It’s our last Sunday together for three months!
And I thought about wanting to say something
profoundly moving and meaningful,
but then wondered why start now?
There’s a well known verse in the midst of our Old Testament text today.
My memory of it goes back to my mom,
and the time I left home in Switzerland
to go to college in Greenville, SC.
“The Lord watch over you while we are apart one from the other.”
It meant a lot to me as a first year college student far from home.
And I’ve had occasion to think of that verse through the years
at times of parting—of imminent separation from significant friends.
So I thought about it for today,
“The Lord watch over us while we are apart one from the others.”
And then I did some study,
because, honestly, it’s been one of those verses I’ve liked
abstracted from its context.
even though it’s set within one of my favorite extended stories in Scripture—
within the stories that comprise the Jacob story.
Come to find out, it’s not just well-known
(how many of you had heard that prayer before?)—
uh huh, it’s not only well-known, it’s popular.
There’s even mizpah jewelry—
Mizpah being where the story is set in the hills of Gilead.
there’s such a thing as a mizpah coin—
a round coin, the word mizpah typically at the top,
the word coin at the bottom—
on the coin, the image of a heart with the prayer written in it.
Then the heart is torn into two pieces
each forming a pendant so two people can share the prayer
in their time of separation I guess.
There’s even specifically a sweetheart mizpah coin
for sweethearts separated.
Kind of like an Old Testament spiritualized BFF 4ever thing
(and that’s 4ever with the numeral 4)!
Susie, who preached on this text in chapel this past week,
even found a reference to someone talking about
their beloved dead chihuahua
and calling the collection of fond memories, a mizpaw—
which just about did me in!
And while I did, for a moment, have Oprah and Ellen inspired images
of half a mizpah pendant for everyone(!),
the overly-sentimental (or what I consider overly-sentimental)
undermines, for me, the very emotions it supposedly celebrates.
And this profoundly moving and meaningful prayer
as a marketing campaign to sell jewelry is just wrong.
But like I said, I did some study.
And within the larger story of Jacob,
this particular story is set at that time when Jacob, Rachel, Leah
and their household—their servants, their livestock—
left the land of Laban in the region of Haran, heading back to Canaan.
Of course that doesn’t say it all, does it?
Doesn’t begin to!
Laban and Jacob didn’t have the best of relationships
shall we say?
They were too similar—
cheats, tricksters, confidence men the both of them.
And through the years and the stories,
we’ve watched them both at it:
Jacob cheating his brother out of his birthright,
tricking his father into giving him his brother’s blessing,
Laban giving Jacob Leah after he worked seven years for Rachel,
then getting another seven years of work for Rachel—
and another six years worth for some of the offspring of the flocks he tended.
But during those six years, Jacob prospered,
and prospered at Laban’s expense—
to the point that Jacob overheard Laban’s sons complaining,
“Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; he has gained all this wealth
from what belonged to our father” (Genesis 31:1).
And so Jacob talked to his wives (that’s interesting, isn’t it?),
and they were tired of being treated like property (that’s interesting, isn’t it?)—
felt like they had been robbed—
that what Jacob had was their due as their inheritance
(isn’t that interesting? expecting, as women, an inheritance)
And so they all decided it was time to go!
And when they left, they snuck away
after Laban set out to shear sheep—
the sheep that were kept three days away.
So they got a big six day head start.
And with Laban gone, before they left,
Rachel, unbeknownst to Jacob, stole her daddy’s household gods.
Well, when Laban got back from sheep shearing, he set off in pursuit,
and after seven days, caught up with Jacob’s entourage
in the hills of Gilead north of the Jabbok River.
Laban was not happy. And he let Jacob know about it.
“You made off with my daughters, my livestock—
on top of which my gods are gone”
(there’s an irony to that, isn’t there?).
Ever attuned to the moment, as swindlers must always be,
Laban then switches gears,
“Jacob, if I’d known you were going, I would have thrown a party.
