Pentecost + 9
Abraham is an old man. Sarah is an old woman. They are wealthy. They own a tent and a herd of cattle, and they have servants. But they are also childless though long ago reconciled to that truth.
One day there came to Abraham the Holy One In-Three-Travelers. And now, their story continues…
= = = = =
Thirty-some years ago the Consultation on Common Texts was meeting twice yearly in Chelsea on the West side of Manhattan. At the time, we were putting the finishing touches on the Revised Common Lectionary (1992), a version of which is in use by most all of the mainline churches in North America. The basic pattern was borrowed from the Roman Lectionary for Mass (1969), the gift of Rome in the ethos and early decades of Vatican II.
The significant thing is this. Until Vatican II, churches were not in the habit of regularly acknowledging our Christian debt to the religion and scriptures of Jesus. The Old Testament frequently served as a quaint footnote to preaching, if it were there at all, and as the basis for Sunday School stories which venerated an angry God and which were often bereft of the grace we might have hoped for our children. They were read almost in caricature.
In any event, those who crafted the version of the Revised Common Lectionary we have used for the past 30 years, we thought we’d accomplished a marvelous good deed by allowing the Hebrew Scriptures to speak for themselves in a fresh and honest Sunday-to-Sunday sort of way in the otherwise dog days of summer.
The framers took the three year Cycle of readings from Matthew, Mark and Luke, and where the Catholics, in the long span of Sundays between the Easter and Advent Seasons, had fitted a particular Hebrew reading somehow related to the individual Gospel reading for each and every Sunday, the framers of our Lectionary, instead, allowed the sweep of each year in the three year cycle to tell the story of Abraham and his descendants in the year of Mathew, reading from Genesis, Exodus and Judges. In the year of Mark, we’d read from the Covenant with David and from the Wisdom literature of Israel while in the third year, in the year of Luke, we’d dip into the prophets with a particular focus on Jeremiah. In this way, the Hebrew scriptures would be allowed their own intrinsic and fresh voice.
At the time, what we thought we’d accomplished was a system of readings which allowed the Hebrew Scriptures to speak from out their own context and for their own sake. It was the least we could do given how badly Christians had treated the Jews in World War II. That was very much the ethos and in the air at the time. Now I was one of the people sitting at the table representing Canadian Lutherans and lending my two cents where I could. I was a novice in such conversations. I was apprenticed to such masters as David Holeton and Paul Gibson who were red seal masters when it came to lectionary matters. In fact, if I recall correctly, Paul was chairing the CCT and no one expressed a more profound regard for, or knowledge of, the Hebrew Scriptures than did he.
Now, you’re sitting there wondering where I’m going with this. Hold your traces. Our marvelous lectionary had two, to my older mind, significant flaws. First, Christians aren’t in church every Sunday between the seasons of Easter and Advent. So, you may have been in church the day we heard the good stuff about Abraham and Sarah and God-in-Three-Travelers and sex among old folks. But you’ve been away with your family doing family things and you’re back in town for this weekend and you’re served up a bizarre story about someone’s idiot son, the hapless Jacob, and how he got his wives. Not particularly edifying. People aren’t in church every Sunday to hear these stories in their magnificent sweep and context. So, there was a flaw in the idea itself. A flaw in the idea that we hear these stories in a continuous unfolding of sense, sensibility and context. That is the first flaw; that most of us will hear many of the episodes in the grand narrative in any sort of meaningful sweep. By the way, that’s also true of the Gospel narrative and Greek scripture witness but at least the Gospels are only trying to cram Jesus’ brief ministry into a few Sundays and not several centuries of people and nations we’ve otherwise never hear of, served up in the middle of our summer vacation. Flaw number one.
Flaw number two: Christian pastors are not, in the main, well equipped, either by training or inclination, to offer much insight into the Hebrew Scriptures. I say that as a matter of personal but likely also corporate confession. The language and cultures are so removed from ours, it is almost hubris to believe that we are taking these readings as seriously as we thought we were or understand as much as we thought we did. What’s today’s adventure with Laban and Jacob all about? Well ….
