by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 31, Luke 17:5-6
The Judeo-Christian concept of God had its earliest roots in polytheism. Local tribal gods were worshipped thousands of years before Judeo-Christian monotheism gelled. As ancient cultures mixed and mingled through trade and conquest, some local gods were abandoned or conquered and other gods expanded and even consolidated into a single god. Polytheism gave way to monotheism very gradually in the Ancient Near East. You might not have noticed the occasional vestiges of polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s there. Genesis 31 gives us a clear example of polytheism mixed in with the worship of the God of Abraham, and perhaps for that reason it’s a story never assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary, which I usually follow in selecting scriptures each Sundays. But today I’m drawing from this neglected story to get to, eventually, our brief reading from Luke. I’ll sum up the lengthy story now to help us recognize our own lingering tendency to worship a tribal god and in the hope of opening us up to a God much bigger than that—a God of the whole world, a big God in whom we place our faith, even if our faith no bigger than a mustard seed.
Genesis 31 picks up the Jacob saga as friction intensifies between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, who feels cheated by Jacob. The “God of Bethel,” who years before had saved Jacob from his angry brother Essau and for whom Jacob had erected a pillar to mark his allegiance to that god, is again warning Jacob to move his family while Laban is off sheering the sheep.
But Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, refuses to leave without taking the local gods with her. Three days later Laban returns and discovers his daughters and grandchildren are gone as well as the household gods. Seven days after that he and his servants catch up with Jacob’s entourage. When Laban accuses Jacob of stealing the household idols, Jacob protests that he did no such thing and, unaware of Rachel’s theft, swears that Laban can take the life of anyone found in the possession of one of the gods. Picking up now in verse 33 we read:
33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s [Jacob’s first wife] tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them [the idols]. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered Rachel’s. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. Laban felt all about in the tent, but did not find them. 35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.’ So Laban’s incomplete search did not uncover the household gods.”
Thank God for the “it’s that time of the month” ruse, right?
Thus Jacob escapes another tough situation—-this time through wife Rachel’s trickery. He leaves Laban for good with words crediting his own family’s god whom he calls “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (31:42). Jacob’s God is his family’s God.
One wonders if Rachel, a revered matriarch of the monotheistic Jewish and Christian faiths, remained devoted to several “household gods.”
We’re not so different from our spiritual ancestors, who understood God tribally. We, too, imagine God as a force aligned with our lives and families and nation—-and against other individuals and groups and nations we dislike or fear. We imagine God as being on our side and against those we’re against even though Christianity’s most quoted verse begins so plainly: “For God so loved the world.” God so loves the WORLD—and not our little corner of it.
God so loves Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Antarctica, Australia. But sometimes we want a personal god who’s as totable and undemanding of us as a lucky rabbit’s foot.
When did you first realize that God was bigger than your household gods you learned about from your family? When did you encounter a God bigger than the god of your family? Bigger than the “God bless America” god? When did you realize you’re still carrying around a tribal god who only cares about the people you care about?
Here’s how God grew bigger for me: I met people who saw a different part of God I’d not yet seen. In the book of Exodus one scene describes Moses glimpsing God Almighty—but only God’s backside (33:20-23). We get the merest impressions of the Divine, and these impressions differ among people. Moses apparently saw God’s hindquarters fleetingly—but maybe you’ve briefly seen a sacred elbow or a holy index finger.
I’m obviously being figurative here. What I am suggesting is that each one of us glimpses a mere fraction of the great vastness of ultimate mystery we call God—but when we share our God encounters, what we experience as “God” can expand and deepen.
Just before I started first grade, my Baptist family moved from Pensacola to New Orleans where I had Catholic friends for the first time. When the little girl who sat in front of me in class would study her catechism, I learned that one could “study” about God and there was a little book that held all the answers to all the questions. Years later in high school here in Mobile, the religiously diverse madrigal group I sang in at Davidson began visiting each others’ houses of worship out of friendly curiosity, and I saw a new bit of God at Pete’s Greek Orthodox Church and a little different angle of God at Toby’s synagogue and still more of God at Ralph’s Seventh Day Adventist church.
I packed up this slightly bigger God and took him with me (God was definitely male then) when I started college at Samford. And would you believe it? God kept growing. The God of my biology professor (also a Sunday school teacher) not only wasn’t offended by the theory of evolution (like the god of my pastor) but was somehow inextricable from the heretical process of evolution. An increasingly bigger God was also embraced by my world history professor, who introduced us to the early Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, which includes the story of a great flood so similar to Noah’s flood that you’d think Gilgamesh was written by someone copying the biblical version of a flood story—-except that the Gilgamesh epic was written long before Genesis.God continued growing for me and in fact grew a bigger heart when I met gay members of a progressive Baptist church in Nashville that eventually called a lesbian pastor. During my seminary years God grew so much that she must have been on steroids.
Of course, I don’t really mean God was growing; I mean my understandings of God kept expanding. And although that experience of God is not always comfortable, I hope that process continues until I die. At which point I anticipate some ultimate revelation of God’s love and wonder. Or not. I’m trustful if this ongoing process of seeing more of God continues eternally. And I do not fear the God who makes me stretch and reach and reconsider and remain humble about my tentative conclusions. Because God is always More.
Be very suspicious of folks who’ve completely and finally figured out God. Claiming to know very much about God is a sign your God is too small.
But it’s okay that our faith is small because faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed is enough when God is so big. We want our faith to grow, of course, but God is still God whatever we believe about God. And faith is not about having certifiably orthodox “beliefs” about who/what God is. Jesus was not speaking of faith in terms of Christian doctrines. (Those hadn’t even been developed yet!) Faith is more like a hopeful orientation to the future.
We need our faith to stretch and strengthen because what we believe affects what we do, and our smallest choices and quietest words ripple out into the vastness of space and time. We are part of something so much bigger. That’s one reason we celebrate World Communion Sunday—-to see God outside the boxes in which we’ve placed God. We can move in this world with trustfulness in the things that seem ineffectual: like lovingkindness, forgiveness, humility. But we don’t have to perfect these dispositions in ourselves in order for God’s ways to hold sway.
When Jesus told his disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed would be enough to save this ol’ world, he wasn’t trying to minimize the cost of discipleship. Indeed, he would tell them with horrific imagery they’d need to take up a CROSS to follow him. But Jesus knew that mustard seed faith was not about having the right theological beliefs. Faith was an appreciation for and a trust in the God-sized scale of things so that many small things add up to something powerful.
Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most important Christian theologian of the 20th century —- and a member of the United Church of Christ — said this: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”
We need faith. But our faith is too paltry to save this world. Therefore, we are saved by LOVE, said Niebuhr. It is in our human relatedness that we glimpse a bigger God. God gets bigger, truer as we see new facets of Godness through relatedness, especially with people who are different from us and through fresh experiences that challenge us.
Mustard seed faith is enough when our God is big. But to embrace the bigger God means letting go of lesser gods.
In the movie Cast Away Tom Hanks’ character created out of his desperate need for companionship his own tribal totem from a volleyball and called it Wilson. Wilson, or the idea of Wilson, served him well on the island. But when the castaway set out on a flimsy raft to reunite with the rest of the world, “Wilson” at one point fell into the ocean. Hanks’s character wanted to cling to his “idol”—but with great anguish realized he must let go of Wilson in order to save himself. If we’re too busy shoring up and saving the totem that we’ve created in our own image, we won’t be saved. We may be serving a God who’s just not big enough.
This world needs saving. Faith in a bigger, truer God is where salvation lies.