Jacob and Esau are reunited

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 33:1-17

September 24, 2017

 

 

For the past two months we’ve been exploring stories of Jacob, the third patriarch of Israel.  Last week, we heard that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.  Jacob, or Israel, has fought with men and with God and has prevailed.[1] But he shows the scars of battle as he limps along. We’ve seen how Jacob had cheated his brother and his father in order to obtain a blessing. Now God has blessed him and his family will carry on the promise that was first given to Abraham. The only problem is that Jacob must return to his homeland which means he must confront his brother, Esau.  Jacob, the fair skinned momma boy, must meet his macho brother, whom he’s not seen in two decades. When Jacob left after tricking his father and cheating his brother out of a blessing, Esau was furious. Jacob ran for his life.  And he’s been fretting over this reunion all along.  And now the two of them are about to meet.

One thing I should note is that while Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, among friends and family he’s still going by Jacob. They weren’t present for the wrestling match we read about last week.  Today, we’re at the end of this series on Jacob.  Let’s see how it turns out.  Read Genesis 33:1-17.

 

       I recently heard that procrastination is a sign of creativity.  Or at least creative people tend to procrastinate.  I don’t know if that is true. Maybe it is, maybe not. I just hope it is for I’d like to be able to use it as an excuse.

There have been times I have had things I didn’t want to do and I kept putting them off. I fret over them. This is especially true when there is something I need to make right with someone else.  An apology that needed to be offered, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. After a while, what could have been easily corrected with a hand-written note or a phone call becomes a huge task. I realize I should have taken the first step, even though I might have felt slighted and wanted the other person to make the first move. But we can’t control others, we can only control ourselves.

         Jacob certainly had a way of putting things off. It seems important for him to make an effort at reconciliation with his brother even though he’s not sure how it was going to turn out. He can only control what he does, not how his brother responds. I wonder if the years in which he fretted over making such an effort he created a monster out of the task at hand. The more Jacob thinks about it, the more he worries about that hairy masculine brother wringing his neck. And, on the night before their encounter, Jacob’s hip is pulled out of joint. Now he doesn’t even have a chance to outrun Esau.  He’s stuck.  He has to go through with meeting his brother regardless of the consequences.

         Another thing I have notice about myself is that although I realizing I’m changing, I don’t generally think about how other people might be changing. This is especially true of friends from the past whom I may not see for years. It’s not exactly “out of sight, out of mind” for I do think of them. It’s only that I remember them as they were when I last saw them. If I really think about it, I realize they, too, must be changing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally think about that. I noticed this most at class reunions, where I realize that almost everyone present is losing the battle to gravity. And where did these folks get all those wrinkles? I also have experienced this phenomenon on Facebook when I become reacquainted with a friend from the past and am surprised he doesn’t have any hair either.

Again, I wonder if this isn’t part of Jacob problem.  He still sees Esau as the young man he’d wrong and assumes that Esau had spent the past two decades letting his anger boil just as Jacob had spent that time fretting over what might happen when they meet again.

Jacob is certainly nervous when he sees Esau approaching.  We again see him picking favorites.  He lines up his family, starting with the servants of Leah and Rachel and their children.  Then he places Leah and her children.  And at the end he places his beloved Rachel and her son, Joseph.  Although we are not told the reason, it appears Jacob hopes that if his brother is out for blood, he might be appeased at taking out his vengeance on the first group of his family. He’s saved his favorite for the last. At least Rachel and Joseph will have a chance to get away. We’re not told how the mothers of his children felt about this alignment, but I am sure such favoritism didn’t bring harmony to his dysfunctional family.

But, to Jacob’s credit, he goes first.  He’s in front, limping along, with his extended family in tow. If there is going to be blood, he might as well offer his own.  After all, he’s facing demons of his own making. We’re told that Jacob bows seven times as he brother approaches—the type of homage that one would have shown to a Pharaoh.[2] As we saw last week, Jacob had already sent gifts ahead to Esau. Now he’s showing his submissiveness.  He has no idea how his brother will respond. Will Esau extract the vengeance that, at least in Jacob’s mind, has been building over the past twenty years?

Instead of vengeance, Esau is joyous! Much like the father in the Prodigal Son, Esau runs out ahead and embraces his brother. The two hug and cry together.

         Then Esau comments on his brother’s family and delights in meeting his sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews.  Jacob rightly gives God the credit for his family. Esau then insists that no gifts are necessary even though when Jacob presses, he accepts the gifts graciously. As Jacob says, he has all that he needs.  But it appears that so does Esau.  Both men have been successful.  Jacob has herds and a large family, Esau has a small army.

Then, in verses 10, Jacob expresses his joy, saying that looking at Esau’s face is like looking into the face of God.  Jacob has encountered God a few times by this point, and as Jesus tells us in the parable, we too will encounter him in the face of others.[3]  Maybe a part of this has to do with Esau’s willingness to let the past be gone and to make the reconciliation as easy as possible.

After a reunion, they go separate ways, partly out of necessity. With the herds and animals, Jacob’s crowd is much slower than Esau’s. What’s important is that the two brothers have been reunited and Jacob is back in the land of his father.

        A lot of times I think we are like Jacob, afraid of taking steps toward reconciliation.  We worry and agonize over it. Like Jacob, we may even go to great lengths to pave the way, such as offering gifts.  But when we finally get around to it, many times we find that it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as we had made it out to be. Sometimes, like with Esau, the person we worry about has moved on with their lives. Or times have soften or erased their bitterness. So we need to be the willing to be the first person to take steps toward reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.

In our New Testament reading, we heard the familiar story of the Prodigal Son.[4] In this story Jesus tells, the father represents God. The younger son has done terrible things to the father, to the point the father could be justified to treat the son as one dead or at the very least to treat him like a servant.  Even the younger son realizes this, knowing that his father might not want to see him. But he goes back home, partly because he has no other choice, and he is warmly welcomed by his father.  His old man doesn’t wait for him to return home, but runs down the road to meet his wayward son. Think about God running after us. Maybe this is why Jacob saw God’s face in Esau, who ran and embraced him.

         If we want to be godly, we too must be willing to ask for forgiveness, to grant forgiveness when requested of us, and to seek reconciliation. That’s what the gospel is about. God through Jesus Christ is reconciling himself to the world. And as Christians, we are to take that a step further and seek to reconcile relationships broken between one another.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[5] In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or as a more modern translation would have it, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.[6] And Jesus tells us to make things right with our brother (or sister) before we come to make a sacrifice to God.[7] Our willingness to forgive the wrong done to others is linked to God’s forgiveness.

          But as we see in our story of Jacob and Esau, it is sometimes hard for us to take that step and seek reconciliation. We’re told this story from the point of view of Jacob.  We don’t know what had gone on in Esau’s life. But it is evident that he was glad to see his brother. If there are those whom we love and whom we’re separated from, we need to be the ones to take the risk to seek out forgiveness. We need to be the ones to strive for a new relationship, or at least reconciliation.  For when we take such a step, we reflect Jesus’ face to the world that is bitterly divided.  It is a world that needs to see that reconciliation and not division is the way of the cross. And as God’s people, that’s our calling.  Amen.

©2017

[1] Genesis 32:28.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (1961, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 327.

[3] Matthew 25:37-40.

[4] Luke 15:11-24.

[5] Matthew 5:9.

[6] Matthew 6:12.

[7] Matthew 5:24.

Jacob’s Night of Wrestling

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 32:22-32

September 17, 2017

Most of us, I expect, are a little exhausted. In the two weeks since we were last together, a lot has happened.  Many of us, I’m sure, have done some wrestling with God. Right? Thankfully, we were spared from the worst, even though I know a number of you experienced some damage from Irma.  Our prayers must continue to be offered, as well as help, to those who experienced the full wrath of that hurricane.  Today, we’re going to look at a story about someone else who wrestled with God.

Two weeks ago we learned that Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban, made a covenant with each other and went their separate ways. Jacob and his extended family and their herds are now heading back to his home turf in Canaan.  He has another uncomfortable meeting ahead, with his brother Esau, the one he’d cheated twice. When Jacob was last in Canaan, Esau was furious and Jacob had to run away as quick as possible.  He was empty handed, not having time to pack, Now he’s returning a rich man, with a dozen kids, servants and slaves, and a host of animals.  Despite his wealth, this meeting with his brother weighs heavy on Jacob’s mind as we see in the opening verses of the 32 chapter of Genesis.

