I just saw last year's Christian parody, "Saved." Given my fundy/evangelical roots - a couple scenes provoked audible laughter and stoked numerous memories.
My favorite: The "Christian Jewels," the "A group" of sanctimonious, self-righteous girls at the American Eagle Christian School are enlisted by the Headmaster (Pastor Skip - every youth minister or former youth minister on the planet has to grimace with an ounce of confession at the portrayal of this character) to "arm themselves for spiritual battle" and intervene in the life of Mary, a wayward member of their "posse" (Pastor Skip again). It's Halloween, so the Jewels are dressed perfectly for the scene in fluffy, white angel's wings. The intervention includes a roadside abduction of Mary into their van for a quickee exorcism. Mary flees in a rage and reminds the "jewels" that they don't know anything about love. This prompts, Tammy- er, Hilary Faye, the group's leader, to throw her Bible into Mary's back while boldly claiming that she knows all about God's love.
Many of us watch real life encounters that mirror this caricature and ask with no small measure of sadness, "What prompts those of us who seek to follow God to behave so poorly at times?"
Last night at Emmaus Way, we reflected in worship on this very question. We have been reading the biblical story of Jacob. Two weeks ago, we explored the story's great moment of conversion - Jacob wrestles with God and finally accepts the blessing that God has intended for him even before his birth. He accepts the new name, "Israel," becoming the name-bearer of God's people on earth. The blessing is dramatically confirmed when he encounters his wronged brother Esau. Instead of receiving the vengeful death Esau has promised, Jacob receives a kiss from his brother and restoration to his home. If that episode was the moment of conversion and blessing, then last night's episode could be entitled, "After the Conversion."
The "After the Conversion" scene is one part tragedy and one part adult film horror story. For some reason, Jacob's caravan discontinues its journey to Bethel (literally "house of God," the place where Jacob first encountered Yahweh) and stops near a prosperous dwelling of Canaanites. In the melee that follows, Shechem, the most prominent son of the community takes Jacob's daughter, Dinah, and violates her. But he is so smitten with her that seeks to marry her at any bride price (the honorable act for any man who has violated a virgin during this era). Her brothers hatch a heinous plan of revenge. The Shechemites are told that they must be circumcised for the Israelites to consider this offer. Such is the influence of Shechem (and the greed of this people in light of Jacob's wealth) that the entire male community submits to circumcision. While the men are still in pain, Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi enter the village and slaughter all the men. In this moment of opportunity, the rest of Jacob's sons jump in and loot the community to their great gain.
This outrageous event finally prompts Jacob to speak. Strangely silent and passive to this point, he remarks about the shame brought upon him by Simeon and Levi. Finally God weighs in. Unconsulted, Yahweh demands that Jacob move on Bethel. A classic scene of repentence and renewal ensues. False gods are surrendered. Vows of worship are made. Memorials are constructed. But what does this season of penitence and worship mean for Jacob's tribe? Are they further blessed? Do they become free from pain and sin? Of course not. Jacob's beloved wife, Rachel, dies in childbirth. In a remarkable example of differing perspectives, she names the son she delivers as "Son of Pain." Jacob overrules with the name, "Son of Promise" (Benjamin"). These differing perspectives and names seems to summarize the essence of the life of those who seek to follow Yahweh, a vascillation between pain and promise.
As if to further accentuate this point, Reuben, Jacob's oldest, decides to sleep with Bilhah, one of his father's wives which draws the curtains on this whole shameful episode that was briefly interrupted by a revival!
There is much to comtemplate in this story. All of us who claim the name of Christ should see ourselves as heirs of Levi, Simeon, and Reuben. There is no room for sanctimonious proclamations in our lives. Or perphaps we should see ourselves as Jacob, passive observers to the vengeful plans of others. Either way, the text calls us to introspection, penitence, humility, and lives that are dependent of God's character and plans as our guide. Of course, this episode trumpets the hope of the whole story. God's grace, love, and redemptive plans are undeterred by the failures and hypocracies of those who seek to follow God.
The reality of failures does not alleviate our calling to embody God's character and grace with our lives. This story should provoke a striving toward this end by revealing the shameful potential that lies in the base of our souls. The story also stirs an acknowledgement that we often live between opposing poles of pain and promise. Embracing the promise involves embracing our potential for shameful deceit and treachery. The magnitude of this realization throws light on the magnitude of God's mercy.