Monday, 24 July 2017

“Taking Care of the Family Business”: a sermon (Genesis 29:15-28)

“Taking Care of the Family Business” . . .
. . . or is that . . .
. . . “Taking Care of the Family Bidness”?

In some parts of the United States, particularly the Southwest, the word business is often pronounced “bidness”, as if it were spelled b-i-d-n-e-s-s.  For example, you’ll hear the word “bidness” if you watch an old episode of Dallas.  Ol’ J.R. Ewing, he was quite a bidness-man.

And, in a real sense, it’s not just a question of a regional pronunciation, but a difference of ethical attitudes.  Business and bidness are two different things.
  • Both business and bidness are about making a profit, of course.
  • Business is also about producing a good product and providing ood jobs.  People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Sir Richard Branson are involved in business.
  • Bidness, on the other hand, is about wheeling and dealing and trying to pull off a fast one on the other person.  Perhaps we can say that bidness is primarily about “The Art of the Deal”.

In the negotiations between Jacob and Laban, Laban was trying to do a bit of bidness with Jacob.  And Jacob fell for it.

Now, it’s not as if Jacob was a total innocent himself when it came to bidness.  This is the man who conned his hungry brother into trading his birthright for a bowl of soup.  This is the man who conned his almost-blind father into giving him the blessing reserved for his brother.  Jacob was not an innocent here.  He knew how to wheel and deal.  Jacob knew how to do bidness. 

But this time, Laban did the wheeling and the dealing, and Jacob was on the receiving end of the bidness.  Here’s how it happened.

Jacob was on the run.  His brother Esau was angry once he realised the extent to which Jacob cheated him.  He made his way to the home of his uncle Laban, his mother’s brother.  Laban had two daughters, Rachel and Leah.  The writer describes both daughters.
  • Rachel, the younger daughter, was “graceful and beautiful”
  • Her older sister Leah, we are told, had nice eyes.  (Perhaps the writer was being diplomatic, and focusing on one notably good feature.)

Jacob, being a red-blooded young bloke, fell for Rachel.  It doesn’t say anywhere what feeling either of the sisters had for Jacob.  It didn’t seem to be the kind of question that the writer would have thought important.  It was a culture which practiced arranged marriage - and polygamy.  Such cultures rarely asked how a young girl felt about a prospective suitor. 

Anyway, Jacob and Laban agreed that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.  Seven years of work later, it was time for a wedding.  It was only when the heavy - and opaque - veil was lifted from the bride’s face in the marital boudoir that Jacob realised, “This woman is Leah!  Laban has done some bidness with me!”

A few angry words passed the next morning between son-in-law and father-in-law.  And then it was time for bidness.  The following deal was wheeled by Laban:   A second wedding will happen in a week’s time.  And this time the bride will be Rachel.  In return, Laban will get seven more years of unpaid work from Jacob.

Again, there’s nothing about the opinions and feelings of either Rachel or Leah on these arrangements.

The story continued (with a good deal of bidness from all concerned). 
  • A rivalry developed between the sisters as to which one could provide Jacob with more sons. 
  • Jacob, through some creative management of Laban’s flock of sheep, found himself with a bigger (and healthier) flock than Laban.
  • Jacob and his (by-now very large) family fled from Laban’s house with their possessions (along with some of Laban’s possessions).
  • Laban caught up with Jacob at a place called Mizpah, where they finally parted company.

Now, I can remember when some church groups – particularly some women’s fellowship groups - traditionally ended their meetings by reciting together something they called “the Mizpah Benediction”.  In the language of the old King James Version, it goes like this:  “The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other.” 

This was a statement made by Laban to Jacob in this passage, but it wasn’t a blessing in anyone’s imagination.  In its context, what Laban said to Jacob at Mizpah was: 

“I’ve conned you.
You’ve conned me.
Even if we don’t trust each other
any further than we can throw each other,
let’s call it a draw.
Let God be the witness that the bidness is over.” 

(I find it more than vaguely amusing that the statement is often used as a benediction.)

“The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other.” 

So, Laban did bidness with Jacob ... and Jacob did bidness with Laban.  And, surprisingly enough, God is in the midst of it somewhere.  

