Sermon: "Pushed to the Edges," July 30, 2017

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Then 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 for another seven years.’ Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.
— Genesis 29:15-36 (New Revised Standard Version)

This past week, I read an article by Ann Powers, a pop music journalist who writes for National Public Radio in the United States. In it, she details a conversation she had with one of her friends, a friend also connected to the music industry. So often, music history seems to exclude women as important players. “Classic Rock” history, for example, is often told with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin as key players, while women like Janis Joplin seem to be seen as background actors. “We came to a conclusion that, in 2017,” she writes, “will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.” In the story of pop music, she argues, men occupy the center. While women occupy the periphery. Making it the story of men. And so, to tell the whole story of pop music, her and her colleagues put together a list of the top 150 albums in pop music made by women.  In doing so, it wouldn’t be rewriting the story of pop music so much as bringing the hidden parts of that story, or more precisely the hidden people, hidden women, to the forefront. This way a fuller, more complete story of pop music could be told. A story that maybe wasn’t missing entirely. But one that has more often than not been pushed to the edges.

Music, of course isn’t the only realm of human culture where women have more often than not been pushed to the edges. Art, literature, history, science. More often than not these are construed as a history of great men. And the Bible, or at least, the telling of the Bible is no different. As a story of the great faithful acts of men, while women are, at best, along for the ride. I’ve heard this not only from critics of Christianity, but also many women who I love and respect in the church. Many women who are deeply devoted to their faith, but sometimes have a hard time finding themselves in the story. Either on account of the way women are often portrayed in the Bible, or the fact that men often seem to be taking center stage. While women appear to be fated to supporting roles.

Our scripture passage for this morning doesn’t seem to be much of a help here. We have Jacob, the upstart, type-A son of Isaac, son of Abraham who tricked his blind father into blessing him and giving him the family inheritance by dressing like his hairy brother. Jacob escapes his brother Esau, who wants him dead for this conniving betrayal by running off to live with his Uncle Laban. When Jacob arrived, Laban gives him a job in the family business herding sheep. Laban doesn’t think it’s fair for Jacob to work for free, though. Him being family and all. So Laban asks Jacob what kind of compensation he should get for all the hard work he’s putting in. And here’s the sticking part for many of us. Laban has two daughters—Leah, the older, and Rachel the younger. Jacob’s madly in love with Rachel, he’s been in love with her since the moment he set his eyes on her. So since Jacob doesn’t have the money to pay her father outright for Rachel—what scholars call the “bride price”—Jacob offers to trade him seven years in exchange for Rachel. Laban agrees to the deal, and when the time’s up he comes collecting. He wants what he’s owed. He’s paid seven years for this woman, after all.

But if that’s not bad enough, fast forward to the wedding night. It’s too dark, or there’s too much wine, or whatever, and Rachel’s father Laban sneaks Rachel out of the tent that night and sneaks her sister Leah in instead. Long story short, Jacob rolls over the next morning and realizes that it’s Leah, not Rachel, beside him in bed. So he’s furious, because Laban tricked him. Laban gives him this weak excuse, that in his country they don’t marry off the younger daughter before the older one. Then he offers to cut Jacob a deal. Take the honeymoon week, then at the end you can marry Rachel. But you’ve gotta put in another seven years after that. Because we know Leah is worth at least as much as Rachel. And so Jacob takes the deal. The two women are his. But they’re anything but one big happy polygamous family. As scripture continues, we discover that the two of them jockey for Jacob’s favor, over pride of place in his household. All Leah ever wanted, it says, is for Jacob to love her. Jacob thought Leah had nice eyes (or weak eyes, depending on your translation) But he thought Rachel was beautiful and graceful. She’s his favorite from beginning to end. But Rachel’s jealous because Leah’s able to have baby after baby, while she can’t give Jacob any. Rachel gets Jacob’s heart, while Leah gets Jacob’s genetic legacy.

So not only’s Jacob able to buy these two women from their conniving father, effectively making them his property. They also fight for his attention. They fight for his approval, his love and over who can give him the most babies. Rachel and Leah’s entire worlds revolve around Jacob. And so when you hear this text, it’s hard not to see the point that so many critics from outside and inside the church have made. Certainly, it’s hard to judge the Bible by our own modern standards about the treatment of women. It’s far too easy, and lazy even, for us to sit from our twenty-first century vantage point and cast judgment on lives and situations drastically different from our own. But it’s also hard not to take seriously the charge that the story of the Bible, like so many of our other cultural stories, can sound like a men’s history written for men, while women are supporting characters at best. Like so many other places in our societies and our histories Leah and Rachel and women like them have been pushed to the edge. More often than not.

