Pastor Adrianne Meier
19 March 2023 — Fourth Sunday in Lent
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
We Are Witnesses
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Genesis 31:25-27, 43-50
Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You have deceived me and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre.
Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my/children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine or about their children whom they have borne? Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, “Gather stones,” and they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my daughters or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”
Three years ago, give or take a week or two, I locked the doors of the church I was serving in Pennsylvania after a funeral, never to open them to worshipers again. I had been so afraid through the service, the pandemic was raging just one county over, every case producing five, six more. We were so sure two weeks was what it would take—surely by Easter I would unlock the doors and greet the people for worship. Not so. You remember. We became so afraid, and so afraid of one another. One of my kids had a cold that day and people ran from us as we made a last-second trip to the grocery store before the world shut down. We are still learning what we lost in that time, in the years that have followed. We still wonder—are we in still in this? Are we safe? Will the vaccine hold? Will there be more? As the pandemic spread, many of us had our eyes opened to another pandemic, an older one, and just as deadly, as we learned of the death of Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, as we watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. The isolation of the COVID pandemic took away our violent busyness—our too-frequent excuse to not see, to not hear, to not know—and we witnessed the everyday reality of injustice, many of us seeing for the first time what happens daily in our community, our state, our nation. God has built the church to stand as a witness to injustice, as truth tellers, that we might be those who call for God’s vengeance and God’s mercy, that God might render a judgement and grant justice according to God’s steadfast love.
Jacob is far from a pillar of justice. Jacob the trickster. Jacob, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, who ran from his father’s house after deceiving his brother Esau, taking both Esau’s birthright and their father’s dying blessing. A total mama’s boy, he returned to his mother’s family, to his Uncle Laban. He worked for years, growing Laban’s flock—and tricking him out of half of it—marrying Laban’s daughters—and abusing their concubines. Jacob is probably one of the most consistent characters in the Bible, a charlatan even to his dying day when he offered the blessing meant for his son, Joseph, instead to Joseph’s sons, and then giving the blessing meant for the older son to the youngest. Today, he has run from Laban in the dead of night, but Laban catches up to him. Laban is basically as tricky and selfish as Jacob, that probably needs to be said. When Jacob wanted to marry Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, Laban gave him Leah instead. When Jacob first planned to leave, Laban negotiated a wage with him—only the spotted, striped, and speckled goats and lambs—and then, in the dead of night, Laban took the speckled breeding stock a three days’ journey away. Jacob tricked him right back, using a superstitious technique that believed the patterns of trees could be transferred to animal offspring but only using it on the strongest of the remaining sheep and goats, creating a superior flock. This is the flock Jacob takes with him, when Laban realizes he was tricked. So this covenant of protection, I’m not sure that it isn’t meant to be one last trick.
God and God’s people often enter into covenants in the wildernesses, in the areas and times in between, on the margins and borders, on the way toward something new. These covenants are a reminder of who God is and what God does and who we are with one another and with God as a result. This small pact between Jacob and Laban is a reminder of God’s preferential treatment of the poor, powerless, and outcast. Laban calls upon God to witness, to watch, to be a seal of protection upon his daughters and grandchildren. Laban knows Jacob—probably better than Jacob knows himself. He knows that Jacob is a trickster, a con man—after all, Laban himself was just conned. And, after all, it takes one to know one. And, I have to admit, I’m never quite sure about these patriarchs. They are ladder-climbers, filled with self-assurance (after all, they believed they had a direct connection to God). Jacob and Laban have both made it clear that these women and children are merely pawns in their game. But God takes these covenants seriously. More than just about anything, by my reckoning, scripture shows God to always take the side of the powerless. Invoke God to this end at your own peril.
As far as the story goes, it tells the origin of the Mizpah, the watchtower, an oathkeeping ritual where stones are heaped up to invoke the presence of God: “May God watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight.” But this mizpah, and, by extension, all mizpahs are for the protection of the least, which, in the ancient patriarchy of the Bible, are women and children. The mizpah is erected in order to maintain justice and equity when we are out view of one another. The mizpah is erected in order to maintain justice and equity in the sight of God. God—who loves justice.
In Acts 1, Jesus calls together the disciples, to bless them and give instruction before his ascension. He calls them—this earliest church—he calls them witnesses. Back in Genesis, when the rabbis translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, the translation called the Septuagint, the word for this heap of watching is witness—marteria—the same word. Like that ancient rock-pile, we—the Church—have been built up as a witness. And we are right to understand that role as telling the world about Jesus, about bearing witness to all that God has done to right-side up the world and set us free. But we are also right to know that being God’s witness means telling the truth about what has bound us, about what is not yet the kin-dom. We are called to witness the violence of our days, the racism that infects us, the inequalities the COVID pandemic exacerbated and created, the domestic violence that Laban sought to spare Rachel and Leah from—we must tell the truth about modern-day Rachels and Leahs and modern-day Rahabs and Tamars—women trafficked and raped. This is our call. God has set us up as witnesses for justice.
This week, the New York Times Magazine ran a short piece about a video that documented nothing happening. Nothing happened, because when a situation escalated between police and an unarmed black man in Seattle, the witnesses stepped in. They shout for calm. They amplify the man’s voice saying he isn’t armed—he’s not holding gun, but a speaker. One person comes in close and offers to walk with the man toward the police. Another stands between the cocked guns pointed at the man who said he was confused, who had already dropped to his knees. And then, the police lower their weapons, they disengage, and calm descends. We have been set up as witnesses for justice.
We are called to name the people who have seen violence and injustice. We are called to name the coming deliverance. We are called to remember, because remembering is a form of justice. We are called to be witnesses who are upstanders, and not bystanders. We are called to be witnesses who interrupt violence, cut off hatred. We are called to be the ones who advocate for change. We are called to be interrupters of despair. We are called to be writers, critics, litigators, advocates, guardians. We are called to be voices raised over the din and human megaphones that amplify the voices of the oppressed. We are called to be Beloved among the Beloved. Siblings to one another and to Christ. We are called to witness that which is not love in order to create a space where love can flourish.