George Knudson’s sermon, July 30, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017
George Knudson, Preacher

Genesis 29:15-28 (semi-continuous)
Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel

Romans 8:26-39
Even from eternity God has chosen us to be beloved in Christ

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus tells parables about the dominion of heaven

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I

If there were a contest to determine which is the most hilarious verse in the Bible, my nominee would be a verse from our First Lesson for today.  Specifically, I would nominate Genesis 29:25, which reads as follows:  “When morning came, it was Leah!”

Of course, we’ve learned to take these ancient and fantastic old stories with a grain of salt, but even still, you have to wonder how it could be possible for a newly married couple to get all the way through their wedding night without realizing that they’ve ended up with the wrong spouse!

I can understand that Leah was probably heavily veiled, according to tradition; also that it was probably very dark inside the tent.  But you would think that if Leah had even so much as cleared her throat at any point during the night, Jacob would have instantly realized that this was not his beloved Rachel.

In the end, of course, Jacob was able to marry both Leah and her younger sister Rachel, even though he had to work an additional seven years for his Uncle Laban in order to make that possible. And keep in mind that this was back when polygamy was the order of the day, nothing unusual about it.

It was Uncle Laban who deceived Jacob in this way, in the process craftily managing to marry off both his daughters in one fell swoop, and getting seven more years of free labor out of Jacob, to boot.

But another way of looking at it is that Jacob was finally getting a taste of his own medicine.  Laban was really no worse than Jacob himself.  It was Jacob, remember, who tricked his elder brother Esau into selling him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentils, and then later tricked his own father Isaac into giving his final blessing to himself (to Jacob), even though it rightfully belonged to Esau.

[By the way, this whole cycle of stories about Isaac and Jacob, Jacob’s wives and sons, is better than any racy novel you can pick up at the supermarket.  If, on the off chance you haven’t recently re-read Genesis 25-36, I highly recommend it.  Our text this morning from Genesis is just a small snippet of the whole story.]

So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go ahead and tell you what happens next, after the end of our appointed text.  Interestingly, at this point the story turns.  Going forward, it is no longer about the the men and their mutual deceptions, but rather about the rivalry between the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, who now share the same husband.  In fact, at this point the wives seem to be entirely in control of the game.  If Jacob tried to influence the course of the action in any real way, it’s not mentioned in the story.  Rachel and Leah pass him around like a card in a card game.

Now remember, it was Rachel whom Jacob truly loved.  He was married also to Leah only because he’d been tricked into it.  But during the first years of the marriage, it was Leah who kept having children, to Rachel’s consternation.  In fact, Leah had four children in a row, but Rachel had none.

Not to be outdone, Rachel gave Jacob her maid, Bilhah, to see if Bilhah could have children by Jacob because, according to the rules in place back then, if Rachel’s maid had children by Rachel’s husband, then Rachel would get credit for them!  And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.  Bilhah did have two children.  Score two for Rachel, even if they were not her actual children!

But then, that gave Leah the idea to give her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, and Zilpah had two children.  Score two more for Leah!

Rachel was beside herself!  In desperation, she even tried using mandrakes, an herbal plant with medicinal properties that was thought to promote conception.  But to no avail.

Leah had three more children, two sons and a daughter.  All of these children were boys, by the way, with the exception of the one daughter.

Finally, at long last, Rachel and Jacob had a son together, and named him Joseph.  Some time later, they had another son, named Benjamin.  But sadly, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, while they were traveling,  just outside the village of Bethlehem.

And that’s the end of the story, as far as we’re going to take it. The remaining chapters of Genesis are full of further exciting plot twists and turns, but I encourage you to read about those on your own.

So, with these four women, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Jacob fathered thirteen children:  one daughter, whose name was Dinah; and twelve sons.  The names of the twelve sons, in order, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Does those names ring any bells?  Well, it was only in hindsight that it became clear that this long, sad, and bizarre tale of trickery, rivalry, jealousy,  deception, disappointment, and desperation, was actually the story of the founding of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a story that, in one way or another, is still unfolding to this day.  It’s a story that, for Christians at least, leads up to and includes the story of our savior, Jesus Christ.

II

So what does all this have to do with us, if anything?

Well, for one thing, it means that, if you think you belong to a dysfunctional family, rest assured that there is biblical precedent for that!

I think it also goes to the whole question of how God works in history, and how God works in the unfolding of our own personal lives.  We like to believe that God has a plan for our lives and that, somehow, our little lives fit into the larger plan in some significant way.  But how can we know what God’s plan for us is? How can we be sure that we are following the course that God wants us to follow?

