Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Genesis 29:15-28 AND Psalm 105:1-11, 54b OR Psalm 128:1-6, I Kings 3:5-12 AND Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Some of you may remember the Arsenio Hall Show from some years back. One of the features of the show was a segment in which Arsenio offered a number of observations that made him go “Hmmm.”

Lots of times when I read scripture these days there are things that make me go “Hmm!” They may be things that I disagree with, things that even offend me, at a minimum make me ask, “What is going on here?” or “You’ve got to be kidding!”

I’m going to identify some of those things in this week’s lectionary texts.

In the continuing saga of Abraham and his descendants, we have another story of family skulduggery. You will remember how Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, and then tricked his father into giving the blessing of that birthright to him. In this week’s reading from Genesis, Jacob becomes the victim of behavior that most fair-minded people would find offensive.

It is a love story. Laban has two daughters. Rachel, the youngest, is described as “graceful and beautiful.” The appearance of Leah, the oldest, and first in line to be offered in marriage, is less clear. Some of us grew up with a translation that said her eyes were “weak.” Another calls them “tender.” The New Revised Standard describes them as “lovely,” but in a way that makes one wonder whether the writer is floundering for something positive to say. “At least she has nice eyes.” (Genesis 19:16-17)

Jacob falls head over heels for Rachel, agreeing to serve Laban for seven years in order for that to happen. At the end of seven years, Laban sends Leah instead. (vss. 23-25---Interestingly, Jacob doesn’t seem to notice until morning.) The younger getting married before the elder is just not done! So, Laban demands another seven years from Jacob before he gets Rachel.

It was in the middle of the night when I was thinking about the final verse of the Gospel lesson, that I made a connection. That verse says that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) Jesus lived in a day when the traditional ways of religious practice and understanding were being challenged. He lived and taught at a juncture between old and new. If one’s faith is alive, there is always some tensions with rote tradition and ritual.

In some sense, those tensions are present in the Abrahamic stories. He has traveled far and settled in a new land. In the process, God shows that old patterns are not the only way to move ahead. The blessing will not necessarily be passed on through traditional lines, but neither will old ways be utterly abandoned. Leah represents the old way and Rachel represents the new.

Do we too sometimes get stuck in a rut, thinking we must follow certain traditions to continue to experience God’s presence? What is the balance of old and new as we move along in our faith journey? Something to go “Hmmm” about in the middle of the night.

The Abrahamic history is, among other things, the story of a covenant between God and God’s people. Psalm 105 recalls that covenant. “He is mindful of his covenant forever . . . the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, ‘I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.’” (Psalm 105:8-11) I’ve been going “Hmm” for weeks now as I’ve thought about the use and misuse, the interpretation and misinterpretation, of this covenant in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East today.

It drove me to read an entire (though short) book last night---Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Walter Brueggeman, esteemed Old Testament scholar. No quick summary here. You have to read it for yourself if you want that. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that the covenant was not made to the present-day state of Israeli, which operates on quite different principals, especially in its treatment of “the stranger.” Maybe there should be more remembrance of the final words in the reading from Psalm 119---“My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept.” (vs. 136) Many, including myself, will continue to go “Hmmm” over the situation in the Middle East, as we well should.

The reading from I Kings offers another perspective on the covenant. When God speaks to Solomon in a dream, God says, “Ask what I should give you?” (I Kings 3:5) Solomon first notes God’s faithfulness to the covenant in his relationship with his father, David. (vs. 6) Instead of making arrogant claims about the covenant, however, he is humble. “ . . . I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this great people?” (vss. 7, 9) Not much to go “Hmmm” about here, except to wonder why arrogant leaders in our present day cannot seem to find moments of humility.

I moan another big “Hmmm” when I read Romans 8:28---“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It might be coupled with the first verse of Psalm 128---“Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.” Both seem to imply that the life of faith is filled with bliss and positive outcomes. Now is not the time to get into the much more nuanced message of the entire Bible. For the moment, I only note that Romans is a book about the grace of God, in some sense reaching its peak at the end of the chapter---“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vss. 38-39) No matter how bad things get, nothing can separate us from the power of Love. Being sustained by Love may not be a simplistic calculation preached by a philosophy of positive thinking, but it is a source of hope, eternally and daily.

Not all things about which we go “Hmmm” need answers. In fact, perhaps going “Hmmm” in the middle of the night is essential to faith. It can be an attitude of faith. God, and God’s workings, include a large element of mystery. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. If I could describe God and God’s workings with precision and certainty, my God would be too small. So---let’s continue to go “Hmmm” in the middle of the night, taking to heart Paul’s questions in Romans 8:35---“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?” His answer: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs. 37)

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