Pastor LouiseA Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
26 September 2010

Genesis 38 (selected verses)
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A certain man was seeking guidance in his life and decided to turn to the Bible for help.  He wasn’t too familiar with it, so he decided to close his eyes, flip the pages and put his finger down on a verse, and surely God would point him to the right one.  So he did exactly that, opened his eyes, and read “You shall set apart one-tenth of all your possessions as an offering to the Lord.”  Hmmm, the man thought.  I’d better try again.  So he flipped the pages, shut his eyes, and put his finger on a verse.  This time his eyes fell on “Go and do likewise.”   That definitely wasn’t what he had in mind, so he tried once more.  Flip-flip-flip. . . finger on the verse. . . . “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 

I promise I won’t let the Stewardship Committee cite these verses for the upcoming campaign!  As the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther always warned, “Even the devil can quote Scripture.”   As those intrepid souls who are reading the Bible in a year will discover, you can find a Scripture verse supporting just about anything you want!   Which is why it’s important to remember that every text must be read in context.  The “words” in here don’t constitute the “word” of God; instead these words tell a story through which we come to hear God’s word and what God is calling us to do and to become in relationship to God and to one another.

All this is by way of preparing to listen for God’s word in the strange and disturbing tale of Tamar.  To understand her situation, we have to recall the context of Old Testament times and the rule of patriarchy.  Women were regarded as the property of men–first their fathers and then their husbands.  They could not own property, pursue a livelihood, or socialize with men in public places, including worship.   In fact, their primary worth was bound up in their ability to bear sons who would carry on their husband’s name and legacy.  You know all those genealogies which occupy page after page of the Bible?—they were important records about the perpetuity of a family through its male descendents.  The names of wives and daughters are rarely mentioned.  

Because a family’s lineage was passed to its first-born son, if that son were to die, his widow was required to become his brother’s wife.     Understand, any child born of their union would still be considered the offspring of the first-born son, not the birth father.  This practice was common then and remains so in some areas of the world today, as a way of securing a family’s wealth and status through a single continuous family line.  Talk about the potential for sibling rivalry!

Tamar became the wife of the eldest son of Judah, but he died; following the law, she then became the wife of the second son of Judah.  But he also died, and perhaps Judah may be forgiven for seeming reluctant to allow his third and final son to be married to Tamar.  Judah sent her home to her father’s house, while promising to marry her to the third son Shelah when he was old enough.  Years passed, however, and Judah did not make good on the promise, nor was Tamar free to marry anyone else.   Finally she made a daring—and morally ambiguous—plan to fulfill the law even at the cost of her honor.   A reading from the 38th chapter of Genesis, at the 13th verse.  Listen for God’s word!

[READ  GENESIS 38:13-30]

It’s hard to find the thread of our faith story in this drama that sounds more like reality TV!  Back in the lazy days of summer when I first planned to preach on this text, it seemed like a good idea to introduce this unfamiliar story. I admit to cursing my decision a few times this week.    Trying to glean the meaning from its culturally-encrusted framework is tough, which may be why Genesis 38 never appears in the three-year lectionary cycle of Sunday preaching texts. There’s not an obvious lesson here.  Some biblical texts are like that.  But if we dig a little more deeply, a gold nugget or two may emerge.

The story of Judeo-Christian faith is a human story, peopled by men and women with faults and fears, but also courage and compassion—which is to say, we’re a lot like them. We can be proud of our ancestors, but always with a giant scoop of humility, because we see them in all their lovely and lurid humanity.  They try to be faithful to God but they’re also thieves and liars and adulterers and murderers and warmongers.     Remember that, the next time someone tries to tell you that Islam is the sole religion of terror and violence.  Judaism and Christianity have our fair share.  

The story of Tamar is a potent reminder that we should never judge the motives of others, because we never know what burdens they are carrying.  When Tamar’s pregnancy becomes known, Judah’s assumption is that she has been promiscuous and has jeopardized the family line with an “illegitimate” heir.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  Her desperate act was actually hatched to fulfill the law and preserve Judah’s lineage.     How quick we are to assume the worst in others when we observe behaviors of which we don’t approve!  We make assumptions as to motivation without taking the time and effort to understand their situation or what might really be going on in their lives.  For starters, can we try treating one another with less judgment and more kindness?    But our faith calls us to even more.

The Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” challenges us to “hear the voices of peoples long silenced” as part of our response to God’s love for the world.  To listen to voices crying out for justice….voices expressing suffering….voices protesting ill treatment or systemic evil.    Tamar represents women and men whose voices are drowned out or ignored outright by those who possess greater power and resources. With few options available to them, the silenced ones sometimes turn to direct action as a way to make a difference.     

We have pictures in our mind about times when doing wrong is right—when breaking the law serves the higher cause of justice and mercy.  Victor Hugo’s poignant portrayal of desperate Jean Val Jean stealing bread to feed his hungry child….Ohioans harboring fugitive slaves on the underground railroad to freedom….Rosa Parks sitting in the “whites only” section of the bus…. African American students peacefully occupying seats at lunch counters where it was unlawful for them to be served….Nelson Mandela challenging apartheid laws in South Africa….churches offering safety and sanctuary to so-called “illegal aliens”….    Civilization depends upon the rule of law to maintain order and protect rights—except when it doesn’t.   Throughout history individuals and groups have confronted unjust social norms and practices in order to change them.  Often these actions are undertaken at great risk because of an imbalance of power and resources, and potential for punishment or retribution. Yet often they point us to our sacred calling to “work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”     

Over and over again in the Bible, we are awakened to God’s vision by way of an unexpected teacher, someone without power or status; an outsider, a foreigner.   Tamar-the-teacher helped Judah see himself and understand how his refusal to grant his son in marriage was unjust.  When she revealed her identity as the one to whom he had given the objects of his authority, he immediately acknowledged his wrong.  “She is more in the right than I!”  Duh.    Interestingly, we find evidence of Judah’s sharpened righteousness when later he offers himself as Tamar did, risking freedom and his life for the sake of his youngest brother Benjamin.  Was he moved by her witness to plead eloquently with a powerful ruler for justice and mercy? 

Following the biblical precedent, let the church listen for wisdom from unexpected sources, from “little ones” not in the pulpit or behind the lectern or controlling the money.  Fairmount elder Bonnie Lindberg shared recently about a discussion in her church school class of three-and-four-year-olds.  She was talking about the Holy Spirit, that we can’t see it or touch it, yet we know it’s there.  She showed them the standard Sunday school picture of the dove descending and there was a long silence.  Bonnie was pretty sure she’d lost the class until one little guy spoke up with great conviction that he knew the Spirit was with him all the time because he could feel God’s tickle inside him.  Well!  Maybe we get so used to the blah-blah-blah of church and sermons and committee meetings that we don’t feel the tickle.  We need to be reminded.  

I’m grateful for Fairmount’s commitment to elect high school youth to the Session and the Board of Deacons—not every Presbyterian Church does.  Everyone knows how busy our teens are; they have a million activities on top of taking AP classes and sports and all the rest.  And yet we want the benefit of their perspectives and experience.  They have things to teach us that may be outside the norm (and sometimes outside our comfort zones!).   Today we will dedicate the confirmation class who will spend this year exploring our faith story and their role in it. Confirmands, we will be praying for you that this journey will assist you as you face the decisions, pressures, and heartaches of your own lives.  And know that we are ready to learn what YOU will teach us in the process too, with probing questions and refusal to settle for churchy jargon or pat answers.

We know the story of Judeo-Christian faith is a human story.  But is also a divine story, in which the unseen hand of God is dynamically present: shaping, tending, repairing, healing, saving.  God never makes an appearance in Tamar’s story; we don’t read that she called out to God in her distress, or that God conceived the plan she carried out.  We might miss God’s activity in this story all together, were it not for one more text where Tamar shows up.  It’s a genealogy, and not just any genealogy.  It’s the genealogy of Jesus, recorded centuries later, in the New Testament.   There it is in the first chapter of Matthew: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah……..

by Tamar. . .  .Forty-two generations from Abraham to Jesus, and among all those father’s names, we find hers as well, one of only four women.  God had a plan for Tamar.    Kinda makes you wonder what else God’s got in store for the likes of you and me and this marvelous, maddening community called church.    Thanks be to God!