, for instance, even though they have become successful businessmen or professionals in the United States, will still go back to India to marry a girl whom their families are proposing to them. And even in our own Midwestern tradition, it’s not that long since men who had come to America from, for instance, Norway or Sweden would write back to their home village to have a young woman sent over to be their wife. And they would hope that when he met her at the train from Chicago that it wasn’t too much of a disappointment for either of them!)

Anyway, Jacob journeys up to the family estate in Paddan-Aram, in the district of Haran in northern Mesopotamia, to get a wife in the Old Country. (It’s what is now northern Syria, or perhaps southeastern Turkey – I’m not sure exactly where the modern borders are.) And early on in his journey, Jacob has the dream of the ladder with the angels, which you may have heard about last Sunday. Well, Jacob finally arrives at Haran, and meets up with his uncle Laban, his mother Rebekah’s brother. And he works for Laban for seven years to be able to marry Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, with whom he has fallen in love. And then we get today’s story of the morning-after-the-wedding-night surprise. But oh well. Jacob gets to marry Rachel too, in exchange for an additional seven years of service, and as it turns out their maids Zilpah and Bilhah also get thrown into the deal. However, as it turns out, Jacob’s household was not a particularly happy home. (The Bible says the patriarchs practiced polygamy, but it doesn’t suggest this was really a very good idea.) There is a fair amount of family turmoil before Jacob finally gets back to Canaan (to say nothing of a wrestling match with an angel of the Lord, but that’s another story for another time – specifically, for next Sunday), and this Biblical soap opera goes on for several more chapters. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.

As nearly as I can tell, there is nothing in this story that is either of direct theological importance or particularly edifying. “Turn the light on for a minute on your wedding night to make sure you’ve got the right girl.” The Word of the Lord! The only point I might make in passing is that people who yammer on a lot about the Scriptural Doctrine of Marriage and Biblical Sexual Morality apparently have a different edition of the Bible than any of the shelf-full of Bibles that I have. The Bible does have some guidance related to sex and marriage, but this story isn’t it.

So why do we read this story today? As you are perhaps aware, during the “green” half of the church year we have the option for the Old Testament Lesson of a “course reading,” a connected sequence. In this Year A it consists of highlights of Genesis and Exodus and ends up in November with a bit of Joshua and Judges — the story of Israel’s early history, from Creation and Noah, then through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then going on to the Joseph saga, the liberation from Egypt under Moses, and the return to the Promised Land.

In short, we read about Jacob and Laban and Switch-The-Bride today not because it is of direct theological importance or because it is particularly edifying, but because it is a story, and most specifically and significantly, it is part of our story. (And so the fact that this is not a very edifying story probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise! Lots of events in our own story aren’t very edifying!) But we need to know our story in order to know who we are, and who God is.

And so, although I’m not sure there’s a lot in the content of today’s installment of All My Chosen People that is theologically important, I think that it is theologically important that this is a story and that this is our story.

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus telling stories. Well, actually, the ones we hear today are pretty short vignettes, but they are still little stories. Not as long as some of Jesus’ parables — I think for instance of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, which are more fully developed tales — today’s parables are not as long as the stories that just preceded these, and which we heard the last two weeks — the Parable of the Sower, which is actually about the ground on which the seed is sown, and last week the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Incidentally, in regard to both of those parables, they represent two rare examples — we hear a third brief instance this morning — in which Jesus is depicted as explaining his stories, using an allegorical type of interpretation which is unlike anything Jesus does elsewhere. New Testament scholars are in fairly general agreement (and I think they’re quite right) that these explanations of the parables were composed by the early church and don’t actually go back to Jesus himself. (The early church was just like the disciples – they didn’t understand Jesus’ parables the first time either!) Jesus’ parables are not allegories to be decoded; they are challenges to be responded to. In fact, I suspect that when the disciples came to Jesus after one of his parables, saying, “We don’t get it. What did you mean by that story?” Jesus didn’t explain it the way the later Gospel writers had him do. I think Jesus threw up his hands and cried, “Oh you of little faith and hardness of heart!” -- and then told yet another story!

A story, when it is functioning well as a story, has as its first purpose to draw us into the story’s world. In the case of some stories there may be some ultimate purpose of edification or because the author wants to share her or his vision of life, but with lots of stories it’s really just for entertainment, and that’s okay. (I read murder mysteries too!) The point is that a story creates a world and draws us into it. And that’s what Jesus is doing in his parables — he is confronting us with another world, an alternate reality — specifically the reality of the Kingdom of God. Some of these parables are just quick little snapshots, like the ones we hear today. Others give a fuller narrative picture. But they really all end up asking us — you, so what do you think about that? What do you say now? What are you going to do about your life?

I was thinking the other day — Just how much better has the world been made by some people telling other people how to live their lives? And the answer that came to me was, Not Very Much Better. And, you know, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus wasn’t real big on handing out rules. Oh, there are a few, like for instance, “Love your neighbor.” But you’ll recall that when someone asked Jesus, “Yes, but what do you mean by that?” Jesus responded by telling a story. Jesus does not beat us over the head about our lives. Jesus does not hassle us (unless we are beating somebody else over the head about their life, and then he may get on our case, as he does with the Pharisees). Jesus draws us into a new world, Jesus invites us to experience an alternate reality, Jesus summons us to the Kingdom of God. And he does this by telling us stories.

And this is what the Bible really is: the story of God and humankind. It’s a very old, very full, very rich story. And in one of its early chapters, à propos of nothing in particular, the protagonist of the moment wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers he married the wrong sister!

(Although, as it turns out, that too was part of the plot of the story!)