Of course, it wasn’t just Jacob’s idea to return to his homeland. God had told him it was time. In preparation for this encounter with Esau, Jacob sends messengers ahead to inform his brother that he’s coming.  The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him, and bringing with him 400 warriors. Jacob may be rich, but he doesn’t have an army, so he is now even more afraid. He prays to God, humbling himself and confessing his fear that his brother is going to wring his neck.

And then Jacob makes preparations. He’s willing to offer a significant portion of his wealth, dividing out livestock and sending groups ahead as an offering to Esau. He hopes that with enough livestock, he can appease his brother’s anger. At this point, Jacob stays behind with Rachel and Leah and two servants. Read Genesis 32:22-32.

###

 

         In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tells about visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore, just south of us, just north of the Florida border. In case any of you want to visit, it’s currently closed due to damage from Irma.  Anyway, Taylor and her husband were out hiking in the middle of the day when they came upon a huge loggerhead turtle that had exhausted itself trying to make it through the dunes. Obviously, the turtle had mistaken some light on the mainland for the moon over the water and after dropping and burying her eggs, took off in the wrong direction.  It was midday and the turtle was barely alive. Her shell was hot. Taylor scooped sand over the turtle to cool its shell while her husband ran back to the ranger’s station.  Soon, he returned with a ranger in a jeep. They turned the turtle over on her back and attached chains to her legs. Using the jeep, they dragged the turtle to the water’s edge, where they righted the turtle.  With each wave, the turtle revived a bit and soon pushed off and swam out into the deep. Reflecting on all this, Taylor writes, “It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”[1]

I expect Jacob felt a bit like that turtle after his night of wrestling. Was it an angel? Was it a man? Or was it God?  Whatever, Hulk Hugan and crowd never had anything on Jacob.  He wrestles all night and in the morning is a changed man. Lots of things happen at night.  Sometimes we do things at night because we don’t want to be seen, like Nicodemus coming to Jesus. Other times things happen because when we lay down to rest, our minds are free to wander and things we’re able to keep tucked away when we’re busy come out. Was this what happened to Jacob?

          Jacob had a lot of stuff pinned up in his psyche.  He was a con artist. He cheated his brother, his father, and even his father-in-law, who’d also cheated him. And now Jacob’s worried about what it’s going to be like when meets his brother.  Esau is coming and he’s in command of 400 men. That’s enough to cause most of us to lose sleep. Jacob has made plans.  He’s sending gifts ahead.  He sends his family ahead, even his beloved Rachel. He alone remains safely on the opposite bank of the Jabbok River.[2] In the Hebrew text, one can recognize a word play here, between Jabbok and wrestle.  Jacob, who thinks he is on the safe side of this river, is disturbed. He assumes he’s safe and will be able to catch a good night sleep, but that’s not the case.

Our text leaves more questions to ponder than it provides answers.  First of all, we’re told that Jacob was alone, yet there was a man there who wrestled with him. The wrestling match goes on till dawn. Then the man asks to be released for dawn is approaching. Is he a ghost or a vampire that must be safely in the dark before the dawn? And why, when Jacob gives him his name, does the man not identity himself? And why does Jacob ask for his blessing?  If he’d been a man looking to rob Jacob or harm him, would he’d asked for a blessing?

          We don’t really have a clue as to who this mysterious wrestler was until we hear Jacob’s response as the sun rises and the mysterious stranger departs.  Jacob realizes he’s been wrestling with God. Take that, Hulk and Sgt. Slaughter, Hercules Hernandez, Jake the Snake, the Wild Samoans and all you other fake wrestlers.[3] Jacob is wrestling with the deity, the Almighty, with the Creator. That’s pretty bad! That’s a wrestling match that is sure to sell out!  I might even pay to see it.

But then, don’t we all wrestle with God. I know I have. Should I go to seminary?  Should I take this call?  Why did I do that? What will be the repercussions? Should I apology?  We’ve all be there.  And then, a week ago, it was sleepless nights wrestling with the unknown. What’s going to happen with this storm? There have been many nights I’ve laid in bed wondering, wrestling. My body is exhausted but my mind remains wide-awake. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar restless nights.  At times these have gone on night after night. But sooner or later there is a resolution.  For Jacob, it came in the morning when the sun rises and its rays reflect off the rippling waters of the Jabbok.

        Why is it that most artists depict Jacob wrestling with an angel?  The text refers to his opponent as a man and then, in the morning light, Jacob understands that was God. An incarnation? I don’t know? Perhaps artists want to protect God’s dignity.  What kind of God would want to get dirty in the mud by the river? Well, maybe the type of God who crafted Adam out of the dirt and who came to us as Jesus.  That’s good news! God seems to have a fondness for us. Even Jacob, who had done much in his life to earn condemnation, learns that God is with him.

     Of course, we ponder, if it really was God with whom Jacob wrestled, why he wasn’t smashed to smithereens?  Certainly, if God wanted to do in Jacob, a simple lightning bolt would have sufficed. But God has other plans for Jacob just as in our own wrestling with God, there may be something God is calling us to do.  Or maybe there is something in our lives that God wants us to change.  God’s wrestling isn’t to destroy us but to change us!

In Jacob’s case, he’s asked his name. “It’s Jacob,” he says.  By giving his name, which means “cheater,” Jacob confesses to God what his life has been about.  It’s been about him getting what he could from others. Then Jacob receives a blessing from the one whose blessings makes all the difference in the world.  And he’s given a new name. In God’s eyes, Jacob will no longer be “the cheat.” Instead his new name, Israel, implies “God will rule.”[4] God is in control of even Jacob’s life.  Jacob has been changed as is seen in the morning when he fords the river, limping.  He’s battled with God and has survived and so has the promise that has been made to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. There will, from him, be a great nation.

         The good news in our text for this morning is that God is willing to get down and dirty with us in order to save us. That’s what happened when God came as Jesus. When we struggle in life, we can be assured that God is there beside us, struggling along with us. Even when we struggle with God, God is with us, not to blot us from existence, but to love us and guide us. This is the type of God with whom we, like Jacob, can be honest. After all, this is a God who knows all, yet wants our honesty. This is why Jacob is asked his name. God wants us to confess our failures and our sins.  This is the type of God who, through Jesus Christ, offers us a new beginning, a new life, a new birth.  Through Christ, God calls us back into a relationship with him.  Won’t you answer the call?  You may be changed, as was Jacob, who limped along praising God. God touched him in a way that changed him. Are you willing to risk letting God touch you? Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 66-67.

[2] The idea of Jacob being on the safe side of the Jabbok comes from a sermon by Edward Marquart, “Wrestling with God, www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_wrestling_with_God.htm

[3] I didn’t know these names, but picked them out from this site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WWE_Hall_of_Fame

 

[4] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (1961, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 321-322.

Jacob and Laban-Rapprochement

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 31:22-55

September 3, 2017

 

 

We’re continuing to explore the passages in Genesis about Jacob and his dysfunctional family.  In a way, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place.  He’s heading back to the land of his father, where he fears an encounter with his brother.  We’ll hear more about that next week.  But he’s also being pursued by his father-in-law, Laban.  Today, in our text, they have their final encounter.  It’s a long passage and I’m not going to read it all, but I want you to gain an understanding of this encounter and the skillful tactics of storytelling we find in Genesis. The narrator doesn’t let us just think this is between two men. God is involved. God’s in the background, protecting Jacob.  And, we also see that Laban, as crooked as he can be, has a heart.  There’s a human side to him.  As this is a long passage, turn to Genesis 31.  It goes from verse 22 through the end of the chapter, 30-some verses.  But I will only read the first few verses, then move on to verse 43 and read the ending.  I’ll fill in what happened in the sermon, but you might also take this as a homework assignment to read this afternoon!  Read Genesis 31:22-25, 43-55. 

 

 

You know, as a pastor I have found out that I am either the last to know about something or I know way too much about things I don’t necessarily want to know.  In other words, no one tells me what’s happening or I’m told things I’d just as soon not hear.  With that said, let me tell you about this guy from Hastings Michigan.  We’ll call him Jimmy, not his real name.  For someone in real estate, he had a bad reputation.  Lots of people told stories about how he’d cheated them out of this or that. There was a list of those with grievances, including the IRS. To say the least, Jimmy wasn’t liked by many if not most people.

      I was in Richies Koffee Shop one Saturday morning. Richies is a classic greasy spoon diner. Their coffee is good even if it’s spelled it with a K. They even know how to poach eggs and place them over corn beef hash, they can make a decent omelet, and there burgers were something to savor. But it was there onion rings that were too die for.  And if you ate too many of them, you probably would.

