Come Holy Spirit, search our hearts, intercede for us according to the will of God. Amen
We continue today our summer readings on the matriarchs and patriarchs and their struggles to help God keep God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that their family will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. They are struggling, no doubt.
Last week we heard about Jacob on the run in the desert, sleeping with a rock for a pillow and awakening to the knowledge that the Lord was present even in that lonely place. This week we hear about his life in exile from his mother and father’s land. We hear about the formation of a new family. It’s a messy family – two wives, two servants, a foreigner for a husband, a crafty father-in-law, and that’s just the beginning.
Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country– giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. (Genesis 29:15-28 NRSV)
We know about complicated families, don’t we? That’s the kind of family each of us has. Like theirs, our families grow and change, don’t they? A lot of sweat and tears go in each stage of that change, don’t they?
Sometimes we can lose sight of that. We can be tempted to look at our own families and see them as static, “just the way they are,” without embracing the changes. I know I’m tempted to do that: treat my grown children like they’re teenagers, and relate to my dad as if I’m a teenager myself. It’s easy to look at the people we know and assume they’re unchanging. That denies their personal agency and the work of the Holy Spirit in them. The realm of God is more complicated and more alive than that.
It’s just as tempting to look at this family of matriarchs and patriarchs and think of them as being stuck in their own kind of strangeness. And, they are indeed a strange bunch. But in the midst of their strangeness they’re learning and growing and choosing life.
In the Gospel reading Jesus talked about someone sowing a mustard seed. All of a sudden it becomes a tree. He talked of a baker – a woman – mixing yeast into dough. It’s interesting that a lot changes between the time that seed sprouts and the great life-giving tree is grown. A lot changes between putting the yeast in the flour and the baking of the life-giving bread. Between the lines of the Gospel a lot is going on. Someone has to knead the flour paying attention to each bit of dough. Someone has to make sure the tiny seed has the room and water it needs to grow. That takes focus, care, and love.
The Gospels often point to the distinctively life-giving role of women. Sure, Jesus changed that water into wine at the marriage at Cana, but it was the kitchen workers, surely women, who fetched all that water so he could change it. Let’s look at our Hebrew Bible reading looking for the life-giving complicity of women in the plan of God.
First: some Hebrew names: As usual they’re are puns:
Leah – soft-eyed, weary-eyed, like she shed a lot of tears. (translated “lovely eyes).
Rachel – lamb or ewe – a name of strength
Zilpah – drooping.
Bilhah – timid, bashful.
Jacob –means interloper or the “holder of the heel” (referring to his relationship with his brother)
Laban – means white.
Let’s look at this episode from Leah and Rachel’s point of view. This stranger Jacob has come in from the desert. The first person he saw when he arrived was Rachel. And now he has a monster seven year crush on her. It’s not clear from the text whether his affection is entirely reciprocated. But she’s clearly not hostile to his attentions.
This is a common story of human love. Boy has monster crush on girl. Girl looks on, amused, maybe a little flattered, and certainly less overcome by the crush than boy. I’m sure at least some of us recognize that scenario from our own lives.
The traditional way of reading this story makes Jacob into a hero who suffers to get the girl of his dreams. It makes Laban into a manipulative rogue. Now, maybe those things are true. Jacob’s famous for tricking his brother and father, and so there’s a sense of just comeuppance when he gets tricked into marry the firstborn daughter instead of the one he’s crushing on so madly. Fair enough.
But let’s look at the situation from the point of view of the women in the story. We have these two sisters and their servants. They live in a household, and an age, where the men don’t think twice about making deals with their lives. Reading between the lines of scripture we can guess that a lot happens in the lives of these women. (Anita Diamant wrote a wonderful book of scriptural speculation—midrasch—about them called The Red Tent.)
One wonders: were those two sisters looking out for each other and for their whole family? Were they working as hard and as carefully as the Gospel woman kneading the life-giving yeast into the dough?
