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July 2005

Exhausted and Energized

The best story will be the last one.

This week was the 35th anniversary of the Cathedral of Hope -- Dallas. I was there most of the week working (including good amounts of time to hang out with Royal Lane and Dallas friends and work on my house). But it was a fun week. We had receptions and special worship services and the Gayla on Saturday night -- a black tie event that was an incredible party. John was busy working most of the weekend, but the time we had together was precious and wonderful. I feel SO privileged to be his boyfriend.

The funniest moment of the Gayla was during the dance when the dance floor was packed with about 50% young gay men and 50% middle-aged to senior adult lesbian couples. The moment was seeing a bunch of gray haired lesbians dance to "It's Raining Men." Hallelujah!

16 CoH-OKC people attended the festivities and church in Dallas this morning. About half went to the early service and half the 11 o'clock. Those of us that left Dallas later got stuck in the construction back up at the border for an hour or more (I've driven it six Sundays this summer and never once had a problem on a Sunday). I had to drive 80-85 most of the rest of the way home and got to the church 15 minutes before the service. The rest trickled in throughout the hour.

So, I was pretty exhausted when the service began. But I was soon really energized. It was an amazing service. The music was phenomenal and so was the spirit of the congregation. We had 85. Our highest attendance since mid-May and an incredible number for us really. I counted roughly 10 first time visitors. Next week is our Fifth Anniversary. We are having a banquet after the service and as of 8:30 tonight we have reservations for 142 for next week!!!!!

Tonight I wrapped up our Genesis study. And I preached without a manuscript (though earlier in the week I typed up a rough draft of my thoughts, so I'd have something to post here and on the CoH site). I took a cue from Ray who about three times a year really emphasized what he was saying by preaching from the sanctuary floor. I was nervous about it, but I remembered everything I wanted to say and I think it really was effective.

Here's the good story.

Tonight I had a first time visitor tell me this story. Their daughter is mentally handicapped. The Baptist church they used to go to wouldn't let her take communion because she was not able to stand before the congregation and proclaim "Jesus is Lord." The girl can't speak. The father asked the minister of the Baptist church, "You mean to tell me that becaue my daughter can't speak she isn't in the kingdom of God?" The minister said yes.

Tonight she received communion for the first time.

A Project Ends

Today I finished James McClendon's third and final volume to his Systematic Theology, entitled Witness. It seems weird to finally be done with this project (I've read the three books over the last two years).

I first heard of McClendon and his project when I was an undergrad and only the first volume was published. The whole idea of starting a systematic theology with the ethics instead of a prolegomena was surprising. Without reading the books or knowing their content, I was energized by the idea of starting theology at some point other than the arguments for God. Once when teaching college Sunday school at FBC Shawnee I taught a class on the basic beliefs of Christianity (a class that generated by best attendance and greatest discussions of the years I was teaching in the college department). I started with our religious experiences in September and concluded with God in May. In many ways it turned the normal order upside down. It still didn't follow McClendon's order or content (hadn't read him yet), but the idea energized my own idea.

When I started ministry in Fayetteville, McClendon's project was done and was influential on my pastor, David. We talked about aspects of it a lot while he was working on his dissertation. Finally I bought a copy of the three volumes when they were on sale at the local Cokesbury and proceed to read them. They actually had an incredible impact on how I did ministry at Royal Lane and what the content of that ministry was. Shortly after starting in Dallas the youth workers asked me to do a series on sexuality for our youth. I was intimidated to do that so early in my ministry, but realized it should be done. I did A LOT of research, but the guiding force behind all of it was McClendon's treatment of sexuality in his first volume Ethics. With hindsight, I also realize that the reading of McClendon's theology of sexuality helped till the ground before I began coming out a few months later.

I have some details to write about my opinions about the books, but will save that for the next post.

When We Find Ourselves in a Wrestling Match

When We Find Ourselves in a Wrestling Match
Genesis 32:22-31
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
24 July 2005

Two weeks ago Dan Peeler, who is the Children’s Minister at Cathedral of Hope – Dallas, e-mailed me regarding the new War of the Worlds movie. Dan wrote,

Everyone in the cast was motivated by their fear and panic, and no one seemed to have any prior faith in anything that could pull them through trying times. I think the front of that church building collapsing near the beginning of the film set the mood more than we could have expected. . . . Even that quote in the end narration with the mention of “God’s wisdom” which was from the H. G. Wells book didn’t redeem the hopelessness we had just endured for a couple of hours.

