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9th Sunday After Pentecost - July 30, 2023

I suppose it is our familiarity with the story of Jacob that keeps us from rolling with laughter into the aisle when we hear today’s lesson. Jacob is our rogue hero. Beloved and favored of God, he is a schemer and a cheat, determined to advance his station beyond the one set for him. His father Isaac wants him to go back to the land of their family in Mesopotamia to keep Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman. His mother Rebekah wants him to go but for a different reason. She wants Jacob to flee from his brother Esau’s vow to kill him. So Jacob journeys hundreds of miles to the northeast, to the land of his kinsman Laban. There he meets and falls in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel.

There is great irony that the trickster is tricked. Laban welcomes Jacob into his household, kissing and hugging him, calling Jacob “my bone and my flesh.” Laban raises the issue of how Jacob will be paid for his work. Jacob volunteers to serve for an insanely long period of time, seven years, to wed Rachel. And he does not mind at all because the reward, Rachel, is so great for him. Laban then does the classic “switch the sisters at the wedding” trick and the clever Jacob falls for it, not realizing until the next day he is marrying the lovely-eyed Leah rather than the graceful and beautiful Rachel. (In some translations, Leah has weak, not lovely eyes.) It must have been some kind of a party. I practice family law and if I had a dollar for every time a client came through the door complaining about the father-in-law changing out the bride at the last minute, why, I’m still waiting for a dollar.

In response to Laban’s trick, Jacob weds Rachel, really for the second time, in return for another seven years of service. It is an absurd story, but necessary to advance the plotline, which is both interesting and beyond this sermon. Suffice to say, if being blessed by God means you end up married to two rival, jealous sisters, one of whom you never wanted, and have thirteen children between the sister-wives and each sister’s maid, perhaps that blessing is overrated. But probably that’s just my modern view.

The story is testimony to how Jacob treasured Rachel, how devoted he was to her. He gave up 14 years of labor to share his life with her. Jacob finds Rachel, gives his service, which is all that he has, as a dowry to pay the bride price, buying his beloved from her father.

We can see that pattern in two of the parables in Matthew today. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” A person finds a treasure or pearl and sells all to the acquire it. It matters not how the treasure is found. Indeed, there is a taint of dishonesty in the first parable. The finder makes no attempt to find the owner of the treasure but rather does everything to claim it for himself. Any who sacrifices to gain the kingdom of heaven can have it.

Another twist is that while the first parable has the finder accidentally discovering the treasure, the merchant intentionally seeks the pearl before encountering it. Whether the person stumbles upon the kingdom of heaven or discovers it after a long search, how one gets to the kingdom of heaven is unimportant. What matters is the recognition of what the kingdom of heaven is worth.

Finding, selling all, and buying the kingdom of heaven. We can understand how that looks when one person is in love with another. How can it appear in another context? How can it look when the love is for a community or when it for an enemy?

Recently I stumbled upon a five-episode series on our local PBS website. The series is not about our place or our time, yet the more I watched it, the more I saw its relevance to our place and to our time. The series is entitled “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.” It is the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the civil unrest—the civil war—between Catholics and Protestants that plagued the British-ruled portion of Ireland from 1968 through 1998. The story is told through extraordinarily candid interviews of people from all sides, often with footage of the events they are describing. The spoken words and the pictures can be brutal. I can’t imagine a better way to understand how the events affected the people then and continue to affect them. Each episode was riveting.

The title of the final episode is “Who Wants to Live Like That?” It covers that last five years of the conflict, from the escalation of bombings and mass murders to the talks that led to an end of the violence. After thirty years of pain and fear and sorrow and waste, people began to find a way out, a way to peace. In 1998, the Irish and British prime ministers signed the Good Friday Agreement. The people of the nation of Ireland and the peoples of the counties of Northern Ireland each had to approve the agreement in public votes for the agreement to go into effect. For some, the agreement felt like surrendering. After years invested in the struggle and with friends and family hurt or killed, for many the idea that the fight would end without punishment for the other side was too much or almost too much. After being immersed in the struggles for so long, they could not envision life otherwise.

The turnout in Northern Ireland was an amazing 80 to 81 percent of eligible voters. Despite fierce vote-no campaigning by hard-liners on both sides, the Northern Irish approved the Good Friday Agreement by an astounding 71 percent. Witnesses described seeing history being made, the honking of horns, the feeling of euphoria, the sense that they finally got somewhere.