This particular Saturday morning, I sat at corner booth as I was editing my sermon.  I had seldom seen Jimmy in the place, but this morning he was sitting at the long table in the center of the backroom. This was the township informal court. It’s the place you wanted to sit if you wanted to know all the scoop on what was happening in town. And if they didn’t know what was happening someone would make it up.  This gathering place was as much as a rumor mill as it was a breakfast table.  People in the community rotated in and out from this table throughout the morning.

Once Jimmy got up and left to pay his bill, the guys at the table (and they were mostly but not all men) turned their sarcasm toward him. “Who allowed him in here?” one asked.  That’s not exactly what he said. I eliminated some of his more colorful modifiers that would not be appropriate in a sermon.

One after another at the table made disparaging remarks about Jimmy. It was as if a quarterback was sacked and the opposing team piled on. I was feeling uncomfortable with what I was hearing. I thought I should say something, but wasn’t sure what, nor did I want them to think I was listening in to their conversation (not that they were trying to shield their talk from anyone). Thankfully, one of the waitresses spoke up and berated the table for their attitude. Then they began to talk about her.

I had done some business with Jimmy, and I admit that I had watched my back. But I got to like him. I realized he had a good heart. I think he was also lonely. Outside his wife, he didn’t seem to have many friends. But then, as he started to come to church and to get involved, he began to make friends. And I knew that before he’d left the area to be closer to family, he made some incredibly generous donations to the church and community.  Not all of these donations were known even to those being helped.

Laban reminds me of Jimmy.  By the time we’re at today’s passage, he’s old. Two of his daughters have run off with their husband. For two decades, he’s been trying to get what he could from his son-in-law, Jacob.  And while he’s away from home, Jacob and his family saddles up and heads west. We’re told they’ve been gone three days when Laban gets the word of their departure. Perhaps he was out at the far pastures, three days travel away, where he’s sent spotted and black sheep and goats.[1]  The man was always trying to get the best of Jacob, but God saw to it that Jacob prospered as Laban’s ewes and nannies produced more spotted and black lambs and kids, those that Laban had promised to Jacob.

Hearing that Jacob and company had left, Laban gathers everyone up and they began their pursuit.  They catch up with Jacob at Gilead, after seven days of hard riding. There is a problem of understanding here as it would have been impossible to have made it from where Laban was thought to have resided to Gilead. It’s possible he’s from another place, that’s closer.[2]

We’re told that God informs Laban in a dream that he had better go easy on Jacob.  When Laban catches Jacob, he claims the flocks and his daughters and their children belong to him, but he doesn’t ask for them back.  He acknowledges that Jacob’s God has spoken to him. Jacob is protected, even though Laban supposedly has more men to fight and, from appearances, could easily take back what is his.  So instead of asking for his daughters or livestock (which he’d already given to Jacob) back, he asks for his household gods to be returned.  This is interesting that he wants these gods, for he’s already acknowledged that superiority of Jacob’s God.

Last week, I told you how this section of Genesis reads like a television sitcom, with each episode laying out something that will have to be resolved in future episode.  And we learned that Rachel, Laban’s beloved and beautiful younger daughter whom Jacob cherished, had stolen the idols belonging to her father. Perhaps Rachel felt she needed the luck these idols might bring. After all, even though she is the apple in Jacob’s eye, she has to deal with her older sister Leah, who’s been able to give Jacob four sons. At this point, Rachel has only given him one son, Joseph.

Not knowing that Rachel has stolen the gods, Jacob pronounces a death sentence on anyone found with them. The listener to this story would have been on the edge of their seat, in suspense. If the idols are discovered with Rachel, she’s a goner, and both men would have grieved. Laban storms through the camp, in a humorous fashion, trying to find his household gods. He comes up empty.  Rachel hides them by sitting on them. Because it is “that time of the month” for her, her father doesn’t check everywhere.

When Laban comes back having not found his idols, it’s Jacob turn to be angry.  He berates his father-in-law for the abuse he’s experienced over the past two decades.  Laban then suggests that they make a covenant with each other.  They gathered stones and built a monument as a reminder.  Laban shows concern for his daughters, as he acknowledges that he’s not going to be there for them, so he ask God to watch over them.  But there is a sadness in his words, for he realizes that he won’t be there to protect them.

Jacob points to the stone as a boundary marker between the two families.  They both agree to the covenant. Jacob then offers a sacrifice and everyone eats and has a big party.

Early the next morning, Laban kisses and blesses his daughters and grandchildren and returns to his home. Jacob is now free to move on to Canaan, to his father’s home. One chapter is closed, another is about to open.

What does this passage mean?  Don’t steal your daddy’s gods?  Certainly, one level, it does show how our deeds follow us.  A couple of chapters later, God, whom Jacob refers to as the “Fear of Isaac”, calls on Jacob and his family to cleanse themselves of all idols and these gods that Rachel hoarded would have been discarded. [3] But then, too much water had been under the bridge for them to be return.  By calling God “the Fear”, the story pulls us back into the era of the patriarchs.[4] They didn’t have theologians to write about God.  They didn’t even know as Moses did, who asked of God’s name and was told, “I am who I am.”[5]  And they certainly did not know God as we do, though the lens of Jesus Christ. “The Fear” is a good way to acknowledge this mysterious deity that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through dreams and visions.  With the trust of Jacob, who listened to “the Fear”, we should listen and be in awe of our God.

A second thing we might take from this passage is the need for boundaries. When there’s conflict, it’s good for people to come together in a covenant, to set boundaries, and to move on with their lives with no hard feelings toward the other. Laban is free to go on with his life, having trusted his daughter’s to Jacob’s care, under God’s eyes. Jacob is free to go to his father’s land.  In the end, instead of trying to get the best of one another, forgiving and moving on is better for all involved.  And with such a parting, each party leaving it up to God to watch out over the other is an important lesson.

A third point is that both men call on the God of their father.  I don’t want to go too deep here, but maybe this text shows us how we can work with those who have different ideas about god. As we’ve seen, Laban’s idea of god is not the same as Jacob’s. Each, holding on to their own beliefs, looks to their deity to hold them to the covenant.

Finally, we must realize as Laban did, that we are not able to control everything.  God is in control and we must trust, as those in recovery say, in a higher power.  We place such trust in the triune God, we can sleep better at night.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Genesis 30:35.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 308

[3] Genesis 35:1-4.

[4] Frederick Buechner, in his novel about Jacob, Son of Laughter, uses Fear whenever he has Jacob referring to God.

[5] Exodus 3:14.

More Thoughts on Last Week’s Sermon

I know I raised a lot of questions with my sermon last week.  Some of you really liked the sermon and encouraged me to keep taking bold steps while others were less encouraging.  It was my hope that we would not to be like the “Sons of Laban.” We need to always respond to events with an open mind and a willingness to forgive, apologize and understand. It is my hope we can continue to dialogue with one another.  We must seek to live out our Christian belief, as expressed by Paul, that we are all one in Christ Jesus.  That is our calling, and we are working to live into it.  We are not quite there.  We must always strive to do better.  It is because of this, I thought I would share a bit of my journey.

The ninth grade was a turning point for me.  I fear I realize what I could have become when I look back.  It was the first year of crosstown busing and the students from Roland Grice Junior High were shipped to Williston, in the inner-city area of Wilmington.  We didn’t want to be there and those who were from Williston didn’t want us there.  It was a scary time.  There were riots.  At times, there was a National Guard presence in the street.

There were two camping trips that year which helped shaped me.   I didn’t get to go on the first.  My mother wouldn’t let me go as there were no adults.  It was probably the best thing that happened to me that year.  A bunch of guys with whom I’d hung out at Williston, kind of a gang joined together for protection and mischief, went camping by themselves.  There were some older brothers who joined them and brought along some alcohol.  Late that evening, everyone was feeling bold and they decided to go burn a cross in the yard of an African-American family.  They were lucky they didn’t get shot, but they all ended up with police records and spent the rest of their school years working off community service hours.  I hope I would have had the moral courage to have stood up to such an awful idea, but I’m not sure.  As a ninth grader, peer pressure is an awful thing. I am thankful my mom kept me from having to make that decision.

My mother instilled in me a sensitivity for others and was always asking me how I would feel if I were in their situation.  I hated such guilt, but it opened me up to think of how others feel.

The second camping trip was with the Order of the Arrow, a Boy Scout fraternity.  We were camping up on the northeast Cape Fear River.  It was a cold winter night and there was an African American Scout named Charles who needed a place to sleep.  I had a large four man tent and there was just me and another guy sleeping in it.  One of the leaders came to me and asked if it was okay for Charles to stay in my tent.  I was torn, but I also knew it was the right thing to do.  Besides, I knew if my mother ever got word that I had failed to open up my tent, I would be in trouble.  Charles and I talked a lot that evening and I realized he wasn’t any different than me, except that he was a few years older.  I would later become good friends with his brother who was my age.