My own opinion was that War of the Worlds was one of the most anxious films I’d ever watched. I would like to know what my blood pressure was during the movie. For at least the first half the visuals and sounds combine to fill you with dread. In this respect, it is a well done film, a noteworthy cinematic achievement. The New York Times review went so far as to say, “all of these are reminders of how sublime, how aesthetically complete, a few moments of film can be.”

It is the story of one dad, Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise, who is divorced and barely has any relationship with his kids. He is an irresponsible man who has no idea how to provide for his family. One weekend when his kids are dropped off at his house, the aliens invade. Finally he must muster all his personal resources to care for his children. Ray Ferrier struggles throughout the film to come to terms with himself and his kids and with the dangerous world they find themselves in. Much of the movie plays out as a domestic drama, with the alien invasion in the background.

Despite the skillful filmmaking, the movie left me with many questions. Most notably, I kept wondering, “What is Steven Spielberg so afraid of?” In Spielberg’s previous alien films – Close Encounters and E. T. – the aliens are not evil invaders but are benign and good. So, I was surprised when I first learned that Spielberg was making this movie.

There are typical Spielberg qualities to the film. He has a unique use of lighting that is present here. The story is about a person coping with real life problems in the midst of fantastical plot elements, a standard Spielberg device. There is the endangered child, a recurring theme in his films. Plus there is the “Spielberg ending,” an ending that is resolved, where everything is tied up, and that is usually happy. However, the ending does not work in this movie. It seems out of place. As Dan Peeler wrote, the previous two hours have been too hopeless to lead to this ending.

Much has been made of one line in the film. Dakota Fanning, who plays the endangered daughter asks, “Is it the terrorists?” when the alien attack begins. Many reviewers have commented that this is Spielberg’s post-9/11 film. I agree, but think the dread and anxiety go deeper than that.

Discussing this film at the progressive ministers’ coffee one Wednesday morning, we made much of the fact that the alien invasion actually comes from beneath us. In this version of the movie, the alien ships have long been buried beneath human civilization. They rise from under us to destroy us. I find it an unconvincing and artificial plot device. So why do it? Is it only in order to get the dramatic and powerful scene where the alien tripod erupts from under the street? Maybe, but I think there has to be more to it than that. I think that a statement is being made about our destruction coming from within. That destruction comes from a force that has been hidden, that we’ve somehow missed. It is a pessimistic, anxious, maybe even cynical theme.

It is in this moment of the ship rising up from under the ground that the church building is destroyed. Dan Peeler said that he thought this was significant – the destruction of the church building. The more I thought about that, the more I agreed. In the old George Pal film version of this story, the main characters take refuge in a church near the end of the story. It is there that they find some level of solace and comfort. It is there that the hero and heroine are reunited. But there is no similar scene in this film. No similar role for the church to play. When you consider the role of the church building in the George Pal film then it is quite startling that in this latest version of the film the church building is destroyed at the beginning of the movie. I think the film is saying that no help will come from the church; that the church is ineffective for what is about to come.

In volume three of his Systematic Theology, baptist theologian James McClendon writes, “Art thus functions as a cultural telltale, a weather vane.” He writes that a culture’s art cannot be separated from its life, politics, society, or practices of religion. So, looking at a culture’s art is one good way to examine what the culture considers to be important, what its view of the world is. But art doesn’t merely reflect; it also creates. As McClendon writes, “art also refers to a new world, a world that is created by the artistic action itself.” Art, especially great and powerful art, helps to change the culture. It causes us to look at things in new ways, to examine our lives in a new light, to understand the world differently.

What does War of the Worlds reflect about our culture? What new world would it create? If my reading of the film is correct, it reflects a culture filled with fear and anxiety. A culture struggling with internal conflict. A culture that has lost the institutions that would ground it. A culture adrift, lacking the hope that comes from God. And, importantly, a culture that does not find help in the church.

But our text today tells a very different story. It too is a story of anxiety and dread. And unlike War of the Worlds, it doesn’t have a happy, resolved ending. This bit of the Jacob narrative has a messy ending, like we’ve seen so often in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob is returning home with his now large family and his great wealth. When Jacob left home, God promised to be with him, to protect him, and to bring him home again. Now Jacob is returning home. But before he can do that, he must face difficulties. The journey home isn’t an easy journey. In these difficulties, God’s promises are tested. Is God going to be with Jacob and protect him?

