Sermon Seeds: Weaving the Future/Hard Promises

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12

Lectionary citations
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b  or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52                       

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Genesis 29:15-28
Additional reflection on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections about preaching on these texts on our Facebook page.

Weekly Theme:
Weaving the Future/Hard Promises

by Karen Georgia Thompson

The story of Jacob continues, as does the journey through Genesis, and the saga of the development of the lineage of Abraham. This text rests in the center of the promise for Abraham to be a nation, and is difficult to discuss in isolation from the past to which it is connected and the future it represents. These verses are one of the key elements to the weaving of the future for the nation that is to come from Abraham. The weaving of this story comes in two ways to us. We begin to see the connection of elements of stories of the past as we read the text for this week. There is also the weaving – the winding or zigzag course – that is evident throughout as obstacles are encountered and surmounted.

Jacob is not the most upstanding citizen. His story to date has been steeped in greed, self-interest, scheming and cheating. Jacob is on the run after cheating his brother out of his birth right and the blessing of their father Isaac. Jacob’s scheming ways are the focus for some like James Newsome who begins his commentary with: “The trickster tricked! Such a heading might be placed over this bitter – (for Jacob) sweet (for the reader) narrative” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

There is more to this story than reveling in Jacob receiving “pay back” for what he has done to his brother and his father, with the help of his mother. Newsome provides a reasonable summary of these events: “…the manner in which Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s vulnerability to coax from him his birthright (Gen 25:29-34) and then takes advantage of their father’s infirmity to steal the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau (27:1-40) – these events have resulted in a deep rupture between the brothers. Because his life is in danger, Jacob flees from Esau and heads for the homeland of Uncle Laban and other relatives (27:41-45)” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

Jacob’s arrival in Haran is no coincidence. In Genesis 28:1-6 where he steals the blessings of his father from his brother Esau, he is told not to marry of the Canaanite women but to go “to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (v.2). Running from Esau, Jacob enters the land of Haran for the purpose of finding a wife.

Missing from the lectionary is Jacob’s initial encounter with Rachel, the younger daughter, at the well where she arrives to water her father’s flock (Gen 29:1-14). Jacob knows who she is and is then taken to the home of his uncle Laban, where he strikes a deal to work seven years for Laban to get Rachel’s hand in marriage. To fulfill the promise, there have to be babies and babies require women so finding a wife is always of import.

Genesis 29:15-28 focuses our attention on Jacob finding a wife. There is concern here as elsewhere with having children and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12. The men in the story are the fathers of the children – the women seem secondary – necessary only for bearing children, and they prove problematic as barrenness continues as a theme, a barrier to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Somewhere in the midst, we encounter God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness that continue to be present even with Jacob who strives to be more than “the least of these” by cheating his way through life repeatedly.

“The story is similar to Genesis 24:1-67, in which Isaac’s servant meets Rebekah at the well,” W. Sibley Towner writes. He continues later: “Essentially, however, the event is the same, and, as in the case of the three wife/sister narratives, the possibility that one version is derived from the other has to be considered” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion). The stories of the women, though ignored, are where many of the connecting elements that weave the story take place.

The women have very little agency in their fate in this particular narrative. Jacob asks for Rachel, but he gets Leah. Leah is almost a non-entity, introduced as having “lovely eyes” in contrast to her sister Rachel who is “graceful and beautiful” and is loved by Jacob (v.17-18). When Laban fails to meet his end of the bargain with Jacob, Laban’s response is that the firstborn daughter has to be married before the younger (v.26). One has to wonder if Jacob is once again trying to cheat the system by marrying the younger instead of the older as was the custom. Is he really tricked? Or was Laban just a little wiser in not breaking with tradition to give Rachel in marriage before offering Leah?

After another seven years, Jacob is given Rachel as wife. This is not included in the lectionary text, but is further down in vv. 28-30. Each of the sisters is given a maid by her father. Laban gives Leah his maid Zilpah and gives to Rachel his maid Bilhah (v. 24, 29). Jacob’s story is woven with the two women he marries as well as the two maids they bring with them as gifts from Laban. These four women become the mothers to the twelve sons and one daughter named as his children.

Is God present in the midst of all this trickery? Can the presence of God be owned in the company of these women who have no agency in the matter of their lives, and are themselves pawns in the deception and manipulation of the men?  What happens to Leah who is given although she is not wanted and Rachel who is loved by her husband from the beginning and “bought” with twice the time he gives for her sister?

Towner offers an option in finding grace in the narrative: “A theological dynamic is at work as well. God can bring good even out of betrayals, as God will do with Joseph and his brothers (see 50:20). From the unhappy but prolific union of Leah and Jacob, will come six of the twelve tribes of Israel, including the father of the royal line, Judah, and the father of the priestly line, Levi” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion). I would also add that she bore the only daughter – Dinah (30:21).

