When I was little, I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up. I was raised on a steady stream of Star Trek as a child, and the thought of seeing the wonders of the universe with my own eyes was immensely appealing. Until one day it occurred to me that my fear of heights might not be compatible with touching the stars. But I was young and soon, after falling in love with James Harriet’s writings, I dreamed of being a veterinarian and spending my days working with animals. Until it dawned on me that would necessarily entail performing surgery on those same animals. And as someone who would later pass out while trying to donate blood, that simply would not do.
Before long, my dreams shifted again, and imagined myself becoming a forest ranger. Spending my days hiking around in the woods and camping—because I really didn’t have any idea what forest rangers did—seemed appealing, and the brown and green uniforms didn’t seem too bad either.
A few years later, when I was in my first or second year of high school, a peer of mine told me that he thought I should consider the priesthood. I remember laughing at him. It was such an absurd suggestion. Why would anyone want that job?
I wonder what Leah dreamt of when she was a child. Did she imagine a future filled with adventure beyond the confines of her father’s lands? Did she dream of touching distant shores with a companion who loved her by her side? I wonder what fantastic possibilities filled her thoughts as she fell asleep each night.
I wonder what Rachel thought she would become when she grew up. Did she dream of becoming a savvy proprietor of business, ruling over an empire of field and flock, or of trading in exotic goods with foreigners from faraway lands? Did she imagine herself watching over a great big family filled with the sounds of laughter and life?
I wonder how Jacob imagined his life would be when he was young. Did he and his brother dream of setting out to see the world together? In their daydreams, did they return home to regale their parents with the strange tales and wild customs that they encountered on their travels? Was there any future that Jacob saw for himself that his family wasn’t a part of?
But somewhere along the way, the dreams of childhood become the messy and often broken realities of adulthood. And this is a story filled with messy and wounded people. As a quick recap, Jacob has arrived at his uncle’s home in the ancestral lands of Abraham and Sarah. He has come there because Jacob stole the blessing meant for his older brother, Esau. His brother, enraged, wants to kill him, so Jacob’s mother sends him away to save his life. But it cost him. Jacob would not return home again for more than twenty years. He would never see his mother again, and it would be more than forty years before Jacob would reconnect to his father on his deathbed.
In the meantime, Leah ends up married to Jacob through the trickery of her father. And though she longs for Jacob’s love and gives birth to six of his children, all in the hopes of earning his affection, she remains forever under the shadow of her younger sister, Rachel, whom Jacob loves. Rachel, for her part, ends up married to Jacob as well, but is unable to have children herself, and is filled with jealousy towards her older sister.
When Leah and Rachel and Jacob dreamt of their futures, this was not the life that they saw for themselves. But it was the messy and painful reality in which they found themselves.
It would be easy to pass judgement on the characters in this story. On Laban, for his trickery and the way he treated his daughters as pawns. On Jacob, for his own trickery towards his brother and father and for his lack of empathy toward Leah. On Leah and Rachel for the ways that they played on each other’s insecurities and wounds and for the way they treated their own maids as pawns in their sibling rivalry, forcing them to marry and bear more children with Jacob.
It is tempting to try and assign blame in this story, but the truth is that all of them are complicit in one way or another for the pain and the dysfunction in this story, because all of them are acting out of their woundedness and their pain. But the true sin in the story are the many systems that allowed it all to take place and the generational brokenness that perpetuated itself. The true sin is the system that treated women as property, a system that offered value to women only for their beauty and their ability to have children. It is the system that places the desires, the goals, and the greed of the self above all else and everyone else.
And if we do that, then we must acknowledge that those same sins persist to this day and even exist in our own lives. To pass judgement on the messiness of the characters of this story is to pass judgement on messiness and woundedness of the world around us and within us. Because, for all the time that has passed between then and now, we have not changed much.
Rather than pass judgement then, sometimes it is enough to weep. Sometimes it is enough to simply weep for the pain and brokenness we see and experience. To weep for the sin that wounds each of us to our soul.
Sometimes it is enough to weep, and then to listen for that still, small voice of God. Amid all the human drama of this messy story, amid the drama of our own lives, is the story of God who hears us, the story of God who keeps the covenant, the story of God who is creating the new creation all around us.
Though Leah, Rachel, and Jacob were too caught up in the drama of their lives to do much listening to God, God still was at work in them and around them, and eventually they would begin to discern what God was doing.
Though we too are caught up in the messiness of our own lives and the world around us, God is still at work within us and around us. It is never too late to listen and discern God’s presence and God’s call to each of us, because God never gives up and God never stops creating new possibility.
My friends, our lives rarely end up as we imagined as children. But that is okay. I would have made a terrible veterinarian; when I was a chaplain, I nearly passed out while reading a children’s book about surgery at the pediatric hospital where I worked. Instead, my life has led me in directions I could have never imagined as a child, at times messy and at times beautiful and wonderful. And still God is at work.
I suspect that your lives have also unfolded in ways you never could have dreamt, for better and for worse, and that you, like everyone else, bear the scars that life’s messiness leaves on us all, even as you have shared in the joys that life brings. And still, God is at work.
And if we learn to listen—you, me, all of us—then we too can come to hear that still, small voice, calling out to each of us, beckoning us forward toward the Promised Land.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates