A Sordid Tale of Sin

JosephsoldbybrothersReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 on August 9, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

You would think that after surviving an all-night wrestling match and receiving a new name, “Israel,” and then being forgiven by Esau for stealing his blessing and birthright, that Jacob would have wised up. But, I have yet to see the sun set on a day free of my own sin, so I am not sure why I expect this of Israel. He is a lousy dad. Joseph is son #11, but he is the oldest of Israel’s beloved wife, Rachel, making him the obvious favorite. Once again, the younger is preferred over the oldest who is supposed to be the recipient of the father’s favor. Lest we forget God is always working through us flawed and limited human beings, family drama ensues.

Israel gives Joseph a fancy coat that no one else gets. Joseph seems to enjoy flaunting his favoritism—he wears his fancy coat when he goes out to check on his brothers, whom he snitches on, to boot. We can understand why the older brothers are fed up with this kid-brother Joseph; he is more than just annoying. If Joseph continues to give bad reports about them to their father, it could upend the inheritance which rightfully belongs to the oldest, Reuben. The other brothers depend on Reuben’s goodwill to share in their father’s wealth. Joseph could mess up the future for all of them—they want what is rightfully theirs.

To make matters worse, Joseph has been sharing elaborate dreams about all of them. The first involved sheaves of wheat: Joseph’s sheaf rose up, and the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s. Exactly what the brothers feared. Joseph would get the goods, and they would be left beggars. The second dream was even worse. Eleven stars, symbolizing the brothers, and the sun and the moon, representing his father and mother, were all bowing down to Joseph. The brothers are incensed—they will not be bowing down to anyone, least of all this high-falutin, dreamin’ nark of a baby brother.

We can understand, even identify with their anger, frustration and feeling that their livelihood and well-being are threatened. But the bonds of family and brotherhood are also strong. In this ancient, agrarian kinship society, family bonds are everything. Their lives are woven together from birth to death, and they owe complete fidelity to their father’s desires. They have reached a conflict point—where culture, morality, and loyalty clash with pain, jealousy and fear, providing an opportunity for brokenness and sin to take hold.
The brothers “conspire” to kill him. The Hebrew word for “conspire” uses a rare verb form that is both reflexive and causative at the same time. A better translation would be, “they caused deceit to themselves to kill him.” Is that not the very pernicious nature of human brokenness and sin? We deceive ourselves about what is right and moral, we justify and make excuses for actions based on our pain, the injustice we have suffered, or the fear we must avoid at all costs. And the unthinkable becomes thinkable—even necessary, even justifiable, even right. The brothers deceive themselves that it is better to betray loyalty to their family, harm their brother, lie to their father, and bring guilt into their own hearts, rather than deal constructively with their feelings of fear, anger, and jealousy. They do not just make a plan to get rid of Joseph—they have to lie to themselves and each other, in order to choose fear over loyalty, jealousy over morality, and pain over family.

This understanding of sin is reiterated in 1 John, chapter 1 which we often use an introduction to our confession: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We may feel a little better that Reuben and Judah come up with less drastic measures of shame and deprivation by stripping him of his robe and dropping him in a well, and then profiteering by selling him to Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. The brothers may have opted for an extended death sentence rather than an immediate one, but no brother is exempt from committing evil in this text. They violated a core value of ancient family life and covenant law, valuing profit over kinship. They sacrificed another human life to preserve their own privilege, status and assets.

So what might God want us to take away from this sordid tale of bad parenting, flaunting and snitching, near-fratricide and the self-deception of human sin?
1. Broaden your circle of conversation and get new perspectives. The brothers only spoke to each other which reinforced their negative emotions, strengthened their sense of injustice, and increased the likelihood of deceiving themselves that sinful action was justified. When we live in fear and we do not engage in conversation that gets us outside our own version of the story, we sacrifice others to meet our own needs. Ask any person of color you know to tell you their stories of being someone else’s sacrificial lamb to maintain privilege. How are we engaging in patterns of self-deception that maintain privilege and resources at the expense of others? Broaden your conversation partners and find out, asking God to open your mind and transform your heart.

2. Do the work to heal your emotional wounds. Hurting people hurt people. Instead of resolving their emotional pain, the brothers compounded fear and jealousy with guilt. What would have happened if the brothers would have spoken honestly to Joseph and to their father first? Or included their mothers in a family conversation that aired out anger, jealousy, and curbed Joseph’s flagrant behavior? Feelings unexpressed come out some other way—often painfully for us or others. Whether or not personal conversations are possible, we can participate with God in healing our emotional wounds through counseling, prayer, and spiritual direction. I am here to you assist you with this healing or recommend someone who can. I regularly see a counselor and a spiritual director, so I do not, as much as possible, hurt you or my family with my own unresolved issues.

