Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pentecost 7A

I don’t know which cliche to use to describe what happened to Jacob in today’s Old Testament reading. I’m not sure if this is a case of “the devil being in the details” or “what comes around goes around.” Or both.

But whatever cliche we use to describe Jacob’s situation, you have to admit that he received the “short end of the stick” because Laban, being “crazy like a fox” indeed “drove a hard bargain” (to conclude my list of cliches).

When Jacob hammered out the contract with Laban he should have paid closer attention to what his boss DID and DID NOT say. He needed a good lawyer to glance over the paperwork to read the fine print.

After asking Laban for Rachel’s hand in marriage as a reward for seven years of hard work, Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man. So...we have a deal!” And they shook on it.

Notice what Laban DIDN’T say. He didn’t say “I will give RACHEL.” He merely said “HER.”

That’s why, when the seven years were finally up, and Jacob climbed into his wedding tent that night, lifted the veil over his bride’s head, and the sun came up the next morning, he was in for BIG surprise. And the surprise was, of course, that it was Leah, not Rachel, who was lying next to him in the wedding bed.

Understandably angry, Jacob bolts from the tent and tracks down Laban, 

“Hey! I thought we had an agreement! I was supposed to get Rachel NOT Leah!”

Pretending to NOT know what Jacob is talking about, Laban responds, “O c’mon, you know better than that. The oldest daughter always gets married first. It’s custom. Tradition. The way it’s always been done around here. How God wants it. 

“So stop being so silly. But I’ll tell you what. Give me seven more years, and you can have Rachel as well.”

Fast forward seven years and Jacob takes Rachel for his wife. And later, since Rachel couldn’t get pregnant, Jacob then marries Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, with whom he had a son. And then Jacob also married Leah’s maid Zilpah who became pregnant and had more children.

That’s a lot of wives. And a lot of children.

And this wasn’t a case of Jacob philandering. In fact the bible tells us that there was much rejoicing at each of those births from all of Jacob’s wives.

And I won’t even get into the issue of a wife being payment for work accomplished. But I will draw attention to Jacob’s multiple wives. And that everyone in the story seems ok with this. 

It was custom. Tradition.The way it was always done. How God wanted it, and God never changes. Right?

So, when we talk about the “traditional” or “biblical view of marriage” what are we talking about exactly?

We tend to believe that the bible affirms marriage as one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others ‘till death do them part, amen. And yes, the bible DOES say that.

But the bible also DOESN’T say that.

The bible provides examples of MANY forms of marriage. The biblical writers were not of one mind on how human beings are to enter into the marital covenant, because the motives for marriage changed over time to meet their circumstances. Which makes me draw the conclusion that the various forms of marriage that the bible gives are born from culture and custom rather than divine edict.

So as we see from this story of Jacob, the definition of marriage and family has never been static or fixed, either in scripture or in society. Each generation figures it out for themselves, and with each decision, the generation following might be appalled by what their parents and forebears did.

For example, for some unfathomable reason, one of Martin Luther’s parishioners wanted more than one wife. We can only guess what his motives were, but he asked Luther, his pastor, if polygamy was permissible. 

Luther responded by saying that if a Christian man wanted multiple wives, “he may do so in accordance with the Word of God and his conscience” and suggested that the pressure from society for a man to have only one wife was irrelevant to scripture.

Luther advised this man to follow his conscience and the teachings of the bible, which allows for and even encourages polygamy, rather than to submit to the community’s arm-twisting to stay trapped in the one-man-one-woman marital arrangement. 

In other words, (and guys, you might want to pay attention to this), if you want more than one wife that’s no one else’s business than your’s, all of your wives’, and God’s.

To our ears that sounds insane! (Personally, one wife was PLENTY for me).  And if I ever counseled someone in the church to obey scripture in such a reckless way I’d be moved out of the parsonage before the sun set. And rightly so. 

So it tells us that we make life decisions based on more than just what the bible says. That our lives are much more complex than to look for legal guidance from scripture. 

However, this story isn’t really about marriage, although it speaks to contemporary debates.

It’s about how Jacob created such a huge family.

This story looks at the way we use the tools that God has given us to discern what God wants for us. Namely, scripture informed by conscience. And the messiness that that creates.

As Lutherans, we confess to a doctrine called “sola scriptura” which is Latin for “scripture alone,” which means that we say that God is revealed in scripture and ONLY scripture. No where else. We don’t look outside the pages of the bible to learn who God is. 