As a young man working for the Boy Scouts of America, I remember calling on the sheriff of Bladen County.  Behind his desk in his office were two flags, an American and a Confederate battle flag.  While in his office, I couldn’t help but think that if his constituents in the county had known of the second flag, he’d probably not be sheriff.  He certainly didn’t have the Confederate battle flag on his campaign posters in a county that was over fifty percent African American.  Sitting before his desk, I wondered how others would feel with this flag being present in a public space.

Years later, I was a pastor in Michigan and was shocked and disturbed to see people in pickup trucks driving around flying Confederate flags.  I was shocked because these folks’ ancestors had fought and died for the Union.  I also felt as if they were taking something that belonged to my heritage and using it to promote a racist agenda.  I then learned that the county I was living in had a long history of Klan activity.

Yes, racism isn’t just limited to the South.  It’s around the world.  In my travels, I’ve witnessed it in far flung places like Japan, Malaysia, and Russia. It is a part of our fallen human state.  But as Christians, as followers of that Jew from Nazareth, we are called into a new relationship with one another.  We are going to have to find a way to talk past our differences.  Those of us who are followers of Jesus should be willing to take the first steps to break down barriers that divide us and also to build bridges that will allow us to see one another as having been created in God’s image.

What is most important to us?  Is holding on to myths of the past more important than seeking the face of the living God in all who are alive today?  Can we open ourselves to God’s guidance and have a conversation about this?

Jacob, “Son of Laughter”

As I have been preaching from the Jacob stories in Genesis this August and September, I thought I would also share a review to a novel based on Jacob’s story:

Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter (San Francisco: Harpers Collins, 1994), 274 pages

 

Jacob is a complex character and his life takes up a good chunk of the book of Genesis.  He is known as a trickster.  He cheats his brother, twice, and fools his father.  He is also tricked by his father-in-law Laban into working much longer than he’d planned in order to marry the woman he loves. Laban forces him to marry both of his daughters, the one he doesn’t love and the one he loves.  This creates conflict within Jacob’s family, which grows large with a total of twelve sons.  Frederick Buechner takes this story from scripture and writes a novel about the third patriarch in Genesis.

Jacob’s father is Isaac, whose name means laughter.  Isaac’s parents were well beyond social security age when he was born. They’d laughed at the idea of having a child so that becomes his name. “Laughter” carries a horrible memory, of being tied on a pyre about to be offered up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22).  It is a memory he reveals to his sons, Esau and Jacob.  With favorite children and secrets, we see the dysfunctionality of this family.  Yet, it is through this family that God is at work to fulfill the promise.

Jacob, like his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, has intimate conversations with God.  But God isn’t yet known.  It’ll be 400 more years before Moses experiences God’s presence as the great “I AM” at the burning bush.  Jacob’s experiences God in a dream and as a stranger in the night.  He refers to this invisible deity as “the Fear.”  The Fear is stronger than the local gods, such as the ones of Laban, gods whom Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel had stolen when they broke away from Laban.  These “idols” cause trouble within the clan. Jacob follows the directions from the Fear, which often comes to him through dreams.  And his favorite son, Joseph, is the interpreter of dreams.  The story ends with Jacob and his family being saved by Joseph who has risen to power in Egypt.  But Jacob knows he doesn’t belong in this land.  He extracts a promise from his sons that they will see to it that his bones are returned to the place of his ancestors.

Buechner brings the story of Jacob to life.  In this novel, we’re taken back in time, back before the Exodus, before the Prophets, and before the coming of Christ.  In a world of a multitude of gods that’s filled with superstition, Jacob fosters a relationship with the One God.  I think it is appropriate for God to be referred to as “the Fear,” for we can only stand in awe before such a deity. And Jacob, who is a flawed character, reminds us of God’s grace and freedom.  He believes strongly that The Fear has chosen him and his sons to be a blessing to the world.  His story also reminds us that we live with a promise from God, one that goes back long before our birth and will not be fulfilled until after our deaths. We, too, are to be a blessing.  We live our lives in faith, trusting beyond what we can see or will experience.

If you’d like to learn more about Jacob, read Genesis 25-37 and 47:27-49.  And then read Buechner’s novel.  It’s amazing what God can do through flawed characters!

Danger of Looking Down on Others


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 31:1-21

August 27, 2017

In the past two sermons, I’ve mentioned how the stories of Jacob (as well as other stories from Scripture) would have been shared around the campfires. People would have laughed and have enjoyed the tales, but would have also learned something about themselves as well as the ancestors and their God. While I was away the other week planning my preaching for next year, one of the books I read was titled The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. The quote on the leaf of the bulletin came from this book. I encourage you to check it out. It reminds us of the role the fire pit played in the lives of our ancestors. It was around places, such as intimate campfires, where these stories were first told.

Today, we’re looking at a continuation of last week’s text.  These passages are laid out like a good sitcom. In each section there is a seed planted for a future episode.  Last week, we learned how Jacob was able to prosper despite Laban’s attempt to con him. The two had agreed that Jacob would take the stripped and spotted sheep and goats for his payment of twenty years work.  Laban thought he’d be getting the more valuable animals, but even as he agreed, he had his sons drive the spotted animals to distant pastures in order to keep them, too. Despite this, the purely white animals gave birth to stripped and spotted animals and soon Jacob’s herd had increased beyond what anyone thought possible.  God was with Jacob.

But success comes with challenges, as we will see in today’s reading from Genesis 31, the first 21 verses.

###

One of the ugliest periods in history of my hometown, Wilmington, North Carolina, occurred in 1898.  North Carolina came out of the Reconstruction in a way that was different than most Southern States. In the 1890s, African-Americans still had the right to vote. In Wilmington, which was the largest city in the state at the time, there were African-American aldermen, policemen, and firemen. There was a black-owned newspaper that was read all over the South. Its editor, Alexander Manly, a Presbyterian no less, published an editorial that was a response to charge that white women had to fear black men.  Manly suggested such fear went the other way, too.  He pointed out that his mother had been a slave and his father was a former governor.  Bringing this to light was dangerous. People began to complain that Manly was getting to be “too high strung, bold and saucy.”[1]  In other words, he was becoming “too uppity.”

Politically, the establishment was feeling threatened for in the 1890s there was a joining together of forces between white yeomen farmers and laborers and African Americans. The older order was being pushed out. Words became more heated as they begin to play the race card to hold their position. Shortly after the election of 1898, things exploded. White bands attacked and burned the black newspaper but the black community didn’t roll over and play dead. Many of them fought back with squirrel guns and whatever weapons they could find. The white mob, having drawn resources from the National Guard armory including Gatling guns which had just returned from the Spanish American war, out gunned them. The riot became a bloody massacre and in the aftermath, North Carolina followed the rest of the South into the Jim Crow era.[2] An opportunity was lost! It says something that this history wasn’t taught when I was in school.

           It’s a human tendency based on our fallen state for us to look down upon those whom we think are below us. But just because it’s a tendency doesn’t mean it’s the Christian thing to do. When someone we think should be below us experiences a blessing or doing better than us, we feel betrayed. It’s as if Satan is poking our conscience: “Look at them, they’re not as good as you!” We respond with snide or cutting remarks. Some may even respond with hostile or violent actions as happened in 1898. It’s still going on, today, as we saw in Charlottesville.  It’s been going on for a long time. We see this tendency in today’s text.

            God blessed Jacob and now the sons of Laban feel slighted. They forgot or ignored their dad taking advantage of this foreigner, cheating him over and over again. Laban did everything he could to swindle Jacob, yet Jacob prospers. Perhaps it was because of Jacob prospering despite how he’d been treated that made it worse in the eyes of Laban’s sons.  Don’t they have a right enjoy all of their father’s estate?

In the middle of our text, Jacob recalls a dream in which God promises to bless him even while Laban is out to cheat him.  And God informs Jacob it’s time for him to leave. But Jacob didn’t need a dream to know this. Looking around at what was happening, Jacob easily realized it was time for him and his family to be moving on. Even his wives acknowledge this. Scripture tells us that a man must leave his parents and be united with his wife (the same goes for the woman).[3] Leah and Rachel realize their father has taken advantage of their husband and so they encourage Jacob to leave. Jacob is ready and starts packing.

To go back to the sitcom analogy, the text sets us up for the next show. We’re told that while Laban is out shearing sheep and Jacob is packing up the station wagon, Rachel steals her father’s household gods. She takes his idols. The seed of the next week’s confrontation is planted.