3. God always has a bigger dream at work. Joseph’s dreams of him ruling over his family were not the fantasies of egotist, but they were messages from God that would ultimately save Joseph’s life, and that of his entire family later in Egypt. I am sure life did not feel that way to Joseph on the caravan to Egypt. Despite the appearance of present circumstances, this story calls us to trust that God’s divine purpose will somehow be fulfilled. The dreams and plans of God cannot be thwarted by human machinations nor undone by human sin. God has a dream for you and your life that is being fulfilled right now. God has a dream for St. Luke’s and for our mission, which is actually growing right now—as more people have access to worship on-line and as we start a Community Breakfast! Our first one last Saturday served 63 burritos! Trust that God’s dream is at work despite any appearance to the contrary.

Israel’s gift to us is not that his family learns to live without sin, but that we learn from their mistakes and deepen our trust that God’s dream is at work, even in the midst of our present circumstances.

Image: Ferenczy, Károly, 1862-1917. Joseph Sold into Slavery by his Brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55913.


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Wrestling and Blessing

JacobWrestlingReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-31 on August 2, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Jacob is utterly alone. He sent his wives and children ahead of him, across the river on their journey to back to Canaan and he spends the night alone on the Jabbok River. It is one thing to be alone during the day, or even at night in the comfort of your own bed—but out in the wilderness with nothing familiar, cut off from everything and everyone—no comfort, no conversation—with only your roiling thoughts and regrets to keep you company. That’s alone.

But Jacob is not left alone for long. A man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. Who is this man and what did he really want? Is this a real man nearby? Another vivid dream like the ladder with angels? A real angel or, actually God? A clear answer is not revealed, inviting our imagination to wrestle with the possibilities.

Maybe Jacob’s opponent is a real man, like Jacob’s brother, Esau, surprising him in the darkness to get the upper hand. Jacob bargained Esau out of his birthright and tricked him out of their father’s blessing as the eldest son; then Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s to escape Esau’s wrath. Now, after building family and wealth, Jacob sent a message with gifts to Esau that he was on his way back, so perhaps this jilted brother is ready to take his vengeance. Jacob left him with half his inheritance, so surely, Esau might still be angry enough for an all-night wrestling match. Even if it is not his intent to kill Jacob, perhaps Esau just wants to anonymously see Jacob experience a good measure of the fear, suffering and misery Jacob caused him.

Perhaps this midnight wrestler is not made of flesh and blood, but rather powers and principalities. The shadows of the night reveal the shadows in Jacob’s own soul; being alone invited them out for an honest reckoning. The real reason Jacob is alone, apart from his family, is because he is a coward. He really did fear Esau would kill him, and he knew Esau was headed his direction with 400 men. But instead taking the lead at the head of his family and facing his brother, he put his wives and children out in front of him to save his own skin. Maybe Esau would spare his wives and children; or at least he would be tired of the slaughter and will have exhausted his wrath by the time he got to Jacob at the back of the entourage. Either way, Jacob’s cowardice means he has placed his whole family in harm’s way to save himself. Maybe through this long night, Jacob wrestles with this deep fear of death, and his urge for self-preservation that even love for family does not overcome. Like a dark night of the soul, this fearsome wrestling match gives Jacob a way to confront and conquer this crippling fear and devastating character weakness.

Maybe this wrestling partner really is an angel visitor in the night, confronting Jacob with his fierce self-reliance and inability to trust God. Twenty years earlier, God promised Jacob security, success, and a return to his homeland—and that promise has come to pass with children, large flocks, and this night of his return journey. But Jacob has built his wealth through trickery. Jacob always has a scheme or a plan to get himself ahead—but God wants more than a self-reliant, scheming, successful man. God calls him to bear the covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac and through them, all of creation. Jacob carries a calling that is bigger than himself, a calling that requires him to fully and finally put his trust in God and to be the leader this covenant demands. Jacob needs to conquer his relentless independence, cunning and self-reliance that denies a deeper relationship with God. This wrestling match is Jacob’s Garden of Gethsemane—that moment when he has to learn to declare, “not my will, but Thy will be done.”

As the day began to dawn and the struggle nearly over, Jacob asks passionately for a blessing. At this moment, there is no cowardice, no fear, no trickery, no scheming—just a desperate, clinging request to not leave the battle without a blessing, without something good coming from it. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob Would. Not. Let. Go.

