Preached on 30 July 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year A
You’ve probably heard the joke, “how many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?” None. They revise the specs and redefine darkness as ‘good;’ the desired outcome.
It is human nature to manipulate. We manipulate our environment, resources, and even people to serve our own interests and desires. And to be honest, a lot of good comes from that. That’s what engineering and medicine and even the arts and literature do. Without it, we wouldn’t have agriculture; we would still be hunting and foraging – not even gathering. Advances in farming, manufacturing, healing, and all manner of problem-solving come from manipulating the environment and resources.
Even in the arts, materials and ideas are manipulated to express the human condition, evoking our compassion and empathy, inspiring solutions that alleviate suffering. This very human activity often serves the common good as well as self-interest.
It can also result in the opposite of the common good, what might be called the common evil – when the environment is polluted, habitats damaged or destroyed, the life, health, or safety of people and other species, our neighbors, seriously harmed or put at risk for the limited benefit of a few.
When it comes to manipulating people, nobody wants to be manipulated. We probably all do it to some extent, though. Whole industries (advertising comes to mind) are solely about manipulating people. It is human nature to balk when we are the object of manipulation. When my kids were little, a lot of the parenting advice was about getting your children to do what you want by offering them choices – manipulated them by letting them think they’re in control. As an example, “Do you want to dress yourself or do you want me to help?” “Do you want cold cereal or toast for breakfast?” well, my kids didn’t read the book or follow the script. They would inevitably choose something else.
They would not allow someone else to define the boxes into which their lives were to be confined. Put that way, it sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? While that was in fact my desire for them in the end, it was rather frustrating to me when they were four.
The story of Jacob is full of very human manipulation. Now, Jacob’s story is a long, rich story that fills over ten chapters in the book of Genesis. Our lectionary only shows us a few scenes, so let’s play a little catch-up, putting today’s scene in context.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the birth of Jacob and his older twin, Essau. The even fought in the womb and the Lord told their mother Rebecca that her two sons were two rival nations, that one would be master of the other; that the elder would serve the younger. We heard how Essau was the favorite of his father, Isaac, and Jacob was the favorite of their mother, Rebecca. We heard how Jacob manipulated Essau to give him is birthright for a bowl of stew.
Last week, we heard the story of Jacob in the wilderness, using a stone for a pillow. He had a dream in which God renewed the promise made to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham, before him; the promise of the land and offspring as plentiful as the dust of the earth. It leaves out Jacob’s response, “If God remains with me and keeps me safe on this journey I am making, if he gives me food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I come home safe to my father’s home, then the Lord shall be my God.” That’s a lot of “ifs.” Jacob even tries to manipulate God. Wow!
The lectionary skips a bit though. You see, Jacob is on the run. He and his mother conspired to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Essau. When Essau finds out, he is enraged and vows to kill Jacob.
Rebecca tells Isaac, she doesn’t want Jacob to marry one of the local women like Essau had, she wants Isaac to send Jacob back to her family to find a wife among her kin. Jacob was running for his life, heading to the home of his uncle, when he had the dream.
So today, we find him with his uncle, Laban who has two daughters. And as we heard, he offers to work for his uncle for seven years in exchange for the younger daughter, Rachel. And then the trickster gets tricked. He ends up having to work for fourteen years to get the bride he wants.
What about the women, though? They are used like chess pieces as these two men maneuver and manipulate each other for dominance. The women have no voice, no choice.
If we continue reading, we find that Jacob works yet another six years for his father-in-law, tending the sheep and the goats, breeding them and manipulating them to enrich himself until, at last, he quietly leaves with huge flocks of his own, his two wives, his many children, and a huge household.
In a way, it’s hard to find good news in Jacob’s saga. This is a story of who suffers when people with power choose to treat the world and people as objects to be manipulated in their own quest for dominance.
Jacob’s story could be our story. Not in the details, but the messiness, the broken relationships, the maneuvering and manipulating. The pain of being the second-best in the love of a parent; or the particular challenges of being the favorite.
It strikes me that in today’s lesson, God isn’t really mentioned. Maybe that’s when we get into trouble, when we forget about God and our dependence on God. When we try to take the fulfillment of God’s promise into our own hands and force it to happen in our time. When we try to negotiate with God and manipulate God. When we make our relationship with God conditional.
The parables in today’s gospel present the opposite. When all else is set aside in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. The kingdom that is like the treasure hidden in the field or a fine pearl, that when it is found the person sells everything they own to possess it.
Despite the mess he makes of his life, Jacob is one of the patriarchs. He is the one God chose to receive the promise. It is through him, his twelve sons, that the twelve tribes of Israel come to be.
It is very clear from the story of Jacob, that God doesn’t choose the most deserving. We don’t earn God’s favor. God gives it freely. God works with us as we are, even in our human weakness or failings, to bring about God’s promises. Perhaps that is the Good News; the hope we find in Jacob’s story.