It has always been curious to me why our holy scripture is filled with stories. It seems to me that it would have been a lot more straightforward, much less messy, to condense all the truth about knowing God into a more concise list or something, don’t you?
The stories, though, must be there for a reason, and I think it’s because there’s power in a story. The Jewish people know it; they spend much of their time in worship retelling these great stories. Jesus knew it, too—his primary teaching tool was the parable. It’s much more powerful to talk about God’s relationship with humanity, you see, using a story, because relationships are stories—they are not scientific facts. And we come to know God by telling the stories of how God has acted in our world, all the while finding curious and powerful intersections between the story we’re telling and hearing . . . and our very own lives!
It’s called Narrative Theology, and the basic idea is that God is in the process of living out a story of relationship with humanity—one huge, wonderful, multi-faceted epic saga. And, all along the way, our little stories—yours and yours and mine and yours—weave through the larger story, like a grand symphony whose theme melody is played in many different ways by many different players.
The thing is, when we’re living our own stories sometimes it’s hard to hear the melody, you know what I mean? When we look at the big picture, tell the grand story, hear the whole symphony, well, we suddenly find tools to reflect on the work of God in our own little stories.
For the next ten weeks we’re going to be taking a narrative tour through some of the highlights of the Hebrew scripture. There are some amazing stories in our Bibles, stories certainly worth telling and hearing even if we have heard them all of our lives.
We begin our journey today with part of the story of Jacob.
If you’re anything like me, you rue the day you overhear yourself in conversation with your kid inadvertently spouting phrases your parents used to say all the time and you swore—you swore—you would never.
This happens to me and I have watched it happen to my husband Mark because my mother-in-law, his mom, is famous for using the phrase: “Life is not fair.”
I’ll have to check with my mother-in-law, but I’ll bet it’s a phrase she picked up from her own parents and used herself in parenting situations because, while the phrase is definitely true and it certainly is worth learning, it is not—at all—by any stretch of the imagination, comforting.
And you don’t have to be 8 years old to feel the sting, either. Sometimes life throws us curve balls that we had not been expecting, and when that happens, whew, we know for sure that our parents were right. Life is not fair at all.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Dear Dick, as a seminarian, I certainly do appreciate your materials. We have been assigned to write an exegetical research paper on this particular gospel selection for one of our professors, and I have spent a week pouring through books to find the background material. Your exegesis
for this text is most useful and supports what I have been reading. Furthermore my own rector has told me that since I am doing this paper, I can preach on that Sunday. Thank heavens for the inspiration found in your sermon! Just wanted you to know that your work is very appreciated!”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
Our story from Hebrew scripture today is the story of one of our ancestors in the faith, Jacob, who lived a soap opera of a life for sure. If you remember, Jacob was the second son of Isaac and Rebecca. He was a twin, and his older brother Esau was in line to receive Isaac’s blessing and perpetuate the family line.
Jacob was rather conniving, if you recall. He tricked Esau out of his status as the oldest child, bribing him with a bowl of soup. Then, aided by their mother Rebecca, Jacob hatched an elaborate plan to sneak into his father Isaac’s tent and trick him into bestowing the family blessing once and for all, on him.
What a trickster! After he had wronged his brother Jacob had to run, run for his life. Esau was (understandably) incensed and determined to kill Jacob, because once the blessing had been meted out it couldn’t be recalled. You know exactly what Esau must have been lamenting, don’t you?
Life is not fair.
It’s not fair at all.
So Jacob ran for his life, and after various adventures ended up in the desert looking for a distant cousin of his mother’s. Hospitality was the order of the day in the punishing desert, so Jacob knew when he ran into a settlement of people living near a well of fresh water that he would have a hot meal and a safe place to spend the night.
But after night after night sleeping out under the stars, head on a rock, Jacob must have been utterly relieved when he discovered that he’d actually stumbled on his ultimate destination . . . the family he’d been traveling to find.
The passage we heard today from Genesis 29 is what happened right after Jacob came to the well and found his family, the start of a whole new life for him. He inquired about his uncle Laban and suddenly, his eyes and the eyes of a beautiful young woman met across the well . . . and it was love at first sight, destiny, for sure.
Humans are, either consciously or unconsciously, enamored with the idea of destiny. We all call it different things, of course: good luck, God’s will, karma . . . but whatever we call it, it’s comforting somehow to think that we’re doing things just right, we’re on God’s A list, and we’re getting great results.
Two Christmases ago a Calvary member who shall remain nameless was kind enough to give me a parking angel. This silver-colored wind-up angel stuck to the dashboard of the car.
The usefulness of this item, aside from making my car look really holy, is supposedly related to finding a parking place. When you find yourself trolling around the Giant parking lot trying desperately to find a parking place closer than one mile from the front door, the instructions direct you to wind up your parking angel, set the plastic wings flapping and . . . a parking place will divinely appear.
As we all know, the provision of a good parking place, especially one of those really good ones—like the only one at the very front which is not marked Handicapped—is a true sign of, well, whatever you want to call it: God’s favor, good luck.
I’m hesitant to admit that these thoughts even go through my mind because this is really bad theology (and why a congregation member would give something like this to her pastor is another issue of concern altogether . . . !), but I know thoughts like these go through your minds, too. This way of thinking is just a human way of trying to make sense of our lives, which are often filled with situations that don’t make sense at all. In these moments all of us long for something to cling to, a sense of comfort and structure that provides a predictable outcome.
I even caught myself at Target just last week concerned because the adhesive on the bottom of my angel has worn off and the angel has disappeared. And, I do think that I have been having significantly more trouble finding good parking . . . .