First Jacob must successfully get away from his greedy and devious father-in-law Laban. Once he has done that, he turns his attention to his brother Esau. When we last met Esau, he wanted to kill Jacob. Now Jacob is afraid of Esau. He has successfully gotten away from one potential enemy who has chased after him, only to now be marching into the arms of another potential enemy.

I encourage you to read the entirety of this narrative, because it is so well written. I imagine it much like an old Western where the scene keeps cutting back from the helpless wagon train traveling along slowly and the Indian warriors riding fast upon it. The narrative has that sense of suspense and drama. Jacob knows that Esau is coming with 400 men, and Jacob does everything he can think of in order to prepare for every possibility. He is trying to apologize to Esau, but he’s not sure what Esau’s motive is.

In the midst of his preparation, Jacob prays,

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’

This is an important prayer uttered by Jacob. Walter Brueggemann points out that this prayer contains many of the important theological themes that are played out in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Themes like covenant, God’s concern for the least of these, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, deliverance, etc. What is important for us to note is that when Jacob is in his moment of dreadful fear that he turns to God and invokes God’s presence, protection, and love.

In the night Jacob wrestles. According to Brueggemann, at night “ things are unclear, and characters merge, confuse, and remain unstable. . . . The narrator understands . . . that the hidden powers of conflict and the hidden chance of resolve occur at night, beyond our intent.” This is a wonderfully mysterious text that lends itself to multiple interpretations. And I think it is meant to do that. In a sense it stands as a symbol for the whole of Jacob’s life. In order for Jacob to find blessing, he has wrestled and will wrestle with his family, his brother, his father-in-law, with the consequences of his life choices, with himself, and with God. Jacob’s life has been and will continue to be one full of difficulty and struggle, some caused by himself and some caused by others.

Is this wrestling match real or a dream? Is it a man, an angel, or God? What we know from the text is that the results are all too real. Jacob is wounded and limps as a result of the encounter. And Jacob claims to have seen the face of God. Plus Jacob’s name has been changed to Israel. From “He supplants” his name is changed to “The one who strives with God.” Many commentators point to the significance of this event in Jacob’s life. Before he can cross the river Jabbok and enter the Promised Land, he has to come to terms with himself, his God, and his brother. Through the encounters with God and with Esau the word “face” is used. When Jacob sees Esau, face to face, he comments that it is like seeing the face of God, which is how Jacob describes the encounter with the wrestler the night before. In another example, Everrett Fox’s literal translation of Genesis 32:30 reads:

For [Jacob] said to himself:
I will wipe [the anger from] his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face;
afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face

Referring to this constant use of the face metaphor, Karen Armstrong writes,

The text is subtly directing our attention to the fact that the ‘face’ of God and the ‘faces’ of Jacob and Esau are all one and the same. By facing his brother, Jacob would confront the ‘face’ of his God; but he would also confront himself. . . . Only when he confronted those aspects of his personality that filled him with fear and disgust . . . could he heal the conflict in his soul and experience the healing power of the divine.

The next day Jacob encounters Esau. All the suspense of the story has been leading up to this moment. Esau runs and embraces his brother and kisses him. It is a moving and powerful moment. But, it isn’t clear that all is reconciled. Jacob won’t travel with Esau, but says that he will follow to Esau’s home in Seir. But that’s not what Jacob does. Instead, Jacob travels to Succoth and establishes his own homestead. So, the moment is not as blessed as we had hoped. It seems that a relationship of trust and mutual blessing will not be found with these two brothers.

Jacob isn’t done wrestling though. I like the way Karen Armstrong reads the Jacob narrative. She takes the very next story to be of significance. Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter, goes out to visit the women of the country of Shechem. When she does she is brutally raped by the young prince, also named Shechem. The prince then falls in love with Dinah and wants to take her as his wife. He and his father Hamor go to Jacob and negotiate a marriage arrangement. When Dinah’s brothers arrive, they are enraged. They decide to act deceptively, as Jacob has so often done. As part of the arrangement, all the men of the city of Shechem must agree to be circumcised. While the men are still recovering and in pain, Simeon and Levi enter the city and slaughter all the men and take Dinah home. The other brothers then come and loot the city, including carrying away the women and children. It is a horribly brutal event.