The man asks Jacob his name. “Jacob Jacob, the supplanter; Jacob, the grasper; Jacob, the usurper. But this name is now too limiting for Jacob to move forward in the next stage of fulfilling God’s covenant. So Jacob receives not only a new name, but a new identity. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob reveals a profound truth for all of us. We cannot move forward before we can name the blessing from the last battle—and until we get it, until we can see it, until we can claim something good from something awful, the best that we can do is to hang on. Some days, we survive by nothing more elegant than not giving up on ourselves and not giving up on God.

That’s what Jacob does—as he wrestles with his past, himself, and with God—he hangs on and he does not give up—he clings to the moment and demands that goodness, holiness, life, and blessing arise from the pain somehow. Jacob demands transformation, a kind of resurrection. And he receives it.

Israel—the name of a new man and a new nation—which literally means to strive or wrestle or contend with God. This God wants us to hang in there and never give up. Through wrestling, Jacob transitions from fearful schemer to role model. Jacob invites us to cling to God and demand a blessing even when it’s hard and painful to wrestle with our demons, to live with broken relationships, to confront our character weaknesses, and to submit our self-reliant, ornery selves to God’s will and purpose. Every loss, every divorce, every broken relationship, every diagnosis, every death of someone we love leaves its mark. Just like Jacob, we leave these life experiences with a limp in body or soul. Each struggle leaves a scar.

But with Jacob, we grab the mystery of God and hang on, even when we are tired, or in pain, or have doubts. We fight for our relationship with God. Faith is not a static, one-time gift from God; it is God’s lifelong pursuit of us and our lifelong pursuit for God. We may never have the complete answers but in the struggle to hang on to faith and to God, we become stronger, and grow and with Jacob, we become blessed and transformed into something more than we were before.

Right now, we all hang on together, refusing to let go of God until God’s blessing transforms us anew.

Image: Delacroix, Eugène, 1798-1863. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48070. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.

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God Works Through Us Anyway, So Tell The Truth

JacbobsFamilyTreeReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 29:15-28 on July 26, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

There is a new, young dentist at the practice where we go, who worked on me this week when I had to have some fillings replaced. When she found out both Dan and I are pastors, she said that everyone in our family must always behave well and be happy all the time. In between drillings, I tried to explain that faith in God really meant the opposite—that we can bring our whole selves and all our life experience—even and especially the rotten and the hard stuff, to God. She was relieved since it would be hard to be happy all of the time.

Jacob certainly was not happy all the time, as we discover as his story continues today. After his dream of angels moving up and down a staircase from heaven and God’s promise to be with him, protect him, and return him to this land, Jacob made it safely to his mother, Rebekah’s people and arrives at his uncle Laban’s. He beholds the fair and beautiful Rachel at the well and is smitten from the start—this one will be his wife. He and Laban agree on the deal—he will work for seven years to earn Rachel. We find this somewhat satisfying; for the first time, Jacob works for something rather than bargaining and tricking his way into his desires.

But Laban has his own plans and deceptions; the rules of primogeniture—that the firstborn male gets the inheritance—also applies to females: the firstborn daughter must be married first. Laban will not work outside that system regardless of Jacob’s desires or work ethic. So, the trickster is tricked. The bride is covered during the ceremony and revealed to be Leah, not Rachel in the morning! Jacob must work another seven years for Rachel—but because of his love for her—he is willing to pay the price.

This does not, however, set up happy family dynamics—a family begun in deception leads to sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel, with competition over the production of babies. Leah is not loved and cherished as her sister, but she is fertile and able to produce more sons, making her an extremely valuable wife. She gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel is loved and adored, but, as we have heard many times in the story of the matriarchs already, she is barren and forlorn.

Rachel repeats Sarah’s solution and sends her slave Bilhah in as a surrogate who gives birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah, not to be outdone in the area where she is successful, also sends her slave to Jacob and she produces Gad and Asher. Leah then becomes barren for a while, but later gives birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and even a daughter, Dinah.
Finally, after years of barrenness, God remembers Rachel, and Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin, the children of Jacob’s old age. Later we will find Jacob’s favoritism to Joseph, the first son born from his beloved Rachel, causes more rivalry and jealousy among the brothers, but that’s for another day.

And the misery and trickery of this story does not end there. Laban is no charmer either. Jacob has made him a wealthy man, but when it comes time for Jacob to return to his homeland, Laban, the greedy, only wants to give him the less-desirable spotted sheep and goats, and then he secretly hides them so Jacob would get nothing.

But Jacob also has more tricks up his sleeve. He engages in what might be called an ancient form of genetic engineering down at the watering hole using spotted sticks for the strongest animals to produce spotted off-spring, giving himself a large flock that Laban cannot refuse him.