So, Lutherans traditionally dismiss people who say that they (for example) find God in nature. Or in prayer. Or in intuition. Or in disembodied voices. Or in supernatural experiences.

Lutherans traditionally and actively reject any notion that the God revealed in Jesus can be found anywhere other than in the stories and teachings of the bible. 

We call the bible the “Word of God” because it preaches salvation in Jesus, and NOWHERE else is such a message proclaimed. 

And my preaching, it is assumed, is an extension of scripture’s salvation proclamation.   

So, Lutherans traditionally say, “Don’t tell me about the transcendent experience you had while hiking in Waterton.” 

“I don’t want to hear about the voice you heard in your head while praying that you say is God’s.”

“I don’t want to know about how angels protected you from that car accident.” 

“I don’t care that you think you had a ‘sense’ of Jesus comforting you during your surgery.” 

“These experiences are just meant to distract and deceive you. It’s the Devil pulling you away from the TRUE Word of God which is Holy Scripture,the ONLY source of God’s knowledge that can be trusted, the ONLY place where God is revealed and Jesus is proclaimed. Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone. End of discussion.”

Sounds pretty limiting, doesn’t it?

And while Lutherans officially confess Scripture Alone, we never really practice it, because we instinctively understand its limitations. Which is why I hear so many stories from people that don’t come from the bible.

But my instincts were pretty dull for a long time. And I would get angry with people who deviated from this path. 

I used to defend Scripture Alone wholeheartedly.

I used to admonish parishioners who shared stories of “experiencing God in the mountains.” 

I used to correct people who said that they heard God speaking to them while praying. 

I used to inwardly roll my eyes at those who said that they sensed God comforting them during moments of grief.

Nice, eh? 

I thought I was doing the right thing. After all, Lutherans confess that God is revealed in Scripture Alone, and I made a vow to uphold that doctrine when I was ordained.

But then I realized that I was upholding a doctrine at the expense of people, and even at the expense of God. I realized that I was putting religious dogma before flesh-and-blood human beings, that I was shoe-horning a fixed set of beliefs into the lives of those who were actively and earnestly seeking after God.

They had read scripture, and they saw that the bible wasn’t a retreat FROM the world, but the bible opened their eyes to see what God is actually doing IN the world.

I was like Laban in today’s first reading who used the tradition for his own purposes. While my intentions weren’t devious like Laban’s who used sacred knowledge to trick Jacob into working for him for seven years beyond his initial contract, my motives were probably worse; I was protecting a tradition from the people the tradition was supposed to serve. 

I was protecting a tradition at the expense of people to whom I was supposed to bring good news.

I was protecting the Word of God from those to whom that Word was to be proclaimed.

So, I began asking questions like, Is the tradition that I’ve been given placing burdens on people, or is it setting people free in Jesus’ name like it’s supposed to do?

Am I protecting the tradition because that’s what *I* need, at the expense of my people and what THEY need?

In my hands does the tradition live and breathe, expand and contract, as it speaks to present realities, or do I have my thumb on its windpipe because I’m afraid losing authority?

Does the tradition even need protecting? Does God need protecting? 

As I defend the tradition am I just defending myself?

Am I hiding in the tradition because it’s more comfortable and safe than navigating a world I can’t control?

I began to realize that it’s not my job to bring the world “out there” into the world of the bible. But to bring the world of the bible to the world “out there.” It was my job to bring God’s world of forgiveness, of mercy, of justice, of peace, of love, of freedom, of joy “out there.”

It is my job to tell others about the God who makes all things new. It is my job to proclaim the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and is renewing everything that God had made, and will not stop until the whole of creation breathes fresh air.

It is my job to tell others that “...I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord....”

And my job becomes your job. Your job is to take these stories that we hear “in here,” and live those stories “out there.” Because God goes from “in here” to “out there” through you. 

It is “out there” that the kingdom is coming alive. It is “out there” that the blind yearn to see. It is “out there” that the dead long to be raised. It is “out there” that the imprisoned ache for freedom.

God’s story didn’t end with the Book of Revelations. God’s story begins anew each morning when you rise and live God’s story, where the ongoing saga of Jesus and the power of his resurrection is lived and breathed in all that you do.

You are not Laban who uses God’s story to deceive. You are not like how I was who read the words of the bible but missed the message of salvation.

You are a follower of Jesus - the crucified, risen, and ascended saviour - whose story leaps from the pages of scripture, and joins your story, so that, at the end, you reach the conclusion together.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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