And what if we screw it all up — what then?  What if we make the wrong career choice, or get into trouble with the law?  What if we are responsible for bringing the dysfunction into the dysfunctional family?  What then?  Can we fix it?  And, if not, will we throw God’s master plan all out of whack?  I’ve known quite a few people over the years who have been very concerned with these kinds of questions.

And such questions are not limited to the personal realm.  As an example, we can look at the astonishing events that are unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and ask, “Does all this fit into God’s plan, somehow, or has God’s train gone off the rails?”  If the world as-it-is doesn’t make any sense to us, do we have reason to be concerned?

III

Thinking back to Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, I think it is fair in hindsight to agree that God was able to use them and their individual lives as part of a larger plan.  But I doubt that they themselves, as individuals, had much of an inkling of what that plan was.  It seems that they did their best to screw things up pretty badly, but that didn’t seem to hinder God’s plan in the long run.

I suspect it’s pretty much the same with us.  I do believe that God has a plan, an eternal plan, as well as a plan for our lives.  But it’s God’s plan, not ours.  As much as we would love to peek behind the curtain and see what God is cooking up in the heavenly kitchen, that is a privilege not granted to us.  And that fact makes us nervous.

Paul’s word of comfort, from the Romans text for today, is that “…..all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”  And what is that “good?” Paul goes on to say that that good is “…..to be conformed to the image of the Son of God.”  In other words, the highest good is to be in Christ, joined to Christ, receiving all of Christ’s graces and blessings, and his love.

All things work together for good for those who love God, it’s true.  But Paul did not mean that, if you love God, life will be peachy-keen, no problems, smooth sailing.  Not at all.  If you read this passage from Romans 8 carefully, you can see that the lives of the early Christians could be pretty grim.  Paul is able to ask, “If God is for us, who is against us?”  just because there were a lot of people against the followers of Jesus.  He asks, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect……who is to condemn?”   just because there were lots of charges and much condemnation being brought against the early Christians.

Paul acknowledges the grim realities of life, and he has no illusions about how challenging the life of faith can be.  His proclamation is that “…..in all these things we are more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us.”  Christ himself is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.  He is the one who makes it all worthwhile.  He is the one who makes it all possible.

God’s plan for us and our world may be murky, at best, at least from our perspective.  “For now we see in a glass darkly,” as Paul says in another place.  But in spite of much evidence to the contrary, rest assured that God is working behind the scenes.  As Pastor Bruce said last week, God is in the process of destroying evil and establishing the good.  Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, has already won the final victory.  He has made us his own.   And nothing in all creation can separate us from his love.

Thanks be to God!

IV

Let us pray.

Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us to be your very own people.  Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes in our lives and the confusion of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, even your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN

Seeking Youth Ministry Leader

 

First Lutheran Church is seeking a Youth Ministry Leader who will collaborate with the pastors to engage youth and foster faith, fellowship and fun.  This includes promoting youth participation in worship as well as organizing and participating in team building events for youth, both social and service-oriented, attending a national youth gathering once every other year, and communicating regularly with the congregation about youth events.

The position is 6-12 hours per week – including Sunday mornings – with specific hours and start date to be determined by the Youth Ministry Leader and Pastor Kate.

Qualifications include enjoyment working with youth and the ability to develop relationships of trust with this group of individuals.

Here’s the full job description: YouthMinistryLeaderFLC

Interested?  Please contact Pastor Kate.

Summer Solstice Hike Photos

How to live well, and book recommendations

by Bernt Hillesland

What is this Christianity thing?  As Larry Hurtado points out in his book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, to some Romans it seemed less like a religion – with a focus on ritual obligations – and more a philosophy, where the focus was on how to go about living one’s life.  These days we might associate the word “philosophy” with cerebral discussions about whether trees falling in empty forests make sounds.  But many Greek and Roman philosophers were like life-coaches or counselors.

On a recent retreat, I read William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In reading through even the chapter titles, my thought was, “these are questions and issues people bring to church.” Examples: “Duty: On Loving Mankind, Social Relations: On Dealing with Other People, Insults: Putting Up with Put-Downs, Anger: On overcoming Anti-Joy, Values: On Luxurious Living, and Old Age: On Being Banished to a Nursing Home.”

I also read Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, which comes out of what is, apparently, the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard University (aside from intro to Economics and Computer Science!).  Chapters include: “On Relationships, On Decisions, On Influence, On Vitality, On Spontaneity.”