There are challenges in finding God’s presence and God’s grace in the midst of a text where God is not explicitly named. Sidney Greidanus notes that while there are similarities in the well as a part of the Isaac and Jacob narratives, there are differences that are noted. Abraham’s servant is sent to find a wife for Isaac, while Jacob goes on the quest for a wife by himself. Greidanus writes: “The narrator’s emphasis cannot be missed: in his providence, the Lord provides a wife for Isaac. But where is the Lord in the wedding narrative of Jacob? He is not mentioned, not even once. The Lord seems to be absent. Jacob, the deceiver, seeks to fulfill the Lord’s promise of numerous offspring with his own ingenuity and scheming. When Jacob comes to the well, he does not pray to the Lord for guidance but right away takes matters into his own hands” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

While Greidanus makes an interesting point, what does it mean when the presence of God is not as obvious as angels going before? Do we have to offer fervent frequent prayers at all times to know that God is going to be with us in the choices we make? Jacob may not be the most upstanding citizen but that is not to say that the presence of God is not with him throughout and even in the midst of his sometimes malfunctioned approach to making decisions. There is room to explore what it means to weave a future where God does not seem present, but where God somehow is made manifest and the promises of God are fulfilled.

Holly Hearon writes in New Proclamation Year A 2008, “Although the promises of God will prevail in the end, Jacob is not spared from the vicissitudes of life, at least some of which are of his own making. When, ultimately, the promises of God are shown to be sure we understand that God has been with Jacob all along. Yet this text suggests that God is not standing by ready to rescue him from every twist of fate. It seems more a case for recognizing the presence of God in all our circumstances.” This is perhaps one of the many challenges in the text. We can judge Jacob, but there is something to be said about the presence of God with him, and how the presence of God with him is revealed.

The threat of barrenness is present in the weaving of this tale as it is with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and now with Jacob, Leah and Rachel. How is God’s provision found and understood in the midst of these four women and thirteen children to come?

The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves as  Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

For further reflection:

C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 20th century
“Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.”

Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 19th century
“It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promises broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth had held out to her.”

E.E. Cummings, 20th century
“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.”

José N. Harris, 20th century
“Waiting hurts. Forgetting hurts. But not knowing which decision to take can sometimes be the most painful…”

Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light, 21st century
“I know it is a bad thing to break a promise, but I think now that it is a worse thing to let a promise break you.”

Maria von Trapp, 20th century
“It will be very interesting one day to follow the pattern of our life as it is spread out like a beautiful tapestry. As long as we live here we see only the reverse side of the weaving, and very often the pattern, with its threads running wildly, doesn’t seem to make sense. Some day, however, we shall understand. In looking back over the years we can discover how a red thread goes through the pattern of our life: the Will of God.”

Additional Reflection on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52:
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

One of my favorite images from the Gospels is the little mustard seed in the parable that begins today’s reading of several parables in a row, followed by Jesus’ checking to make sure his disciples get what he’s saying. (It’s impressive how clueless the disciples are in the Gospel of Mark, but here, in Matthew’s Gospel, they brightly say they understand “all” of what Jesus has said.)

There’s a range of interpretation of these parables (not surprising, since they are parables, after all), beginning with the sweet image of the little tiny seed that grows into (we imagine) a mighty tree, with birds nesting in its branches. The image alone seems straightforward and lovely, and, like the disciples, we can say, “Yes” if someone asks us if we understand: the kingdom of God (so easily identified with the church, of course) begins small, with Jesus and a tiny band of disciples, and grows into a vast, worldwide church.

Even if it’s not identified strictly with the church, the kingdom is something big and powerful and mysterious in its growth. Mysterious, like the process of leavening, when something very small creates a huge batch of bread (enough, in this reading, to feed one hundred people!). Ordinary, homey images, everyday people and activities, things of nature…these are the tools Jesus employs to try to convey how he experiences God, how he hopes we might experience God. And we find them beautiful and encouraging and hopeful, even if we’ve never laid eyes on a mustard seed or baked a loaf of bread. We can tell Jesus that we, too, “get” the idea, that we understand what he’s talking about.

Consider that Jesus is saying these first two parables out in the open, outside a house, to a crowd, perhaps by the water but not in the heart of the city and certainly not in the sacred precincts of the Temple, the center of organized religion in his day and his culture. He doesn’t talk about the Holy of Holies or the religious festivals or the clergy of his time when he tries to lead the people to deeper relationship with God. He tells stories, and he waxes poetic when he says what the kingdom of heaven is “like.” Or, as Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that the kingdom isn’t so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can’t seem to see what’s happening (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

The thing itself, or what happens to it?  

