The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Holy Cross, West Memphis, and Grace Church, Wynne
July 24, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12, Year A
Occasionally there will be a TV show that captures the attention of both my wife and me. Most of the time our tastes differ. Typically, she’ll unwind watching real estate shows on HGTV or Bobby Flay’s latest cooking show on the Food Network, while I stay up late and watch continuous episodes of science fiction dramas. So, it doesn’t happen often that our tastes converge, but when they do it makes for a fun evening together.
One such show that has drawn both of us in is “Modern Family.” And it’s rare that an episode of this show won’t leave us in stitches. It’s a comedy about a “modern family.” The patriarch has divorced the mother of his two grown children and married a very attractive Columbian woman with a precocious twelve-year-old son. The patriarch’s son is in a relationship with another man and the two have adopted a Vietnamese newborn. The patriarch’s daughter is married to a childish real estate broker and together they have three children. For the sake of those of you who have not seen this show, I will stop here, because it only gets more complex.
But despite its complexity, this show has not only managed to bring together the disparate tastes of my wife and me, but to practically unite a nation as one of the most watched shows on TV. So, what makes a comedy about a dysfunctional, neurotic, conflicted family so appealing to so many? It could be the good writing, or the good acting, or it could be the fact that we all have one … a modern family, that is. We can relate. Each of us has a mother and a father. Some of us have brothers or sisters. And regardless of how positive or negative we perceive our relationships to be with members of our family, these relationships have had a hand in making us who we are today. Some of us have children of our own. And although we may have made solemn vows to ourselves and to God that we would not act like our parents, history has a way of repeating itself. We’ve learned how to love. We’ve learned how to hate. We’ve made course corrections in our relationships along the way and somehow we’ve ended up here. Sometimes the journey has been joyous, and it’s been downright messy on occasion. But that’s the nature of family.
In today’s passage from Genesis, we hear a juicy excerpt from the story of an ancient family; soap opera worthy stuff. I read an article by the celebrated journalist, Bill Moyers, in which he recounts a group conversation he had with several Old Testament scholars. Reflecting on the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, the scholars collectively agreed, rather candidly, that these stories make them “queasy.” Not quite a professional reflection, but more of a human gut reaction.
Taken at face value today’s story seems to be about a deceptive father who swindles a long-lost relative into a polygamous relationship with his two daughters. I couldn’t fault anyone for mistaking this story for one of those sensational reality TV shows currently airing on TLC or the Discovery Channel. It makes me queasy. And here’s why. This is not just any family. The long-lost relative who is being swindled is Jacob, the grandson of the great Abraham, and Abraham entered into a covenant with God, kind of a binding agreement. God said if you remain in relationship with me, I will protect and guide your family for generations. I will give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. So, Abraham passed this birthright, this covenant, down to his son Isaac, and Isaac, having been swindled himself, passed it to Jacob (it seems questionable behavior runs in families).
Jacob loved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. Laban, though, wanted Leah, his eldest daughter married first, as is the custom. Under the cover of darkness, in Shakespearean fashion, Laban switched his daughters when it came time for the consummation of the marriage. Leah became Jacob’s first wife and later Rachel was given as the second.
So goes this “blessed deception,” in which the future of this chosen family is shaped. The blessed part of this deception, and the part that makes so many queasy when they hear this story, is that the actions of Laban, regardless of how unscrupulous they may have been, directly resulted in the successful continuation of the covenant to the next generation and, through the twelve sons resulting from these marriages, the seeding of the twelve tribes of the nation Israel. And as a consequence, you and I are here today, full members of this ancient, now modern family.
I think the question at the heart of the queasiness is about the nature of God. Is God, the father of our sinless savior, Jesus Christ, some divine Machiavelli? Is it all about the bottom line? Does the end truly justify the means? Does God condone this family’s dishonest behavior? We get bent out of shape because we don’t want God to be associated with anything that smacks of impropriety. The irony here is that God is and will always be deeply associated with us, the perpetually flawed. Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah were created by God and given the freedom to live in this world as they saw fit. God wanted a relationship with them and with their descendants and they saw to it that that happened. Whether or not God approved of their methods, the scripture does not say. Regardless, God was able to weave a beautiful future out of whatever choices these people made.
I am reminded of a poster of King Henry VIII hung in the narthex of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The caption reads, “In the church started by a man who had six wives, forgiveness goes without saying.” Episcopalians have a love-hate relationship with Henry. We praise his ingenuity, his vision, his decisiveness, but at the same time we want to disown him because of the absolute mess of a way he ran his life. And as queasy as it might make us feel to have this man as the founder of the Anglican Church, God mysteriously found a way to work through Henry despite his failings.
And God finds a way to work through us too. Today you and I are carriers of the covenant. God still wants a relationship with each of us, no matter how honest or dishonest we may be. We will make good choices and we will make bad choices, and through it all God will continually be creating new life. Sometimes the journey will have been joyous, and sometimes downright messy. But that’s the nature of family, ancient and modern. From Laban and his daughters, to Henry VIII, to us.