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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Part of God's Mission?

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch
Proper 12 Year A
July 24, 2011

There’s good news for all of you daytime soap opera watchers out there. But first… the bad news. Last April the ABC network announced that they were cancelling two of the longest-running programs in the history of television. After over 40 years on the air, those staples of daytime drama, All My Children and One Life to Live would be ending their run after a combined total of over 20,000 episodes. Clearly, predictions of the end of world as we know it were coming true.

But earlier this month, a sort of “stay of execution” was announced. All My Children and One Life to Live would… well… live. After they sign off from television this fall, the shows will be migrating to their new media platform to continue the intrigue that generations of viewers have come to rely on. That’s right… All My Children and One Life To Live are moving to the internet, where you’ll be able to continue watching them on your computer or mobile phone or Ipad. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

There is a sort of twisted fascination which holds us spellbound as we watch private family dramas play themselves out before our public eyes. Whether it is fictional families like those we see on television; or real-life families like the Kennedys (including the ongoing saga between Maria and Arnold), or the Kardashians, or the Michael Jackson clan, or Lindsay Lohan and her parents, we all seem to be held emotional hostage to the allure of other people’s familial struggles. Maybe it’s because we can watch those stories, and find comfort in the assurance that they are so un-like the rest of us… or maybe it’s also because we can see a bit of our own stories (even if less extreme) in the stories of others.

I’ve got to tell you, though, that any of the contemporary dysfunctional family situations we might observe don’t hold a candle to the family story that has been unfolding for the past several weeks from the book of Genesis. It is that epic story of the so-called matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith – Abraham and Sarah, and their son Issac and his wife Rebecca, and their sons Esau and Jacob, along with Jacob’s own clan. In any great story there are good characters and bad ones, heroes and villains, and all the good twists and turns that keep us tuning in to the next episode.

A few weeks ago we heard the story of a conniving young Jacob deceiving both his older brother Esau and his father Isaac, by disguising himself as Esau and visiting his old blind father as Isaac lay on his deathbed, just so Jacob could gain his father’s blessing that was rightfully Esau’s to receive. His whole life, Jacob has been gaming the system by whatever means necessary to get ahead, with no regard for who or what might be standing in his way.

By the time we get to today’s story from Genesis, Jacob seems to have finally gotten everything he’s after in life – except for one more thing. He hasn’t gotten the girl yet… the apple of his eye, the joy of his heart, the love of his life… the beautiful Rachel. So Jacob works out a deal with Rachel’s father Laban. Jacob will work for Laban for seven years, in return for the right to marry Rachel. Rachel, apparently, doesn’t even get a say in the matter.

But what goes around comes around, and after seven years of labor, it’s now time for Jacob to get a dose of his own medicine. On his wedding night, with the candles dimmed (and probably after drinking more than a few too many glasses wedding bubbly), old Laban sends his elder daughter Leah into Jacob’s tent rather than the younger Rachel. And by the time the sun comes up, following whatever wedding night events happened in the tent under the cover of darkness, Jacob comes to discover that he’s now hitched up to a woman other than the one he expected. Apparently, just as older sons have certain rights, so too do older daughters – including the right to get married first.

Jacob cries “foul”… but to no avail. What’s done is done. So Jacob agrees to work for Laban for an additional seven years in exchange for finally getting to marry Rachel. And after what is now 14 years of service, Laban finally holds up his end of the bargain, and offers Rachel to Jacob as his bride. Thank goodness (I guess!) for polygamy in the Old Testament, so that Jacob could finally win his long-sought-after prize.

For me to make any sense of this story, the first thing I have to do is to get over the “Ick” factor. You know… that’s the stuff in so many of the stories in the scriptures which just kind of makes me feel like I have to take a shower after reading it. In this account from Genesis we heard today, there is lots of “ick” to be found: the stuff about treating women as nothing other than property to be passed from one owner to another; the multiple marriage thing (and we haven’t even gotten to the part of the story where Leah and Rachel’s two slaves – yes slaves, more “ick” – become part of Jacob’s stable of women who bear his children); and the sub-text in which God seems to tolerate (if not downright approve of) the deceit and treachery among these supposed heroes of our faith.

In fact, maybe the “ick” factor actually helps to make the story make more sense for me. Clearly, Jacob was not the goodest of the good guys in the way he lived his life. Nevertheless it is this same Jacob who continues to be blessed by God that he might become blessing to others. It is this same Jacob whose name is changed by God to Israel. It is this same Jacob who, along with his two wives (Rachel and Leah) and his two concubines (Zilpah and Bilhah), becomes the father of not one, not two, not three, but twelve sons – the twelve tribes of Israel. And I have to figure that if God can work through Jacob, and make good and holy stuff happen, despite all of Jacob’s egregious shortcomings, then I have to believe that God can work through me as well. What made Jacob “holy” was not that he led a blameless life. What made Jacob “holy” was that he believed that God could work through him, he believed that God was working through him, he believed that he was planted in God’s story… and not just that God was planted in his story.

In just a few minutes, we will welcome young Lily Dwight into this community of faith we call “the Church” through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The good news, however, is that we won’t be doing anything that God hasn’t done already. We will simply be seeing and celebrating, naming and proclaiming the reality that she has already long since been planted in God’s good story. Baptism won’t make her a perfect person (sorry to break that piece of hard news to you, Jennifer and Greg). What baptism will do is to be a reminder to all of us… and hopefully a reminder to her as well in the years to come… that, despite whatever imperfections she might bear, she is as perfect as she needs to be to partner with God in bringing God’s grace into this imperfect creation, to share with God in the work of changing the world.

That’s the same promise that God has made to each one of us… that sometimes through our best efforts, and sometimes despite our worst efforts, God can and God will continue in the work of reconciliation – reconciling us to one another, and reconciling us and all of creation to God. The question isn’t whether God is active in the world. The question is whether we are prepared to be active partners with God in that holy work.

Often you will hear the question asked as to whether a person – or a congregation, for that matter – has a mission. I think, however, that that misses the point. The issue isn’t that God’s church has a mission. The issue is that God’s mission has a church. Jacob – broken, and flawed, and corrupt as he was – understood that… that he was a part of God’s mission. And today, with Jacob and with Lily, we celebrate the reality that we are a part of God’s mission as well.


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