God has this commitment, you see, to humanity, warts and all:
  • not just when we’re at our most presentable,
  • not just when we’re at our most ethical,
  • not just when we’re at our most religious,
  • but all the time.

God is always in our midst.  Jacob eventually found this out.  (Even if it took a wrestling match with a mysterious stranger and a dislocated hip before the lesson sunk in.  That’s in the lesson from Genesis next week.)  

So we have a story about a wheeler-dealer, who was occasionally wheeled and dealed himself.  The story is also about the living God who is always present in our midst, even when we assume - by our actions - by our bidness - that God is absent.
  • God is in our midst, offering love, even when we’re not at our most loveable
  • God is in our midst, even when we’re in the midst of bidness.
  • God is in our midst, confronting us - and confronting all people - when our bidness leads to harm to others.
  • God is in our midst, transforming us into people who are about the true business of life:  doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God and our neighbour.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Being a person of two nationalities

Like many people here in Australia, I was flabbergasted with the resignations, in rapid succession, of (first) Senator Scott Ludlam and (then) Senator Larissa Waters for the reason that they both recently learned that they were ineligible to sit in the Australian Senate because, in addition to being Australians, Senator Ludlum was also (shock, horror!) a New Zealander and Senator Waters was also (also shock, horror!) a Canadian.  Given an old (and, in my humble opinion, outdated) provision in the Australian Constitution, people holding dual citizenship are ineligible to sit in either house of the Australian Parliament.

OK, OK, they should have checked it out, but it appears that both acted in good faith.  Each seemed to believe honestly, prior to this week, that their Australian citizenship was their sole citizenship.  And this thing has been a running political sore here in Australia for years.  Politicians of all sorts and conditions, regardless of their party or their ideology, have innocently run foul of this outdated constitutional provision.

The fact that they were both articulate members of the more pragmatic wing of Australia's left-of-centre Green Party is also curious.  I hope this doesn't mean that the "fundamentalist" wing of the Greens will use this as their chance for a political comeback.  To the members of the Parliamentary Greens, I'd say (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde) "To lose one of your best members is a misfortune.  To lose two seems like carelessness."

But, anyway, this affects many of us.  There are some nations whose citizenship, once acquired by birth is almost impossible to lose.  The Italian government, for example, has a number of parliamentary seats for representatives of Italians living abroad.  Many Australian males of Greek heritage are reluctant to visit the land of their parents' (or even grandparents') birth during their young adult years, even for the wedding or funeral of a close family member, for fear of being drafted.  (This may be - at least partially - an urban myth, as every version of this story I've heard begins with the words "This happened to a friend of a friend .....", but you get the idea.)

However, this is all part of my own story.  In January of 1980, I flew from the United States to Australia when invited to accept a position as a member of a ministry of a Uniting Church parish in Tasmania.  I stayed.

For anyone who left the nation of their birth to move to some other country, and then stayed permanently, there is a sense of mental and emotional dual nationality, even if there is no legal dual nationality.  Personally, while I've lived here in Oz for more than half my life, I'm still enough of a Yank to celebrate Thanksgiving Day every year, to support the Mets and the Steelers, and to get a tingle down the spine when singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "We Shall Overcome".

It moves in three stages.
  • The first stage lasts about two to four years, or at least until the first visit to the "old country".  You are filled with nostalgia for the country you left and find everything different about your new land rather objectionable.
  • After this, there's another stage, which lasts about ten years or so.  You are not really "at home" in either country.
  • Finally, after about twelve to fifteen years, you regard yourself as being "at home" in either country and (even better) moving towards becoming a "citizen of the world".
From my perspective, the angst of the first two stages is well worth the sense of global integration found in the third.

And, really, for a person of dual nationality (whether legally or emotionally), particularly when the countries are both democracies with friendly relations with each other, the only time we really experience any conflict of interest in our loyalties is when teams representing the two nations play each other in the Olympics or some other international sporting competition.

Anyway, Scott, enjoy some "fush and chups" in your post-political career.  Take some time, Larissa, to go "oot and aboot".  Know that there are also plenty of us who, while not legally of dual nationality, are still people of mental and emotional dual nationality.   Welcome to the tribe.