They must have had some compassion and care. Who are they? the weak-eyed Leah, her drooping servant Zilpah, the bashful Bilhah, and the strong life-giving ewe Rachel. These are real people just like us.
Some of the rabbis believe they must have been working together for the sake of their family. How can the wedding-night deception have possibly worked without Rachel and Leah cooperating with each other? There’s more to this story than Laban giving Jacob the wrong woman as his wife. I wonder if Rachel deliberately took a big risk for the sake of her weary-eyed older sister, maybe to get her out of Laban’s household into her own, who knows?
Their relationships were intricately woven. We know that later in her life Leah will be jealous of Jacob’s affection for Rachel. We know Rachel will be jealous of Leah’s fertility. And both of them will get more and more annoyed with their father’s manipulations. Things go from messy to messier in their lives. But they didn’t know that as they were living their lives. It’s this family, because of all its messiness, that’s the founding family of the people of God. We get the privilege of perspective on their lives. With that privilege we gain the ability to have perspective on our own messy lives, because surely their family is our family.
Aren’t all our lives, woven together, full of the same messiness? Don’t we all live in that vast complicated life-giving tree of life that springs from the tiny mustard-seed of love? We could read the Gospel with Jack-and-the-beanstalk eyes, believing that the great tree magically sprang up overnight. But instead let’s read it with Gospel eyes. Let’s see it in all its unfolding life-giving complexity. We don’t get to see it fully grown, because we live in its branches. It’s growing, we are growing, and the God’s messy family is always growing and changing, by God’s love working in and around each one of us. Let’s rejoice in that love even as we struggle to shape ourselves to live in it.
Introduction to the story of Jacob in the wilderness
This summer we’ve been following the story of Sarah and Abraham and their descendants. In today’s Genesis reading, we hear a story of their grandson Jacob. He’s in the desert on his way into hiding. This man is the son of Isaac and Rebekah; he’s moments younger than his twin brother Esau.
Now, in those days the firstborn son traditionally inherited everything. This Jacob, though, is crafty. He’s notorious for tricking his brother and his father. Years earlier he convinced his first born brother to trade his birthright for a “mess of pottage:” some vegetable stew.
More recently he conspired with his mother Rebekah to trick his father into giving him a blessing intended for Esau. So Esau is enraged and trying to kill him. As our reading starts Jacob is in the desert. He’s a refugee. He’s fleeing for his life from his family to the city of his ancestors. Let’s listen.
Let us open our hearts to the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Amen
Our young patriarch Jacob is a refugee. He’s in big trouble with his older brother Esau for conning him out of the right to inherit his family’s wealth, and for tricking their dying father into refusing to bless Esau. It’s not by his own choice that he’s sleeping in the wilderness with nothing but a rock for a pillow. But he is there, certainly, by his own fault. He’s mistreated his brother scandalously, and his brother is in a murderous rage.
I wonder if he, lying down to sleep, was strongly focused on his own thoughts? Was he having regrets for his treatment of Esau? Was he going over and over the incidents in his mind as he fell asleep with his head on a rock?
If he’s anything like you and me, the answer is yes. You and I know what this is like. “I shoulda cooperated with Esau, and then I woulda told my mother Rebekah to back off. I coulda stayed home. Shoulda, woulda, coulda – who knows what Jacob shoulda done, coulda done, woulda done? Who cares? We all have our own shoulda / woulda / coulda nights in the desert like Jacob.
In these weeks looking at the TV and newspaper, we see the US and our neighbor nations to the south having a collective shoulda / woulda / coulda night in the desert. You know what’s going on. There are tens of thousands of children – little kids – showing up on the border without parents. Last Monday our friends at Foundation Cristosal in El Salvador held a conference call. Their human rights lawyer José Osvaldo López told of a community where the boys nine and up are recruited into the local gang, and murdered if they don’t want to join. (The choices are even tougher for the girls, Jose says.) Then, when migration agents – coyotes they’re sometimes called – show up and tell parents their kids will be safer in Texas, the parents say “yes, of course,” pay the coyotes, and send them off. It’s a big business—the coyotes get hundreds if not thousands of dollars per kid. These kids cross the Sonoran desert and turn up at the Texas border needing what all kids need: food, shelter, exercise, community, discipline, and love. There are almost more kids than rocks to give them to use for pillows.
