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For Nothing?

The Reverend Austin Shelley

July 26, 2020
Genesis 29:15-28

A Reading from the Book of Genesis

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 another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


(Accompanying audio begins with the reading of the text for the day, Genesis 29:15-28.)

Friends in Christ, I bring you greetings from Princeton Theological Seminary and from The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill with whom I currently serve. and I ask of you a moment of personal privilege to say thank you to my friend and colleague, Matt, for the invitation to worship with you, the people of God who are University Presbyterian Church in Austin…or, perhaps more precisely in this current moment, University Presbyterian Church of wherever you happen be right now, which is probably closer to what the Lord had in mind anyway.

And I’d like to issue an apology up front to my brilliant and beloved professor, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, for not preaching on Romans. Because of you, I know better than to make a platitude of “all things work together for good,” and for that I’m grateful. Nonetheless, I confess that I felt relieved to learn that UPC has spent some time trekking around the narratives in Genesis during these past weeks of not-so-ordinary time. So, for now, I’ll leave Romans in your faithful hands.

(Audio begins)

And for today, then, our text is another family story from Genesis, this time a portion of chapter 29. The lectionary picks up at verse 15, after Jacob has fled to Haran, afraid for his life after having connived his way into a birthright that wasn’t his and subsequently stolen his father’s blessing—all at his older brother Esau’s expense. No sooner than Jacob arrives at a well outside Haran, does he set his eyes on Rachel, his uncle Laban’s younger daughter, who arrives shepherding her father’s flock. Jacob is immediately smitten, and, in the way of smitten men throughout time and space, he shows off by single-handedly removing a large stone from the mouth of the well.

Word of this feat gets back to Laban, and Jacob lands himself a place as a valuable servant in Laban’s household. Not bad for an exiled trickster. When we arrive at the beginning of today’s lectionary passage, Jacob has been serving Laban for about a month, and the dividends of his work are beginning to pay off. Listen for God’s Word:

Genesis 29:15-28

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

As a family of six—that’s two parents playing zone defense with four kids—we do what we can to leave the kitchen clean before we head to bed—at least, that’s what we’ve always tried to do. Goodness knows we’ve slipped up a few times, putting off the clean up from the occasional dinner party, but for the most part, we prefer to wake up to a fresh start instead of trying to wrap our minds around breakfast while staring down the remnants of last night’s marinara sauce all over a teetering pile of pans, plates, and utensils.

It’s a part of nearly everyone’s life at some stage, so what’s changed in the last twenty-one weeks isn’t that the sinkful of dishes exists. It’s just that in place of what used to be a Protestant work ethic sort of penance before leaving the house each morning or settling into bed at the end of each day has turned into a Sisyphean task. Day in and day out we push up our sleeves, flip the Palmolive bottle upside down, and roll that stone up the hill, never quite reaching the top, only to have it defeat us in the end and land us right back where we started and exhausted to boot. I scrape the egg off our breakfast plates and disappear to our bedroom upstairs and throw on a scarf and earrings for a Zoom staff meeting. Simultaneously I keep an eye on the toddler whose new favorite past-time is climbing on precarious structures I’d never imagined anyone could or would possibly attempt. 45 minutes later, meeting action items in hand, I scoop up the toddler and whisk her back downstairs. Rounding the corner into the kitchen, I notice that where my clean sink was not even an hour before, is a new, heaping Jenga-like stack of ceramic and stainless steel, a sculpture that is both a marvel of engineering prowess and a monument, really, to the fact that we are all at home nearly all the time.  I’m not the only one who takes my turn with the dishes, of course, but when I inevitably end up spending significant time with my hands in dish soap, the members of my household hear about it in that sort of huffy, sarcastic tone that masquerades as self talk but is assuredly meant to be overheard: “Why did I even bother cleaning up the kitchen this morning? Why keep wasting time doing the same thing over and over again when it makes no difference? Why do I keep doing this, for nothing?”

I’m sure some of you can relate in these days of increased at home dining. Maybe your challenge isn’t your kitchen. I hope you’ll feel free to insert whatever room or task you want—but by all means, imagine whatever it is that brings on the kind of teeth grinding frustration that’s born of never quite making tangible headway. Or, if you dare, substitute the entire pandemic for the dishes in the sink. With fall looming and schools and workplaces publicizing in-person, hybrid, and fully-remote plans—none of which is ideal—it’s hard to know whether our efforts at flattening the curve have made any difference at all.  Beachgoers and grocery store shoppers alike ignore precautions altogether, even as we bury many of our loved ones without so much as a memorial service or a casserole for the bereaved. And we have to wonder, did we stay home all spring and summer, wiping down groceries and mail, preparing food for shelters, and washing masks on repeat—for nothing?