Each parable could be the focus of a sermon, and each one is surprisingly capable of all sorts of commentary from the scholars who explore their sociological, psychological, and moral implications. (Did the man steal the treasure? Are these stories from the peasant class something that urban folks would hear differently and, presumably, miss the point; is it possible they’re meant to be subversive? Would the city dwellers know that a mustard seed is a weed that one would never purposely plant in one’s garden?) Hultgren says, wisely, that it’s “better to simply stay with the story.” If we do simply stay with the story, we can’t miss that phrase in the third parable (about finding the treasure) that almost jumps off the page: “in his joy.” Jesus doesn’t say, “in his greed,” but “in his joy.” We might safely assume that these three words are important to the meaning of the parable, and that the reign of God has much to do with joy.
Yes, there are scholars who strongly object to an emphasis on those three words that explain the behavior of the people in both “treasure” parables, doing something as rash as selling everything one owns (imagine selling your house, car, all your furniture–the works). The “thing” that the first person has found, accidentally, like the thing that the merchant finds quite intentionally, is worth everything, is worthy of the total commitment of everything we have and everything we are. Some writers describe the reign of God in the most comforting and personal of terms; Dianne Bergant says it “is the realization of knowing that we belong to God, that we are cherished and cared for, that we have been called to commit ourselves to the noblest values of the human heart. It is the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight draws us into the future. It feeds our hungers; it satisfies our thirsts; it piques our curiosity….The reign of God is the fulfillment of our deepest desires and our fondest hopes…” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A).

Finding God in the most unlikely images    

But most writers also bring us up short and direct our attention to less obvious meanings between the lines, and these only make the parables more powerful. We might see the mustard seed story as sweet, but the mustard tree (shrub, really) is, after all, a weed, and no one in their right mind would plant a wild, profusely growing weed in their garden. In fact, there were religious problems in doing so, says Richard Swanson: “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

A mustard tree/weed is a humble image indeed for something as marvelous and transforming as the Reign of God. Perhaps the best illustration, quoted by Thomas Long in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion), comes from David Garland’s work, Reading Matthew: “Jesus’ parable hints that the kingdom is breaking into the world in a disarming and, for many, disenchanting form. We do not sing, ‘A mighty mustard bush is our God.'” Long is not the only writer who observes that the early hearers of this story might recall the mighty tree in more than one Old Testament story that symbolized the power of empires like Babylon (Daniel 4:12), practically matching Jesus’ description word for word. And yet Jesus doesn’t use “the cedars of Lebanon” to speak of God’s reign; Long says he “probably has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image,” and instead uses the very ordinary, very un-majestic mustard tree to make his point. We are constantly taken by surprise at the mysterious workings of God in our ordinary, everyday world. 

Missing the offensive

Taken by surprise, but often offended, too, the scholars suggest. Jesus’ audience would have considered leaven unclean and corrupting, Bernard Brandon Scott observes, and “the Bible told them so,” since the scriptures often used “unleavened” as a metaphor for the Holy (Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus). In a culture like ours where leavened bread is common and even popular, we don’t hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and perhaps the power of what Jesus is saying. In fact, our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn’t “give offense,” would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval? Leaven, then, was a symbol of moral corruption, like the one rotten apple in the barrel, and the New Testament itself embraces this negative view toward it (see Mark 8:15, Matthew 16:12, and Luke 12:1).
In fact, Bernard Brandon Scott’s book, Re-Imagine the World, provides a jarring perspective on these stories. His keen concern is to read the parables from the underside of society, where women lived (and, alas, continue to live), along with the poor and the outcast. Where they lived was underneath the Empire, and underneath organized religion and the burdens it can impose in every age, including our own. In a patriarchal culture, how can a woman, of all people, illustrate matters of God? Under the heel of the Roman Empire, how could one speak of the reign, the empire – the “basileia” – of God? The Roman Empire was not a nice place for the people of Israel to be in the first century, as Scott writes: The “Pax Romana…was pax only if you were Romana, otherwise it was oppressio, oppression.”

