by Rev. Doug Gray
The last few Sundays we have been following the great extended, often dysfunctional family of faith in Genesis. Of course, it starts with Sarah and Abraham, the couple who packs up and goes because God says to. That’s definitely faith! And then they believe it when God promises they will have descendants like the stars…even though Sarah is 90 and Abraham is pushing 100. When God says Sarah is going to get pregnant, Sarah laughs—and God says they should name the baby, Isaac, which means laughter! Isaac marries Rebekah. Like Sarah, Rebekah struggles to conceive and when she does…it’s twins! Esau is born first and Jacob second. Isaac likes Esau best and Rebekah favors Jacob. When Isaac is old and can’t see, Rebekah and Jacob scheme to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Esau. When Esau discovers the trick, he says Jacob is a dead man. With nothing but the pack on his back, Jacob gets out of town in search of his mom’s extended family, a month’s journey away. Last week we read how God came to Jacob in a dream, promising him land, descendants and a chance to bless all families on earth. God says, “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.” Jacob wakes up and knows he has had a life-changing experience of God. Jacob then continues his journey and makes it to the fields and the well outside the town where his mom’s family lives. He’s just starting to ask a bunch of shepherds how to find his uncle, Laban. That’s where we catch up with our story.
Do you remember what it was like to be left out when you were a kid or a teen? My one saving grace is that I was tall. I remember wanting to be picked for the games, but I was never first. Of course, I wanted the cool people to like me. I suppose what I really wanted to know was that I was special, that I mattered. As you think about what it was like for you when you were a kid or a teen, did you ever have experiences like these? I think most of us do. Do you remember your first crush? Your first job? Your first lousy boss? How do we deal with people who leave us out? How do we learn from the experience? How do we deal with people who are not after our good, but their own? One of the things I love about this passage, is that we get to see all kinds of facets of human behavior and interaction, and we might ask ourselves, how do we find God in all this?
First, play your game. One of my favorite memories of my grandfather, Henry David, was the time he played me in ping-pong. I think I must have been in 7th or 8th grade, and I had spent hours and hours playing ping-pong at youth group and on youth retreats. I had worked really hard at it, and I was pretty good (I thought), so when my grandfather offered to play me, I thought I could take him. I should have paid more attention to the twinkle in his eye. Grandpa totally schooled me. He could make the ball spin away from me, go backwards and even jump at me. The more I lost, the harder I tried, and pretty soon I wasn’t able to even make the plays I was good at. In our passage for today, Laban is totally schooling Jacob. Jacob the Trickster, who tricked his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his dad into blessing it, has met his match in Laban. But where I got flustered with my grandfather, Jacob stays pretty cool with Laban. He works hard and keeps going. Jacob is playing his game—not Laban’s! Jacob plays the game and trusts God to work everything out.
Second, learn compassion. Once again, this family struggles with playing favorites. Jacob loves Rachel, not Leah. Rachel is graceful and beautiful and Leah has…soft eyes? Do you remember signing people’s yearbooks, or filling out notes at the end of camp? Remember how you could always tell the people who didn’t know what to say about you: “You’re nice.” Or “I like your smile.” I am grateful they liked my smile I suppose, but “nice”? What does that mean? You’re better than a serial killer? Thanks for not being Josef Stalin? I feel for Leah in our passage. The author could say all sorts of good things about Leah, and all we get is “soft eyes?” Rachel is a hot ticket and Jacob loves her, but Leah…not so much. God is paying attention though, and when it comes to making babies, Leah comes up with a touchdown and the extra point! That’s right, seven children! And God has compassion on Rachel too, for she will have two. And yes, we probably need to feel some compassion for Jacob, who is not only working in the fields during the day, but his four wives—Leah and Rachel both give their maidservants to Jacob as concubines—keep him busy at night. They even start trading with each other for Jacob’s attention! Through all this, we can learn compassion from God, who sees people’s needs and looks after the least of these.
When we are kids, it seems like the end of the world when we aren’t picked first for kickball or basketball. We feel lost and left out. As we grow we realize that life isn’t always fair. In fact, mostly life is not fair. There’s always someone who seems to be getting away with something. There’s always a boss or neighbor who is being a jerk, or just in it for themselves. Just as Jacob just keeps living on the promises, so we can just keep playing the game as God gives it to us. Jacob works hard, serving Laban, and God blesses Jacob. Jacob prayed for God to be with him and keep him, to feed and clothe him—and by the time he’s getting ready to head for home, he’s thinking about four wives, twelve children, their servants, their flocks. Jacob got way more than he asked for—some of it was hard, even laughable, but overall it was good. Our lives are often like that too, aren’t they? We ask for blessings, or healing or comfort or strength…and God gives us Himself, a love that never ends, a power greater than our troubles, a hope that never fails. Because we see Jesus willing to go to the cross, we recognize that sometimes our lives will also require sacrifice. And because we see Jesus rising from the grave, we begin to understand that somehow we will not just survive our hard times, but that by a power we can never fully understand, God will lift us up. We always get way more than we ask for…and that is grace!