stones

Stones and Ladders

The sermon from Sunday, July 23, 2017 on Genesis 28: 10-19

Jacob had to get out of town. With the complicity of his mother, Rebekah, he has deceived his father, Isaac, in order to cheat his brother, Esau, out of his father’s due blessing and birthright. Jacob has contrived to take the better portion for himself. Not surprisingly, Esau is furious. He plans to kill Jacob for his betrayal.

Jacob decides he’d better give his brother some time to cool off. Rebekah suggests he go stay with her brother, so Jacob hits the road.

When you travel a distance, even when you are fleeing peril, eventually you have to stop for the night, right?

In our age of great comforts, we don’t think much for using a stone as a pillow. Jacob didn’t have a lot of choices though, did he? He’d left in a hurry. He was making a long journey on foot.

You work with what you’ve got.

What I love about this stone here is how it functions in the story, first as pillow, then as the base of the pillar.

We work with what we’ve got.

This stone upon which Jacob’s head rested for the intimacy of sleep becomes the foundation for the place of worship.

There’s an immediacy to this. When he wakes up, Jacob wastes no time. There’s an active moment of presence, for this, in Jacob’s life, is a place and a time of encounter with God.

While Jacob is far from perfect – that’s how we got here – he is given this understanding that he rests there in this frantic moment of deep uncertainty in the presence of God. For much of the Hebrew scripture, Bethel remains important. It is a place of covenant and transformation.

We come to those places, places in time and in space, as we are. We come to the moments of covenant and transformation and encounter with God just as we are, working with what we’ve got.

We come to God just as we are – in our most human moments; in our most desperate moments; in those moments where we feel alone, angry, abandoned, scared, and confused. In those moments when we are exhausted and don’t know what’s going to happen next.

We come to those places and God is already there.

We work with what we’ve got – and we’ve always got God.

God is already there.

We live surrounded by God’s love and presence.

In some times and in some places it’s easier for us to see than others. That’s part of why the ladder imagery is so interesting.

Notice first of all where God is. And the Lord stood beside him.

In Jacob’s vision of the heavens and the angels and the transcendent, where is God? Not way up there at the top of the ladder. God is there beside Jacob. Not way off up above, but present alongside.

As for the ladder itself – well, we know most days seem like an uphill climb, eh? To find the goodness in the world, to see its beauty and its possibility takes concerted effort. It can be a struggle. But it’s through the climb that we get a clearer view.

Some of the leaders of the early church – we’re talking 2nd, 3rd, 4th century here – used to talk about the rungs of Jacob’s ladder as ways of getting closer to God.

For them, it was about paring down the unnecessary things of life, the distractions and all the stuff that causes you to stumble. It was about climbing rungs of clarity and purpose and focus on God, leaving behind the material obsessions of the world.

One of the gifts of faith is that we trust that the ladder is leading us where we need to go. Struggle as we must, climb on as we need to, but do so as people striving to connect daily with what is good in this world, that which is of God, that which connects us to our neighbor.

It reminds me of Zacchaeus, whom we spoke about when we looked at Luke 19. Zacchaeus climbs up in a tree so that he can get a better look at Jesus as Jesus goes by.

When you are buried in all of the weight of our daily culture – the shrill, belittling voices coming from places of political power, the tedium of routines, the overflowing to-do lists, the violence of the forces of patriarchy and racism and ableism and homophobia and biological essentialism, the person who cuts you off in traffic, the sorrows and grief and regrets of your past – when all those things happen – because they do – God invites you to keep climbing and reaching for that which is good and holy and compassionate and true.

There are no guarantees that anything will be easy. But you are assured that you are not alone – that your climb through your daily life surrounded by God’s love and for those of you here, surrounded by the love of the community of worship and fellowship.

That is evident connection. It is meaningful, sustaining strength for journey. It is a way of closing the gap between our sense of mundane daily life and the transcendent presence of God – which we find east and west and north and south. The promise of God as made to Jacob is global in reach. We think we can go in one direction and find God and God’s people, but the fact is that we find God and God’s people everywhere we turn, in all of the families of the earth.

We think of this as a story about Jacob, but in truth it’s really a story about God, the God who is, has been, and will be with us, who will not leave us, who will keep us wherever we go.

I was in conversation with someone this week who questioned whether she deserves God’s love. We talk a lot about “deserving” in our culture. Even more often  we make judgments about who is deserving or undeserving or what we deserve or don’t deserve.

Whether that falls in the direction of sounding entitled or in judging others as not worthy and in judging ourselves as being worthy or not worthy, in none of those cases does it have anything to do with the language of God.

Deserving and undeserving are human categories. When we project them on God, we make God in our own human image.

Human beings will do what they will. We do grievous harm to one another in homage to the violence of our culture. That is not of God. That is human talk based on human limitations and on the ways in which we project our human limitations onto God.

God is infinite and beyond our measure. God’s promise extends east and west and north and south. The ladder and the vision of the manifest reality of a world of justice and mercy is not meant only for the wealthy or the white or the English-speaking or the church-goer, but for all. That love encompasses and centers the marginalized. God’s justice and God’s mercy extend everywhere intended for all people and for the body of the earth. The love that Jesus embodied for us is available to all and meant for all. Jesus walked with and ate with and healed and taught all. The presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us is true for us all, east and west, north and south.

The covenant of the Gospel message is that we all carry the blessings and the responsibilities of interdependence with our neighbor – and every soul and every scrap of the natural world counts as our neighbor.

The world looks different to us than it did to Jacob, but we too work with what we’ve got. That includes a God who is always available to us.

We keep climbing, keep growing, keep emptying ourselves of the false promises of ego gratification so common in our society, keep making room for God to work through us in each and every day. We know that God’s love stretches out to all and for all.

God’s love is so great that it even encompasses Jacob as he runs from the troubles of his own making. This is a story of God’s love reaching even the most difficult to love. God gets a hold of Jacob – and even the schemer Jacob grasps that he has holy responsibilities.

Jacob may have stolen his brother’s blessing, but we are reminded here that God’s blessing is not restricted in the same way. This experience changes Jacob, who comes to understand that God – the God who journeyed with his grandparents Abraham and Sarah and his parents Isaac and Rebekah – is there for him also.

In the few lines that follow the passage we read tonight, Jacob tries to strike a bargain with God – if you will take care of me, I’ll be sure to consider you my God – but over time even he comes to understand that our interaction with God is not done on our terms. God meets us where we are, but the justice, mercy, and love of God is infinite.

Finally, when God comes to Jacob in Jacob’s most lonely and vulnerable hour, offering comfort and courage, it falls in the middle of the story. Jacob didn’t set out knowing that God was with him. We don’t learn at the very end that God was there all along. No, this passage comes in the middle of the story.

We are in the middle of our own stories. I don’t care how old or how young you are. We are daily in the middle of each day’s stories, that which adds up to make a life.

May we keep climbing, at once growing closer to God, while yet realizing that God has been there all along. That is a mystery of our faith, a holy paradox. May we be comforted in and sure of its truth.

Amen.

 

 

 

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