You know where I’m going with this. It’s a shoulda / woulda / coulda mess. The Central American governments coulda protected their populations better from gang violence. If American governments (north to south) over the last generation woulda used compassion instead of violence … The US government shoulda considered the consequences of the child trafficking act of 2008 … blah / blah / blah … shoulda / woulda / coulda … This stuff can swirl in our heads, and on CSPAN, all day and night.
The shoulda / woulda / couldas are swirling in Jacob’s head, and in ours. In the meantime he’s in the desert. So are those Central American kids. So are we all, metaphorically.
It’s Jacob’s fault, and his parents’ fault, that he’s a refugee in the desert. The Salvadoran government takes the position that it’s those kids’ fault and their parents’ fault they’re stuck in the desert too: they coulda just agreed to do whatever the local gang wants and told the greedy coyote to get lost. And, the US government also bears plenty of fault for this state of affairs. We’re all swirled up in shoulda / woulda /coulda.
What’s a loving God to do about all this? Does God sit back and chuckle sadly at our mortal foolishness? No! Here’s what happened to Jacob.
He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!”
He woke from his sleep. His heart was opened to know the presence and the promise of the Lord.
Now, let’s be clear about something. The Lord didn’t suddenly “fix” his problems and turn him from a scheming rascal into a wonderful human being. The Lord promised to be with him in the midst of his brokenness, and offered him a vision of something greater than himself – something beyond his shoulda / woulda / coulda troubles.
The same is true for each of us in our family and personal struggles. Surely the Lord is in the places where you and I mess up our lives lay our heads on rocks and try to sleep.
Just as surely, the Lord is present in Central America where parents are choosing the uncertainty of the long journey north over the certain violence of their villages. The Lord is present in refugee camps, whether in Texas or Turkey or South Sudan.
One thing is certain: We WILL wake up, like Jacob, and say “surely the Lord is in this place!” The question is, what happens when we wake from our sleep in our personal lives and family lives? What happens when we wake from our sleep in our civic life?
God is giving us –all of us — this land. God’s commanding us to live together in the land forever. The question is how we will live, and how we will treat one another, when by the grace of God we’re transformed, when we awake from confusion of shoulda / woulda / coulda .
We SHALL we WILL we CAN , by the grace of God, change the rock pillows we offer our children into holy places.
We SHALL we WILL we CAN by the grace of God, change the fearful deserts we make for ourselves and each other into the Lord’s realm of love, justice, and peace.
We are safely in Switzerland and mostly over our jet lag. Went to Mass with my Mother -in-law this morning. New at her church is a screen with lyrics to hymns- so I could actually sing along in French! Here is a picture of the vineyards near Marco’s mom’s house:
Here is a nice sabbatical “Godincidence”- when planning for our sabbatical a year and a half ago I went online to find a school for French immersion, found the one in Sancerre, France and then quickly booked our 2 weeks there after we got the grant. Only then did Marco look at the map and realize Sancerre in close to where Riad- one of his long time friends and high school classmates from Tunisia – spends his summers. Marco just phoned Riad and started making plans to get together while we are there (August 2-16) Riad’s father is Tunisian and his mom is French. Since they speak only Arabic and French it will be good language practice for me and the kids while we are there.
It was such a pleasure to hear Marco talking so excitedly with Riad on the phone today! What a wonderful opportunity for Marco to renew this friendship. Thank you God for weaving our threads of language and friendship together this way!
On Monday I had the privilege of participating in a conference call with Cristosal people, especially Noah, José, and Hannah.