In his introduction, Irvine questions where someone might go to find guidance on dealing with these issues and developing a basic approach to life.  “What if they …  turn to their local church? Their pastor might tell them what they must do to be a good person, that is, what they must do to be morally upstanding. They might be instructed, for example, not to steal or tell lies or (in some religions) have an abortion. Their pastor will also probably explain what they must do to have a good afterlife: They should come to services regularly and pray and (in some religions) tithe.  But their pastor will probably have relatively little to say on what they must do to have a good life.”  So, he says, whatever our religion, we end up living life as “enlightened hedonists” like everyone else, lusting “for whatever consumer products are currently in vogue.” (p.23)

The church Irvine imagines doesn’t sound very Lutheran: lots of demands, not much good news.  But what about his question?  Do we as a church help each other have a good life?

I think we at FLC are meeting this challenge.  This year, for example, in observation of the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation we hosted some conversations on a very Lutheran idea: vocation.  How do we live our faith, approach our work, seek balance in our lives?  FLC members working in the fields of education, technology, medicine, parenting and other roles (such as managing an architecture firm) shared their experiences, insights and questions.

I also think of the recent coffee and conversation about how to seek meaning, joy and purpose in the third chapter of life, of interest shown in a Silicon Valley professional’s group, and forums on church and state helping us to think of what it means to be citizens.  As we go into June, I’ll be doing a four week preaching series – “Alive to God” –  where I hope to put Paul’s writings to the Romans in conversation with approaches to the good life suggested by the Stoic and Confucian books I read.

In some of our vision work last year, we articulated our sense of calling to be a people and place where we seek wisdom for living in a complicated world.  Could God be leading us further in this direction?

Immigration, Ammparo and ways to help

by John Allured

In the fiscal year ended September 30, 2016, 530,250 individuals were apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security: of those, 59,757 were unaccompanied children (“UAC”) and 77,857 were family units. This was just one of several years in which large numbers of persons have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to seek asylum in the United States. After a person is apprehended, he or she is either detained or released. Under federal law, UAC are released to a “sponsor,” either a   (1) parent, (2) legal guardian, (3) adult relative, (4) adult individual or entity designated by a parent or legal guardian, (5) a licensed program willing to accept legal custody, or (6) an adult or entity approved by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Usually, a person who has been apprehended is placed into removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge, where an application for asylum (or other relief from removal) is determined. Although removal proceedings involve only two hearings (excluding continuances, motions, and such), it can now take three to four years for a case to be resolved, even before appeals.  During the time that a removal case is pending, a UAC remains under the jurisdiction of the Immigration Court and must be supported by his or her sponsor. The sponsor is responsible for providing (or arranging for) food and housing, medical care, education, transportation, and the other ordinary needs of a young person. And because it is important for the UAC to show “good character,” the sponsor should help the UAC avoid any criminal activity (even minor offenses), find community involvement, and, in general, live an upstanding life.
This presents UAC and their sponsors with considerable challenges. To help address this, the ELCA has undertaken the AMMPARO project – Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities. (For more information, please visit this website )

With regard to an UAC in removal proceedings, church members and congregations can accompany in several ways. First, individuals or congregations may apply to serve as sponsors of a UAC.  While this involves considerable responsibilities, it is vitally important for sponsors to be available to UAC.

Second, even if not serving as sponsors, individuals and congregations may support sponsors — and the UAC themselves. Family member-sponsors or others may themselves have limited resources and so may be hardpressed to provide the complete support that an UAC requires and deserves. Hence, working alone or in small teams, individuals may help with food and housing, transportation, or the like. Even companionship and friendship can be a valuable contribution.

Third, individuals and congregations may offer financial support. An UAC and/or his or her sponsor might need financial assistance. In addition, preparing an application for asylum requires payment for
expert witnesses, interpreters, and other litigation expenses, and if a UAC cannot find legal representation on a pro bono basis, the UAC must either hire an attorney or go without. Not surprisingly, the presence of competent counsel itself can make the difference between gaining asylum and being deported.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which ELCA members can help. First Lutheran has chosen to designate itself as a Welcoming Congregation within the AMMPARO project, and so we as a church have the opportunity to be a “leader” in this effort.

The need is great, and the time is now. Please consider how you might make a difference in the life of a young person. For further information or assistance in becoming engaged, please contact Joe Haletky or John Allured.
Muchas gracias.