         This text shows us two things.  First of all, as I have already pointed out, it demonstrates how we tend to look questionably upon those whom we think should be below us, yet more prosperous. We don’t like it when the immigrant does better than the native (unless we happen to be the immigrant). We feel uncomfortable when another country grows rich and challenges our standing in the world. Instead of rejoicing in their blessings, we complain and bicker and do what we can to curtail their progress, just like Laban’s sons. The second thing this text shows us is that we, even when we are being blessed by God, are not totally innocent nor satisfied. We can be like Rachel, who steals her father’s gods.

One of the things that we need to understand as Christians is that our problems do not always belong to someone else. We can’t just blame the heathens. As Paul notes, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”[4] This is why humility is such a necessary Christian virtue. We are blessed not because of our work, but because God has blessed us. There are others who work hard and are not blessed, or work hard and then lose everything to a hurricane or some other natural disaster, to civil unrest, or war, or an untimely illness.

Furthermore, we are not good just because we have kept the Ten Commandments. We are good only because God through Jesus Christ has forgiven us and made us righteous. We often take too much credit for our own situation.

          I think all of us agree that we are living in a time of turmoil. We might not all agree as to the cause, and that’s okay. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I’m going to risk addressing this. I realize this may seem to be a bit of leap from our text, but not really. As Christians, we need to set a standard of decency and not act as if we’re the sons of Laban. We shouldn’t look down on others, nor think that we’re entitled to more than them.

We need to understand that just because someone doesn’t look like us or have different customs from us doesn’t make them bad. We need to be willing to confess not only our sins but the sins of our ancestors. I know the idea of original sin isn’t very popular these days, but it is a core part of our belief.[5]  We, the human race, have been corrupted by sin and bare responsibility for it. We should be honest and admit that because of the color of our skin, many of us enjoy benefits that others don’t enjoy. Also, because of the sins of our ancestors, many of us enjoy benefits that others don’t.  When we try to whitewash our past, we are not being honest.

Now, I am not suggesting that we need to wipe out every Civil War monument. But we should be honest and acknowledge the core issues that led to the war, including slavery. It was wrong. We should admit there were no saints, on either side, in that war. We should acknowledge the suffering of those who were in slavery and the benefit they provided for their owners (and their owner’s descendants).  And we should also acknowledge that many of those who went off to war had no choice in the manner. Like my relatives, many were poor farmers during the antebellum period and they remained that way during reconstruction and afterwards.  Zebulon Vance, who became governor of North Carolina may have been the first to acknowledge that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.[6] That’s true of many wars. So instead of becoming so defensive, let’s encourage an honest discussion over such monuments while making sure that all sides of the story is told.  This means that other stories need to be highlighted.  Other monuments will need to be installed.  In information depicted on older monuments should be changed to reflect the good and bad past deeds of those depicted.

And for us as individuals, we need to do what we can to bridge gaps between ourselves and others. We are the ones who need to foster friendship with those who look and think differently than us—those from another race or ethnic group, those with different religious or political views. We need to listen without being defensive.

          A few years ago, I read a couple of Marshall Goldsmith’s books. He’s an executive coach and leadership guru, who writes about helping successful people become more successful.  In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he points out how the world has changed and how leaders need to be changing with it.  He offers twenty suggestions of things we need to do differently. Many of his suggestions fall into the category of “not being the sons of Laban” and the realization that our actions are not always honorable.

Goldsmith encourages his readers to seek honest feedback, to apology, to listen to others, and to give thanks.  He reminds us that just because we were born on third base doesn’t mean we’ve hit a triple. He forces us to acknowledge that anger is rarely someone else’s fault. He suggests a question we all need to be asking (and listening to the answer) to the question, “how can I do better?”[7]

        As I said, we are in a time of turmoil. It’s frightening. But with turmoil comes change. And change can be for the good or for the bad. Change means we have an opportunity.  Do we want to be the sons of Laban? Or do we want to rejoice in the blessings shown Jacob and his family? Do we want live with the guilt and fear of taking what’s not ours, as Rachel did?  Or do we want to be satisfied with what God gives us?

As followers of Jesus, it’s up to us to bring positive changes to our community and to the world.  It’s up to us to make the future better for all people. And perhaps the best way to start such a journey is to be honest with ourselves and willing to listen to others. Yes, change is frightening. But it is also an opportunity.  Let’s make the best of it.  Amen.

 

 

©2017

[1] Richard Yarborough, “Violence, Manhood, and Black Heroism,” in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998), 238.

[2] For more on the 1898 riot, see David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, editors. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998) and H. Leon Prather, Sr., We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898 (1984, Southport, NC: Dram Tree Book, 2006).

[3] Genesis 2:24.

[4] Romans 3:22 (see also Romans 5:12)

[5] See Scots Confession, chapter 4; and Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 8.

[6] http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article31123988.html

[7] Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (New York: Hyperion, 2007).  See pages 21, 63 and 122 for Goldsmith’s suggestions.

The Heaven’s Showing Forth God’s Glory: An Eclipse Odyssey

 

 

When I first look up at the sun through those funky glasses, it appears as if someone had taken just a nibble out of a cookie.

A door in Springville, Host of SC Frog Jumping Contest

 

Donna and I are in Springfield, South Carolina, a small town south of Columbia. Knowing Savannah is only going to experience a partial (97% of the sun covered) eclipse, it’s time for a road trip. Furthermore, the coast looks to be socked in with clouds.  As the path of totality is passing by just 70 miles north of here, and Interstate 95 promised to be backed up with eclipse watches, we take back roads, heading northwest, hoping to find a place without clouds and within the totality of the event.

Leaving Savannah on Georgia 21, we follow the river northwest, driving among the tractors pulling containers in and out of the port.  At Springville (Georgia, not South Carolina), we turn north on Highway 119 and cross the Savannah River.  A few miles north of the river, 119 merges into US 321 and we head north.  Attempting to work our way both far enough north to be in the path of totality and far enough west to avoid the coastal clouds, we take US 278, driving through pine forest and the occasional field of beans, corn or cotton.  We stop in Barnwell, the gateway to the Savannah River Site (a Department of Energy Nuclear operation) and pick up a quick lunch at Burger King.  Then we continue heading north, taking State Road 37.  After Elko, which is in the path of totality, we start looking for a good place to watch the eclipse.  There are clouds, but also large clear areas in the sky.  We pull into the small town of Springfield.

Southern Railroad used to run through Springfield, but the tracks were no longer there.  Somehow, a caboose had been left behind and the swath of land that once were tracks is now a long park.  The rail beds have been paved over as a walking and bike path and a pavilion was built next to the caboose. We find a shady spot to park, get out of the car and after putting on the solar glasses, take a peak and see that the moon was slowly doing its magic.  Totality is a little over an hour away.  A few others also stop and we all gather in the park in the center of town.

An African American man is there with his wife and children.  We get to talking and I learn he’s from Springfield.  He tells me the train stopped running around fifteen years ago.  Then he points to another park and said we should come back the Saturday before Easter as the town holds a bull frog jumping contest.  I mention Mark Twain’s story, but I’m not sure he even knows whom I’m talking about as he goes on about how far some of the frogs can jump.  He then points west and tells me about a town with a Chitin festival and how the whole town stinks during the festival.  “I think I’ll skip that festival,” I confide. Then he starts telling about another town where there was a poetry festival.  “Really,” I say. “I might be interested in that,” while thinking that this doesn’t look like a hotbed for literary activities.  He continues, describing how folks walk around gnawing on large drumsticks.  I realize he was saying “poultry” and not “poetry.”  “You got to come back,” the guy says.  “All these little towns have festivals.”  The man is proud of his place in the world!

I take another look at the sun and the bite into the cookie is larger.  The cookie monster is busy; or the moon is doing its magic.

We decide to walk around the town, all three blocks, with a desire to see the sights and hopefully find relief from the gnats flying around us under the trees. They are annoying but thankfully are not the biting type.  Most of the businesses are closed.  The diner is only open Thursdays through Saturday.  The pharmacy closed for the eclipse and, in front of the store, had sat a skeleton in a lounge chair.  The bank is open but doesn’t look very busy.  Just off Main Street is a convenient store that seems to be doing a fair amount of business.

 

Looking back at the sun, it appears as if the cookie is half eaten.

