“Seek Peace and Pursue It” Series
June 2, 2013
This summer–for most of the Sundays anyway–we will be looking at issues of peace from various biblical perspectives. This series comes from last summer’s Mennonite resources, but I was on sabbatical last summer. So we’re doing some of the services this summer.
It’s possible that, if you’ve been in the Mennonite world long enough, I lost your attention back when I mentioned the word “peace.”
“Not again,” you might be thinking. “Don’t we talk about peace enough around here?”
But the scriptures we’ll be reading are not your standard go-to “peace” scriptures. We’ll be reading stories I’m betting many of you haven’t heard before. Like this morning’s story from Genesis 26–the only chapter in the Bible that focuses on Isaac as the main character. We read a lot about Isaac’s father, Abraham. And also quite a bit about his twin sons Esau and–especially–Jacob. But this chapter is all about Isaac.
So, this morning, I brought up here with me my Greek/English lexicon, which I named “Dr. Koch have mercy.” And here’s a candle named “Smooth move, Joanna” that was on the table last week. For those of you who missed it, I managed to pull part of the table cloth down and several lit candles with it.
Of course, this type of naming practice is unusual in our culture, but we run into all kinds of fun and funky names in the Bible. The prophet Hosea pretty much wins the prize with his two children named “Not Pitied” and “Not My People” (poor things). But Isaac has a pretty good run of naming here.
The wells dug by Isaac’s servants progress from “Contention” to “Enmity” to “Broad Places.” From physical strife to emotional strife to peace.
First, Isaac has his servants dig a well and the herders of Gerar quarrel with them. “This is our water,” they say. Possibly the earliest recorded dispute over water rights. So Isaac names the well “Esek,” which means contention. A rather creative move. And actually a bit of a power play since naming something is a way of establishing ownership.
But Isaac’s next move is even more surprising. He tells his servants, “Never mind. Let them have it. Just dig another well.”
Now, I’ll grant you that there are some class issues involved here. And I do wonder whether Isaac would have been so quick to move on if he had been the one who had to do the back-breaking work of digging in the scorching heat. Still, he sets aside his pride. He sets aside his fears that there will not be another water source, that there is not enough water to go around. He sets aside what many might say is his right to the well that his servant dug. In setting these things aside, he calms the contention–he makes peace possible.
This action of Isaac’s is a bit hard to understand. I mean, his men dug the well, why would they just give it up and dig another one? I think this is especially hard to understand in our North American context where we are borderline obsessed with personal rights. To willingly walk away from something that should be yours goes against all that our country holds dear.
You might remember when Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman. There was a lot of discussion about stand-your-ground-laws. More than half of the states in the U.S. have some version of this type of law–basically it says that if someone is threatening you or your property, you have no legal obligation to retreat. You can use deadly force on the person who poses the threat and you will not be criminally liable for your actions. Did you catch that? No legal obligation to retreat.
I recently heard a piece on NPR about a proposed natural gas pipeline through Oregon. They interviewed a rancher who said that he would usually be on the opposite side of the Oregon Women’s Land Trust, but he stands with them in opposition to the pipeline because that ranch is his land and the government has no right to use any of it. (Well, that’s the G-rated version of what he said.)
We really love our rights. To walk away from something that is rightfully yours is almost incomprehensible. But that is what Isaac does. He walks away from the well named “Contention.”
As people who seek to follow the way of Jesus, people who seek peace and pursue it–as the psalmist says–there will be times when we, like Isaac, need to set aside our arguments of entitlement.
Let me be clear that this does not mean we should let ourselves be victimized or abused. In this biblical story, Isaac was a wealthy man with plenty of resources to move on and dig more wells. He was not endangering himself or others by letting the herders have the wells. This was not a situation of the herders oppressing a wealthy landowner, but of conflicting understandings of water rights.
Isaac was able to concede the point, to walk away, because he believed that God would provide. He believed that that first well was not the only possible well; that there was enough water in the desert to support everyone.
If we want to be able to walk away from conflict, we also need to operate from a place of “enough.” “Enough” is not a place that our culture will take us; it is not a place we will get to by watching TV and listening to the news and gossiping with our coworkers. Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann and social scholar Brenee Brown* both write extensively about the myth of scarcity that we operate under in our culture. Many, many people around us live in a place of scarcity.
We will only get to the place of enough through faith. By sharing the stories of God’s provision that fill the scriptures; the stories that fill our lives. This place of enough allows us to leave behind contention. Because if we know there is enough, what we are fighting about usually isn’t worth it.
Because Isaac knows that there is enough water in the desert, he has his servants dig another well. Once again the herders quarrel over the well, so Isaac names this one “Sitna,” which means enmity.
Enmity, you might notice, is different from contention. Contention just indicates a disagreement. An external argument. Enmity is more about feelings, emotions. Perhaps Isaac is beginning to feel somewhat resentful of these herders who keep pestering him about the water rights.
There is a difference between the external act of arguing and the internal feeling of enmity. Often the two go together, but not necessarily. And it seems that the internal feelings of ill-will can be harder to set aside than the external arguments themselves.
Perhaps you heard about the two shop keepers. They had shops across the street from each other, and they had, at one time, surely been contentious. But the actual argument was long forgotten and only the enmity remained. Well, one night–now this is how I heard the story, I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy–one night and angel appeared to the first shopkeeper. The angel said, “God has promised to give you one wish. No matter how extravagant your wish, God will grant it. But you should know that whatever you receive, the shopkeeper across the street will receive twofold.” The first keeper was startled and then dismayed. After some thought he said, “I wish to be blind in one eye.”
That is enmity. And it doesn’t get us anywhere. But it can be hard to set aside.
Enmity is what Jesus counsels against when he gives his disciples instructions for their missionary journey. He tells them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14).
I really like this image of shaking the dust off of our feet. Just as living from a place of enough allows us to walk away from contention, shaking off the dust can free us to walk away from enmity.
I suppose shaking off the dust looks different in different situations. Most often, it involves forgiveness–of others and ourselves. And it involves giving up the right to complain and blame. And it involves shifting our gaze from the past to the future.
Jesus talks about all of this–especially the forgiveness piece. It is difficult. But that is what Isaac does. When the herders of Gerar quarrel over yet another well, Isaac moves on.
He moves on and has his servants dig again. And then he waits. He looks around to see if anyone will start another argument. He listens for the yelling and the demands to begin. But he doesn’t see anyone. Just the wide open spaces. And he doesn’t hear anything. Just the silence.
And so he names that place Rehoboth, which means “broad place.” Finally there is room for Isaac, and he can stay. And he and his family and his servants and his animals can drink the water from the well that the servants have dug.
Brueggemann** notes that this idea of a “broad place” was a significant concept for the Israelite people–people who were enslaved and exiled. To have the physical space to live and work and be in community. The spiritual space to worship Yahweh. Space was something the people longed for; something that God graciously gave.
Isaac’s situation here was fraught with the potential for violence. But his willingness to set aside what some would consider his right to the well, and his willingness to set aside the ill feelings he held toward the argumentative herders allowed him to move to a broad place.
That broad place is a place of peace. A place where “enough” is evident. A place where the dust doesn’t cling to our feet. It is a place Isaac found and a place to which God calls us. Amen.
*See Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
**See Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by Walter Brueggemann.