After a fabulous sermon series, discerning what faithful congregations do, we will shift gears. While Bill is away at his summer preaching home, Katie and I hope you will join us for a sermon series of our early Israelite family as they grow, become a mighty nation and reveal all the human traits we continue to bear. Fidelity. Bravery. Compassion. Deceit. Greed. Fear. Lust. Love. And, of course, faith. We will be reflecting upon who we were and are as God’s children.
We are following the Revised Common Lectionary through Labor Day, which prescribes texts from the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 27 through Exodus 3, calling it, tongue-in-cheek, a Dysfunctional Family Vacation series. Scholars often refer to the ancient Israelites the original dysfunctional family. Stick with us and you will understand. You just don’t make these stories up. We are referring to it as a vacation since we are in the season of vacations and these stories all involve travel and adventure.
Back to Jacob’s arrival at Haran….
Camp. What might have begun as a simple retreat from city life with tents and rustic cabins has morphed into an industry of exhaustive possibilities.
Fitness camps abound for yoga, weightloss, swimming. The Bears have settled in Bourbonnais. All manner of common theme can be found. Many Kenilworth Union members send their children to Christian camps. Grief camps exist for youth who recently experienced death in their immediate family. And, there are camps that prohibit body talk – creating an escape from conversations about clothes and appearance, a radical but refreshing way to encounter others and learn to talk from heart and mind and not just the surface.
Then there are camps just for women. Campowerment in the Adirondack mountains of New York was profiled in the New York Times for the rustic accommodations and wide-ranging activities, all designed to challenge some women’s sense of propriety and comfort. The article highlights how some women prefer becoming physically and emotionally uncomfortable to luxury spas.
The founder claims, “by inviting people to make themselves uncomfortable, they become vulnerable, and only when they become vulnerable do they see things in their daily lives that they usually do not see.” Some of the women claim they were motivated to venture out into this type of vacation after suffering a significant and crippling loss while others described only a “vague dissatisfaction with meandering career path or weariness in life” for attending.
At 5:30 this morning, Katie Lancaster and Silvi Pirin, left with thirteen youth for the boundary waters in the wilderness of Minnesota as one alternative to confirmation. Some of the teens seemed troubled when they were told to leave their shampoo at home and were reminded without satellite coverage they would not need mobile phones.
For those embarking upon camps with adventures in the wilderness, no didactic teaching can replace the personal growth achieved through risk, venturing out, offering yourself humbly into a new terrain, forming a new relationship and encountering God’s creation – all created by God. Borrowing from a teacher we adore who speaks to us much later in our faith family – sometimes it is in losing your life you gain your life.
To consider Jacob’s trek through the wilderness to his uncle’s land in Haran a camping experience is whimsy on my part. His escape to Haran was the only option his mother, Rebecca, had to save him from the consequences of his own actions. His brother, Esau, promised revenge.
Jacob miraculously survived – in the ancient Near East you risked your life traveling alone and particularly in the desert – but once in Haran, with never-met family, Jacob finds new life. At a well to quench his desert thirst, Jacob meets his uncle’s daughter, Rachel, and falls in love at first sight. Rarely in scripture do we encounter any notion of “falling in love” and the Hebrew verb literally states Jacob “was knocked out” by her. At the time in the ancient Near East, marriage satisfied economic and political needs, not silly emotions. Falling in love is a modern contrivance.
Nonetheless, this emotion and waiting out his brother’s death threat compelled Jacob to promise to work for Laban for seven years to secure the right to marry Rachel. Jacob is reaching out, committing himself and creating a new family.
Then Laban pulls the same trickery on Jacob as Jacob carried out in his own father. In the dark of night, similar to Isaac’s blindness, Jacob receives Laban’s eldest daughter, Leah, in marriage, not Rachel. So a family member tricks Jacob, the master of trickery and disguise.
Isn’t it ironic that birthright is the reason for Laban’s switch? At that time, custom simply did not allow a younger child to triumph over the older, in blessings, inheritance or in marriage.
Jacob persists; he wants Rachel and promises another seven years to marry her honorably and with Laban’s blessing. Seems kind of odd that a man who had been so deceitful to his own family would comply with what is good and right and just.
In our fast forward reading of scripture, we skipped from Jacob’s escape to his arrival in Haran. In between, he had a terrifying night in the desert, filled with dreams. When Jacob was in a liminal space, without his family and social norms that defined and upheld him, he was left alone and faced who he really was.
David Gergen, a former advisor to four US presidents, and a professor of leadership at Harvard claims, “When you’re in trouble and all your defenses get stripped away, you realize what matters and who matters. That’s when you need to get back to your roots and to your values.”
Jacob had been raised in the faith given to him by his father and the covenant God made with his father, Abraham, yet Jacob had exhibited no respect for it.
But, when he was out in the desert, alone, he too received a blessing from God… “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:13-15).”
Such a powerful blessing must have seared through his mind and heart. In the desert, he was not alone. The covenant God and Abraham created generations ago was still alive and God was there to uphold it with Jacob.
When we are alone in a literal or figurative desert, we don’t all have dreams with such powerful affirmations as Jacob. When faith runs dry, sometimes we don’t receive the blazing message in the night sky or hear the still small voice within. This is why we have and retell our family stories, your own family stories and these ancient stories of blessing and redemption, of creating new relationships and being given life out of barrenness. God does not leave us. We need our confidence to be bolstered with the knowledge others before us have struggled and were not abandoned, but held through their trials by God. It may not be until we look back in the rearview mirror that we can discern God’s hand guiding us. We do not always receive what we expect or think we need, but we can be open to what God grants, and build upon it.