When Jacob, with his whole family, staff, and herds finally set off in secret, Rachel decides she needs a memento from home, and steals her father’s idols deceiving both her father and husband. Laban chases after Jacob and his whole entourage, but through a dream is directed by God to make peace with Jacob.

And THAT is how the 12 tribes of Israel began—God built an entire nation that God wanted to be a blessing to the whole earth from this mess of a family. Perhaps we are like the dentist who wants people of faith to be well-behaved and happy all the time—biblical heroes who are daring, honorable, truthful, and courageous. Instead we see limited people struggling with trickery, jealousy, dishonesty, greed, and rivalry. We understand that God is not waiting for them or us to be someone other than themselves, or something other than limited, sinful human beings.

Instead, we hear the truth—the truth about this foundational family, and the truth about ourselves—even if our family rivalries, jealousies, competitions and greed remain unspoken, or if we have family members with whom we do not speak. God is with you anyway. God is with them anyway. God can work God’s purposes anyway. Jacob’s trickster character shaped the family he created, and God found a way to build a nation through them anyway.

Rather than glossing over flaws, faith in God means being able to handle to the truth. Faith means dealing with what is real, to put the truth before God and trust God can work with it, as God has through all the flawed people before us. In twelve-step programs, there is a saying that, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Psychologists will tell us that human consciousness does not emerge at any depth, except through struggling with our own shadow, our own failures, our wounding, our character flaws.

This also describes the significance of the racial reckoning in our nation today—we need to tell the truth and hear the whole truth of our history and its impact on all peoples, not gloss over it. The very nature of our Scripture stories which are human and wholistic, give us the courage to tell, and to hear the impact of confederate symbols, of sports mascots based on Native American stereotypes, of the fear and frustration systemic racism creates in the lives of so many.

To tell the truth and heal the wounds of our past is much like hearing about Jacob’s messed up family and the beginning of Israel as a nation. Israel did not keep secrets about its story and history and neither need we. We see ourselves and our own limitations, and we see God at work moving a people forward: we find ways to make better choices, to trust God with our transformation, and to make something new from us today. This work is an act of deep love and trust and faith in this country, and most of all in what God can do with who we are, individually and together.

God is not waiting for you to become someone else, someone you are not. You do not have to be perfect or happy all the time. God is with us anyway. God is working God’s purposes through all of us anyway. Jacob, his family, and the nation they are building do invite us to tell the truth about ourselves and to be willing to listen to the truth of others. The more wounds we heal individually and as a nation, the more available we are to consciously participate with God in building the kingdom of justice and love that God calls us to as God’s people and the church.

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Pillows of Stone, Pillars of Praise

JacobsLadderReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 28:10-19a given on July 19, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

Sorry for the gap in postings--I had computer problems and then we moved! I am 10 minutes from church now, and Dan is 15 minutes from his, and we love our new home. Grateful for blessings in the midst of COVID!

Our house in Frisco was on the market so we could move to the house we just purchased in Richardson, getting my husband and I closer to both churches we serve. We had to leave the house looking as if no one lived in it—walls, countertops and floors all bare. We even put the pillows we sleep on in the linen closet. I hated doing this with Dan’s pillow because it is this big, heavy, gel, memory foam thing that weighs a ton and it was hard to shove it onto the top shelf. Every time I did this, I repeated what comedian Jim Gaffigan says about futons—that pillow is "stuffed with anger!" I do not know how he sleeps on that thing.

Out in the middle of nowhere, far from home, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow—talk about a pillow stuffed with anger! How uncomfortable. What an apt metaphor for our life during this pandemic. We are not far from home, in fact we spend more time there than ever before, however, these last few months have been so disorienting, we are in a wilderness far from anything familiar or comfortable. It feels like all we have is a stone pillow making any sense of rest, support or solace difficult to come by.

We need to take a step back and recall how Jacob got into this godforsaken place to begin with. You might recall that Jacob bargained with his older twin Esau to give him his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew, but there was still the matter of the blessing from Isaac. He was getting old and blind and it was time for Isaac to give Esau his blessing, so he asked Esau to go hunting for some game and make him a dinner.

But Rebekah wanted Jacob to receive the blessing. So, she instructed him to steal a couple of goats from the herd and make Isaac dinner while Esau was out hunting. Then she took the goat skin to make sleeves for Jacob so his arms would feel hairy like Esau’s arms. In his blindness Isaac was fooled, and he gave the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau. When Esau returned from hunting and learned Jacob had tricked him out of what was rightfully his again, he became incensed and vowed to kill Jacob.