Here are some notes from that call published by Hannah.
2 Emblematic Cases of the Human Rights Office:
Program Director José López presented two cases the Office is currently working on:
A Dangerous Precedent: Salvadoran Family Sued for Negligence
An 11-year old Salvadoran boy was found at the Mexico-US border, and with encouragement from the US State Department, deported back to El Salvador. The Salvadoran government has now charged his grandparents with negligence. As international governments, especially the US, pressure the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) to take action, the Salvadoran state has chosen to place responsibility entirely with threatened families, rather than accept responsibility for its own failures to ensure citizens their most basic right, the right to life. The Human Rights Office is pushing for legislative reform stating that the government cannot cite the Child Protection Act in emergency situations, including the current crisis. This reform would protect families threatened by violence from further government prosecution, and force the Salvadoran government to take productive actions addressing the structural causes of violence that force families to send their children in the first place.
Ensuring Safe Passage: Protecting Those Who Come Forward
The Human Rights Office is partnering with the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in the case of a single mother looking to leave the country after her 16-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped, and killed by a gang in 2012. The same gang also kidnapped, tortured and then returned her 11-year-old son who now refuses to share what had happened to him. The same gang is responsible for 4 similar murders of young women in the same community. The mother now receives daily threats from the gang, who believe she is the one pushing a current police investigation.
If a conviction is made, the family will likely be killed. (They currently live under curfew, traveling only to work or school and returning straight home). Cristosal and IDHUCA have arranged for the family to receive asylum in the care of a Jesuit community in Europe, and are now seeking the financial resources to send them. The airfare and seed money needed for each family member is about $2,000, or $10,000 total for the family of five. Currently, the entire family lives on about $6 a day in El Salvador. Finding the resources to leave El Salvador becomes even more urgent as a conviction can happen any day.
Who are the bad guys here? Is it the gangs?
Yes, for the most part Salvadorans are fleeing the region due to gang violence. Specifically young men flee as gangs recruit new members, killing those who refuse. Rival gangs also extort and threaten marginalized or poor Salvadorans in a larger fight for territory and power.
This presents a huge immigration issue, since refugee status can only be given to those fleeing war or political violence, not civil conflict (as the current situation is defined). Yet we cannot forget these individuals are refugees, in that the state has failed to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, forcing them to seek it outside the nation’s borders.
Is the current crisis linked to drug trafficking?
What else might be causing the current crisis?
What are international agencies doing in El Salvador to help?
Honduras has declared a humanitarian crisis. How is this different from El Salvador?
Current gang violence is due both to drug trafficking and a general fight for territory. We also have to remember this is a structural problem, stemming from El Salvador’s long history of violence including the Civil War in the 80s. Even after the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, a lack of social spending, especially in economic development and resources for youth, has played a major role in the increase of violence.First it is important to acknowledge this is an incredibly complex issue, and not a temporary blip in immigration rates. Along with widespread regional violence, there are several factors that encourage families to send their children abroad unaccompanied:
Following the 2000 earthquakes, Pres. George W. Bush created a Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Salvadorans already in the US. After 9/11, however, immigration laws became much stricter, making it more difficult for relatives, namely parents, to travel back to El Salvador and see their children. As regional violence increases, these children are now being sent north to be with their parents.
Families have very little access to information about the immigration process. Coyotes in the Northern Triangle capitalize on this lack, and often encourage parents to send their children alone, highlighting that they are treated differently as minors and granted a temporary stay rather than instantly deported back to the country of origin.
Though there are political and legal factors contributing to the current crisis, it is still critical to recognize that the majority of minors are being sent because families believe a child stands a better chance of surviving the journey northward than if they were to stay in their own country. These are calculated decisions made by individuals with no other options.Cristosal is working with the US Embassy and Salvadoran foreign ministry to develop a formal policy position that would reduce the current crisis and reduce incentives for individuals to travel northward. This position includes:
A new Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for unaccompanied minors in Central America. Similar actions have been taken in Haiti and Cuba, and would reduce current backlog and overcrowding in the detention centers.