But what of Jacob in all this? When he first hears of the rape he keeps his peace, but as Karen Armstrong points out, the word used here implies “culpable inertia or negligence.” Jacob remains silent until the very end, unlike the other parent in the story. When he does speak, he doesn’t express grief over Dinah or concern for the slaughtered Shechemites; his concern is for his own reputation and safety.

The Jacob narrative in the Book of Genesis and the story of Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds are both stories dealing with the struggles of a man in a situation of fear and anxiety. Both must deal with their families. Both must face their fears and responsibilities. However, the two narratives have a substantial difference. One is hopeless and the other is not. Despite all the violence and unresolved conflict of the Jacob story, there is hope that life could be better than this. Jacob is trying to heal the conflict in his soul and turns to the healing power of the divine. When Jacob left home, God made promises to Jacob to be with him and to protect him. As Jacob is returning home we see that God is with him and that God is protecting him. Jacob knows that he can rely upon God, because we see Jacob turning to God in prayer when Jacob is afraid. The presence of God doesn’t mean that everything becomes simple and easy. It doesn’t mean that Jacob suddenly understands everything better. No, God is this mysterious force that blesses Jacob, but only after they have wrestled throughout the night.
We do appear to live in a time of anxiety. Many people are afraid. They are afraid of terrorists. Some are afraid of the American government. Many of us are afraid of losing even more of our civil rights. Even high gas prices make us nervous. Much less all the things that can normally make life anxious – sickness, economic difficulties, depression, grief, trouble at work, relationship issues, etc. We are a culture struggling with internal conflict, that is adrift because we’ve lost the institutions that ground us. And maybe, as the film says, ours is a culture that does not find help in the church.

But I’m just not that anxious. I’m just not that afraid. In fact, I was surprised by the level of anxiety in War of the Worlds, because I’m not that troubled. Why am I not that troubled? Because I know the Great Story, the gospel story. The story that says that God is with us. James McClendon writes that the story we Christians have to tell is that our human story and God’s story are both one and the same. This conviction rests in our central proclamation of good news, that the Word became flesh. He writes, “A church true to its revealed gospel might even yet provide this culture with the vision it so lacks.” That is the message of the story of Jacob – God is with us. In the Jacob story we come fact to face with our internal conflicts by coming face to face with God. It might be a wrestling match, but blessing awaits.

We, the church, are God’s presence, through Christ, in the world today. When we are obedient to God working in and through and among us, then we can help to create a new world – a world full of justice, peace, hope, and love. In order to be that presence we must live in the reality of our story. We must live as a people changed by the good news of Jesus Christ. That is our greatest witness. We tell the story by living the story, by demonstrating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Next week we will conclude our study of the Book of Genesis. The characters will finally learn how to achieve blessing. In two weeks we will celebrate our fifth anniversary. That night in the sermon we will look forward in faith to what kind of church we can be. And in the weeks following we will talk about what it means to be a church, in essence, what it means to be a community of disciples of Jesus Christ. In so doing we will be travelers on a journey together. I want you to begin to think about these things.

We come to a world in need with good news – God is with us. We believe that help can come from the church. Now, what is required of us to make that happen?

Al Mohler Getting Even Scarier

Thanks to Carlos for keeping us upon on what Al Mohler's saying. This time he favourably quotes the following:

The constant imbibing of feminism, mixing together with man's native sinfulness, has resulted in an epidemic of passive-purple-four-ballism in modern marriages. Men have permitted themselves to be emasculated into a company of wimp eunuchs, who believe it should be their goal to strive toward being passive nice guys in their homes. We've been told, and actually now believe, that "authority" is a naughty word, that male headship is abusive, and that aggressive leadership is rude. Thus, husbands have abdicated the driver's seat and taken a back seat in their marriages.
And it's our fault, men! We've got to reject modern thinking and take up biblical thinking. Without apology, the Scriptures teach that the man is to be the leader in his marriage and in his home. Husbanding is a crucial endeavor requiring manly dominion.

Alexander Hamilton

Charlie Bates and I have gotten into this fad of reading Founding Father biographies and histories. Yesterday I finished Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It is a pretty good biography -- strongly written in some places and less so in others. It dragged out a little in Hamilton's later years, but got better as you neared the duel. Chernow does an excellent job on Hamilton's years as Treasury Secretary and on his relationship with Washington. I learned a lot that I didn't know before.