Which catches us up to our story today. Jacob sets off on a long journey to escape his brother’s wrath and to find himself a wife. On this long, perilous journey Jacob is far from home, security, community, and anything familiar. There is no protection or creature comforts. I can feel the crick in his neck and the pressure on his head as he uses a stone for a pillow. It sounds much like our experience of this global pandemic. Many nights we lay our head on a stone pillow.

• For some of us it is the stone of fear. We live with a gnawing dread that we or someone we love will catch this awful virus. For the first couple of cases in Texas were few. But now it is all around us. For people we know who have contracted it--it is as bad as they say. Masks are helpful, but there is no surefire way of avoiding it if you need to go out.
• For others, our stone pillow is exhaustion. Parents are having to juggle jobs while being homeschoolers and now providing summer camp. Many workers have transitioned to work at home, which has some advantages, but if you are like me, you find that it frequently takes twice as long to get half as much done.
• Some of us lay our heads on the stone of uncertainty at night. We have largely accepted that this is how we will live for now--and then we ask ourselves, “But for how long?” Nobody knows the answers to these questions and uncertainty is our constant and unwanted companion.
• And for many of us, the stone pillow of this pandemic is loneliness. We miss church, book clubs, card groups, family gatherings, and going out to eat. So many simple pleasures have been denied us.

There has been no greater time when we can identify with Jacob’s experience of being alone in the wilderness with no protection or anything familiar to bring comfort but a hard rock under our head.

We may think that Jacob is getting his just desserts. But remarkably, when he is a trickster on the run, in a place that seems completely devoid of God, this is where God most powerfully shows up. When Jacob is at his most vulnerable—asleep—he cannot argue, wrestle, trick or bargain, God gives him an amazing, vivid and clear dream of heavenly messengers moving up and down a staircase connecting heaven and earth.

It does not matter where Jacob is, or what situation he finds himself in, the blessings of heaven, the guidance of God, the mercies of grace are with him, within him, beside him, and always available to him. God is not far off, rather God is closer than you can imagine and the blessings of God’s power are offered here and now on earth, to him—no matter what he’s done, and which piece of earth he’s sleeping on.

The vision is a powerful message in itself—angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love—but it is also a signpost that a bigger Word is coming. Jacob then hears God speak directly to him: I am the LORD, 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.

God gives the details of the resources of heaven that are available to Jacob in his daily life, even though he is not terribly deserving. For those of us who have not been able to hear a God of grace in the Old Testament, here it is in spades!

God will abide with Jacob, God will protect Jacob, and that God will fulfill God’s promise to Jacob: to bring him back to this land that was promised him.

These promises of God are as true for us today in this time of pandemic, as it was for Jacob—God abides with us, God keeps and protects our life-eternal wherever we go, God fulfills the promise to be with us to the end of the age.

The blessings and resources of heaven are available to us now. God came to Jacob when he was most available—when our defenses are gone, when the familiar is absent, when our routine is broken, that is when we are most open to hear God as God appears to us and as God speaks to us. God is not limited to those times, but that is when we are most ready, most expectant, most vulnerable. And so, while we may hate this time of pandemic with its stone pillows, this can be a rich and deeply spiritual time for all of us—a time when God startles us with the message that the blessings of heaven are available to us, and that God is with us, will protect us, and will make good on God’s promises to us!

For some of us that may come through the regular rhythm of spiritual practices of prayer, and worship, and fellowship, and Bible reading. And for some of us, God will appear as God appeared to Jacob--in a dream or moment that disrupts our stuck thinking, in a vision or conversation that fills us with hope, in an unexpected word or insight that brings us back to God.

After God’s revelation and blessings, Jacob turns his stone pillow into a monument—Bethel—house of God. Jacob knows that God is real. That God’s promises are sure. That the blessings of heaven are available on earth. This is why Jesus is called Emmanuel--God with us--because he is the living embodiment of the blessings of heaven being available to us on earth. Through Christ, God turns our stone pillows of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, and loneliness turn into testimonies and monuments of hope, energy, confidence, and community as we experience God bringing us through!

Rick Rodriguez gives us a wonderful example of this in his testimony, shared today. Rick had a Jacob’s ladder experience, where the resources of heaven became available to him in the middle of a crisis—a violent crowd in a foreign country, lost from friends and all that was familiar. As he prayed for help, the blessings of heaven—God’s presence, peace and protection—descended through the human connection and prayers with a stranger.

Indeed, angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love. With Jacob, with Rick, we open ourselves to heaven’s blessings as God turns our stone pillows into pillars of praise.

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.