Wednesday, August 2, 2017

God of the Underdog
A Sermon by Carrie Houston
July 30, 2017

I have a confession.  I love bad reality TV. Just look at our DVR and you’ll see a variety of different  “unscripted” TV shows I’ve recorded to watch when josh isn’t home. (he wont let me watch them when he’s around. He works at the Texas legislature so he says he deals with enough drama at work and he doesn’t want to watch someone else’s drama in his free time). Some of my favorites include “Kate plus 8, sister wives, counting on, I am jazz, and dance moms). When you’ve had a rough day, there’s something about watching the drama in other people’s lives to make you say “well at least my life isn’t like THAT!”  in every episode of dance moms, adult women are seen yelling and insulting one another as they try to prove that their daughter danced better than the other.  when I am exhausted after a day with Ella and I watch the dramatic Kate Gosslin parent 8 teenagers alone… wait, isn’t that exactly what youth ministry is? Reality TV is my guilty escape for a few moments.

I’ll admit, this scripture passage is a troubling one.  It reads like a script from a modern-day reality TV show.  It’s like “sister wives” meets bravo’s “the real housewives of New York. ” I can see it now: “the real housewives of Jacob.”  It would have everything a TV producer looks for for good ratings- drama, deception, jealousy, rivalry, and women fighting over men.  But let’s not forget the more glaring parts where men are exchanging women as property without their consent. (oh, wait, I think that show is already on- isn’t that’s 19 kids and counting?)  And what a passage to preach on the day we dedicate my daughter to God. What lesson can I teach my daughter or my teenage girls sitting in the balcony,  that assures them that they are valued and loved  when this old testament lesson introduces us to two sisters by describing their looks and being traded as property?

As we try to make sense of this story, let’s take a moment to review.
On Last week’s episode of the real housewives of Haran…. Jacob’s brother Esau is fuming when Jacob tricks him and his father to steal his inheritance. Esau beings his plot to kill Jacob. He gets in one little fight and his mom got scared.  She said you’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air…Jacob spends some time in the wilderness.  He uses a rock as a pillow and has a dream about a ladder.

As Jacob makes his way into Haran, he comes across a group of shepherds at a well waiting to water their flock of sheep. Enter Rachel (his cousin) and her flock. Back then, this is THE place to meet available women.  It’s sort of like the eharmony for Hebrews.  Jacob meets eyes with Rachel and instantly falls in love.  Intoxicated by his love and, in an act of pure machismo, I imagine Jacob rolling up his sleeves to show off his biceps.  He then walks all big and puffed up, sort of like a body builder walks, and single handedly lifts the stone off the well that usually takes many men to move.   Rachel is impressed! He kisses her and is taken to meet the parents, his uncle Laban. For the Hebrew reader, this is a classic love story. But it wouldn’t have been a story if they had lived happily ever after.

Remember, Jacob is a refugee fleeing his home.  He has no money. No job. Nowhere to go.  And people want him dead. Penniless and love-struck, he offers to work for 7 years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.  7 years fly by quickly and Jacob is ready to marry his bride.  On the wedding day, instead of marrying his love, Rachel, he is tricked into marrying the oldest sister, Leah. I have many questions about how something like this could happen.  How did he not notice it wasn’t Rachel? Did he have too much to drink at the wedding? Does he have really really bad vision? All this seems like great poetic justice though that the great trickster Jacob gets tricked. And it’s hard to feel sorry for Jacob in this case.  But the real victim here isn’t Jacob. It’s Leah.

Leah is the first born daughter of Laban.  When we first meet her, she is described as having “lovely eyes.”  Other translations describe them as being weak, tender, or delicate. The meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain. In too many Sunday school lessons and sermons, she is reduced to her looks and it is presumed she isn’t attractive, but that isn’t clear. What is clear is that she isn’t Rachel – the one Jacob loves.  When the newlyweds wake the next morning, we can only imagine Jacob's reaction. “insert a loud Hebrew expletive.”   utter shock, disappointment, anger, deception, shame, humiliation.  But for Leah, it was heartbreak. Leah was forever married to a man who didn’t choose her, didn’t want her, and didn’t love her. And the cruelest part of all of this is that the deception was orchestrated by her father.  When Jacob confronts Laban about the bait and switch, I wonder if Leah could hear him shouting something like “how could you do this to me? You tricked me!?”  Leah will forever be to him a reminder that he has been made a fool.   To console him, Laban makes another deal- finish the bridal week with Leah and then he can marry Rachel but he will be forced to work 7 more years of work for Laban.  Caring about nothing other than his love for Rachel, Jacob agrees. now Imagine Leah's second week of marriage.  Most couples are coming home from their honeymoon, unwrapping gifts, setting up house, and writing thank you notes.  But Leah has to attend the wedding of her sister… to her own husband.  She’s been pushed aside.  How hard it must have been to have to watch them stare into each others eyes, hold hands, you know, all those mushy love things.  Over and over again, the pain of being the unloved one is real in Leah's life.

