Sermon For March 3, 2013 ~ Third Sunday Of Lent

ForgivnessSeriesLogo+ Forgiveness: A Season Of Release +

Genesis 29 & 30:1-24 (Rachel & Leah)

“Can’t Win For Losing”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear this sermon as a Podcast, click HERE:  130303SermonPodcast

There is a saying, and I don’t think it is only used in the South, but it is definitely used in the South, that describes a situation when someone has something in their life that is so tragic, so worthy of despair, and yet so very immovable.  “Oh… That’s his cross to bear!” or “She sure does have a heavy cross to bear.”  The phrase invokes, of course, the cross that Jesus had to carry on the way to his own crucifixion, a most appropriate image for the season of Lent.  My momma had another way of saying it: “Sometimes you can’t win for losing.”  So true.

I would ask you to raise your hands to answer the question, “Do you have a cross to bear?,” except that I know very well every single one of you would raise your hands!  It is the nature of life to have those adversities that are fixed and, for all intents and purposes, permanent.  They fall into three categories: those tragedies that happen that are of no human volition, those things that others do that impact us negatively, and those things that we do ourselves that bring hurt and harm into our lives and the lives of those around us.  The first can be exemplified by death, disease, and disaster.  The second by divorce, discrimination, and defamation. The third by denial, drugs, and despair, just to name a few.  In the inimitable words of the mouse chorus in the movie “Babe,” “That’s the way things are!”

The challenge for us, and it is particularly poignant for those of us who are people of faith, is to find forgiveness in the midst of ALL the crosses we have to bear in life.  In the case of those circumstances that are beyond human control, we often seek to forgive God.  In those situations where someone else has done something to us, our struggle is to forgive them.  Where we have been the perpetrator, the challenge is to forgive ourselves.  None of these, I believe, is easier than the other, but all necessary.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1855. Olga's Gallery

Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1855. Olga’s Gallery

Throughout the biblical narrative there are characters that are blown around by the winds of fate and the storms of destiny.  But nowhere is the pain more pointed than in the lives of two sisters: Leah and Rachel.  These two women, Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives, are sucked into the whirlwind that is the Jacob epic, and their pain is palpable, even though there words are few.

{Again, I invite you to spend time with reading all of Genesis 29, 30, and following to get the entire story.  Much of it, from what I understand in my study, is a type of folk tale told by the ancient Israelites, to feel good about their ancestor, Jacob, and to laugh at the forebears of their neighbors.  Rich with humor and inside jokes long faded into cultural history, the narrative nonetheless offers up some of the most compelling images of women in the Bible.}

And there we shall begin with the understanding of Leah and Rachel’s lot in life: as women.  I will not pretend to understand what it felt like then, nor feels like now, to be a woman.  I do, however, have beloved women in my life and I listen to them carefully and watch their experience closely.  It is enough to say that throughout history women, in particular, have felt constrained to live lives too much determined by fate and forces beyond their control and less able to determine their destinies by their own decisions and actions.

Certainly the regular menstruation of women, which both prepare their bodies for pregnancy while at the same time grounding them to the physical, bodily needs of life has been seen as a fixed and permanent characteristic of women’s lives.  The 1997 book by Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, which tells this very story, only from the viewpoint of Dinah, Leah and Jacob’s only daughter, is titled in reference to the tent that menstruating women, considered unclean by many religious traditions, were bound to live in throughout their period.  And later in this story Rachel even uses the negative associations of “the way of women,” as it is euphemistically called in the sacred text, to her own advantage! (Gen. 31:35)

But the crux of the story is that oft-told tale of the mysteries of attraction and the norms, laws, and habits around marriage and family.  Jacob comes to work for his uncle, Laban, and fall’s instantly in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel.  Ignoring the entire “cousin” issue, the trouble is, from the father, Laban’s vantage point, Rachel is the younger daughter.  So he tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, the elder first, then he will get to marry Rachel.  Out of love, Jacob works a total of 14 long years to marry the love of his life, and then more as they all try to make a family out of this sticky situation.

The core of the struggle in this story is a matrix of things that cannot change and decisions the characters make that can be changed.  Leah is older, but her looks are described in a most obtuse fashion: “Leah’s eyes were lovely.”  Rachel, the younger, is portrayed in a much more effusive fashion: “And Rachel was

Rachel and Leah, Michelangelo, 1545. Web Gallery of Art.

Rachel and Leah, Michelangelo, 1545. Web Gallery of Art.

graceful and beautiful,” the New Revised Standard Version puts it.  This is the scripturally delicate way of saying Rachel was beautiful and… well… Leah wasn’t.  The rest of the story has these two sister quite literally pitted against each other to become not only Jacob’s husband, but mothers (along with the concubines Zilpah and Bilhah) to the patriarch’s of the twelve tribes of Israel… and Dinah!  Mixed into this intricate dance was the now all-too-familiar “fate” of barrenness, and the wrestling of the two women to be either the first to give birth (Leah gave birth to Rueben) or the one to give birth to the favorite son (Rachel bears Joseph).

How do we find direction for our lives with such untidiness?  Perhaps we should go back to the story of Babe, the pig.  It is out of the mouth of the wise and experienced Cow that we hear the prophetic words, “The only way you’ll find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.”  The only problem with this is that Babe isn’t satisfied with “the way things are,” and the entire story’s premise – as the entire story of Isaac, Rebekkah, Jacob, Esau, Rachel, Leah, on and on – is that the characters are not happy nor satisfied with “the way things are,” and they work like crazy to change their own fate, as well as the course of history!  Babe becomes a sheepherding pig and saves his own life.  Leah and Rachel both become mothers to the tribes of Israel and save their own place in history.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, points out that, “The movement [from barrenness to conception and birth] is accomplished by no human action.  It comes by the faithful, inexplicable remembering and hearing of Yahweh.  For bereft Israel [the teller and reteller of this tale], God’s remembering is the only source of hope.” He goes on to remind us, “The two mothers of Israel [Rachel and Leah], the loved and the not loved, the beautiful and the not beautiful, discover together that barrenness is not a problem for human solution.  New life is God’s gift.”  (1)

And this gift is given first and foremost to those who are afflicted, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the least, the lost, the lesser, right up to the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ.  “The action of God in the narrative prompts [Martin] Luther to ask, ‘Does God have no other occupation left than to have regard for the lowliness of the household?’” (2)

I believe that forgiveness in the face of all the givens of life, those that are simply minor inconveniences as well as those that are monstrous (and I do not say this lightly) is an odd and paradoxical understanding of finding happiness in accepting the way things are, and working diligently to make sure they don’t stay that way forever!  We know that Jesus urged us to a life of contentment, finding peace in all circumstances.  In Matthew 6 he said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

But we also know that there is an expectation that we do something to affect the course of our lives and others.  We are to forgive!  Forgiveness is not simply hoped of us, but demanded of us.  Jesus’ words are pretty clear in Matthew 5:22-24  “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

So, beloved, we again come to see that in this Season of Release forgiveness is a paradox.  There are most certainly crosses to bear, immovable facets of life that we simply must find not only a way to deal with them, but a deep and abiding peace in acknowledging our fate.  But at the very same time God calls us to actively work for change in the world, so that the situations that may have been fate for those who went before us will not be the destiny of those who go after us.  And always, always, we must do as God and God-in-Jesus did, and work principally for those who are most vulnerable, having “regard for the lowliness of the household” of God.  Peace with our circumstances… Impatience with the way things are for others… together will be a sure and certain path to forgiveness.  It is the path of Jesus Christ.


(1) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 255.


(2) Ibid, p. 256.