We are people of stories in which our “I” is built upon multiple generations that reach back in history to uphold and remind us of the claim God has on us. This covenant God made, God intends to keep.
God means to redeem the world through the covenant with us. We have been chosen, in the language of Genesis, not only to be blessed but also to be a blessing to all the families on the earth and these come in all shapes and sizes, often not of our choosing.
As I’ve pondered this text of Rebecca sending her beloved son to a distant land to save his life, I cannot help but think of the women like Rebecca throughout history. In Nazi Germany, Jewish families sent their children to Britain under Kindertransport. In Castro’s Cuba, young boys were sent out of the country in early teens to avoid being taken to public service. Your child was not your own. Currently, women like Rebecca in Central America are sending their beloved sons and daughters through the desert to an unknown future, but a future that may hold life. They too are risking their lives with gangs and gunfire if they remain.
Religious leaders, who more often disagree than agree, are coming together across denominations and faith traditions to remind us these children are God’s children. Rabbi Asher Knight in Dallas Texas challenges us “How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teaching of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?”
Circumstance creates our relationships. Early in my career at IBM, I sat in the bullpen, along with 100’s of other marketing reps, separated by 40” high panels. These panels did not offer privacy, just a place to thumbtack the calendar or a comic. On my first day, Carol Lynn sat across from me, said hello and when she saw I was all-alone at lunch, took me to the cafeteria and bought me a tuna sandwich. We discovered other than our partition, we shared nothing in common. She was a decade older. She had rarely lived more than a mile from her family home. I had moved to five states since college and had no sense of home other than my apartment. She did not know how to turn on the oven and I loved to cook. The list goes on.
Across a 40” panel, she was literally in my face, every day, and things began to change. Carol Lynn coached me on the nuances of administrative systems and she later learned from my experiences with internal price negotiations. She knew the folklore of banking in NY and I had the outsider ability to ask “what if” when strategizing. I celebrated her success, hard fought, with passion and creativity. We had little in common but our values, our work ethic and our respect for families. I was with her when her mother died. She continues to take my mom to lunch.
My first day at IBM was on August 17th and I still celebrate this day as Carol Lynn Day and have for more than 25 years. Our friendship blossomed through a bullpen and the 40 high partition which joined us.
The blessings we give and receive from one another creates community from a group of individuals as we live into the covenant God made with Abraham and renewed with Jacob, being blessed and being blessings. We were created by God to exist in community and communities need us, this covenant, in order for all people to thrive.
Theologian Thomas Parker describes a covenant as “a gracious gift from God. In this, a form of life is based on consent rather than coercion; it establishes a responsible, moral relation between people and God. It envisions a way of life beyond the limits of any particular culture, it seeks universal community of justice, friendship ‘a blessing in the midst of the earth’.”
Why would God choose to bless Jacob and why, would God choose this man to become the patriarch to the twelve tribes of Israel with blessing sent throughout our Judeo-Christian family?
Though the text does not say this explicitly, it seems that God is working with this flawed man to re-make him. From the beginning, it is obvious God is the one who keeps the covenant.
Too often, we forget to be just as we are. We forget to listen and be open. We get attached to comforts and consumed by our iphones. We don airs of authority or superiority. We strive to dominate and control. We forget to be blessings to one another and we forget to humbly receive the blessings of life. Then life becomes fraught with conflict and we become isolated.
To receive and give blessings, God needs us to walk on common, level, ground and not put on a façade. Living into the covenant means sharing what we have and living up to our responsibilities, in mutual respect. This is how Jacob matured and what we also might experience at camp.
We need to tell ourselves this story and remember God keeps the covenant. We are the beneficiaries of God’s benevolence and God’s grace. God is the one who will look past the façade and our deception to see the beautiful child within. God will look past the grievances and pull us back into the covenant.
Rev. Linda Pepe puts it this way, “we have no more power to break the promise God made to us than a baby has to stop us from picking it up out of a crib. We live in God’s hands.”
In Jesus Christ, God renews the covenant by claiming even wider relations, beyond the twelve tribes that emerge from Jacob and his wives and beyond the laws. The new covenant is a grace to love us, despite our frailty to live for ourselves, to hurt and exclude others, to ignore the original blessing God issued through Abraham. Each Lord’s Day we retell our family stories to remind us of the grace we receive from Christ, strengthening us for those days when faith runs dry and the night seems dark.
Come back next week for the continuation of Jacob’s story as he gathers his wives, children, and flocks to return home and face his brother Esau. He ventures back through the wilderness and faces all those things that go bump in the night.
 Alexandra Jacobs. Ladies of the Lanyard, NY Times July 6, 2014
 Ziegler, Maseena. “The Most Powerful F Word In Leadership.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 July 2014. Web. 27 July 2014.
 Michael Paulson. US Religious Leaders Embrace Cause of Children Streaming Across Boarders. New York Times. July 23, 2014
 Thomas Parker. Covenant. Handbook of Christian Theology. Ed. Musser and Price. 2003. 113
 Pepe, Rev. Linda. Theological Stew. Web. 27 July 2014.