Thursday, July 13, 2017

Finding Ourselves in Genesis

For those Christians who use The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship (which is a plan for reading from the Bible over a three-year cycle) this summer offers an option for those using "Track 1" to be reading through some amazing stories from the scroll of Genesis. 

One of the challenges I found in parish ministry, however, was in managing vacation schedules (people aren't in church every Sunday to hear the story unfold) and also the fact that the RCL, in an effort to keep the readings of a manageable length, has to make some editorial decisions and sometimes loses the flow of the narrative. So we jump from snippet to snippet. One can rectify this by going back and reading the actual narrative from a Bible (or an online version like this one from, say from Genesis 21 or so (the birth of Isaac) to the end. It won't take that long and it's rich, interesting stuff.  

The story of God’s people and particularly the story of God’s encounters with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families is a story not so different from our own lives. As it unfolds we get birth and marriage and death and all the stuff in between. Sometimes it reads like a soap opera because sometimes our lives are like that. It’s not just about the good stuff, but the very real challenges of being a family not in some idealistic way but in the midst of sibling rivalries and generational conflicts that all families navigate. 

The names may be familiar or unfamiliar to us and for most of us the places are unknown and hard to pronounce in the same way that people who live outside of Massachusetts seem unable to pronounce "Worcester" correctly. This summer at the Festival of Homiletics I went to a lecture by one of my former professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Anna Carter Florence. She encouraged preachers to "pay close attention to the verbs" because we can get stuck on the nouns, but the verbs draw us in. 

Take for example, the portion of Genesis assigned for this Sunday, from Genesis 25:19-34. If we aren't careful we readers and preachers might get bogged down on wondering about "Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean..." We think the story took place in Bible Land a long time ago and has nothing to do with us. But notice just some of the verbs here that advance the narrative: 
Prayed. Was barren. Conceived. Struggled. Gave birth. Grew up. Loved. Cooking. Ate. Was famished. Sold. Despised.
The story moves and as it does, most of us can identify in one way or another with those verbs. We are a people who pray, who sometimes struggle with getting pregnant, who do sometimes conceive, who struggle, love, eat, despise...

Along the way we may find ourselves identifying with one or more of these characters and perhaps one or more of the characters will remind us of others, including in our own families, who have hurt or healed us in our own journeys of formation and deformation. 

The Genesis story began with Abraham and Sarah, whom God called to leave behind their old country and set out for a new land, a promised land. The nouns may change but most of our families, especially in the United States, include stories about someone who left one place in search of a new life in America. Regardless of when that happened or where they came from, we can relate to the verbs. 

God promised Abraham a heritage, that he would be the father of many nations. And so the story unfolds from there as these strangers in a new land celebrate, finally, the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham and Sarah’s old age. And then the testing of Abraham on Mt. Moriah and the casting away of Hagar and Ishmael (see the image shown above, and notice Sarah looking on.) And then Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have two boys of their own, Esau and Jacob.

In two weeks we hear one of my favorites in scripture - the very definition I think of karma, when Jacob the trickster is himself tricked by his Uncle Laban. (See Genesis 29:15-28.) If we hear this story in isolation, as if nothing had happened before and nothing will happen afterwards, then we might find ourselves saying, “poor Jacob.” He falls in love with a beautiful girl and agrees to work seven years for her hand in marriage. He shakes on it with the father-of-the-bride (who also happens to be his mother’s brother) but his uncle tricks him, making s a last minute switch on the wedding day and instead of Rachel, Jacob finds himself married to Leah. 

Now this moment could generate countless sermons including feminist critique sermons that employ a hermeneutic of suspicion about all of this. The narrator, however, is ridiculously direct: the marriage feast happens, there is apparently lots of drinking involved, the marriage is consummated and then this simple declarative statement: “when morning came, it was Leah!” 

Jacob has been tricked! Poor Jacob! Unless you’ve been paying attention to the narrative. Then you will recall how he came to be at his uncle’s house looking for love in the first place and the story from this week and then one the RCL unfortunately omits from Genesis 27, when Issac is on his deathbed. Esau is out hunting because his dying father has one last request—some of that delicious stew he is so fond of—the manly chili with lots of meat and hot peppers and very few veggies. Just the smell of it will make dying a little easier. But while Esau is out trying to meet the old man’s final request, Jacob and his mother collude to trick Isaac, cooking up some stew just the way Isaac likes it. And because Jacob is a soft-skinned mamma's boy they put some animal skins on him to make him seem hairy like his brother and unbelievably it works. The old man is deaf and blind and he blesses Jacob moments before Esau arrives home out of breath and hauling a dead animal with him. Seriously, it's all there - check it out!

And what happens next? Brave Sir Jacob runs away. His mother slips a few bucks in his pocket and sends him off to live with her brother, Laban, so that Esau won’t kill him. In any case, there is so much here worth paying attention to. Don't get stuck on the nouns. Pay attention to the verbs and how the narrative moves forward. This is how families work: what is not transformed gets transmitted from generation to generation.

Yet there is, to my mind, also a certain kind of grace in all of this because in spite of it all these are God’s people, just as we are God’s people. The stuff of their lives and ours—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that is where God continues to find us. And that is where we find God. Not in some distant heaven far away but taking on flesh—incarnate among, and in and through us.