When we got back from our walk, we join the group on the pavilion.    The pavilion provides little relief from the gnats and even though the sun was slowly disappearing and it’s noticeably cooker, it’s still warm and when not looking at the sun, the shade helps.   A large cloud begins to make its way toward the sun and we wonder if we should relocate further west, but the cloud seems to vaporize as it got closer to the sun.  We meet some folks from Savannah, a guy who’d driven a motorcycle up this morning from Gainsville, Florida, another couple from Jacksonville.

The next time I look, the cookie is about three quarter’s gone.

The family from Savannah’s dog is noticeable agitated and we discuss if it’s because of the eclipse or because he thinks it’s almost night and he hasn’t yet been fed.  Looking away from the sun, the sky is a darker blue.  The clouds are only seen on the horizon.  I walk down to where there are trees and see hundreds of crescents reflecting through the leaves on the ground.

Watching through the glasses, more and more of the sun disappears.  The cookie metaphor no longer applies. It’s just a thin rim.  If it was a cookie, it would have crumbled.

Folks begin to claim space on the ramp leading up to the pavilion, laying out towels and blankets.  We lie down on the ramp, looking up to get a better view.  Insects begin to sing.  Streetlights turn on.  Cars driving through town have their lights on.

 

Then it happens.  Very quickly the rim of the sun seen through the glasses disappears.  A few specks appear for a moment and then it’s gone.  You can see nothing in the glasses, so I remove them and WOW. 

The corona is visible, flashing out from behind the moon, in a metallic bluish color.  We hold our breath for it is incredibly beautiful.  I don’t even bother trying to take a photo. Looking around, a few stars and planets are visible, but there is not enough time to orient myself as to which is which.  I keep looking back at the dark block crowned with the corona.  Then, way too soon, the sun begins to reappear with just flecks at first.  We put back on our glasses and watch as the rim appears on the opposite side.  We began to clamp and cheer in acknowledgement that we did it, we witnessed the eclipse and it was incredible.

Just after totality

We watch the sun through the glasses for a few minutes, but the excitement is over.  People began packing up and soon everyone is heading home.  As I walk back to the car that’s parked in the shade of trees, I notice the crescents covering the hood and take my last photo of the eclipse.  We decide to take what is quicker way back and head off east toward I-95.  A few minutes after leaving Springfield, clouds have covered the sky.  Twenty minutes later, we’re in a downpour.  When we get to 95, we realize that we made a mistake as the traffic heading south is at a standstill.  We opt for US 17.  We’re back home by 6:30 PM.

 

Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him for the heights!
Prai
se Him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shinning stars!
                -Psalm 148:1, 3

Rain on the drive home

Jacob’s reward (Genesis 30)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 30:25-43

August 20, 2017

 

Before getting into the Scriptures for today, I thought I we’d have a little educational session about what we might experience tomorrow afternoon if the clouds stay away.  I’m sure you all know we’re having a near total eclipse.  Drive just 70 miles north and the sun will be completely gone.  In ancient times, before they were understood, eclipses were something to be feared.  If they occurred on a Saturday, church would be packed on a Sunday.  They were thought to be a bad omen, letting people know something evil that was about to happen. Scripture doesn’t help.  The prophet Joel speaks of the sun and moon darkening and the Gospels tells us that during the crucifixion, darkness descended on the land.[1] The darkening of the sun is troubling.

Of course, we know what causes an eclipse.  So enjoy the show tomorrow and stay safe. Having just come back from North Carolina, I can assure you the electronic signs on 95 are already warning people to expect heavy traffic as everyone tries to get into the totality of the moon’s shadow.

        As you can see on this diagram I found on Facebook, there are three kinds of eclipses.  Lunar eclipses are frequent.  This makes sense, for the earth is much larger than the moon so it is easier for the moon to be in the earth’s shadow.  Solar eclipses, like we’ll have tomorrow (and you may have to be in a plane above the clouds to see it), is when the moon is between the sun and its shadow crosses the earth.  With the moon being much smaller, things have to line up just right for the shadow to make it across the face of the earth.  Solar eclipses are much less frequent than lunar ones.

As for the final type of eclipse, when the sun moves between the earth and moon, lets me just say those $3.99 eclipse glasses won’t do you much good.  Also, you might need to stock up on some real strong sunscreen.  Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about it happening, and if it did we’d be home with Jesus earlier than planned.  Regardless, God is with us as we’re going to see in our scripture lesson this morning.

 

We’re still looking at the stories of Jacob. Today and next week we’re going to see him try to free himself from his father-in-law, Laban.  Two weeks ago, we saw how Laban got the best of Jacob, as he had to work twice as long to earn the hand of the girl he loved.  Today we will see how Jacob gets back at Laban.  In between these two events, Jacob is blessed with a host of boys!          Remember what I said two weeks ago.  There’s humor in these stories. Imagine folks telling what Jacob did around a campfire or in their slave huts in Egypt.  They’d laugh at the through of their umpteenth great-granddaddy, the trickster, pulling this stunt off against Laban, who was also a trickster.  Read Genesis 30:25-43.

###

 

“Now that Joseph is born…” our story begins.  Joseph is the wanted child.  Even though Jacob already has a quiver full of boys, which the Psalmist says is a sign of a blessed man, Jacob has been waiting for this one child.  Up until this point, Jacob has had children with his first wife, Leah; with Bilhah, Rachel’s slave; with Zilpah, Leah’s slave.  But the light of his eye, Rachel has yet to conceive.  Now she gives birth and they name the child Joseph.  And as you know, this child will have his own challenges, but he is the one who will save his family.  He is the child of the promise.  Without him, Jacob’s dream of a nation from his descendants will not happen.

With Joseph in diapers, Jacob feels it’s time he head back home. Remember the dream of the stairway to heaven, as Jacob was fleeing his brother’s wrath? Jacob was assured he would return home and now he is ready. So he approaches his father-in-law and asks to be released so that he and his family and their flocks may return home with him.

You got to love Laban.  Hearing this, he goes on about how he’s been blessed because of Jacob. It’s Jacob’s God that is the one who has seen to it that his flocks have multiplied.

Laban response demonstrates a truth I have found in life.  It’s not the main truth of this passage, but kind of a second kernel of truth we can take with us. If you are doing business with someone—say buying a car—and they start talking about God, hold on to your wallet! Those who talk the talk the loudest often don’t walk the walk. Sometimes it’s just a sales pitch.  As Jesus says, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.[2]  Don’t be fooled by smooth talk! Watch out for the Labans of the world.  And in our own lives, make sure that our actions demonstrate Jesus’ values, and that we show humility before we engage in God talk!

Jacob offers a unique deal to Laban. He’ll take the animals that are stripped or spotted, Laban can have the rest.  This is a great deal for Laban.  After all, the “unblemished animals” would be worth more. Laban jumps on it. “Sounds good,” he says, as he whispers to his sons to round up those spotted and stripped animals, along with the black ones, and move them to distant pastures. He wants them to be far from Jacob’s eyes.  Even while agreeing to this deal, Laban is planning deceit.  Without any spotted animals and without any black sheep, it is highly unlikely the remaining “white sheep” will give birth to spotted or stripped animals.

But Jacob has a trick up his sleeve, too.  He pulls off a magical stunt, having the animals mate in front of stripped sticks.  Obviously, there was some belief that animals who mated in front of such sticks would give birth to animals with strips and spots. And he only mates the strongest of the flock, for there was no need to weaken his flock with the genetics of Laban’s weaker animals. Now, there is no science behind these streaked sticks, although there is science behind breeding strong with the strong. Those listening probably laughed at Jacob fooling Laban, but they also understood that ultimately it was God blessing Jacob by causing the stronger ewes and does to give birth to strong spotted and stripped lambs and kids.

With a new flock, despite Laban’s best attempts to cheat him, Jacob is now set to make his journey back to his homeland and to encounter his brother.  Of course, there will be more encounters with Laban (and Laban’s gods). We’ll look at those over the next two weeks.

This is, at least on the surface, not an overwhelmingly religious text. God is only mentioned twice.  Once by Laban at the beginning, when he attempt to pull a fast one on Jacob.  And then a second time by Jacob, when he acknowledges that it is God that has caused the blessings that have come from his time working for Laban.[3]

        Even though God is only mentioned in passing, God is there, working behind the scenes. God blesses Jacob! God’s blessings often require patience. God teaches by delayed gratification. God doesn’t instantly answer our prayers.  Nor is God a Santa Claus, coming around once a year with goodies if we’ve been good enough. Sometimes it seems as if God is all about delayed gratification. In Jacob’s life, it was twenty years before he had a full family and a strong herd.  Twenty years, that’s a long time to wait, but God works that way. We have to be patient and trust as we go about our lives. God is present throughout the waiting. Maybe it’s because God wants us to appreciate what we have. We don’t always know what’s going on, but we live and walk by faith, trusting the Lord.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Joel 2:10, Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44

[2] Matthew 10:16

[3] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 302.

Jacob Marries, Twice

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 29

August 6, 2017

 

 

We began our look at Jacob last week, reading about his dream in Genesis 28.  I hope you learned that the Stairway to Heaven existed long before Led Zeppelin came on the scene.  But as I said, the dream itself served only to grab our attention.  What’s important was the Lord speaking to Jacob and the promises made.

As we explore other Jacob stories, we need to remember that these tales are humorous.[1] In the centuries following, those telling the stories around the campfires or in the slave huts of Egypt, would have laughed at Jacob.  Think about him tricking his brother out of his blessing using skins to confuse his blind father, causing the old man to think that it was hairy Esau and not the fair skinned Jacob.  And then there’s old Laban, who we’ll meet today, tricking the trickster.

As we saw last week, Jacob is on a journey, but other than the night of the dream, we’re not given any details. We’re not told of his sore feet, his aching body, the nasty camels or any of that.[2]  Instead, in the chapter after his dream, we find that Jacob has arrived in the land belonging to Laban, his mother’s brother.  He’s there to find a wife. At the beginning of the chapter, he spots a well or cistern.  There’s something about watering holes in the Old Testament that seem to bring couples together.[3]  At this well, there are some shepherds. Jacob asks them about Laban and they point to a woman tending sheep. “She’s Rachel,” they say, “Laban’s youngest daughter.” Jacob is smitten at first sight.  This is who he’ll marry, he hopes.

The shepherds have not yet opened the well, probably because there was an agreement that all those who drew from the well should be present when it is open.  This is to keep everyone honest and not to allow someone to take more than their share of water.[4] As Rachel approaches with her flock, Jacob ignores this tradition.  Like a superhero, he jumps up and pushed off the heavy stone, a task that normally took several of the shepherds.  His adrenaline is pumping.  He wants to impress this girl.

Jacob then kisses Rachel.  As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over very well. We’re not told if he was slapped, but there’s a good probability of it. She then runs and tells her father. John Calvin found Jacob’s actions much too risqué and even suggested that maybe Moses got it wrong when he wrote it down![5] When Rachel tells her father who it was that kissed her, Laban doesn’t grab the shotgun, as we’d expect. Instead, he greets Jacob (whom he’s never met) like a long lost friend. He’s actually his nephew.  This is where our reading begins.  I’ll read Genesis 29:15-30, although we’ll be looking at the entire chapter (so keep your Bibles open).

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I finally got around to watching the Flim-Flam Man this week. It was a film made in 1967, from one of my favorite books which I have referred to several times in sermons. George C. Scott played Mordecai Jones, an infamous con artist who had come to Cape Fear County during the tobacco market.  Mordecai takes up with a guy named Curley, an AWOL soldier.  Curley had decked his loud-mouth Yankee Sargent and decided it was time he and the Army depart ways. This short clip is where they get to know each other…

(show movie clip)

You can’t cheat an honest man?  I’m not sure that’s true, but I do think Mordecai Jones is right in the fact that it’s easier to cheat someone who is looking to cheat you.  Perhaps that’s why Laban was able to take advantage of his son-in-law, Jacob.  As a young man, Jacob had found a way to cheat his brother, twice. He comes to Laban and is willing to work for his daughter’s hand.  He toils for seven years. It doesn’t even seem like work, for he is so focused on Rachel, the love of his life.

At the end of the time, there is a wonderful wedding.  These events often went on for a week. When the night to consummate the marriage arrives, Laban, as the father-of-the-bride, surrounded by all the women at the party, leads the bride in a full veil to the wedding tent.  It’s dark.  There’s been plenty of drinking along with the feasting. Jacob is stuffed and a bit tipsy and doesn’t realize that the veiled woman isn’t his beloved Rachel. But he sobers up quickly the next morning when he wakes up and to find his arm around Leah, who’s lying next to him in bed.

Adding to the humor are the names of the daughters.  Rachel means ewe, and certainly Jacob loved her as if she was his “little lamb.” Although the meaning is debated, it’s probably that Leah is a variation of “cow,” certainly not a very flattering name. As our text reads, she had pretty eyes. And as you know, that’s often a backhanded compliment.[6]

Laban is probably correct in saying that the custom is to marry off the older daughter first.  However, when Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Laban didn’t say no. In fact, he suggested it was better that she be married to someone distantly related than to a foreigner. Even though he’s had seven years to find Leah a husband, he waits and marries her off to an unsuspecting Jacob.

Does he marry Leah to Jacob as a way to protect the honor of his oldest daughter?  If so, it doesn’t really work for she’s now tied to a man who loves her sister.  Does he pull this stunt off to obtain another seven years of labor from Jacob?  Perhaps, but in doing so, he sows the seeds of discord within Jacob’s family.

This deal with the two sisters and who is the oldest is ironic. Jacob had to deal with who was born first growing up.  He and his brother Esau have had their fights. The two of them were twins, but Esau was born first. Therefore, Esau was set to inherit 2/3 of his father’s estate. Jacob would have inherited only a 1/3.  But Jacob tricked his brother, selling him that expensive bowl of soup.  And Jacob wasn’t satisfied there, he also tricked his brother out of the blessing.  The blessing is more important. It had come down from God to Abraham and then Isaac. Jacob had tricked his brother out of his birthright, but now he’s tricked into having to work twice as long for the woman he loves.

At the end of our passage, we see that Jacob is able to marry Rachel.  But we also learn of the roots of jealously taking hold, for Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.  At this point, Leah is barren.  She has not given birth to any children.  In the verses that follow our reading, we learn that she cries to God and God answers her by giving her a boy. Interestingly, according to the text, God and not Jacob is responsible for the pregnancy.  Yes, Jacob played a role, but God was the director of the scene.

Lead names her son Rueben which means, “Look, a boy.”[7]  Leah, in this way, rubs her blessings into her sister Rachel’s wounds, for the younger and lovelier sister has yet to bear a child.  In fact, it will be sometime before she will give birth.  Before she is able to give birth to Joseph, the child that Jacob loves more than the others and compounds the family jealously issues, she tries what Sarah attempted to do with Abraham.[8]  She offers her husband her servant as a surrogate. Dysfunctional families are nothing new!

This story is well-known and important in the history of Israel, but what does it teach us? It certainly isn’t an endorsement of polygamy, as some have said.  If anything it shows the problems arising from competing loyalty.  Nor does Scripture condone the treachery of Jacob and Laban, but it acknowledges it. We live in a fallen world, and often our actions demonstrate that sin is alive and well. Yet, even with sin rampart, God is listening to prayers. God is moved by the prayers of Leah, that she is given three boys in rapid succession:  Reuben, Simon and Levi.  And later, as we’ll see, God will hear the prayers of Rachel as she gives birth to Joseph, who will rise from his mistreatment by his brothers to save his people. God works in mysterious ways, and is at work through Jacob, so that by the time he goes back to the land of his father, he’ll have established a large family that will become the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I suppose what we learn from these passage is that you only see God’s hand when looking backwards. Yes, there was plenty of sadness and jealous, but God was never far away, guiding things so that a nation could be formed and from that nation would come a Savior, God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Such insight should give us hope for the future. We might not always know why things happen, but we should still place our trust in God and enjoy life. For as I indicated at the beginning, these stories were told in a humorous way and laughter is always good. Know that God is present with his love and grace.  God answers our prayers and is also able to laugh with our follies. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta, John Knox Press: 1982), 251.

[2] Frederick Buechner’s novel, Son of Laughter (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1993) fills in many of these details.  It is fiction. I have been reading this book as a way to get into the Jacob stories.

[3] Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s wife (Jacob’s mother) at a spring.  Genesis 24:13-21.

[4]Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 288.

[5] Von Rad, 291.

[6] The meaning of the word translated as “lovely” in the NRSV is disputed.  Some suggest that instead of lovely, it means weak, which would mean that her eyes were not attractive to Middle Eastern men.  See Von Rad, 291.

[7] Von Rad, 294.

[8] See Genesis 16.

Jacob’s Dream


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

July 30, 2017

Genesis 28:10-22

 

Some people have the idea that all the guys and gals on the Lord’s side are holy, but when you read the Bible you find that’s not the case. God isn’t just God for the good guys.  For God so loved the world, we’re told.[1] God’s grace is wonderful. Yet, we’re still surprised when one known for shady dealings and crooked ways experiences grace. Although there are many such stories in Scripture—remember Zacchaeus and the Prodigal Son?[2]—we think it’s unfair.  They don’t deserve a second or forty-ninth chance.[3] But do we?

One such shady character in Scripture is Jacob.  Remember him?  One of the patriarchs in the Old Testament? We’re going to spend some time with Jacob, starting with his dream of the ladder to heaven.  This occurred right after he’d cheated his brother, Esau, out of a blessing from their father Isaac. Jacob had already cheated Esau out of his birthright, selling his brother an expensive bowl of soup. Now he’s taken even the blessing designed for his brother. Esau is out for blood. It would have been Cain and Abel[4] all over again, except that Jacob, on his mom’s advice, skips town.  [5]This is where our story begins…  READ GENESIS 28:10-22

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         The day had started out rainy.  I was hiking through the New York section of the Appalachian Trail, on my way to Maine.  There was a lot of road walking this day.  After the rain stopped and the clouds parted, walking along the side of a road without any shade was torture.  Hot and humid.  I couldn’t wait for the trail to turn back into the woods. Then, in the early evening, I came upon a restaurant.  I decided instead of a bowl of rice or noodles, I’d have a nice sit-down meal in Air Conditioning.  I longed for a crisp salad and a cold beer.  I had only about half of mile of road walking before the trail turned back in the woods so I stopped. The air conditioning was heavenly.  It was about an hour before dark when I left the establishment.

When I got to where the trail headed out into the woods, I was shocked to find that I was entering Pawling Nature Preserve and for the next 3 or 4 miles, camping wasn’t allowed. This information wasn’t in the guide book. I couldn’t go back, unless I wanted to sleep along the shoulder of the road, so I headed into the woods as light drained from the sky. I decided that, for my own conscience, I wouldn’t “camp.” I’d just sleep. There was no need for a fire or even for my stove, as I’d just eaten. So I went a mile or so into the forest, found a level spot, well off the trail, and rolled out my bivy sack. I put my sleeping bag in it, tied my pack up in the trees, and tried to camouflage my bed roll as much as possible. I brushed my teeth and crawled into my sleeping bag…  Although tired, I did not sleep like a baby. I had all kinds of weird dreams—mostly about rangers waking me up.

I was up well before the sun the next morning, stuffed everything into my pack and headed on. When I got through the preserve, there was another road-walk and just a short bit down the trail, I found a place to stop and fix breakfast. Under a set of oaks was a small creek with a mossy spot to sit. I dropped my pack and then noticed across the street was a cemetery. “The Gate of Heaven” was its name.

“How awesome is this place!” Jacob says.  “This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” And I, too, awoke to find the Gate of Heaven… God is closer to us than we think, whether in Judean Hill Country, the mountains of New York State, or the marsh around Skidaway Island. This world is God’s altar.[6] And yes, I, too, believe that God sometimes speaks to us in dreams as he did with Jacob, although I don’t remember any dreams of angels that night.

Let’s look at Jacob for a minute. As I’ve tried to emphasize, he’s really a jerk.  After ripping off his brother twice, he decides he’d better skip town… He’s in such a hurry that he either forgets or doesn’t have time to pack a bedroll. You’d think that as Jacob fled, his conscience would have bothered him a bit. Furthermore, the place he stops is coincidental.[7] He’s between major episodes in his life, the taking of his brother’s blessing and finding a wife (or wives, as in his case[8]). He only stops because it’s dark.  In this site, between events, when nothing is expected to happen unless Esau catches up with him, God intervenes.

As he flees, Jacob makes his meager bed, probably thinking he’d sleep and be quickly on his way at dawn. We’d think he’d lay awake and worry about the brother he hurt, or at least worry about what would happen to him if his older brother got his hands around his neck… But it’s not that way for Jacob. Instead of tossing and turning all night, he lays down, using a rock for a pillow, and sleeps like a baby.

But he dreams.  Again, we might think that Jacob’s conscience would have been bothering him such that his dream would have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t.  He dreams of a ladder or a stairway which reaches from the earth to the heavens and upon which angels travel up and down.  However, the significance isn’t in the dream. The dream is to grab Jacob’s attention. What’s significant is the Lord’s appearance, giving him the same promise that had been given to his father and grandfather.

In verse 15, Jacob receives a three-fold promise from God.  First of all, the Lord promises to be with him. This is much like the promise that Jesus gives the church (I will be with you always, wherever two or more are gathered[9]). Jacob now knows God is with him. Secondly, the Lord promises to protect Jacob. “I will keep you,” he says.  For a wanted and marked man, such a promise gives hope. Finally, the Lord tells Jacob he will provide a homecoming. For a lost man, on the run, this sounds like good news![10]

Jacob awakes and is afraid. But it’s not because of Esau that he’s sacred.  He knows that One more powerful than him has been present. He knows something astonishing has happened.

That morning (perhaps over coffee), Jacob thinks about the promises God has made to him and reacts by building an altar using the stone which had been his pillow.  Then he vows to God, saying that if God is going to do all this for him, the Lord will be his God and he’ll give a tenth of his income to the Lord.

There are two important lessons from this passage which I hope you take away. God’s love and grace are given freely, without merit; and God’s love demands a response…

          First, God’s love and grace are given freely…  Jacob is a jerk.  What right does he have to claim God’s promise?  None! He wasn’t righteous. When we look at the way he acted toward his brother, we can imagine how he treated others. Yet, even though Jacob is an egocentric pain-in-the-butt, God reaches out in love to him. God gives him a vision of heaven, of angels and of a ladder where angels ascend and descend. In his dream, Jacob sees that heaven is connected to and is concerned for the earth. He now knows that God is going to take care of him.

It may be that way with some of you. At times, we should admit, myself included, that we act like jerks. We hurt people with our actions and words. But that makes God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ all the more wonderful. Our salvation is not compromised by our past mistakes and dishonesty. Praise be to God for his love is given freely and is not tied to our actions.[11]

Let me say this another way.  If you feel you are not worthy of God’s love, you are right… You’re not.  None of us are…  Jacob certainly wasn’t…  I’m not and, if honest, neither are you.  Yet God reached out to Jacob and, through Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us in love and mercy.  Paul wrote, “All have sinned and come short of God’s glory” and at another time he said: “I am the chief of sinners.”[12] God reached out to Paul and he became a great missionary. God reached out to Jacob and he became a father of a nation.  How is God reaching out to us?

         The second important lesson from this passage is that God’s love demands our response.  After experiencing this wonderful sign of God’s grace, Jacob immediately builds an altar and promises to give God a tenth of his income.  Jacob shows his gratitude by worship and commitment. By the way, notice that he gave back to God only after he experiences God’s grace.  It is only after God told him what he’s going to do that Jacob responds. We don’t give to buy God’s love, for that would be idolatry. We give in response to God’s love, which is shown to us at Bethlehem and even more fully on the cross. How could we ever buy God’s love?  Do we really think we are important enough that God couldn’t get along without us?

Like Jacob, we give to God out of thanksgiving. We give because God gave to us first… Jacob gave a tenth of his income to God because he was thankful. We should tithe, not because we need all the help we can get, but because we are grateful that even in our rebellion, God loves us and sees value in us. You know, Jacob promises to tithe even though his blessing will not be fully realized for many, many generations.  Like Jacob, we, too, must step out in faith, giving God thanks for what we’ve experienced in the past and what grace and mercy we’ll experience in the future.

            When Jacob fled from his brother, he had a dream.  His dream was to inherit all that was his dad’s.  He wanted flocks of sheep, the goats, the tent, the camels and the cooking pots…  But God had another dream for him, one that included a vision of heaven and that, in time, would make him a father of nations. Too often we sell God short. Our dreams aren’t really God’s dreams. Instead of reaching for the sky, we’re satisfied with a bit more stuff. Jacob wanted a larger herd; in the story I began with, I just wanted to get out of that nature preserve without being caught camping. We want, but our dreams and wants are nothing compared to the plans God may have for us. We need to trust God and be surprised by the blessings.

Let me send you out with a question. Do you sometimes settle for your small dreams when God’s dream for you is much larger?   Amen.

 

©2017

[1] John 3:16.

[2] Luke 15:11-32, Luke 19:1-10.

[3] Matthew 18:21-22.

[4] Genesis 4.

[5] Genesis 27:41-45.

[6] See Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 283.

[8] Jacob the tricksters, is tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the “ugly daughter” and then must work another seven years for him to marry the one he really loved.  Genesis 29:15-30.

[9] Matthew 18:20; 28:20.

[10] Walter Brueggmann, Genesis: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 244-246

[11] Ephesians 2:8-10.

[12] Romans 3:23; 1 Timothy 1:15