It’s a real problem. Some interpreters of the Bible of the more conservative persuasion suggest that the problem is ours, not the Bible’s problem. That the Bible points us toward a subordinate relationship between men and women, and that’s what we should go with. Other interpreters of the Bible, of the more liberal persuasion, suggest we should simply put passages like this aside. They reflect the values of a mistake, bygone age. One where women were still considered property. And where the male householder stood at the center.

Now, there’s something to both viewpoints. Some, rightly, want to remind us to take the Bible seriously. I myself share a commitment to the Bible’s inspiration by the Spirit and its central place in our faith tradition. But because of that same commitment to scripture, I also believe the Apostle Paul’s words when he says “there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. But it does mean that men and women, and indeed all humanity stands equal in worth and equal in purpose before the Lord of all life who is most fully revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so we can point out that much of the Bible really does reflect the time that it was written. That, like so many other areas of human life, countless women, through Christian history have been pushed aside. It looks more like Jacob’s story. Rather than Rachel and Leah’s.

Truth be told, these two things seem impossible to reconcile. The Bible as our sacred scripture on one hand, and an ancient story that reflects the prejudices of its time. When it comes to women, especially. But you know, the thing about the Bible is that its subject matter isn’t men. Or women. The story is ultimately about God. And this central character at the heart of the story is always challenging our biases. Even when it comes to women. Even in the text itself.

From the get go, Leah’s story was Jacob’s story. All she wanted was his love and pride of place in his household. This lack of love saddens her deeply. But she’s not alone, the text says. “The Lord saw that she was unloved, so he opened her womb.” God comes to her in her suffering with new life. But with each baby she has, she thanks God for this new life, in the hopes that this will be the thing that makes Jacob love her. She sees her children and her God, even, as the ticket to the center of Jacob’s story. That is, until her fourth baby—Judah. Scholars point out this strange change in her. Whereas with each of the first three she thanks God for help in winning Jacob over. But with number four she simply offers praise. Flat out thanks God for this child, period. Later we discover that this nobody, Leah, woman bought and sold is key to the rest of the whole Bible. Her son, Judah, is the great great great grandfather of King David, the most beloved King in the whole of scripture, yes.  But even more so, for those of us who seek to follow in Jesus’ Way, Leah finds herself in Jesus’ family tree at the beginning of the New Testament. Not by name, of course. But it’s her family line that gives birth to Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And eventually the church, the people of Jesus.

You could say that Leah’s story is one of the top two hundred popular stories of grace in the Bible. One that gets lost in the sands of time. Lost in the way we usually tell the story. We need to reclaim and remember to tell the whole story of the people of God. Stories of Rachel and Leah. Stories of Miriam, who shook her tambourine and sang for joy as the Israelites left slavery in Egypt. Stories of Ruth and Naomi who discovered God’s love that shatters the boundaries of clan, race and nation. The story of Mary who sets the pattern for our own transformation, saying “yes” to birthing God’s love and mercy in the world. The story of Mary Magdalene the first preacher of the gospel, and Junia one of the first preachers and pastors of the Lord. And all the countless other women who have carried God’s grace and mercy to a sin-sick starving world. Because even though the Bible comes to us in the flesh and blood and attitudes of its time, it is always bearing witness to a God who isn’t bound by our times, or our own attitudes and prejudices. Leah’s pushed to the edge. Women have always been pushed to the edge. But the edge and people on the edge is where God’s most at work.

And don’t think this is good news for those of us who are women. This is good news for us all. Martin Luther, when commenting on this passage remarks that “does God have no other occupation left than to have regard for the lowliness of the household?” Even though this seems like a story of great men. Even though in this passage the spotlight looks like it’s on Jacob. Even though Leah’s pushed to the edge of the story, it’s not the great figures of history who God uses to bring about a whole new world. It’s people made powerless by their circumstances and the times they live in. That with this God something so simple and ordinary as the birth of a new child, kindness offered to  is a holy occasion packed with world-changing promise. With this God, it’s ordinary people like Leah, who God brings to the center of the story. And brings new purpose, life, and meaning where there wasn’t any before. It’s people like us whose everyday lives and small, every day decisions that might seem unimportant can be part of something much larger than ourselves.