But the cost for many was high. Peace was and remains tough. Murderers, terrorists on both sides were set free, some after serving only a fraction of their sentences. Alan McBride’s twenty-nine year old wife and her father were murdered by an Irish Republican Army bomb in their fish shop, leaving Alan with a baby girl to raise. Alan voted for the Good Friday Agreement, knowing it would release the surviving IRA bomber from prison. Alan described seeing that bomber later free on the street, and Alan walking away from him. Alan was ashamed for walking away, as it should have been the bomber turning around. Alan talked about the murderer being allowed to live an ordinary life while he, his deceased wife, and their daughter could not. Yet still Alan chose peace. Despite all he lost, he saw it would do nobody any good if he were to hold on to the hurt and the pain and the anger.

Richard Moore of Derry was a child in May 1972, still in primary school. A British soldier from a distance of ten feet away fired a rubber bullet at Richard, hitting him above the nose. In the weeks that followed, Richard thought it were the bandages that kept him from seeing until his brother told him he would be blind for the rest of this life. Richard cried that night because he was never going to see his mommy and daddy again.

Richard later found out the soldier’s name and wrote to him. He arranged a meeting. He described that first meeting with Charles, the former soldier, as nerve-wracking. Richard told Charles, “I’m here to let you know I forgive you.” It was not a fairy tale moment. Charles replied that he felt justified firing the bullet and had never felt guilty.

While it is remarkable that Richard sought out Charles and forgave him, what is extraordinary is that Richard accepted Charles’s response to his forgiveness. Many would have turned away, having tried enough, but Richard continued to meet with Charles. And Charles continued to meet Richard. The words Richard said in his interview are priceless, true pearls:

“If we want reconciliation, you can’t meet the person that you would like to meet. You’ve got to meet them for who they are.

“I could nail Charles to a cross, and it’s not going to make one difference in my life. It’s not gonna give me back my eyesight, and it’s not going to make me any happier.

“But what has made me happy is beginning to try to find a way that me and Charles can become friends.”

On camera, Richard and Charles are familiar with each other, like two old buddies. They walk together back to the very spot where they first met, where the soldier Charles shot the child Richard, Charles holding on to Richard’s arm to guide him.

Six years after they reunited as adults, six years after Richard told Charles he forgave him, Charles apologized to Richard. Richard recognized that if he had waited for Charles to apologize, their journey would never have begun. As Richard stated,

“But finding out who he was does change everything. He’s no longer a soldier. He’s a human being. He’s a father. He’s a grandfather. You know, it makes a person very real.

Richard added,

“Peace is tough, but we got to keep working at it. You never know where it’s going to lead to.”

Our life in these United States scares me. As in Northern Ireland, many in our country demand that we pick sides. Powerful forces create conditions in which we are pressured to be loyal to one group and to despise the other. Language once used for enemies in times of war is commonly deployed against fellow citizens. We even use the language of combat, calling it a “culture war.” Each side demonizes the other, making it so much easier to discount the other or to hate them. We murder and maim each other with numbers that far exceed those of the Troubles, and that violence has become accepted as inevitable.

At what point do we all repeat the question asked in the title of the final episode, “Who wants to live like that?”? Alan McBride asked that question and answered it: “Nobody, nobody.” At what point do we sell what we have—our hatred, distrust, prejudice, hurt, self-righteousness, tribal loyalty—to buy a world based on different values? Where does our treasure lie? Can we form relationships with those who are different from us, those who don’t share our values or culture? Can we disagree without violence, name-calling, and demonization? Can we listen to one another and honestly try to understand the other’s perspective and merits of their arguments? Can we see them as human beings? Finding out who are neighbor is can change everything. Like the tricked Jacob, the widowed Alan McBride, and the forgiving Richard Moore, can we persist in the face of adversity and disappointment?

Finding even a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, will we act? Will we here in this church and more importantly out there in our daily lives consciously change this culture of misery? Maybe it is not that hard. Fiona Gallagher of Derry captured in her Northern Irish English how simple it can be to create a better world:

“We all have it in us for a wee bit of changing. Somehow there’s an atmosphere about, you better change. And it’s astonishing what you can learn when you just open your ears and you drop the guard a wee bit and let the old state of thinking go.”

Just a wee bit of changing, even here in Texas. That’s all, y’all.

[Recording unavailable.]

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