August 6, 2017 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rejection of Rejection
As we pick up our story this morning, Jacob is on his way to his uncle’s house; fleeing the anger of his brother, Esau, from whom Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing. Somewhere on that journey, Jacob comes to a well and meets a woman named Rachel who happens to be the daughter of Jacob’s uncle who has come with her sheep to the well for water. Jacob tells Rachel who he is and she returns to her father with the news that his nephew is nearby. Uncle Laban runs to meet Jacob and brought him to his house where Jacob stayed for a month.
READ Genesis 29.15-30.8 As you hear this story, you might listen for any parallels between it and the story of Jacob and his brother Esau.
Notes on the text: 29.18: Meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Leah had “tender” eyes which might mean “lovely” or it might mean “weak”; Rachel was “shapely and beautiful.”[i]
29.25 – An ironic question for Jacob, who deceived his father, to ask of his uncle.
29.32 – All the names of the children carry some part of the meaning of the emotional expression of Leah or Rachel.
I thought about titling this sermon “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Jacob the trickster is tricked by his uncle. The deceiver is deceived. He is burned by the privilege of the elder child over the younger child. He wants to marry Rachel. He’s gets Leah instead (and then Rachel in exchange for a total of 14 years of labor).
Coming from a family where Jacob’s father loved Jacob’s brother more than he loved Jacob, Jacob repeats a version of that in loving Rachel more than Leah. Which sets up sibling rivalry between the two sisters—another family dynamic Jacob knows all too well. (Two weeks ago when I preached on Jacob and Esau I said all the stories of sibling rivalry were among brothers, I obviously forgot about Rachel and Leah.) Leah wants what Rachel has which is her husband’s love. Rachel wants what Leah has which is children.
Each of these sibling rivalry stories is a story of rejection. One sibling is loved more than the other. The other sibling feels rejected. Isaac and Ishamael. Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah. And at the end of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers.
It is a human reality to love one person more than another person. Most of us love people we know more than we love people we don’t know. We love friends more than we love strangers. In a theoretical way we could say we love all people but in reality, it’s human nature to love some people more than others. It’s probably not a stretch to understand that Jacob would love one of his wives more than the other. We may not think it’s right but we understand how it happens.
And at the same time we can probably feel how painful it would be to be Leah—the one who is loved less. The one who is rejected. You’ve probably had the experience of being shut out of a circle of people you thought were your friends. Or being the one who was broken up with. Or feeling unable to measure up in comparison with a sibling who seemed to be unable to do anything wrong. Or discovering who you are or what you value leaves you on the margins, or excluded from, of your family.
More than just individually and personally, we can also think about this systemically. Take systemic racism, for instance. Systemic racism and white supremacy culture both establish those who are chosen (primarily people who are white) and those who are rejected (primarily people of color). And just as it feels terrible to be rejected in a personal circumstance, it also feels terrible to be rejected in a systemic circumstance. For those of us who are white, we have more and more opportunities these days to comprehend the rejection experienced by people of color, especially African Americans, in the history of our country: enslavement, Jim Crow, lynching, red-lining, mass incarceration, education inequality. And experiences of the exclusion and exploitation of immigrants from the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s to today’s Muslim Travel Ban.
While religion is often used to exclude people, and we see that even in some places in the Bible, in these stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis, God always sees and hears “the plight of the rejected.”[ii] And reading these stories we cannot escape feeling the anguish of those who are rejected. And God feels it too because in each story, God comes alongside the one who is rejected and provides a blessing.
God saw Leah was unloved. And in God’s compassion God gave Leah children.
A sidebar about that: The Bible has lots of stories about the capacity or incapacity of women to bear children. The Bible’s perspective much of the time is that to bear children is to be blessed and to be unable to bear children is to be not blessed and even cursed. That’s the biblical view from a different day and time. It is not an easy view for women, especially, and also men, who long to be parents and have been unable to have children. In our day and time, this is not a theological perspective that we should make normative. Because people have all kinds of reasons for not having children and not being able to have children and now we know from science it has nothing to do with the absence of God’s blessing.
I want to emphasize God sees and hears and responds with compassion for all those who are rejected. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Genesis is the story of two covenants…between God and humanity on the one hand, and between God and Jacob’s children on the other. God unconditionally affirms both.”[iii] It is not the case for God that as one group is chosen, the other is rejected.
It has been easy for people to read these stories as about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac is included. Ishmael is excluded. And from there it’s not far to: Judaism is good. Islam is bad. Or push ahead to the New Testament and say Christians are good for accepting Jesus and Jews are bad for rejecting him. That’s a poor reading of the Bible.
Rabbi Sacks, in his book titled Not in God’s Name, which confronts religious extremism and violence, says, “Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil, is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God.”[iv]
And to divide these stories about siblings into the children of God and not the children of God is a misreading of the stories. Because, as Rabbi Sacks says, God has a covenant with everyone—one covenant with all of humanity, in fact, with all living creatures, established back in Genesis 9 after the flood, and a covenant with Abraham and his family and the descendants of Jacob, the stories of whom we hear in Genesis.[v] The message in Genesis is no one is excluded. No one is rejected. In these stories, God rejects rejection.
In this day of globalization, we know we are all one family. We know about people and events all around the world. What happens to one person or one community or one country has effects beyond individual or communal or national borders.
Rabbi Sacks says, “Every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others.”[vi]
Wendell Berry says we all live downstream from someone and what they throw into the river will end up affecting us. And what we throw in the river will end up affecting the people who live downstream from us.
If what’s in the river is rejection and hatred, that’s what we all get. If what’s in the river is compassion, that’s what we all get. Scientist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard talks, writes and teaches about meditation focused on compassion. We know the importance of exercising our physical bodies regularly. Ricard emphasizes the importance of also exercising our mind and spirit by meditating on compassion. It’s a skill that can be cultivated just as playing the piano is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon.
Compassion is an antidote to rejection. It’s a skill for opening our hearts to others. A skill for training our minds to encounter others as blessed children of God and responding to others from a well of compassion. We know from modern neuroscience that our brains can change and meditation and focused attention on compassion will change our brains. Our mind will change. And, says, Ricard, “what we are will change.”[vii]
We can also practice compassion at this table. While it will physically be those of us in this room who share this feast, as the traditional communion liturgy says, “People shall come from north and south, from east and west, to sit at table together in the realm of God.” As we come to this table, where all lives are fed and blest, we can practice a prayer of imagining a person and holding them in God’s light and love. Invite God to bring a person or two into your mind and hold them in God’s light and love and bring them with you as you come to the table.
As we hear the stories of pain and struggle in Genesis and see God’s compassionate response with blessing for each person, may we too practice and cultivate this compassion that comes from God, that we might experience God’s blessing and in turn be a blessing to others.
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[i] Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power, & Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 78 and Miguel A. De La Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 267.
[ii] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 168.
[iii] Ibid., 169.
[v] Ibid., 195.
[vii] OnBeing podcast, “Happiness as Human Flourishing,” https://onbeing.org/programs/matthieu-ricard-happiness-as-human-flourishing-jul2017/, accessed 5 August 2017.