God sees that Leah is unloved- unloved by her husband, her father, maybe even her sister? She may have been unloved, but she wasn’t unseen by god. god looked into her broken heart and the scriptures say “when the lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Maybe this is how I can win my husband’s favor, she thought.   She desperately tries to win her husband’s favor by having children.  

As someone who recently had a child, I am confident that having a baby does not fix any relationship issues you may have had.  In fact, it only amplifies them. Within the last two weeks, Ella has been teething.  She has four teeth coming in at the same time.  I remember the pain of having my teeth moved and shifted when I had braces as a teenager, so for a baby with only 8 months of experiences under her belt, teething has to be one the most traumatic and painful things she’s experienced.  Likewise, this has been a very trying time for her parents.  Ella has been waking up every 3-4 hours screaming bloody murder, and as josh will tell you, I am not a nice person when I am suddenly woken from sleep.  I’m not proud of the things I've said at 2am. Sleep exhaustion is no joke, y'all. 

So Leah has her first three children- sons Reuben, Simeon, and Levi.   She thinks, Maybe this time he will love me, respect me, appreciate me? After all, I did bear him three sons! But for Leah, it was futile. Jacob will never love her the way he loves Rachel.  At this point, her fourth child is born, Judah.  Judah means “praise”.  It is then that she gives up on the hope that Jacob could love her and instead praises her God for his devotion to her.

Can’t you feel Leah’s suffering and desperation? My heart aches for her as the people around her use her as pawns in their games.  But aren’t we all Leah?  We are people who have been hurt by dysfunctional family, or toxic relationships. We may not be sheep herders anymore, but our modern culture still causes hurt by gender discrimination, unequal power in relationships, and rejection through messages about physical appearance.  We’ve been wronged by our neighbor, mistreated by our relatives, or are undervalued by our employer. For all of the times you’ve been ignored, felt unloved, were mistreated, misunderstood or abused, there is hope. 

God is working despite our brokenness.  Leah’s story teaches us that God is the god of the underdog. She’s the god of all of us who have suffered mistreatment, injustice or persecution.  God sees Leah's suffering and keeps working to make her the mother of an underdog nation that against all odds becomes a light unto the world by which god shows a way of salvation. Over and over again, God uses dysfunction and brokenness to bring about his promises. This is a god who can turn a persecutor of Christians into an apostle of good news. God can turn a king who concealed his adultery with murder and still call him “a man after god’s own heart.”  God can you a doubting apostle to build the church. God doesn’t insist on perfection. In fact, quite the opposite, it seems god loves a scoundrel.

And it’s easy for us to judge Jacob and Laban. The treatment of women as property in this text is a glaring issue. We can look at this family’s dysfunction and be thankful that women’s rights have evolved somewhat since then. But if we can’t see past the sins of another time, then we miss the point of the story.  Don’t misunderstand me.  We still have a long way to go for there to be no male nor female, nor Jew or Greek, nor slave or free.  But this story resonates deeper.  To look into this family’s dysfunction is to look into all of our human brokenness. Our sinful nature creates broken relationships, but God doesn’t let our sin thwart God’s purposes.

Luckily for us, God stays on our side — transcendentally working to overturn unhealthy relationships with unequal power dynamics. God is on your side if you were mistreated by a parent, or are in a loveless marriage, or an abusive relationship, or feel your only worth comes from your looks or your children. And god isn’t giving up on you.

Remember Leah’s fourth child, Judah? The one where she has turned to god, and has been delivered from her illusion that having children would make her husband love her? It’s Judah from which King David comes. Of the twelve sons that would become the 12 tribes of Israel, it is only Judah (the southern kingdom) that will survive and return from exile. It’s Judah that preserves our scripture. And it’s from Judah from which Jesus will be born. It is from the Unloved One that god made it so that we might say that “neither death, nor life, nor angles, 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.”  Amen.

I want my students to hear this--To my — there is nothing new under the sun. Regardless of your gender — if you look to a significant other for your fulfillment, they are human and will only disappoint you. They can supplement your life and make it better, but self worth comes from within and from your relationship with god.

*artwork: Vayetze, Painting by Yoram Ranaan based on Genesis 29:21-23,


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