Create a system where individuals can solicit for asylum from their country of origin. Currently individuals must travel to the US and can only ask for asylum once they arrive.
By declaring a humanitarian crisis, Honduras qualifies for specialized international assistance, and Honduran citizens qualify as refugees. El Salvador has not acknowledged the crisis, as this would admit the state’s failure to protect its citizens. This omission not only affects Salvadorans who would otherwise qualify for refugee status, but also fails to recognize the crisis as anything more than an immigration issue rather than a regional emergency. Yet, to put the current crisis in perspective, death tolls in the Nothern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) exceed those at the height of the Iraq insurgency.
Weaving our family threads from Westfield MA to Albany and Penn Yan in NY and to Niagara Falls and Toronto in Ontario was a wonderfully rich experience. So many threads came together! An embodiment of this experience was our visit to the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. Here are some pictures:
The hands on weaving room gave us a chance to engage our theme in a tangible way!
Then right around the corner the first display we saw was this one on t-shirts from the Toronto LGBTQ community- and we felt so good to see this proud statement of a movement we support – so glad to show it to and discuss it with our children!
Then on to an exhibit about telling our stories through tapestry – and the first one we look at is from Iran- where Marco was born.
Finally we saw an exhibit on textiles in archaeology – the one above is from Central America. I bought a book at the gift shop about weavers in Guatemala that is written side by side in English and French- good prep for our French immersion course next month!
Lastly a picture of me with my Canadian cousin, Mary – just one of the many wonderful friends and family we reconnected with over these two weeks!
We send light, love and prayers for all good things to be yours this summer!
As you know, the theme of this sabbatical summer is weaving – weaving our voices, weaving our stories, and weaving our lives into the great song, the great story, of the life of God’s world. Martha Hubbard, the rector of St. Paul’s, chose this theme when she was planning her sabbatical summer. She and Gail Bishop-Davis learned how to weave cloth last spring. We’ve had some demonstrations of weaving here at St. Paul’s and we hope to have more in the weeks to come. The art of weaving transforms solitary and weak threads into strong and life-giving fabric. Those threads can be cotton or flax. Those threads can be the sound of each of our voices. They can be the sound of a solidary note played on a string or a pipe. Those threads can be the stories of our solitary lives. We can treat our own personal threads as treasure, and of course they are treasure. We can take great care with our individual spools of thread lest they prove weak and break. We can sing very softly and play our own notes softly, lest they prove to be out of tune. We can cling to our own unique stories and retain them in our hearts. And we all do these things, of course. Sometimes we cling to our own voices and stories because we fear losing them. And all too often we cling to them because we are worried about what the next person will think of us. Who among us hasn’t thought “I better sing softly, because people will know my voice wavers?” Who among us hasn’t though, “I better keep my story quiet, because if I don’t people will know….” something or other about my life, maybe something I regret? But think of what happened when the Israelites came together to build the temple of the Lord. Our Exodus reading teaches us something important: women and men enthusiastically gave what they had to become part of the glory of the Lord. Those peoples’ gifts were so overwhelmingly abundant that Moses had to say “enough already” so the artisans could start the next part of their work. The private treasure of those men and women, gathered together, became vast and wonderful. In Acts it says the people of the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We too devote ourselves to those things. As you know I have the privilege of sometimes visiting other congregations. I’m proud to say to you here today that we, St. Paul’s, are extraordinarily good at devoting ourselves to fellowship: to giving and receiving ourselves and weaving together our stories and our lives. Today we have the opportunity to hear and feel what happens when various voices – fiddle strings and human spirit – cease to stand alone and become intertwined. The single voice transcends its loneliness. Together our lonely voices and lonely personal stories take on joyful harmony and deep richness that none might have alone. So let us experience that transformation!