Part of what intrigues me about this period is how much the debates are still the same. The factions are different (the issues don't quite line up the same as they do now), but the same core issues are at stake. The differences are two-fold: no generation of American political leadership has ever been as amazing as the founders and no generation of American political leadership has ever been as nasty to one another as the founders. For example, the Federalists were accusing Jefferson of wanting to ban the Bible (that happened again in the 2004, by the way). Hamilton was constantly being berated by his political enemies. He was charged with personally gaining from his time as Treasury Secretary (though he actually ended up dying broke because he had served his country so long and not made a living), of wanting to be a dictator or king (he did have doubts about democracy, but did more to establish the American Constitution as an effective document than pretty much anyone else), and leaking confidential papers of Hamilton's that revealed an extra-marital affair (they had been entrusted to James Monroe who leaked them; which is only something a scoundrel does; and it was before he became president). I find that reading from this period helps to give perspective on contemporary politics.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

For awhile I thought it was going to be funnier than the original, but then it got less funny. I found it odd that it is really less dark than the old one. There were some things I really prefered about this one, and other things that were kinda boring or dull. Overall, not a bad movie, but I think that it won't be a classic like the old one.

3 1/2 popcorn kernels
3 film reels

Ministry in a Diverse Community

I like that my job calls for being active within a community. And by that I don't simply mean the city, but an identifiable group of folk who are a collection of subcultures within the larger community. Being the pastor of CoH, I feel that an important part of the job is being active in the over all GLBT community in Oklahoma City.

So one day that means meeting with someone to discuss being a community partner of the upcoming National Holocaust Museum travelling exhibition on the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis.

Another day that means attending a school board meeting and advocating having books of gay history and biographies of prominent gay figures in our school libraries.

Some days that means doing press interviews (I'm about to do my fifth in less than three months today).

One day it meant appearing on talk radio.

Last week I attended a support group for transgender folk to learn more about those members of my congregation.

And last night I attended my first meeting as a member of the Diversity Business Association, sort of OKC's gay chamber of commerce. It began in January with 20 members and now has over 80.

But it also means all the standard church stuff too. Yesterday I sat with a congregant before he had surgery. I then came home and called two church members whose relationships have ended in order to check in on them. Occasionally I have to meet with someone who has a church issue they need to discuss. Etc, etc.

But right now I'm heading down to have lunch in one of the poor sections of town. I'm having lunch with my church member who is a cop and that's her beat. She's also transgendered.

This life is fabulous!

Plame, Potter, and Roberts

Oddly, I haven't posted hardly at all this week, though I have had things I wanted to write about. I get busy and this has fallen down the list of priorities lately. So, a few brief thoughts.

The more I read about the Plame investigation, the more intrigued I am. Time magazine's cover article of this week was significantly better than Newsweek's. Newsweek presented it more as a political issue and Time covered it from the national security angle, really explaining the problems her outing caused the CIA.

Until the investigation is over and we know more about the original issues, for right now I think the focus should simply be on the White House's repeated statements that Rove and Libby had nothing to do with it, when we now know that they were the sources for the reporters involved (though it is still unclear who was the original leak). I liked the grilling by the White House press corps last week of Scott McLellan. Keep it up. John Stewart's comment was hilarious -- "We've replaced the White House Press Corps with actual reporters."

Don't worry, no spoilers. I finished Harry Potter 2 a.m. Wednesday, which was still Tuesday night for me. I had to go to Dallas Monday, so I didn't get to read much after the weekend until Tuesday evening. About midnight I was approaching that point that with all the Harry Potter books is the don't-put-it-down-again point (around 200 to 150 pages left in the book). I thought, "I either put this down now or decide to stay up till I'm done, because if I read two more pages, I'll read it till the end." I choose the latter.

Generally I like the book, with a few issues. It is more character development and backstory and far less plot driven than the last two. It has really set up the last book. That one should be spectacular.

I want to commend the President for nominating someone who will not cause a nasty confirmation battle. A confirmation battle would have been horrible for the Senate right now. I'm quite proud of the President for finding a nominee who it seems will be easily confirmed.

Competing for Attention

Competing for Attention
Genesis 29:15-30
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
17 July 2005

Once upon a time there was a young man living in a strange land. He fled his home because he had grieved his father and angered his brother. This man’s name was Jacob.
Jacob was now living among his mother’s people, her brother Laban and his daughters. Laban had two daughters. The eldest was Leah. She was a “nice girl. Good personality.” But Rachel was beautiful. And Jacob loved Rachel.

