The collect and readings for today, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12A, may be found here. The following sermon is based on Genesis 29:15-28 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
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.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
What happens when life does not work out the way we want? What do we do when we are surprised by the unexpected or devastated by the unwanted? All of us probably have experienced those moments. For my wife and me that moment was and continues to be the death of our older son, Brandon. For some it is the break up of a relationship. For others it may be the breakdown of physical or mental health. The unexpected may show up as the loss of a job or the failure of a business. There are all sorts of ways in which, no matter how hard we work, how good we are, or what we do, life just does not give us what we want.
Given a choice most of us probably prefer a “what you see is what you get” kind of world. If we ask a question we want to be able to trust we will get an honest answer. We want a fair wage for a day’s work. We want to know that if we do the right thing we will get the result we expect and deserve. We don’t want surprises or hidden agendas. We prefer the stability, order, predictability, and control that a “what you see is what you get” kind of world offers. It makes life easier and more manageable.
The problem is that life doesn’t always work that way. In fact, Jesus says that is not even how the kingdom of heaven works. Sometimes real life, kingdom life, is like a net dragged through the sea. It pulls up both the good and the bad. Other times it is like a field that you see day after day. It’s always there. Not much changes. It’s just an ordinary field like any other field except that it is not. Deep within that ordinary dirt is unseen treasure waiting to be discovered.
Most of us have lived long enough to know that, despite our desires and hopes, we do not always get what we want. The good and the bad, the dirt and the treasure, are never far from each other. Nothing is as it seems. What you see is not always what you get. Sometimes you choose Rachel and you wake up with Leah. That’s when we have to make a decision about our faith and how, or even whether, we will move forward.
Can we trust that there is more happening in life than we can see or understand? Can we look at a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, and see contained within it the greatest of shrubs, a tree in which birds nest? Or is our faith limited to what we see here and now, what can be verified by facts and logic, to what fits our desires and expectations?
That is the dilemma facing the people and especially the parents in Norway as they receive what they did not choose. Those are the questions many in this country must answer as they look for a job, go without healthcare, or struggle to make ends meet. That faith question is the challenge for everyone who has ever thought life was one way and discovered it was another. That’s where Jacob is today.
You may recall from last week that Jacob bought his older brother’s inheritance for a bowl of soup. Then he and his mother, Rebekah, deceived Isaac, Jacob’s dad and Rebekah’s husband, into giving Jacob the blessing that rightfully belonged to Jacob’s older brother, Esau. After all that Jacob fled for his life to Laban, Rebekah’s brother.
Jacob journeys to a new land seeking Laban. He comes to a well. Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, shows up. She is beautiful and graceful. Jacob kisses Rachel at the well. Jacob loves Rachel. He and Laban work a deal. Jacob will serve Laban seven years for the right to marry Rachel. At the end of seven years Laban prepares a great wedding feast. Laban, however, will not allow to happen to Leah, his oldest daughter, what happened to Esau. It’s not right for the younger daughter to be given in marriage before the firstborn. Laban knows this and, more importantly, so does Leah. Laban will not allow Rachel to supplant Leah as Jacob supplanted his older brother, Esau.
Laban prepares a great feast. After the wedding Jacob goes to meet Rachel in the tent to consummate the marriage. “When morning came it was Leah!” Laban has done a little bait and switch. Jacob, the one who deceived and fled, has now been deceived and trapped. He’s got to be wondering about that night at Bethel, the ladder, and God’s promises to keep him and go with him. A wedding, the morning light, and Leah are not what Jacob chose, expected, or wanted. It certainly does not sound like the fulfillment of God’s promises. It sounds more like an ancient soap opera.
Sometimes, though, things are not as they seem. Who would have ever thought that the soap opera stories of a dysfunctional family, brokenness, lies and deception, unmet expectations and hopes would become sacred stories? This is true not just for Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Rebekah, Laban, Leah, and Rachel but for every one of us.
We each have stories of family dysfunction, sorrow, loss, despair, and brokenness; stories of how things did not work out for us, sometimes through our own fault and other times simply by chance or the circumstances of life. Those stories are probably not the first place we turn to when we are looking for God. That’s not generally where we expect to find God. What you see, however, is not always what you get. God is always somehow mixed into our stories of dysfunction, brokenness, sorrow, and despair like yeast mixed in with three measures of flour. You can’t see it or separate it out but it is there, working, leavening, and transforming the flour into something new and alive.
Even when we choose Rachel and we get Leah the leaven of God’s life, the leaven of God’s love, the leaven of God’s presence, the leaven of God’s healing is working within us to transform and make new our lives. The leavening power of God within us can do more than we can ask or imagine. What we see is not all we get.
Hear, then, another parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who chose Rachel, the younger daughter, the beautiful and graceful one, to be his wife and after the wedding he awoke in the morning with Leah, the older daughter.