Tuesday, August 1, 2017

It Is Not Our Custom

Genesis 29:15–28
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield UMC
July 29, 2017

It is not our custom. It is not our custom.

We are settling into this story of the Hebrew scriptures mid story. All sorts of things have gone on in Jacob’s life to bring him to this point.
He has made decisions that will place him in the family line of God’s work in the world. But not because he is a great man of God. So far, Jacob has swindled his brother out of his birth-right. He has lied to his father. He has used his mother for his own purposes. And when things didn’t go his way he whined about it.
But God met Jacob along the way, in the midst of his whining, God turned Jacob’s heart toward love and forgiveness and worship.
So that Jacob becomes one of the three great fathers by whom God is named: I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   

I think it is significant that in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament, the fathers of our faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have romantic relationships with some of their wives.

This was not the custom in those days. Marriages were not based on falling in love. It was all about politics, money, land and power. Women were pawns in the game of acquisition.

As these men learned how to live and love as God taught them, as God loved them, through their short comings and hard headedness and egos, as these traditional men who represented the way of the culture of a patriarchal society is typically structured…learned about the love God has for them, they seemed to learn just a little bit that showing loving-kindness to their wives was not only acceptable, it was better, their stories passed down through the generations hinted at relationships with wives that were based on more than power. But unfortunately, it is only hinted at. They do not do it well or perfectly. They are living against their culture with no teaching manual or self-help books to guide them. It is really, really hard to go against culture.

In this story, Jacob falls in love with a woman. Rachel. And is willing to work, to become a hired hand in order to marry Rachel. Now realize, as this story in being told through oral tradition many generations after Jacob and Rachel have been established as matriarchs and patriarchs of the great Hebrew nation, the hearers of this story would realize Jacob’s work for Laban would be way below his pay grade, below his dignity as a patriarch of the Hebrew people. Yet, yet! This great patriarch was willing to labor for Rachel.

It is not our custom he could have told Laban. Jacob could have rallied the troops, claimed his birth right as a patriarch of Abraham’s tribe and taken Rachel by force. But he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant…to redeem his love. So, Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Ahh. Isn’t that just like a Hallmark card??? So romantic.

And then the irony, when on the night of his wedding he finds out he is married to Rachel’s sister, Leah. Jacob the double crosser gets double crossed. I love it! Except for the fact that poor Leah had no say in the matter nor did Rachel.

If you read this story carefully you will find that Rachel and Leah have no say in any of this. No voice whatsoever. So let’s not get carried away here and claim a victory for love and power sharing. Because here is where the rubber hits the road,
here is where this story loses its power for change:
in Laban’s proclamation and Jacob’s response: It is not our custom.
It is not our custom to give the younger daughter before the older daughter is married.

It is not our custom. Now, if Jacob has really learned about God’s love and forgiveness and grace and abundant life for all, Jacob would have stood up and said: Excuse me? Your custom? I have just worked for Rachel and she loves me and we should be together. She deserves this as much as I do. But Jacob wasn’t that enlightened. And if you want to explore the real meaning behind the text look at various translations of verse 21: 21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may take her to my bed, for my time is completed.” No, Jacob wasn’t all that enlightened.

The rest of the story will show that Jacob continues to scheme and plot and cheat…Laban is simply lucky that Jacob accepted custom and didn’t challenge it. Because, after all, this is how woman were treated. This was the custom. Who is going to challenge the custom?
Even when two women’s lives were changed forever? Without their input? Without their dignity?

It is the custom.

Now here is the point I want to make. Which I believe brings this story right into the 21st century.

We still use this excuse for the sins we commit that are outside the scope of God’s love and grace and forgiveness and redemption which we have been gifted with and are supposed to be sharing with others.

We still use this excuse for restricting our transformative experiences.
We still use this excuse to keep ourselves stuck in sinful behaviors that deny dignity to others.
We still use this excuse to excuse others for their own sins against God’s beloved ones.

Let me give you two examples to chew on this week:
One from the news this week:

We all have heard of the vote Senator John McCain made on the floor to stop the passage of a health care bill. Now whatever you feel about health care bills at the moment, put that aside. Put that aside. And hear me.
We have ALL heard of the vote of Senator John McCain. No matter what side of the aisle you are on. We have ALL heard how he rose from his hospital bed, in the midst of treatment for cancer, and dramatically turned his thumbs down on the Senate floor.

Have you also heard of Senator Mazie Hirono who has stage 4 kidney cancer and interrupted her treatment to be on the Senate floor? Did she get a standing ovation? Have you heard of Susan Collins and Lisa Murkoski who voted no and have received party threats and threats of violence and sexist comments have been made about them? Even though male colleagues also voted in the same way.

Could we say that it is the custom to lay blame at the feet of women and denigrate their leadership? Could we say that is the custom to ignore heroines?

Chew on that this week.

Another example comes from our own church, the UMC. And I believe, that if we do not change the way we think about this we will have no business being the church in the future. 

This year at annual conferences all throughout the world we are being asked to affirm changes to our constitution that would equalize the way we respect the equal rights of women and girls in our churches. The four constitutional amendments were all around these themes: girls and women have equal rights to education, health care and social status as men and the language we use for humans and God should reflect those equal rights.

Why in the 21st century would we need these constitutional amendments in the church? Because in some parts of our own country women and girls are not given free and safe access to the health care and education they need to succeed as citizens and full human beings. If you don’t believe me, come with me someday to Red Bird Mission and see how this UM mission work supports the women and girls who would be left behind otherwise. Or talk to anyone who works in the social service sector and ask them about how women and girls are treated in our society.

Why would we need these amendments in the church of the 21st century? The church that believes that Jesus the Christ lived, died and rose again so that all ALL could have abundant life? Because in the global church, girls are not given access to schools, to health care and not named as equal partners in the kindom of God. Because in the global church girls are still subjected to surgeries that would control their reproductive health and future well being as a woman and the church has only said: well it is the custom here what can we do?  Because in the global church Bishops still can have multiple wives and can still trade their wives for political favor and economic gain and the church flaps its hands and says, well it is the custom here what can we do? . Because in the global UMChurch women are taught that naming God as father is the only way to properly name God even if it hurts them to their core and the church stays silent because it is the custom and what can we do?

Chew on this for a while this week.
What customs do we have that oppress, that speak not of God’s grace and abundant living but of a god who hates and condemns and opposes life.

What customs do we excuse because we have always done it this way? What customs do we continue because they make us comfortable even if others are excluded?

It is our custom. But is it God’s way? It is the way Jesus the Christ taught us to live? Is it the way the Spirit empowers us to be?

Chew on this for a while. See where this might take you. See what new life you might discover.

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