Monday, 5 July 2010

Evensong sermon: Trade or Trust?

Gen 29.1-20, Mark 6.7-29

Today’s Old Testament reading sounds like a simple love story. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, and by the end of the reading there’s a wedding in the offing. That’s nice. But the central figure in this tale is Jacob, and if you know anything about him you’ll realise that there’s not going to be anything straightforward about this romance, because there is nothing straightforward about him. He is a trickster through and through, and his whole life is a saga of deception and the problems that come from it.

“Then Jacob went on his journey,” the story starts. Well, that should start us wondering; his journey from where? To where? For what reason?

The truth is that Jacob is on the run, as well he might be, having tricked his older twin Esau out of the birthright that should have been his - his father’s dying blessing and his position as new head of the family. This was one of the most valuable things you could have in their society. A father’s blessing was a solemn business, not just a vague matter of sentimental well-wishing. Essentially it was like a last will and testament today, and once the blessing had been given it couldn’t be taken back or altered. Jacob had tricked his father and brother in order to get it, but that made no difference. The words had been spoken. Esau was furious, and was after Jacob’s life. So his mother, who had connived in this deception, sent Jacob away, back to her relatives in the east, hoping perhaps that he might find a wife there and sit out the storm till it was safe to come back.

In the story we heard tonight he had just arrived at his destination, and as soon as he got there he came across a lovely young woman who, as it turned was his cousin. Cousin marriage was very popular – as it still is in many societies. It keeps property in the family rather than spreading it about, and strengthens family ties. So this was perfect. Good luck is just falling into his lap. His uncle Laban welcomes him with open arms. “So, you want to marry my daughter, Rachel – that’s fine. You come and work for me for the next seven years and she’s yours”. But perhaps Jacob should have realised that he might not be the only trickster in the family. On Jacob’s wedding day, Laban substitutes his elder daughter Leah, concealed beneath the wedding veil, and Jacob finds he has plighted his troth to the wrong sister. If he wants Rachel too, he’ll have to commit himself to another 7 years labour. There’s a neat symmetry here. The story starts with two brothers, and a dispute in which the younger disguises himself as the older to supplant him. Now we have two sisters, but this time it is the older one who is disguised as the younger to take her place. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Jacob at this rough justice now that the boot is on the other foot, so to speak, but I have plenty for Leah and Rachel who are just pawns in all this.

In the end, Jacob gets the girl he wants, and manages to escape Laban’s control by even more trickery. He returns to Canaan and makes a sort of peace with Esau, but the whole story is a warning about the tangled web which deception creates. In attempting to manipulate his way to success Jacob causes far more problems than he solves, problems that last for generations. It is Jacob, of course, who plays favourites with his own children, and gives his second youngest, Joseph, that famous coat of many colours; Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt, and Jacob grieves for years for the child whose death he must, in some sense, have believed himself to be responsible for.

Why does he act this way? Who knows for sure, but it feels, when you read the whole story as Jacob never quite feels secure about his place in the world, so he grasps at whatever power, love and wealth he can to make up for it. The irony is, though, that the story tells us he had the security he really needed all along.

Just before he met Rachel, as he fled from Esau’s wrath, he had a dream, a dream of a ladder stretching up into heaven, with the angels of God coming and going on it. “God is with you,” says the vision, “even out here, on the run, in the middle of nowhere” God was with him. The assurance he really needed was already his; what a tragedy he never really learned to trust it, but instead felt he had to manoeuvre and wrangle his way through life.

In the New Testament reading, we have a man who could be said to be the absolute opposite of Jacob. John the Baptist doesn’t have a crooked bone in his body. He tells it like it is; the raw, uncompromising truth. It doesn’t matter whether you are a king or a pauper to him. If John has something to say to you he just comes right out with it. And he pays the price for his straight talking; beheaded on the whim of a teenager and her scheming mother. John doesn’t try to help himself by currying favour, even when he already in prison. He goes on telling the truth. How does he find the strength? Perhaps he’s just obstinate, but I think it is more than that. He knows that security bought at the cost of integrity isn’t worth having – he will end up having to play this game forever if he gives in to the threats from Herod’s family. So he sticks to his message, and in doing so he retains his self-respect and honour. He has done what he has been called to do by God, and that’s all that matters to him. The rest is in God’s hands to sort out.

I wonder which of these two men we most readily identify with? John or Jacob? My guess is that while we might wish we had John’s courage and integrity, most of us will find quite a bit of Jacob in us too. It often comes more naturally to us to trade than to trust, to believe that we must somehow bargain our way through life, manipulating those around us in order to get them to do what we want. In a dog-eat-dog world, our society tells us, you need to make sure that you are the fiercest or most cunning dog around if you want to get to the top of the pile.

It is interesting to note that there is nothing in these stories that challenges that view. They don’t tell us that that honesty is the best policy if you want human success and safety. Jacob lives to be old and rich, with a large family and a respected position. John, the only son of his elderly parents, dies at little more than thirty years of age, with nothing to show for his life at all, in worldly terms. What these stories do ask us to think about, though, is whether the achievements we gain by stealth will really have been worth the price we have paid for them, and whether, in the end we will want the prizes we have won. They don’t offer us an alternative route to the top – they ask us to consider whether that’s really where we want to go at all.

John’s story is prefaced in Mark’s Gospel by Jesus’ instruction to his followers as they begin their ministry. Take nothing for the journey – no bread, no bag, no money, no spare clothing. They aren’t to set out with the question “what’s in it for me?” running through their heads, but to go out open to whatever they find – good or ill. That will lead them, says Jesus, to the goal that really matters, the security they truly crave, the discovery that God holds them in his hands, in life, and in death, and therefore they have nothing to fear. John or Jacob? As we look in the mirror tonight, who do we see looking back, someone who must deceive and manipulate their way to an illusion of self-worth, or someone who knows that wherever their journey leads them they are safe and loved, travelling in the company of God himself?

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