When Jacob arrived in the land, he was waiting at the well for the water to be drawn. That’s when Rachel appeared. Jacob was something of a show off. When Jacob saw Rachel, he jumped up and in a sign of manly strength, rolled the stone away from the well. Jacob watered Rachel’s flock and then grabbed her and kissed her.

Laban seemed glad to have a kinsman around. But old Laban was crafty. He had two daughters. “Daughters can’t do as much work as sons can,” he thought. “Lord knows, I’ve tried. I’ve sent Rachel out there to tend the flocks. This strong young man will sure come in handy.” So, after a month of watching Jacob, Laban makes him an offer. “You are a kinsman and shouldn’t work for me for nothing. Name your wages!”

Young Jacob knew what he wanted. He wanted Rachel. So he says excitedly, “I’ll work for seven years if you give me Rachel.” Laban liked the bargain and agreed to it. So Jacob worked seven years. He was so lovestruck that it only seemed like a few, short days.

But once the seven years were over, Jacob was ready. He went to Laban and said, “Give me my wife so that I can have sex with her!” Laban knows that there is a certain way in which one does these things. Oh the impetuosity of youth! So, Laban plans a wedding feast and invites all the people from the land to be his guest. They celebrate and have a good time. Laban makes sure that Jacob has enjoyed the wine he’s purchased for the occasion. When evening comes, Jacob is horny and drunk and goes to bed with his new wife.

The next morning the sun breaks through the windows. Jacob has a little bit of a headache, but he rolls over to cuddle up next to his beautiful Rachel and screams, waking everyone in the house. For Laban has pulled a fast one. Jacob has married and slept with Leah!

Jacob comes running out of the bedroom, half-naked and encounters Laban. Jacob cries, “What have you done to me!” Laban sits quietly and looks at Jacob matter-of-factly, “We don’t do such things in this land, didn’t you know? We don’t give the younger daughter before the oldest has been married. But here’s what I’ll do. Complete the week of wedding celebration for this one, and then I’ll give you the other one. In return, you work for me another seven years.”

What is Jacob to do? He agrees. A week later, he is married to Rachel whom he loves and gets to have sex with her.

Poor Leah, however. She is unloved, and God sees it. God looks at the situation and realizes that Rachel has beauty and love, what does Leah have? So, God opens Leah’s womb and she has a son.
Leah shouts with exultation, “God saw my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She gets pregnant again. “Because the Lord heard me; I’ve been given this son also.” She then has a third son. “Now this time Jacob will be joined to me.” But, alas, it is not so. Four sons Leah bears and Jacob still loves Rachel.

Rachel is now furious. She screams at Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob indignantly cries back, “I’m not God!” Rachel realizes what she needs to do. Jacob keeps sleeping with Leah because she is giving him sons. Rachel knows what will appeal to Jacob. “Jacob,” she says, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Why don’t you have sex with her. If she has sons, then they will be mine.” It doesn’t take much to convince Jacob. Bilhah has two sons. After the second one Rachel celebrates, “With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister and I have won!”

Lean realizes what she needs to do to get into this game. “Jacob,” she says, “I too have a maid. Why don’t you have sex with her.” Well, Jacob is really getting into this game. Two more sons are born.
Well, by this time you’ve got a bunch of kids running around. The oldest son, Reuben, is growing up. He now realizes what’s going on in his family. Like a good son, he wants to help his mother Leah get ahead. While out harvesting the wheat, Reuben notices mandrakes, a common aphrodisiac. Reuben takes the roots and brings them to his mother, but Rachel sees what he’s doing.

In recent weeks, Jacob has been staying in Rachel’s bed, but she is still unable to get pregnant. After seeing Reuben and the mandrakes, she realizes that it is now time to bargain with her sister. First she tries being nice and simply asking for some mandrakes. But Leah will have none of it. Leah looks at Rachel and says sternly, “You have stolen my husband from me. Now you want to take this gift from my son?” Now Rachel realizes she must strike the hard bargain. “If I let Jacob sleep with you tonight, will you give me mandrakes?” Leah looks hard at her sister and agrees.

Jacob comes in from the field and is heading to Rachel’s to clean up, when Leah encounters him. Leah is tired of trying seduction and romance. She gets straight to the point. “You have to come to my bed tonight. I have hired you in exchange for my son’s mandrakes.” Leah has two more sons and a daughter, Dinah. After this sixth son of hers, Leah says, “Now my husband will honour me.” But her wish is in vain.

