Sunday, July 27, 2014

Judgment, Justice, Mercy

My sermon from the lectionary reading: Genesis 29:15-28. Can I just say, I have NO idea what to title this. Anyone with a pithy take on that, please help a girl out. 

Parental Advisory: Explicit Content!! I say that only partially tongue in cheek. We will be discussing some very hurtful, distasteful behaviors today.

To sum up where we’ve come from: Jacob has tricked his family, met God in the desert, and finally arrived at the home of his mother – Laban’s land. The scripture prior to our reading indicates Jacob saw Rachel and her sheep – it actually mentions her sheep a couple different times – and was attracted. One presumes to Rachel. But it seems the sheep didn’t hurt, either.

Let’s be honest about what’s happening in this story. Last week by gazing intently into the story of Jacob’s vision of God we learned something deep and rich about God’s continuity and grace from age to age. This week, staring intently into the story of Laban’s trickery, we learn something deeply unsettling about human sin. Last week we saw God’s mercy joining the sinner. This week we cry for God’s justice for the oppressed.

Prayer candles: Church of the Holy Sepulcher

I’ve heard the story boiled down to some kind of karmic comeuppance for Jacob. See? He lied and now he’s lied to! He stole his older brother’s birthright, and now Laban sneaks an older sister in on him! Blow for blow, it’s almost too poetic a mirror of Jacob’s own actions. Very tidy.

I’ve heard it expressed as showing Jacob’s growing up. Finally he’s willing to honestly work for something he wants – even in the face of another’s deceit. Although, the “thing” Jacob wants is a woman – a human being. Also tidy.

Too tidy. Is that the point? Unfortunately for our moral-of-the-story loving brains, I don’t think there is a “point.” It’s one story, in a long line of stories leading to the ultimate story embodied in Christ.

If we sweeten it up too much – we lose the power of the ultimate point of all these stories – what God is bringing to the world in Jesus Christ, and how God will reconcile that world to Godself.

I’ve been reading the Bible so long I forget it’s a book. When I read Harry Potter I get all caught up in the emotions and behaviors of the characters. I cry when a heart is broken, or shake my head when a character does something sure to undermine their relationships and reputation. I step into that world for a moment. Perhaps I don’t do this with the Bible because of stories like this one. It’s a mess to step into. In this short reading we see abuse of power, dominance, survivalism, deceit, polygamy, sexism, classism, drunkenness, incest – are we running out of fingers to count? An honest reading gives us this broad view of the sins of the players. But even judging what’s wrong, we can still keep ourselves from the emotions of the participants.

As a woman, I cannot escape the treatment of women here. Unlike Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah have no voice in this story. They are used as wages for labor, and deceitfully used, at that. And my heart aches particularly for Leah. Not only used as payment for work, but slipped into have sex with a man who didn’t want her, so he would be beholden to her, because she was so unmarryable. And of course, the destruction to the relationship between Rachel and Leah drives this narrative for chapters to come. 

Then the slaves. Already, Rachel and Leah have been discussed, bargained for, and delivered as objects. The slaves are more of an afterthought. Thrown into the bargain. Imagine the feeling of powerlessness. Hopelessness. Maybe of impotent anger. We MUST empathize with these women. We are most motivated to create change when we understand another’s situation.

Laban and Jacob are shrewd. Survivors. Business men strategizing how to dominate, prosper, and propagate. The women become the bargaining chips in their negotiations. Humans treated as material for barter.

I want to avoid the lure of writing these things off as culturally specific behaviors. It has never been God’s plan to strip any individual of their own determination over their sexuality and destiny. In fact, the one being who has the power to remove this autonomy still gives people choices—even knowing we could use them for ill. Besides, while that culture may have been blind to its immorality, we are susceptible to the same blindness.

These things happen still today. And lest we let our minds wander too far into the third world and shake our heads – I know of a seven year old who was marketed for sex on the streets of Oklahoma City. Humans are still used for sex and profit. Men as well as women, although women and children are particularly vulnerable, in a society where power leans in favor of males.

Countries and factions scrape for dominance, using any measure of deceit or violence; using rape as a mechanism of war.

Businesses prioritize profits over people, to sometimes deadly outcomes.

Races subjugate other races.

Churches close their doors to people based on orientation, or keep certain persons voiceless. Or keep silent in the face of wrongdoing.

I dehumanize too. I dehumanize what scares me when I stereotype the homeless person on the street corner, or blame a victim of violence. Or write somebody off as a hopeless cause.

Are we depressed yet?

I’m spending a lot of time on what’s wrong here because it’s important we not let the impact of it slip away from us. As people motivated by love, it can be difficult to point fingers of judgment at our behaviors and others’.

I never felt the weight of the immorality in this story before. But its weight doesn’t stop with these players. The same brokenness and shameful behavior pervades our human relations still. To lesser and greater degrees we may participate in that. To understand the impact of what Christ means, and what Christ accomplished we must, we must, understand the destructiveness of the choices we can make. His grace is not cheap. When we gloss over our sin, we can’t understand our need for his justice and mercy.

So, juxtapose this awful behavior with Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and in particular, Sermon on the Mount. His message there: don’t retaliate; love your enemies. He blesses the poor and hungry and weak – no mention is even made of the shrewd. And, in the moment of his death, he forgave his murderers.

Looking at this story bravely causes us to see it for the terrible mess of human sin it is. Last week God was recognizable to us in the story because we have already met Jesus. This week we recognize sin because we’ve met Jesus, and his life stands in stark contrast to these behaviors, and the attitudes that motivate the behaviors.

The contrast of Jesus’ chosen powerlessness on the cross, non-violence in the face of attack, love for the outcast, generosity for the poor calls into judgment the behaviors of dominance in our reading, and in our lives – moving us to repentance and confession. 

Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

Keep in mind, Bonhoeffer lived in Nazi Germany, under a church claiming to preach the Gospel while serving the ends of the Nazi party.

This story is not in and of itself redeemable with some trite moral or point. But, God, in mercy and justice, still wove it into the tapestry that brought forth Jesus. And, by its very contrast to Jesus, it stirs us to cry out to God for justice that sets free captives -- through the judgment of the wicked -- and mercy that redeems sinners. We need both.

And we live both into the world. Our indignation at injustice, our social action to elevate the marginalized, our daily attempts to reorient ourselves to an ethos of love, of non-violence, of Jesus-likeness – these make us Christians, and bring kingdom and God’s will to earth.

Here’s a question we can’t answer today, but face as a body of believers: what shape will we take, what actions will we take, who will we be if we make the choices – the repetitive choices – to live this way? How do we, as a new Christian community, trying to share God’s love in radical ways, also hold ourselves, and our fellow humans, accountable to the standard of love and humanity Jesus lived?

We are not hopeless. My friend, Father Kenneth Tanner writes, “no choice we make can defeat the mystery of sovereign love, no darkness can overcome the powerlessness of the crucified God.” 

May we participate in spreading that love, in doing good, in modeling that powerlessness, transparently rooting out, repeatedly, our survivalist instincts to mirror the life and message of Jesus.

In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

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