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Pentecost 11, 07/27/2008

Sermon on Genesis 29:15-28, by David Hoster


Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah's eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me." So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed." So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?" Laban said, "This is not done in our country-- giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years." Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. [New Revised Standard Version]

Anybody who has followed the story of Jacob can only feel that the little conniver got exactly what he deserved in today's Old Testament reading.  As we've seen in the last month of readings, Jacob has shown himself as the sort to take merciless advantage of his brother Esau right up to running a con game on their father to steal Esau's priceless deathbed blessing.  So we can only says, "Serves you right," when Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter by concealing Leah's face behind a thick bridal veil.  Jacob then learns he has to work seven more years-fourteen in all-if he is to marry the woman he wants.

Now you may think this sermon is going to be about retributive justice, but you would be wrong.  This is a sermon about tricky people, not a quality most of us admire, I admit, but something we ought to take seriously if the book of Genesis is any guide. 

Genesis is full of tricky people.  We've already seen Jacob and Laban.  Recall that Abraham lies when he tells the Pharaoh of Egypt that his lovely wife Sarai is his sister so the Pharaoh won't think she's his wife and kill him to get her.  Later, Jacob's sons will sell his favorite son Joseph into slavery and tell dear old dad that he was killed by wild animals.  For his part, Joseph will lure his family to Egypt-including all the brothers who sold him into slavery-before he reveals his true identity to them.

Why all the tricky people?  These are nomads.  They wander and are always outsiders, guests, usually unwelcome guests.  The locals have the police and the armies.  Like gypsies, the nomads have to live by their wits.  They have to be tricky.

Such behavior is enshrined in all nomadic mythic stories in the person of the Trickster (that's "capital-T" Trickster, a proper name from mythology).  The Trickster takes many forms, but in the stories of nomadic Native American tribes he is most often a wily coyote or a road runner or even a rabbit.  The rabbit in particular-who might seem an unlikely figure to admire-had great appeal for nomadic folks.  Like themselves, the rabbit was a weak and vulnerable creature but light on its feet.  It had acute hearing with those big ears, making it extraordinarily sensitive to its surroundings.  Shifty.  Tricky.  Alert.  Fast.

The most recent incarnation of the Trickster is a figure from modern mythology that we all know:  Bugs Bunny.  Elmer Fudd, the cartoon's main human character, is often seen armed with a shotgun on the hunt for the "wascally wabbit."  Elmer is played unmercifully by the tricks of the infinitely smarter, quicker and more conniving Bugs.  My generation, raised on these cartoons, came to value quick wit and irony rather than straightforward force to solve our problems with other people.  Take a look at Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman if you doubt me.

I would argue further, that the Trickster of the New Testament is Jesus himself.  He certainly is vulnerable, weak and hunted by authorities a lot more determined than Elmer Fudd.  The people of his time expected their Messiah to come at the head of an army of angels and take down the Romans and their stooges by straightforward frontal assault.

But Jesus did not engage in frontal assault any more than Jacob or Laban or Bugs Bunny.  Jesus' teachings like turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy time seven, giving your cloak as well as your shirt are counterintuitive ways of tricking the enemy out of his game plan and inserting divine values from an unexpected direction.  When Jesus is crucified, he's like Bugs grabbing his chest after a shotgun blast from Elmer, crying, "Ya got me, doc," and falling to the ground in mock death.  As the Chief Priests and Roman officials go their ways in smug self-confidence, the wily Jesus springs to life behind their back and subverts the entire Roman Empire from within. 

Jesus' own followers, at first utterly cowed by the power of the authorities, come into their own when they let go of "realistic" fear of the government, absorb the Holy Spirit like a can of spiritual spinach, and dart around, too fleet of foot for the ponderous legions of Rome, building a subversive undergound kingdom of kindness, love, justice and peace. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Diocletian look like Elmer Fudd with a shotgun.

We may wonder why God chooses to do it this way, but how could it be otherwise?  God may have created the world, but God lets the world and the human race develop as we will.  So we own the property.  We have all the local power.  God is an outsider moving as a nomad within his own creation, always overruled by local authorities.  Why else would Jesus be born in a stable in a manger in an obscure corner of the empire-a rabbit hole if ever there was one-rather than in the palace of the Caesars in Rome. 

Sadly, however, subsequent Christianity got the spirit of its founder wrong.  The church changed itself into Elmer Fudd with a shotgun the minute it became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine.  In the Middle Ages, Christianity abandoned the Holy Spirit to battle Islam instead with armies, while it executed as heretics any of its own people who espoused tricky and challenging but very possibly divine ideas.  Even the theologically nimble Martin Luther turned from a rabbit into a guy with a shotgun as Protestantism militarized through alliance with princes, raised of armies and battled ferociously on fields of blood.

Against such a background, God has to play the Trickster even with his own followers.  For imperial Christianity has cast God not in the role of Trickster, but rather as the ultimate Emperor, with individual Christians valued as they are loyal and obedient subjects.  Just as God is pictured as the all powerful Emperor with the Pope (or any given firebrand Protestant preacher) as God's nearly dictatorial voice on earth, so should we all rule ourselves with the same iron hand.  We should deploy our willpower like a military force to stamp out off-center questions, thoughts, doubts  and impulses thereby enforcing an orthodoxy of conformity, belief and practice.

We are all, to one degree or another, heirs of this tradition of Christianity, and thus we all have at least a little bit of Elmer Fudd roaming around inside our heads looking for wabbits to blast.  And that can mean only one thing.  It means that while we are staring eagle-eyed down that rabbit hole ready to blast some impulse or put down some doubt or shut out some deviant idea, we just might find somebody tapping on our shoulder and asking the great, cosmic question, "What's up, Doc?" 

That "somebody" would be God.

For true faith is faith-not firmly held belief, not carefully memorized doctrine, not rigidly enforced obedience, but faith:  engagement with things beyond us that we do not fully understand and cannot fully grasp.  In faith we venture into places that we cannot control with all the power of our will.  Faith and not the force of our own will is what takes us to God, into our own soul, and into that union with the souls of other people which is true morality. 

Such faith is inherently tricky. 

It's the voice of our faith that taps us on the shoulder when we're most sure of ourselves and says, "What's up, Doc?"  Time for a wakeup call, maybe?  Faith's job is to trick us out of our illusion that we're on top of things, that we don't need anybody else, that we don't need to ask what our real motives are.   Faith plays tricks with our anger when the world doesn't respond the way we want and expect and demand.  Faith plays tricks with our fatalistic resignation when try to fend the world off with self-denigration and surrender. 

Faith is the larger world of spirit trying to worm its way into the small world of our smug and illusory self-sufficiency.  Sometimes the tricky face of faith is a failure, but sometimes it might be an unexpected success.   Sometimes it's a person who irritates you in just the right way, but sometimes it's the person who is unaccountably generous.  Sometimes it's an idea that comes out of the blue.  It can be an unexpected sickness or an unexpected healing.  Faith can work through anything that asks, "What's up, Doc?" and gets you to see the world differently.

For, ultimately, we are all nomads on this earth.  Our steady incomes and well built homes and grounding in community give us the illusion that we belong here, but the truth is that we're nomads.  We are souls moving through this life on our way to a different place, to God's home.  We make all kinds of bad deals with this world in order to survive, deals that we buy at the expense of our spirit.  But it is spirit and faith and God that point the way home. 

So, as your preacher and teacher, your sacramental priest, your bone fide spokesperson for God, I've only got one question for you:

What's up, Doc?
























Rev. David Hoster
Rector, St. George?s Episcopal Church
Austin, Texas, USA

E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com