Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
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.” 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. 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). 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.” 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. 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. 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?”
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.
 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.
 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).
 Genesis 2:24.
 Romans 3:22 (see also Romans 5:12)
 See Scots Confession, chapter 4; and Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 8.
 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.