A sermon for Pentecost 8 Proper 12 Year A from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs Genesis 29:15-28 & Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“When morning came, it was Leah!”
Surpri-i-i-se! Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Jacob the Trickster, so richly and delightfully (to us, anyway) himself a victim of his uncle’s trickery. It’s perfect.
And yet, in spite of our amusement, there is tension here. Think of how extravagantly Jacob loved Leah’s younger sister Rachel; to agree at the outset to serve Laban seven years for her, and then another seven years due to Laban’s deceit—Jacob obviously saw Rachel as a pearl of great price.
Seven years. “…and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
Outside of the Song of Songs, this type of evocative description of devotion is rare in scripture. So to see this great love cheated in such a way, even if there is a measure of justice in it, is unsettling.
And what of Leah, poor Leah. Humiliated at being foisted off on a man who doesn’t love her as part of her father’s game. Neither she nor Rachel has a lot of agency here, unlike the previous stories with Rebekah and Sarah. They made things happen. But here things happen to these young women, not because of them. So there’s tension here too.
So again, as we have done so often in this cycle of stories these past several weeks, we ask, where is God in all of this? What, amid all the drama and the levity and the perplexity, does this tell us about God, and about God’s word in Scripture?
For one thing, as we look back on the Patriarch/Matriarch stories in Genesis, we see a thread of inversion running through them; Isaac gets precedence over the older Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Leah over Rachel. We are kept off balance all the time, wondering what these characters will do or say next. And then, as with Hagar in the wilderness, Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, and Jacob’s dream near Haran, God appears at the lowest and most critical moment. Surprise.
This is not a God who colors between the lines. This is a God who can be found in the depths, in the tension and the gray areas. This is a God who invites us to interrogate what we read–a God who turns things upside down.
Think again of Leah, the unloved first wife. Biblical tradition sees her as a usurper. She will have the honor of becoming the mother of many of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. We can’t help but ask, what kind of God would show such preference for the unloved? Oh, right—when you put it that way… Surprise.
When we ask these kinds of questions, we learn something we might not have expected.
As we see in Jesus’ parables today, it is the nature of God and God’s kingdom to be in places of paradox, because that is where we grow. We see the kingdom in tiny, seemingly insignificant things like yeast and mustard seeds, which pack enormous strength in tiny packages. We see the paradox of treasure, found where? Buried in dirt. We see a pearl of great price, which has grown from what? A speck of sand; an irritant in the oyster. We learn, from engaging with the paradoxical God of Scripture, that we are called to the perplexing and rewarding work of seeking wisdom through interrogating what we read and listening for God’s often surprising response. Which is not the same as reading for the purpose of confirming our expectations.
This penchant that God has for calling us into places of questioning and tension—of insisting that we think more deeply and at the same time more out of the box—this tends to fly in the face of the way many of us engage the world on a day-to-day basis.
We live in a dualistic, binary world of yes/no, black/white, for us/against us, red states/blue states. Even the technology that permeates our lives is premised on binary code that is a combination of zeros and ones symbolizing electronic switches that are on or off. One or the other. This dualistic structure can be helpful initially when forming societies and institutions. We need basic foundational framework or structures as we learn to engage with the world. The Israelites had the initial structure of the Ten Commandments. The earliest church had a basic structure of communal sacramental living. Our government has a basic structure in the Constitution. A fundamental framework is a good way to set things up, just as human social development begins by first learning the rules of behavior in order to get along in the world.
But as we, and our institutions, discover, structures and frameworks always meet with complexity and complications. It’s inevitable. Because stuff happens. And when stuff happens our basic framework is thrown into question and disruption. Then we have a choice, to be formed, or deformed, by it.
Deforming is what happens when we act out of fear. We hold rigidly to our positions on one side or another—yes/no, black/white, for/against—so that we are Right and the Other is Wrong. This is the tyranny of the binary, and it is why we struggle with some of these scripture passages that go against our expectations of how Matriarchs/Patriarchs/God should behave.
And as frustrating as unpredictability can be, we infinitely prefer to fight to be right rather than face the more challenging prospect of engaging with the tension formatively, of acknowledging the existence of gray areas and the potential for wisdom that comes from letting go of the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. This requires humility and the ability to hold lightly to one’s own ego. When this happens we can find ourselves at a new level of maturity; of being able to interrogate and critique structures and institutions creatively and constructively.
By seeking the wisdom that resides, sometimes deeply embedded, within the stories of Scripture, we find that we are not just reading about God’s actions in history, we are attending to God’s call into where God is most likely to be found; in the gray areas, the uncomfortable places of tension and question.
How why in the world would we want to do that?
Look around. Look what happens to a world in which it is more important to be right than to seek wisdom. Finding God in the grey areas of Scripture helps us to do the vital work of facing the grey areas in our hearts and in our communities.
How we engage with Scripture can either mirror or change how we engage with the world around us. Listen:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I had a friend years ago who, when confronted with a passage like this, commented, “I like the idea that the bad guys are going to be punished in the end.” And of course, the assumption in this declaration is that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. Whoever they are. This kind of uncritical reading leads to the tyranny of the binary. Us vs. Them. Us Normal People vs. those Different People.
Now, hat if we apply the lessons we’ve learned from questioning Scripture as we’ve been doing these past few weeks. Instead of an uncritical reading of this parable, leaving it as it is in its binary glory let’s seek the wisdom that resides outside the box– in the unexpected, the uncomfortable, and the surprising.
Ponder this: The kingdom of God, like a great net of fish, is filled with a diverse gathering of creatures. God’s dream is not that those in the net will fight and judge among themselves. The sorting isn’t up to them—that is up to God. And the nature of the sorting isn’t even up to those in the net; consider the possibility that separating righteous from unrighteous is something that happens within individuals, not between them—that the struggle between good and evil in the final reconciliation with God is an internal, not an external one. Whoa—now that’s thinking outside the box. Honestly, I’m not sure what that last judgment will look like, but I do know that Jesus says in the parable that it’s not my call to make. And the Second Commandment tells us to love our neighbors in the net, not shove them out of it. As much as we might want to do so sometimes.
Listen to the words of Steven Charleston, Native American elder and retired Bishop of Alaska:
“My life is not my own… In my tradition none of us are autonomous free agents making our own destiny as we go. We do not think in the singular, but the plural…I am forever connected to the welfare of others, born into a network of hope. I do not live for myself, but for our-self, for the well-being of all. This vision of life is where rugged individualism gives way to love: we leave no one behind.”
From Bishop Charleston’s perspective, the net in the parable could be seen as a network. Surprise.
So you see, when we speak of inspiration and Scripture—the inspiration isn’t just in the writing, it’s in the reading—and that’s a crucial point. Engagement in the paradoxes and grey areas, the willingness to question and to listen, these are vital to the flourishing of our communities and society, especially now. God’s call to us through Scripture to be part of God’s dream of reconciliation is an urgent one. And God’s promise to us, as to Jacob, is to be with us throughout the journey.