When I was a youth, I had a crush on a girl in our Confirmation class and although I thought we’d make a pretty good couple, she decided otherwise. I also had a Greek Orthodox friend named Nik. Aside from them, most of my friends were Jewish. And over the course of several years, I attended a number of Seders in the homes of my friends, Benny and David. One year, I was handed the Haggadah and asked to take a part. That was a profound act of blessing as I only came to understand many years later. But even then, I knew that something special was being requested of this goy, this Gentile. At the appropriate moment I asked “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and the partial reply came “Come and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob … Laban wanted to uproot everyone, as it is said: “The Aramean sought to destroy my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and he became there a nation – great, mighty and numerous.” The Haggadah alludes to a much-disputed text in Judaism with several rabbinic takes for what’s going on.
The point is, a Jew hears today’s reading as part of their salvation history and with a ring of familiarity because the rabbi has invoked Jacob’s memory and the telling of this story at schul and with one or another understanding embedded in the heart of the liturgy of their particular Seder. What’s today’s reading about? Well, I heard, back then, that it could be about penance, according to one Rabbi. For sure, it’s about the sorts of people God has chosen to travel with, the litany of the righteous and the not-so-righteous. Now, without doing the whole of the rabbi’s job, the rabbi likely knows that the language which binds Jacob to Laban is strange brew. It is the ancient language not so much of a worker and his employer or of a family member with another family member. No. The Hebrew echoes the language of a master and his slave but we can’t appreciate that in translation. So, Jacob doesn’t own anyone after seven years or even after fourteen. That’s because if a slave took a wife, the wife, and any children, remained the property of the master.
So, it’s incredibly subtle, incredibly nuanced and incredibly complicated. One rabbinic bottom line: Jacob is doing penance for doing his brother out of his birthright. The penance of one reckoned as a slave and the birthright by which the firstborn son inherited the leadership of the family and the judicial authority of his father. But God shows no partiality. God’s in with the righteous. God’s in with the reprobate. God’s in with the rogue. God hung in with God’s people, whoever, wherever, however they were. That’s the unbroken thread of Jewish faith. That’s the sum and substance of the Seder. That’s the bit which is alien to our ken when we dip into the Book of Genesis on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.
Now, when I prepare a sermon, I never play with the size of the font, I don’t fiddle with the margins, and I never use more than 3 sheets of paper. So, you’ll be grateful to know that I’m on my 3rd piece of paper.
I mentioned the name of Paul Gibson a minute ago. He was the Anglican Church of Canada’s liturgical officer and a bright light in the Communion way back when and they are often his sensibilities and turns of rubrical phrase which are infused into the Book of Alternative Services. It was also his deep and abiding respect for the Jewish faith that he wished to bring to bear in the recreation of our Lectionary. That was a profound Canadian Anglican witness. But I wonder, thirty years on, whether and how we can as Christians allow the Hebrew Scripture to speak their truths with their own integrity.
In today’s second reading, there is a profoundly Jewish expression of faith on the lips of Paul. Oh, it’s Christian but it is framed not in propositional belief, but it is truth nonetheless: “I am convinced…
that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers,
nor things abiding 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.”
The conviction that nothing can separate us from God’s love is at every turn the stuff and DNA of the Jewish faith and of the Hebrew Scriptures. That it is constitutive of our relationship to God as followers of Jesus comes to us naturally but is not ours alone. It is what Jesus held, Jesus and his kin, Jesus and his first followers. For they were Jews as was their master. Contending gracefully with the Hebrew Scriptures is no easy thing, especially not in these dog days of summer.
I understand that Dr. Eileen Scully, of this parish, and the continuing Consultation on Common Texts are taking stock of our Lectionary 30 years on. I’m glad for the continuing collaboration among the churches and for the people, Dr. Eileen among them, who may get to take the current when it serves.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s sight. And may the church say “Amen.” R/ Amen.
André Lavergne, CWA (The Rev.)
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener