by Ellen Sims
Pt. 1: Setting up the story:
Before we hear a familiar story, let’s keep in mind that all the narrative gems we find in Genesis glint with rough-edged, multifaceted characters, none of whom could serve as the poster child for today’s “family values.” I don’t understand how the Religious Right finds examples of their “family values” in a literalized Bible! The “first families” of the Bible committed murder and rape. They engaged in polygamy and incest. Brothers stole from one another or enslaved one another. Children were abandoned to die in the desert or narrowly escaped slaughter by the father’s hand. Parents played “favorites” with their children, pitting one against the other. Daughters and daughters-in-law seduced and slept with their fathers and fathers-in-law.
Let’s face it: Abraham and his descendants were the original dysfunctional family. If you don’t believe me today, you will after our study of Genesis next month. Most of the narrative parts of the Bible, like most enduring literature, DESCRIBE rather than PRESCRIBE human behavior.
So put aside the sweet and child-appropriate Sunday school versions of these stories and sink your teeth into some juicy tales told by and to adults. Genesis tells us the God of Abraham blesses some undeserving scoundrels.
The trickster, Jacob, who stole his elder brother’s birthright, is one such scoundrel. And maybe, just maybe, this story was actually designed to evoke our sympathies for the cheated brother, Esau, just so we experience the shock of the wrong guy being blessed. Just when we think we’ve got God figured out, the Bible tells us we don’t. Jacob is no paragon of virtue, but God speaks to him anyway. Walter Brueggemann explains this upside down morality tale this way:
“It’s a subtle but deliberate way of saying the blessing will work in spite of human character and quality . . . The blessing of God has its way whether we are attracted to or repelled by the object of the blessings. The narrative shows God strangely at work for Jacob without regard for our emotions about Jacob. . . . The narrative invites [us] to marvel rather than explain.”[i]
Wow. You and I may not be the final judges of who deserves what. Many more than 12 people have recently “judged” Casey Anthony. But maybe even the 12 official jurors were not the final judges of her life. I’m not suggesting the Bible provides us no moral foundation. I’m suggesting the Bible, from Genesis to Jesus, cautions me about casting stones.
So as we return to Jacob’s story today, remember that the same trickster who cheated his way into a blessing from his father is now going to receive what may seem an undeserved word from God. He might even, at last, evoke some sympathy from us. After all, the conniver is now a frightened fugitive. Fleeing his brother’s wrath, Jacob is without family, country, security. As night falls, he drops, exhausted and afraid, in the middle of nowhere, using a stone for his pillow. And then . . . he dreams. What a blessing!
HEBREW BIBLE READING Genesis 28: 10-22
Pt. 2 Commenting on the Story: From Pillow to Pillar
From scheming to dreaming. With nothing but a stone for a pillow–hard comfort indeed–Jacob stopped scheming long enough to move through sleep’s doorway into another reality. A stairway to heaven. A bridge connecting what we can see with our eyes to what we can apprehend through our spirits. And this story says those realms are not so very far apart. Especially for desperate folks like Jacob.
The dream’s angelic messengers signify there are certain folks who navigate well between these two realities. You’ve known people like that who somehow connect you to a loftier way of being, to your higher self. For Christians, Jesus is the chief mediator for us.
And the very presence of God is also right beside Jacob, announcing a 3-fold promise you and I may need to hear: 1) “I’ll give you and your descendants land,” which means we will survive; 2) “I’ll give you and your descendants purpose,” which is to bless OTHER families of the earth; and 3) “I’ll give you and your descendants my presence,” which is to say we have the capacity to sense the sacred. (Gen. 28: 14-16) I don’t know about you, but that’s just about all I need: a life of rich relationships, purpose, and a sense of God’s faithful presence.
Now I’m not so sure Jacob the conniver immediately or decisively changes as a result of this God-encounter. In the last few verses of our reading, it sounds as if he’s still scheming—brashly bargaining that if God will be generous with him, Jacob will to return to God 1/10 of everything he gets from God. Yeh. Jacob is still Jacob. I suppose most of us don’t make sudden or drastic changes.
But in some way Jacob the schemer did become more like Jacob the dreamer. And maybe that is all WE can hope for. Incremental change. Moments of spiritual transcendence. A few unexpected encounters with the Holy. And God blesses whomever God “blessed well” pleases. As Jesus will later say, in preaching about his upside down kingdom, “The first will be last and the last will be first.” We see some signs of Jacob’s transformation when he awakens from the dream convinced he’s had a God -encounter, awestruck that he’s somehow stumbled into an experience of the holy, and inspired to mark this encounter. With a simple stone he gives this no-name place the grand name of Beth-el—the House of God. Stones in this story are not thrown at others in judgment. Jacob’s stone helps him dream . . . and then celebrate the Sacred.
I see two movements in this story that might help open us to a sense of the Sacred. One, obviously, is the up and down movement of the angel-messengers moving between earth and heaven. Are there people in your life who’ve brought you an uplifting word? Are there simple experiences that transported you beyond the everyday? For me at times it’s as if some very earthy and ordinary person or thing connects me to something inexpressibly sacred . . . through a tearful reunion . . . the fragrance of bread baking . . . a night of restful sleep beside the one I love . . . a sweet dream of a baby born or a lost puppy found or wonder-filled garden explored. In those moments I’m connected to earth and heaven through some tremulous movement, up and down, inward and outward, simple and sublime. Why, a stone can become a temple! And a schemer who grabs a blessing all for himself can become a dreamer whose descendants can bless ALL the families of the earth. If we allow for this stirring in our hearts, imagine how we might bless others.
But there’s another kind of movement in this story: the interplay between stillness and action itself. Jacob races from his angry brother. Then he rests. Jacob dreams. Then he actively builds an altar. It’s a two-step dance: move and pause, pause and move.
Life’s rhythm moves from action to reflection, from work to prayer, from week days to Sabbath, from comfortable sameness to risky exploration and back again, in a life-giving cycle. But just as Jacob’s stone pillow was transformed into a stone pillar, so too must our dreaming be converted into constructive action. What we do here as a congregation follows that healthy pattern: we volunteer with Family Promise on a Tuesday and we reflect together on a Sunday. One-two, One-two, goes the dance.
We as a congregation are on the verge of moving toward some new possibilities. Some important dreams have been incubating inside my spirit and yours. Soon we’ll be enacting more of those dreams. Perhaps we will literally be moving into a new place that will become sacred for us as we use it for God’s loving purposes. Maybe we will figuratively move toward new ways of serving our community or deepening our inner lives or developing our welcome to others to help bless other families of the earth.
From dreaming to doing. Jacob’s story challenges me to prayerfully consider our next steps as a congregation, to recognize and bless the mundane sacredness of our life together, to remember that God’s blessings don’t necessarily go to those WE think deserve blessings. For anyone with an ounce of humility, that’s good news. In these next moments of prayer, we might open ourselves to recognizing the sacred in this time and place. We might seek prayerful guidance before taking our next steps together.
[i] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. 235.
PRAYER: God of Jacob, when we are on the run, show us a place for dreaming. When we are stagnant, spur us to action. Be our eternal partner in this dance. And may we enjoy the dance so much, we’ll forget to critique anyone else’s dancing. Amen
Following the 2-part sermon, the congregation was invited to move to one or more prayer stations as described below:
(You may choose to move to one or more prayer stations.)
STATION 1: GIVING
The Genesis reading says Jacob’s encounter with God called forth in him a desire to give something back to God. Making an offering through your church is one way to recognize your blessings and use them toward God’s loving purposes in the world.
STATION 2: RECEIVING
You may choose to receive prayerfully the blessed bread of life and cup of joy at the second prayer station. Bring a grateful heart for the food you have already enjoyed this day. Move to the Table with an expectant spirit that will allow you to taste and see something new and good. ALL are welcome at the Open Table.
STATION 3: ANOINTING
Jacob’s simple make-shift altar was a stone and some oil. He apparently wanted some tangible way to mark a sacred moment and place. If you would like to enact a prayer for this place and these traveling companions, or if you would like simply to attend to whatever is going on within your life right now, take a stone from the Table, place it in the bowl, and pour a bit of oil over it.
STATION 4: CREATING
We’ll later sing several verses of a familiar spiritual. You’re invited to add your own verse to the song. You may write a 1-sentence, 8-syllable verse to match the rhythm of these words:
“We are climb-ing Ja-cob’s ladder.”
Your verse might reflect your sense of the movement of your own spiritual life or your dream for this community of faith as we move forward together. Please write your verse on one of the cards provided and place it in the basket.