I didn’t even get a chance to kiss my daughters goodbye”
But the anger comes through again,
“And then on top of all that, you stole my gods (Genesis 31:30)!
Why’d you have to steal my gods?”
“Okay, look. I was afraid you would keep your daughters by force.”
Notice the plural—daughters—Rachel and Leah.
Notice Jacob doesn’t say anything about the flocks—
worried about his wives, not his stuff.
“And as for those gods? If you find anyone here with them, that person will die.”
Remember, he didn’t know.
And so Laban, rather frantically, one imagines, started looking around,
digging first through Jacob’s tent and then Leah’s
(Scripture lists all these) and then the tent of the maids
and then stormed into Rachel’s tent tearing through all their stuff.
But Rachel, who had put the gods in her camel’s saddle
was sitting on the saddle, and it was that time of the month.
Laban wasn’t going to risk uncleanliness, of course,
so he never found his gods.
And then Jacob let Laban have it right back.
“Alright so you have now felt through all my stuff!
And what have I done to you? Where’s my sin?
Oh, and did you find your gods?
For the past twenty years I have worked for you
and have not cheated you
while you have changed my wages ten times (Genesis 31:36-42).”
And, think about it, that’s true.
Jacob has been aboveboard since arriving in Haran.
Here’s the thing: the back story, the real story, the rest of the story.
According to the laws and customs of the day,
“the person who could show possession of the household gods
could claim a legal right to the family estate in question”
(G. Henton Davies, “Genesis” in General Articles: Genesis-Exodus
in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969, 230).
Rachel stole the gods not out of spite,
certainly not out of pious devotion or as a religious insult,
she hid them not as theological irony,
she sat on them not to show the biblical perspective on idols,
but as a proactive and radical claim to her inheritance and property rights.
None of which is apparent to anyone!
I love Scripture!
And Laban wasn’t worried about his worship,
his prayer life,
his devotional life.
He was worried about his stuff.
And that’s made absolutely explicit in what he says next,
somewhat desperately, one might imagine,
“All this is mine. Everything you see is mine (Genesis 31:43).
My daughters. My goats. My sheep. My cows.
My camels. My donkeys. My servants” (Genesis 32:14-15).
And you have to wonder, no?
what it means to claim daughters as you claim sheep—
let alone gods!
And Jacob restrains himself masterfully from saying out loud,
“Well, technically, Laban, it was all yours!”
And so they made a covenant.
Laban wanted to make a covenant
and said, “Come let us make a covenant.
Let it be a witness between us.”
And as had been the custom for the past twenty years,
Jacob did all the work. He set up a pillar.
He asked his kinfolk to gather stones,
and they did—making a heap of stones—
a heap of stones Laban called Jegar Sahadutha in Aramaic or Syriac—
“pile of testimony”—
a heap of stones Jacob called Galeed in Hebrew—
a compound word made up of the words for “heap” and “witness.”
And then Laban called it Galeed, the Hebrew name,
and named the pillar Mizpah, Jewish for “watchtower.”
So mizpah isn’t really the name of the place,
but the watchtower erected on some hill in Gilead.
And Laban offered the prayer
“The Lord watch over us while we are apart.”
And they had a mizpah coin cast
and each wore half of it—BFF 4ever!
And they embraced and swore their eternal love for each other.
Not so much.
Really not even so much God take care of you—
God be with you—while we’re apart,
but much more like “God watch you—watch out for you.”
It’s more like, “You scare me.
You really scare me. You’re entirely too much like me.
So God please keep an eye on him and protect me from him.”
You know the blessing for the Tsar in the musical Fiddler on the Roof?
“The Lord bless and keep the Tsar far away from us!”
“God help me keep what little I’ve got left!”
Not so much the sentimental.
I’m not even sure you can make a case for it being in any way
a meaningful affirmation of relationship.
Less a symbolic pendant—
more like an ankle monitor for someone out on parole!
A prayer monitor—a covenant monitor.
I love Scripture!
