Saturday, July 23, 2011

God’s surprises

Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today’s Scripture texts are filled with surprises, God’s surprises. In the Hebrew text, the story of Jacob continues. This time, after stealing his brother’s blessing, we learn that he has gone back to the family homeland find a wife for himself.
Isaac wanted to make sure that his sons did not marry Canaanite women, but kept with the tradition of marrying relatives. Esau already had several Canaanite wives; however, after Jacob set off to find a wife in Paddan-Aram, Esau went to Ishmael took note of his father’s wishes and and took Mahalath, daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael, to be his wife in addition to the Canaanite wives he already had.
Jacob met his cousin Rachel at the well, watering the sheep, and apparently it was love at first sight. He was warmly welcomed by his Uncle Laban, and offered a home and an opportunity to work in the family business. Jacob’s request was to have Rachel as his bride. Laban agreed, but then pulled a Jacob-style trick on his new son-in-law. His new bride was not his beloved Rachel, but her sister Leah.
How this worked is rather a mystery. Jewish Midrash stories suggest that the girls were twins, so they were hard to tell apart. Or perhaps, the room where they got to know each other was totally dark, and in the daylight, Jacob could tell the difference, but not before.
I want to share a side note: There is a word in this text that is notoriously hard to translate. It describes Leah’s eyes. In English it has several renditions. CEV: didn’t sparkle; CEB: delicate; KJV: tender; NIV: weak; NRSV: lovely. If we look at Leah’s eyes with Jacob’s preference for Rachel, it makes sense that Leah’s eyes didn’t sparkle for Jacob the way Rachel’s did.
However, there is nothing in the text, written by men, for men, about how any of the women, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, or Bilhah felt about the arrangements. Some of you may have read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, a wonderful Midrash about the four wives and Leah’s daughter Dina. In this story, the women get along very well and work together to raise all thirteen children.
In any case, Jacob paid the bride price of seven years of labor for each wife. God’s surprise was that it was Leah who was fruitful, not Rachel. Leah had six boys and at least one girl, Dinah. Finally, Rachel gave birth to a son, Joseph, and much later, another son, Benjamin. Jacob also has sons with his wives’ servants, giving him a total of twelve sons – who became the twelve tribes of Israel. More God surprises: although Joseph would become famous for governing Egypt, it was the descendants of Leah’s sons Judah and Levi who would lead the family in the future.
More of God’s surprises are found in Jesus’ parables here describing the kingdom of heaven/ reign of God. I remind you that Matthew avoids using the word “God” and substitutes “heaven” for it. And I use the word reign instead of kingdom because, for me, the word “reign” more fully describes God’s unlimited power and presence. It helps us remember that the kingdom of God is already present – God reigns here and now, though there will be a time when God’s reign is complete.
So, in these similes, God’s reign is described as:
Mustard seed in which a weed as obnoxious as kudzu becomes a home for birds
Yeast which leavens the whole loaf, and there is enough leaven enough for 100 loaves
Valuable treasure and a giant pearl, which are worth a great price
A net which is full of fish, both edible fish and unwanted fish
God’s reign, then, will be as ever-present as mustard weed and kudzu vine, invading even those places where it is not wanted. God’s reign will be like yeast which starts small and grows and grows, like the loaf that kept coming and coming out of Lucy’s oven in that classic episode of I Love Lucy. God’s reign is so valuable, people will spend fortunes to possess it, although it is, like the MasterCard ad: priceless. These descriptions are surprising enough, that God’s reign will be unstoppably abundant, and priceless.
But I’d guess the last one was a real shocker for the crowd listening to Jesus. In God’s reign, there are desirable and undesirable, and some will be kept, and some will be thrown out. Not bad, so far. But the shocker is that it is God’s angels who do the sorting, not we people. This means that while we are living in the reign of God, we are reminded, as we learned last week, that it is not up to us to judge who is righteous and who is not.
Paul’s letter to the Romans contains even more of God’s surprises for us. He says, basically, “There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.” In ancient times, the commandments and the explanations and expansions of the commandments proved who was righteous and who was not, who was in, and who was not. One’s status in society and one’s wealth and one’s fertility proved one was blessed by God or not. But Paul claims that Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and touching and healing, his life, death, and resurrection changed everything. Everyone is worthy of God’s love, everyone is righteous in God’s eyes, and nothing can change that. Nothing!
I’m sure we have all at times felt unworthy of God’s love, or that God had failed to bless us, at least lately. But we open our Bible and read texts like these we have been working with today. We remember that our God is a God of surprises, that God’s reign is everywhere and in everything, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is God’s grace: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more; and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less. – God may not like some of the things we do, but they do not change how much God loves us.
So, what should we do about that? It’s our role as God’s children to be part of the spreading of the grace. Each week I’ve lifted up in prayer our concern that those in our community would come to know God’s love through us. How many ways can we find to let our neighbors know we care about them? How many ways do we share the reign of God with them? Here are some examples:
We share as generously as we can with those who need food or gas, or help with rent, or utilities.
We offer good food at low prices through the Angel Food Ministries program.
We set up a booth at the Dunnellon Market and offer devotional booklets and invite prayer requests.
Our signs outside express to our neighbors who we are and what goes on here.
We pray each week for our neighbors.
We make quilts and fill shoeboxes that go into the worldwide neighborhood.
We all do things, little things or bigger things that help our community.
It’s through us that God leavens the neighborhood, filling it in surprising ways with goodness and mercy. It’s through us that God’s grace spreads like kudzu vine through our community. It’s through us that people we encounter come to know that there is nothing they can do to make God love them more; and nothing they can do to make God love them less, even if they refuse to love God in return.
At the end of these parables Jesus says: 51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
We are Jesus’ disciples, trained for the kingdom/reign of God, charged with bringing the news of Jesus’ way of life to the community around us. Have you understood this, I ask you?
Please pray with me: Merciful God, surprising God, you were with Jacob and his family all those years ago. Jesus described your reign for his disciples and for the crowds who came to hear him. Be present with us now, and fit us to service in your surprising reign. Amen