Destiny at the well and God’s provision of parking aside, there’s more to the story we’re telling today, as you know. Jacob was determined that he would marry this beautiful woman, Laban’s daughter Rachel. So he settled into the camp and got to work, striking a deal with Laban that he’d work for him for seven years if Laban would agree to give him Rachel.
This sounds outrageous to us, of course, but remember that in the society of Jacob and Rachel and Laban women were traded like property, and in order to acquire a wife you generally had to pay a rather large dowry—you know, a trade of property for property. Jacob was on the run; he didn’t have anything to his name. There was no way he’d be able to acquire a wife otherwise, so think of it as Laban doing Jacob a favor.
But there’s more. The Hebrew text tells us that Laban had two daughters. In addition to Rachel there was Leah, the eldest. Some translations of the Hebrew text says that Leah’s eyes were “lovely” and that Rachel was “beautiful in form and attractive.”
The Hebrew text of verse seventeen reads literally: “And the eyes of Leah were tender, and [i.e., but] Rachel was beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance.” The meaning of the Hebrew word translated “tender” is uncertain, and that adjective is not used anywhere else in the Hebrew text to describe someone’s eyes, so we’re not exactly sure what it means. Our best guess as modern readers is that the word probably indicates some kind of weakness. For example, Leah’s eyes were infected or cross-eyed or very sensitive to the sun or different colors.
And, even if the text meant to say her eyes were “lovely,” we can clearly see a rivalry being set up. Rachel was beautiful . . . and Leah had nice eyes.
It would be kind of like saying: “Well, he does have a nice personality….”
There’s no doubt as we read further that Leah, though older and first in line to get married, was not as attractive as Rachel, and Jacob had no intention of marrying Leah—it was Rachel he wanted.
And the intrigue in the story continues, as you know.
After working seven years for Rachel Jacob reminds Laban of his promise and a big wedding party was planned. In a traditional Middle Eastern wedding of that time, all work would stop and the whole community would gather to celebrate. The men would be separate from the women and would have already been partying quite vigorously well in advance of the actual wedding, which would be marked not with a pastor pronouncing the couple husband and wife and a kissing of the bride, but with about 15 minutes where the couple retires to a private room to quickly consummate the marriage and close the deal. Talk about pressure! But, remember, in that society a woman was property and her value was in her ability to bear children to continue a man’s lineage, so we’re not talking about rose petals, candles and essential oils here; this was all business.
Well, you know what happened. The bride was veiled, as was the custom that day. Jacob was drunk or preoccupied or under pressure or in a rush to get things done . . . at any rate, he woke up in the aftermath of the party to realize he was married, not to Rachel, but instead to Leah.
What a mess. Jacob was incensed, but what about Leah? She’d been used as a pawn in her father’s scheme and she knew Jacob didn’t want her. And what about Rachel? She stood on the sidelines, also veiled, watching all of this unfold. If you listen closely you can hear that ageless human lament echoing over the desert and thousands of years: “But it’s not fair!!!!”
Have you ever woken up one morning and found yourself in bed with . . . or without, as the case may be . . . a situation that seems totally and completely unfair?
You do the best you can; you make good decisions; you stay the course; you’re as dutiful as you can possibly be; you’re responsible and trustworthy and committed . . . and, regardless, you find yourself facing a life situation that is totally and completely unfair. You didn’t deserve it; you didn’t want it; you didn’t do anything to cause it . . . and yet, here you are. It feels sneaky. It feels wrong. It feels insulting.
If you have ever been in a situation like that, well, then you know exactly what almost every character in this story felt. Justified or not, Isaac, Rebecca, Esau, Jacob, Leah, Rachel—even Laban—felt at some point that they were in a situation they did not deserve to be in; that life was at that moment utterly and totally not fair.
And it seems to me that it may not be a coincidence at all that every single character in this story is facing one circumstance or another in which they are not in control and in which life seems so unfair . . . . What if this trend is more than just a part of an epic story?
What if it’s just part of human living?
The first Christians who were gathered in the great city of Rome certainly knew what it was like to feel that life was not fair. When the book of Romans was written the tension they were feeling as Christians in the most celebrated pagan city in the world was beginning to mount. They were not able to quietly go about their own business, worshipping as they felt they should, because they were somehow becoming perceived as a threat. Eventually, you know what they faced day in and day out—the fear of being hauled off to the coliseum and fed to the lions. There was nothing fair about their situation, and, in fact, the stakes of where they found themselves were pretty darned high.
The writer of Romans takes on their fear and their anger, their feeling that life just is not fair, in our reading today from Romans 8. It wasn’t mere inconvenience being addressed with the church at Rome here; it was a situation where it hurts so much and it feels so unfair that, really, there are no words you can even think of to use. Verse 28, in fact, describes their situation as one so disturbing that God’s Spirit takes over and prays for them—with groans that are too deep for words.
It hurts. It’s bad. It’s unexpected. It’s unfair. In this very real pain of human living, Romans says, when the pain is too deep to even put into words and the very best you can manage is to put one foot in front of the other and keep going, what then?
What does someone like Leah or Rachel, Jacob or Esau, the church at Rome, you and me do . . . what possible comfort is there, anywhere, when it feels like the rug just got pulled out from under you?
When that happens—and read the story of Jacob and know that it will—here’s what Paul tells us we remember: there is nothing, nothing in all this world or any other world, that could ever possibly keep us separated from God.
Not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, not one situation so painful or unfair that we ever, ever have to walk through it alone.
Not difficult circumstances. Not bad luck. Not poor choices. Not a wedding veil or a whole entire desert. Not a terrible accident. Not pain or illness, sadness or fear. Not these or any other thing that will ever happen to us will ever, ever render us all alone.
Friends, this is a story worth telling, remembering and reminding each other, because there are times when even situations in our lives seem utterly unfair. Hear this promise: nothing shall separate us from the love of God.
Thanks be to God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.