But now that we’ve considered it, how is that an appropriate verse
for our last Sunday together for a while?!
Actually in so many ways!
We have sassy women claiming their rights in a rigidly patriarchal society—
the idea of what’s just
creatively and even deviously confronting the status quo.
We have a trickster gone straight
and struggling with what it means to live with a history.
We have the God who doesn’t wait for perfection
to bless and be present in lives and families and circumstances.
We have all the irony and humor
of Laban praying to God while looking for his gods—
of Laban accepting the Hebrew names for the heap and the pillar—
of Laban as a very crooked man acting the straight man
for a crooked man gone straight.
Have I mentioned how much I love Scripture?!
We have a story set in the midst of life as it really happens—
not sentimentalized an iota!
So very honest
amidst all the awkwardness and the resentments,
the jealousies and insecurities—
even as amidst the joys and the laughter—
amidst the humor and the love.
And God at home in the midst of it all, as God always is
amidst the truth.
Not that I really and honestly
think of us as an awkward community
full of resentments, jealousies and insecurities—
even amidst the joys and the laughter—
amidst the humor and the love,
but I do so very much think of us as real and honest—
with God at home in the midst of it all, as God always is.
So the Lord watch over us while we are part four from the others.
Because when you know what’s real,
this prayer can be real too.
Though until you know what’s real,
the prayer can’t be.
Now some specifics about while we are apart.
As most of you probably know,
I applied for a Lilly Foundation funded sabbatical grant
exploring the theme of home and got it.
So the first two weeks of June are simply at home.
The third week I’ll be with our children at PassportKids,
and the fourth week with my extended family at the beach.
Then the four of us will have four weeks in Europe.
We fly out of Dulles, Friday, July 5 to London,
from whence we go to Amsterdam where Susie’s sister and family live—
with whom Cheryl Duvall and Scott Laich
and Carrie and Darrell and Meg have all dined …
and we haven’t … yet.
Then into and down through Germany
visiting the houses that were the homes in which I grew up—
the churches (on in one case the school in which the church met)—
maybe my kindergarten—my elementary school.
Down to Zurich, Switzerland,
where I spent my high school years.
Both houses in which we lived have actually been torn down,
but the seminary buildings are still there, my school, the church.
We’ll take the train through the Alps over to Innsbruck
on to Salzburg, a Sound of Music tour,
the chapel where Silent Night was first sung,
and a salt mines tour which I did as a boy
from which I have a picture of me in the overalls
before the slide down into the mine.
We’re going to get pictures of us in those overalls!
To Munich and back.
August brings some yet to be scheduled days in New York City with Susie.
And then a week of Preacher’s Camp at Lake James down in North Carolina.
And you all—
for June, you’ll explore being at home on the way—
being at home where you are—
in the wilderness, in exile—
at home on the way.
Then in July, being on the way home—
the idea that we’re heading home,
not there yet—
pilgrims in a foreign land, resident aliens—
on the way home.
In August, the theme of bringing it home—
sharing very practical resources on making home.
Dad’s preaching next week, then Cherie Smith, Allison Stone,
Jack VandenHengel, Greg Cochran, Scott Stafford,
Carole Jackson Cochran, Marsha Garrison—good people, good words.
So, while we are apart,
while life takes us in different directions for these weeks,
may you continue to know the joy of community
and the wonder of Scripture—
with its humor and beauty,
its radical claims for the left out.
May you continue explorations into truth
and the riches of life together with God.
May you continue to cultivate the discipline of prayer,
to receive the gifts of worship,
the testimony of a living we braid into a story,
the discovery of love all around us,
the assurance of God always with us.
May you know and be known by truth,
and until we continue our conversations together,
may God bless you and keep you.
May the warmth of God’s grace shine upon you
and God’s countenance lifted upon you give you peace.
Don’t you dare sell yourselves short.
Keep risking big for good.
Love truth, and know nothing’s more true than love.
And don’t let anything quench the fire in your hearts.
I love you. I’ll miss you. I’ll see you in September.