Just as God saw Leah’s need and blessed her with a child, God now looks upon Rachel’s need and opens her womb. Rachel has a son. “God has taken away my shame,” she says. “Now give me another son!”

What a story. And what a mess things are in! We began with blessing. God took chaos and brought meaning and order to the void. God looked out on creation and said that it was “very good.” But then things went awry. Adam and Eve disobeyed. Cain murdered Abel. In reaction to the growing violence, God destroyed the world in the Flood.

God then seems to realize that the violence of creation can’t be eradicated that way, so God takes another approach. God will choose a family through which to bless the world. What we learn from the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and Rebekah is that the life of faith isn’t easy. In the midst of the difficulties of life we encounter a mysterious God whom we can never fully understand. We also encounter a God who hears our cries, fulfills promises, and looks out for the outcasts. The blessings we desire may not come quickly. Like Sarah, we may have to wait and struggle throughout life. And they may not come exactly the way we wanted them to.

Sometimes we get in the way of blessing. It seems to me that these characters are all still trying to learn what it means to be blessed. They don’t seem to have learned the responsibility it calls forth from them. Instead they keep creating conflict and bringing cursing upon one another. The men don’t seem to know how to treat the women. Even the women fight with one another and hurt each other. The privileged continue to mistreat the oppressed. Children are put at risk. And siblings fight with one another.

The family’s inability to learn how to treat each other affects each new generation. Abraham ended his life separated from all of his sons. Isaac is scarred by his past. Rabbis believe his blindness resulted from his binding. But he’s not just physically blind. He seems unaware of the power of his own words and reserves blessing only for one of his sons. Isaac passes conflict and cursing on to his sons. Esau now wants to kill his brother Jacob.

Laban and Jacob are two mischievious, scheming men who will use deceit in their contest with each other. Their trickery and mischief is passed on to Leah and Rachel who enter into this horribly dysfunctional contest with one another. And it is further passed on to the children. Reuben begins to participate in the struggle between the women. The names of the sons reflect the attitudes of the mothers, attitudes that often reflect selfish glee. And at the end, when Rachel receives her blessing from God. She doesn’t simply praise God. She demands more sons. Karen Armstrong writes,

Rachel did not see the birth of children as a God-given blessing but as something that was her due. . . . The blessing of fertility and love had become a source of discord and barren competition.

This family continues to turn its blessings into curses, and these children will be affected. Armstrong writes,

The anger and rivalry expressed in the names of [Jacob’s] sons showed that the conflict and hatred were etched deeply into their identity.

And we know this to be the case, because we know the rest of the story of these sons. They will eventually sell their brother Joseph into slavery and lie to their father saying that he was killed by a wild beast. Simeon and Levi will be guilty of genocide in the destruction of the city of Shechem. Reuben will sleep with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. And Judah’s own sons will be killed by God because of their unrighteousness.

Yes, this story of the women competing for Jacob’s sexual attention is funny and is intended to be funny. But the dark truth of the story is that this family is unable to be the blessing to the world that God originally envisioned when God called Abraham forth from Haran. This family still hasn’t learned how to bless each other. Instead they continue to curse one another by stirring up conflict. And there will be more conflict in their lives and more conflict throughout time.

The authors of Genesis have taken the conflicts of their day and read them back into these ancient stories. The enemies of the nation of Israel are descended from the various characters we encounter in these stories. One example is the Edomites. Edom was a nation that neighborhood Israel to the southwest. Israel had a long and torturous history with the Edomites. During the Exodus, they refused passage through their land for the wandering Israelites. During the reign of Saul, Israel went to war against them. During the reign of Jehoshaphat the Edomites joined an alliance to invade the kingdom of Judah. About Edom, the prophet Amos proclaims this word from the Lord,

because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity;
he maintained his anger perpetually,
and kept his wrath forever.
So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.

When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Edomites cheered its destruction. The prophet Obadiah records this oracle:

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.
But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune.

Ezekiel has these harsh words to say,

Because you cherished an ancient enmity, and gave over the people of Israel to the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, at the time of their final punishment; therefore, as I live, says the Lord God, I will prepare you for blood and blood shall pursue you; since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed shall pursue you.

What is the ancient enmity Ezekiel speaks of? What is the anger maintained perpetually that Amos refers to? It is Jacob’s stealing the blessing of Isaac and denying blessing to Esau. For the Edomites are the descendants of Esau.

