Sermon for Eucharist, 30.7.17 (Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-end, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52)

The organ strikes up the wedding march, the congregation stand, the nervous groom at the front pulls himself together with the aid of the best man as the radiant bride comes in on her father’s arm. It’s the stuff of popular culture: films, TV, books….the famous words of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him”. One of the things that amuses me about weddings is how - if you’re doing it traditionally - the bride wears a veil over her whole head, and only show her face when we get to this bit here. Yeah, right… anyone is going to marry the wrong woman accidentally. What are the chances?

Well, I bet Jacob wished he’d had a CofE wedding and the veil had been drawn back a bit earlier.  Here we have another story of Abraham’s family which involves massive porkies: for a family chosen and blessed by God, they certainly get up to a lot of dodgy stuff. Even if we allow for the fact that falling in love Mills and Boon style is a relatively modern invention (in the context of marriage), there is downright cheating and deception here. It’s the sort of thing that has quite literally given Patriarchy a bad name, chaps.

No-one asks Leah what she thinks, as far as we know (to be fair, no-one asks Rachel either). In this it’s quite a backward step from Jacob’s own mum, Rebekah, who does choose her marriage. And the motive for it seems to be purely financial: Laban has a less attractive daughter to get off his hands – transferring the cost of keeping her to someone else - and can get another seven years’ worth of work out of Jacob for nothing. If Laban were paying Jacob the average modern wage, that would mean £193,200’s worth of work at 2015 prices (that’s the gross figure, which might be inflating the position….but does Laban strike you as the kind of man who’d pay tax?).

This is of course in modern terms insulting to Leah. The author may be trying to be kind to her by saying she had “lovely eyes”, but in our modern translation there’s one of those nasty little footnotes which says prissily “the Hebrew is unclear”….so perhaps even this compliment is to be taken from her, and she was in fact just short-sighted. Charitably, marriage is pretty much the only respectable career for a girl in the Bronze Age, so she may have felt as trapped as Jacob. However it’s hardly a compliment to Rachel when you consider that Jacob only noticed it wasn’t her the following morning! Perhaps it was an exceptionally good wedding feast, or Leah wasn’t the only short-sighted person in the family.

And this is just the start of a family tragedy which goes on for years. Two sisters, brought up together, married to the same man and their relationship poisoned as each is desperate to have what the other possesses: Leah has children (seven in the end) but not her husband’s affection: Rachel has Jacob’s love, but no children, at least not for a long time. Their competition ratchets up when each gives her servant to Jacob to sleep with, producing more children (and note no-one asks them either!). And in the end, ironically, what Rachel desired so much is what kills her, when she dies in childbirth.

It does make you wonder what people are referring to when they talk about the importance of following the example of marriage given to us in the Bible….

But one of the things I love about the Hebrew Bible is that even when it’s telling us about a society which is in many ways very different from ours, it gives us real portraits of people, characters as good as anything in Shakespeare or Dickens. And they matter. We are told that God opens Leah’s womb, he gives her children. There will be love in her life, even if it doesn’t come from her husband (and apparently it never does…..although Leah is in the end buried with him. Rachel, interestingly, isn’t). We are not told that God closes Rachel’s womb – which IS said about other women in the Old Testament - so it’s not a punishment: but she finally has a son when she works together with her sister to manage Jacob. And in the end they both see where all this sorrow has come from; their father, who they say has “sold them” into the position they find themselves. Sisters are finally, you may say, doing it for themselves.

Now I’m not having a go at anyone here unlucky enough to have a Y chromosome. We’re fond of saying the world is going to hell in a handcart, but let’s face it, some things have improved. But what can we learn from this odd family saga, Dallas in ancient Palestine?

Life is messy, and often places us in positions of conflict. Sometimes we collude in this; sometimes perhaps we can’t see an alternative. Healing – real healing – can be a long and painful process and sometimes it’s emotionally more satisfying to cling to that feeling that we’re in the right (I suspect that’s kept many a family feud going!). And we build these obstacles within our own relationships, with other people and with God.

There may be little more annoying than having a Christian friend say to you when you’re deep in a crisis that “all things work together for good for those who love God”, and I urge you to think very carefully before ever saying it in conversation….but in that wonderfully moving piece from Romans, Paul (on top form) lists all the things that cannot separate us from the love of God. And this was a man who has personal experience of what he’s talking about, he hasn’t just seen them on the telly.

But reading it, Paul's factors seem to be external.  I think we can tie it back to the story of Leah and Rachel and Jacob. There’s more to it: “Nor anything else in all creation” Paul says. That surely includes us, the crown of all creation. Even being the people we are - people like Laban or his damaged daughters, even people like us - can’t stop God. And when we recognise that, faith like a single tiny mustard seed is indeed enough to bring about the kingdom of heaven.

In spite of ourselves.