Or perhaps we might instead substitute our nation’s other pandemic, the one that’s been around since the first ship of enslaved peoples from Africa set sail for this land—no, I take that back—the pandemic that’s been around since the first thought was conceived of packing human beings into the hull of a ship and transporting them across the Atlantic for the sole purpose of exploiting them as free labor. As the teeth of racism continue to be bared in ways I was once naive enough to believe were relegated to the history books, it’s increasingly hard to utter a thought that keeps bubbling to the surface, even though I know it isn’t fully true: Did Dr. King and Bayard Rustin and Mahalia Jackson and John Lewis, did they march for nothing? We elected the nation’s first African American president. What was it all for? I ask, we ask these things, because George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Secoriea Turner, who was 8 years old,  Davon McNeal (age 11), they’re all dead before their time, much like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, and Emmett Till and Willie Earle and Clementa Pinckney and DePayne Middleton Doctor before them—and, and, and, and, and…you know how this goes. We can barely wipe their blood from our hands before we find ourselves swimming again in the waters of injustice so brutally enacted upon real people in real Black and brown bodies. The blood of our siblings cries out from the ground, and as we hear those cries more clearly, we diversify our libraries and swear that the disease won’t pass to the next generation. We make a concerted effort to support black-owned businesses and make protests signs that tell the truth, that say “Jesus was a person of color unjustly executed under systemic oppression.” We hold vigils and confess complicity and ask forgiveness and do the work of recognition and repentance and reparation and yet all the while there’s this little voice in the back of our minds—whispering, or maybe, by now in some cases yelling: “the world isn’t going to change.” These acts of solidarity and hope and compassion and courage and confession and learning and transforming are just drops in the bucket. Why should we keep going then, when what we are doing seems for all the world to be for nothing?

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”

For nothing.

What irony. What privilege. Jacob has spent his entire life getting everything he ever chased for nothing—or at least for next to nothing. A birthright for a perfectly timed bowl of stew. A powerful, priceless blessing for a little costuming prank he and his mother devised to deceive his old, blind father. What a steal. Jacob is more than accustomed to raking in benefits that aren’t his by barely lifting a finger.

And the irony doesn’t stop there. Not only does Jacob, the heel-grabbing schemer finally get schemed, but he also reaps a little comeuppance from the world he spent his younger life trying to subvert. This younger brother who had thus far turned the patriarchal system of eldest male heir progenitor on its head gets put back in his secondary place by the status quo. When Jacob discovers that he’s been deceived, he’s incensed. It’s hard to get played when you’re usually the one calling the plays. When the morning sunlight reveals Laban’s older daughter Leah instead of her younger sister Rachel, Laban reminds Jacob that this is simply the way things are, the way they’ve always been, the way he intends them to be going forward: “This is not done in our country,” Laban says, “giving the younger before the firstborn.” Laban’s description of the entrenched system that benefited only firstborn children must have stung in Jacob’s second-born, exiled ears.

Of course, Laban isn’t the only one calculating his moves. Jacob never intended to work for nothing. From that first day at the well, he had his eyes set on Rachel—and on a different inheritance than the one he’d fled when he left home for fear of Esau’s wrath. It’s clear that Jacob gets even more than he bargained for. Rachel isn’t nothing, and neither is her sister Leah. Nor are their maids Bilhah and Zilpah, who had no say in the matter, who will also in time bear children for Jacob. So, for sure, economically speaking, they’re not nothing. They’re definitely something. Or, rather, they are some things rather than some ones. Property. Wages to trade for 14 years of labor. Consider the fact that Laban doesn’t refer to his own daughters by name. He says instead, “Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.” This one. The other one. Interchangeable. Pawns for buying him a strong and successful servant.

Now, it’s totally fair if you’re thinking that the patriarchs of Genesis should really get a pass here. That their culture was set up this way, and that outside of some clever scheming of their own, the women in this story naturally don’t have much, if any, agency within that culture. I might counter that Jewish Midrash suggests that Rachel is an accomplice to Laban’s bride swap because she doesn’t want her sister to be dishonored. Here she is a foil to Jacob who’s all but hellbent on making sure Esau is humiliated. There’s an undercurrent, a counter narrative: that Rachel, like Jacob, needs to steal power in order to have any at all, even if their motives are opposite. Still, if you were to make the point that the culture of the Ancient Near East is so far removed from the world we know today, that it isn’t really fair to compare Jacob and Laban’s commodification of women and servants then to the dehumanization we still traffic in today, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Except.

Except that to say “that was then and this is now, and the two are entirely different” excuses what should never be excused and squashes the possibility that this story might reveal a perpetual human phenomenon—an ongoing tendency that requires our undivided attention in our own time. No matter how often or how relentlessly we’ve scrubbed away at the stains of racism or gone to bed after clearing the counter tops of our own consciences, we are invited by this text to come to terms with the fact that we have not transcended the dehumanizing forces at play in both this sacred family drama in Genesis 29 or in our own.

When epidemiologists call on us to protect the most vulnerable by slightly inconveniencing ourselves—by curbing our consumption or simplifying our schedules or wearing masks—dehumanizing forces respond by saying that only certain small portions of the population will die—portions our society deems marginal anyway.

When we shout, “Black Lives Matter,” dehumanizing forces respond as Laban did, “This is not done in our country” they say.

When a Congresswoman is called not by her name but rather by a derogatory term on the steps of the Capitol by her male colleague, dehumanizing forces are at work, both in the abuse itself and in the system of silence that continues to allow such abuses to be commonplace.

When we are conditioned every day, multiple times a day, to believe that it’s acceptable to call each other by any name we please, we find ourselves right back where we started, staring at a full sink. And well, sometimes it just really feels like all the effort is for nothing.

Until we remember—that every time we get to work, we dismantle the pile piece by piece until just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of what the reign of God looks like.

Until we remember that many hands make light work of clearing the sink so that we can have a place to scrub tomorrow’s vegetables.

Oh, and it also helps to remember, every time we do the dishes, it means someone who was hungry has been fed. And it doesn’t get much more biblical than that.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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