Israel has this long-abiding enmity with the people of Edom. The story that the Israelites tell is that this enmity has root in this ancient story of two brothers who hated each other. What begins as a domestic conflict of a dysfunctional family spreads out into the world. Instead of blessing coming from this family, cursing results.

The hatred boils within the hearts of these two peoples for many centuries. You see the hatred on the part of the Hebrews by the awful things about Edom that they record in their scriptures. The worst comes in Malachi when they claim that their hatred is actually God’s hatred, “Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau.” Have you seen the slogan that has been going around recently? It says, “You know that you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.”

But we also see the hatred on the part of the Edomites. According to the biblical story, King Herod the Great who ruled Palestine at the time of the birth of Christ came from the group of people descended from the Edomites. It is Herod who slaughters the children of Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew links this story back to the Genesis story,

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

I think that the Book of Genesis and the entire scriptural narrative is trying to tell us something important. It focuses on the lives of one family in order to make the point. When we engage in conflict with one another, what results is not blessing, not even for ourselves. What results is more and more conflict. What results is a curse.

So over and over again the authors of Genesis show us how this family continues to curse itself and how the curse affects each generation of children. When we read the rest of scripture we see how these conflicts play out in the lives of nations. We even see them claiming God on their side of the conflict; they claim that God is a God of hate.

We can sit here and laugh at the ridiculous competition between Leah and Rachel, but the terrifying sad truth is that in 2005 the world still hasn’t learned the lesson of the Book of Genesis. We continue to sow the seeds of conflict, strife, and cursing. We seem incapable of living together. We seem to be incapable of loving one another. We seem to be incapable of blessing.

Look at what happened just last week. For the first time in world history the leaders of the great powers had at the very top of their agenda alleviating extreme poverty. Each year more than 8 million people around the world die because they are too poor to stay alive. One in six people must live on less than one dollar a day. In 2000 the world realized that this form of extreme poverty finally could be eliminated. That we had the resources and the know-how to do it by 2015. If the major industrial nations of the world commit less than 1% of their annual wealth to fighting extreme poverty, it can be fixed. All we lack in 2005 is the will to make it happen. But finally at this G8 summit, it was to be the main topic of discussion.

And then the terrorists attacked London. The news media had actually been covering poverty issues, which they rarely do. But that changed. The world leaders took time out of their other valuable discussions to deal with terrorism issues. Fortunately, significant progress was still made at the summit. Yet once again conflict within the human family sowed seeds of cursing. Not only Londoners died as a result of those attacks, but countless millions of other lives will end because of extreme poverty. Who knows if without the attacks if even more could have been done at that summit in order to save millions of people.

The story of Genesis, the story of scripture, especially the story of Jesus, is trying to tell us that we cannot be people of conflict. And Genesis tells us that it starts at the most basic level – in our closest relationships with other people. With our families and friends, with fellow congregants and co-workers, with neighbors and strangers we encounter in our daily lives. In these relationships we must start living as people of blessing.

In Holy Homosexuals, Michael Piazza writes that functional families are those where we learn honesty, intimacy, and trust. Though we all fall short of perfection in these areas, we should be striving to do better than families usually do, because, as he writes, “Unfortunately, families are the last place we learn to do those things.” But here I am not speaking only about the traditional, nuclear family, nor is Michael. The new model of family, particularly the GLBT model of family, is the family of choice – “those people who enrich our lives rather than just those with whom we share some common genetic material” – and the family of faith – our church.

We are about forming a radically new kind of community. And I’m not talking about the fact that we are forming a radical kind of church, a gay church. The very concept of the church itself is a radically new kind of community. So, here at the Cathedral of Hope we want to be a group of people formed into a community. A community of disciples of Jesus the Christ. Which means that we will be a group of people that relate to one another in honesty, intimacy, and trust. We will practice forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking. We will work to avoid sowing seeds of competition and discord. Because unless we learn to live a different way, to live the Christian way, then we can never be a place of hope for the rest of the world.

Harry Potter 2

It did end up arriving yesterday evening! And it only shipped from Amazon's warehouse that morning! I didn't get to begin until about 11:30 last night and read till I was too sleepy. I've been reading most of the morning, while cooking lunch. When I took my break for lunch, I was a quarter through. Too bad I have a church meeting at 4, meaning I have to go early.