Imagining things could be very different

Perhaps Jesus used such language and such images to offer an “alternative” to that way of life, to offer a word of hope and possibility, writes Scott: “For all those who are leaven in their society, this parable assures them that the empire of God is like them. In Jesus’ society this was a large majority of people,” whether they were unable to fulfill the demands of their religion or barely able even to survive, or pushed to the margins of their society. Scott says that this “leaven” consisted not of a minority at the bottom but a majority, “at least 80% of the population of first century Palestine who lived a subsistence existence.” His observation surely reminds us of the growing inequities and gaps in our society, with the movement of resources and wealth upward to a smaller number, while a larger number slides into poverty. Who are “those who are leaven” in our society, and even in our churches today?
Scott speaks persuasively and movingly of the “default world” that we live in, and the “counter-reality” that just a glimpse of the reign of God offers, an assurance of other, better possibilities and options: the parable offers “hope and hope has power.” One is reminded of a consistent theme in the justice ministry of the United Church of Christ that challenges us to imagine a very different world, to “Imagine What’s Possible.”  Certainly a different God is revealed in these stories, different from the one encased in religious practice and prejudice that contradicts just what Jesus was saying.

Pungent weeds and outcast people

Perhaps God’s “empire” is, as Scott writes, “more pervasive than dominant…like a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest [and] bears little if any resemblance to the mighty, majestic, and noble symbol of empire of Israel or Caesar.” What can make these parables offensive in every age is the challenge they offer: in the first two, our expectations and comfort zones are disrupted, and what we have considered “unclean” is somehow related to the reign of God – shocking! In fact, Scott finds in our discomfort an explanation of our tradition’s long domestication of these parables so that we read them in a “non-threatening, actually reassuring way – from a little beginning comes a great end” and miss the offense provided by “unclean” elements such as leaven and unwelcome weeds (Re-Imagine the World).

And yet we read these parables from the same New Testament in which Jesus outrages the religiously observant when he eats with sinners and hangs out with outcasts, including peasants and women (whether they bake or not). Within his own tradition – and Scott affirms that Jesus remains “firmly attached to Judaism and is engaged in an argument within Judaism” – Jesus preached good news of a God who loves and accepts God’s own children and keeps company with those on the margins. Within the life of our churches (and the society they influence, for better or worse), we might offer that same “glimpse,” as Scott calls it, that possibility and promise, and see what might unfold right before our eyes, if we indeed have eyes to see it.

Are we comforted or discomforted?

I always find it helpful to turn to Barbara Brown Taylor’s preaching on a text like this one. In The Seeds of Heaven, she writes evocatively about the power of parables: “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?” Perhaps we do best if use the most ordinary things, as Jesus did, and “[trust] each other to make the connections….We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message….”

Taylor’s most keen observation is about the “hiddenness” of the reign of God in these stories, all of them, and what that hiddenness may teach us about our own seeking: that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are “signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days….[it is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…” (The Seeds of Heaven).
How do you think most of the people in our church pews hear these stories: do they take comfort, or offense? When you preach this text, is it good news for some but not for others? The people bear burdens not always visible and not always strictly economic; for example, when Bernard Brandon Scott speaks of a “chosen family,” he evokes the experience of many LGBT people who find themselves without family or friends until they are led to a new community of acceptance and grace, a “family of choice.” Is the church such a community? Do we understand indeed what Jesus is saying, what the Stillspeaking God is saying today?

The Reverend Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of the Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ.

For further reflection:

Robin Craig Clark, The Garden, 21st century
“Our duty is wakefulness, the fundamental condition of life itself. The unseen, the unheard, the untouchable is what weaves the fabric of our see-able universe together.”
“Beyond all reason is the mystery of love.”

Frederick Buechner, 21st century
“He [Jesus] speaks in parables, and though we have approached these parables reverentially all these many years and have heard them expounded as grave and reverent vehicles of holy truth, I suspect that many if not all of them were originally not grave at all but were antic, comic, often more than just a little shocking.”

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Augustine of  Hippo, 5th century
“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book, the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead God set before your eyes the things that God had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

Chester Elijah Branch, 21st century
“To paraphrase Muggeridge: Everything is a parable that God is speaking to us, the art of life is to get the message.”
Emily Dickinson, 19th century
“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

Lectionary texts

Genesis 29:15-28

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


Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

O give thanks to God, call on God’s name,
   make known God’s deeds among the peoples.

Sing to God, sing praises to God;
   tell of all God’s wonderful works.

Glory in God’s holy name;
   let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice.
Seek God and God’s strength;
   seek God’s presence continually.

Remember the wonderful works God has done,
   God’s miracles, and the judgments God uttered,

O offspring of God’s servants Abraham and Sarah,
   children of Jacob, God’s chosen ones.

God is the Sovereign our God;
   whose judgments are in all the earth.

God is mindful of the covenant forever,
   of the word that God commanded,
   for a thousand generations,

the covenant made with Abraham,
   God’s sworn promise to Isaac,

which was confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
   to Israel as an everlasting covenant,

saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
   as your portion for an inheritance.”

Praise be to God!


1 Kings 3:5-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”


Psalm 128

Happy is everyone who fears God,
   and who walks in God’s ways.

You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
   you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.