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Sun, Jul 16, 2017

Stairway to Heaven

Duration:19 mins 13 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-22. The book of Genesis contains four cycles of stories and today we join the third cycle which is about Abraham’s grandson Jacob. We are jumping in midstream, so to set the stage: Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebekah were having twins. The first baby boy came out red and hairy, so they called him Esau. But the second came out immediately after the first, actually holding on to the heel of his brother. It was as if this second son had still not given up the race to be the first born and was trying to pull his brother back into the womb. Because he held his brother’s heel, Rebekah named her second son “Jacob,” which means “the heel.”

Now, it’s not so easy to go through life when your name is, “the heel.” You can imagine what the other kids said: “Look, here comes Heel. If your mamma was going to name you after a body part, she should have called you …well, perhaps we shouldn’t mention that in church.” So Jacob became the quiet son, a mamma’s boy we might even say, who spent his time inside in the tents. His brother Esau was the jock, the hunter, the impulsive one, the one who loved to be outdoors. Oh, these twins could not have been more different.

I encourage you to go and read the whole story yourself, but for this morning it will suffice to say that Jacob tricked his older brother Esau into giving him the oldest child’s double share of the family inheritance and Jacob tricked his father Isaac into bestowing the family blessing upon him instead of his brother.

Esau was not pleased. In fact he was so mad that he vowed he would kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah overhears Esau’s plan, so she convinces Isaac to send Jacob to her brother in Haran (about 400 miles away) so that Jacob might find an “acceptable wife.” In reality, Jacob is being exiled from the family, perhaps to save his life, but definitely because he is no longer welcome in the tent of either his father or his brother.

We join the story as Jacob begins his lonely journey across the desert. Let us hear this Word of God.

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel;[e] but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I suspect that Jacob was carrying more than a little anxiety when he went out the door of his tent and headed into the desert. And carrying anxiety like that makes you tired. For Jacob, his journey is long, so eventually he must stop to rest. All alone in the middle of the desert, in a place so desolate that it has no name and certainly no Motel 6 keeping the light on for him, so Jacob chooses a stone for a pillow and falls asleep.

Yes, this place was just a place, an ordinary regular place, until God showed up. Or perhaps we might say, until it was revealed to Jacob that God was already there. Yes, Jacob was asleep, he was vulnerable, his guard was down, and that is the moment that God comes to Jacob. Notice that he is not praying; he is not on a spiritual retreat in the mountains; he is not raptured with the view of crashing waves from an ocean side balcony; he is not singing in the choir or even listening to an amazing sermon. No, Jacob is asleep in a regular, no-nothing, deserted place without a name in the middle of the desert. And God comes.

Yes, God comes. Jacob has a vision of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth on something like a ladder or, as the rock band Led Zeppelin might say, a “Stairway to Heaven.” Jacob discovers that this unnamed place is a holy place, a place where God and human beings might encounter one another, not because he can ascend into heaven, but because God comes down.

We seem to have this notion in the church that we can only meet God in the extraordinary places. In the mist in the mountains, in the crashing waves at the beach, within the stained glass windows of a sanctuary. Not in the middle of the desert, not in the middle of the night, not in car line at school, not at the grocery store, and certainly not in the favorite gathering of all Christians … the committee meeting.

Now I know you will find this hard to believe, but I have been in lots of committee meetings as a pastor in which nothing extraordinary happens. Your laughter indicates that you have been in a few of those meetings too. My friend Lillian Daniel, senior minister at First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa, tells the story of one such trustee meeting at a former church.

Much like the Administration Committee here at Reid Memorial, the trustees were the ones “entrusted” with managing the financial and physical resources of the church. However, at this particular meeting the discussion centered on their twice a year turn preparing and serving the meal at the homeless shelter.

Were they talking about hospitality as a practice of faith and the theology behind it? Did conversation linger on how the church could do more to solve the problems of homelessness as a systemic evil, instead of simply serving food? Alas, no. The heated discussion was all about the correct recipe for chili mac, that strange American casserole that dares to cross macaroni and cheese with canned chili and call it food.

Forty-five minutes of discussion about chili-mac. Do you get the large cans of chili or the small ones? Does anyone have a membership to a discount warehouse? And then there was the particularly contentious issue: should the trustees buy grated cheese or grate it themselves?

Someone remembered they do not have a cheese grater at the homeless shelter. So should they buy one or just spend extra on the grated cheese? Let’s do a cost comparison, someone suggests, whipping out the calculator. This is the board of trustees, after all.

Just as the group appears near a decision, a new board member asks, “Why do we always make chili mac? The last time, the people said they were tired of it. Besides, some of the homeless are vegetarians.”

You know what’s coming next. “How can you be homeless and a vegetarian?” a veteran of the board inevitably asks.

Now it’s been fifty minutes. On chili mac. The moment is eternity. Lillian claims she was losing her religion. At fifty one minutes she is ready to give her divinity school diploma back. The clerk of the trustees asks, “Can I go back to an earlier point? Did you decide on the grated cheese or to purchase a cheese grater? I need to get this right for the minutes.”

But at minute fifty-four, one of the trustees says, “I’d hate to be homeless, on a cold night like this.” And for a moment the clerk puts down his pen, the calculator is pushed aside, and everyone is silent. Lillian swears she heard God’s pen making a scratchy note in the book of their cherished lives.

Yes, God can show up even at a church committee meeting. But surely not in the most unlikely place, the oncology center.

Some of you might remember cousin my Kristie Rush. Kristie recorded in a blog her journey with a recurrence of breast cancer that spread to her bones. In several blog entries she wrote about having to gear up to go into the treatment center, called Roswell, for check-ups. As much as she was grateful for its existence, at the same time she despised it. Everyone there was somehow and in some way affected by cancer. You look around at people whose bodies have been bombarded by a dreaded disease and the treatments they are receiving to battle it. She often said to herself, "I hate this place."

It was no different one day, fairly early in this new journey, when she and her husband arrived for a new treatment plan. But she wrote,

“Before we left, as I was waiting for the elevator to go down to the lobby, I looked up and I met the glance of a sweet-looking older woman. Her face broke into a soft smile. I didn't get it at first. Why is she smiling at me? It took me a second to realize that her smile came as a response to the smile that was on my face. And, as surprising as it sounds, that changed something within me.

In that instant, I realized that this place I say that I hate has become a new place that God has sent me. It's a new mission field. One that I don't want. One that I never asked for. One that I hope against all hope that I won't be stationed in for a long period of time because I won't need it any more. But I realized that I am placed here for "such a time as this." As much as I hate Roswell for what it represents, in that instant, I learned to see it from God's perspective. It's a place - just like any other place - where the hope of Christ needs to be shared. … I got a clear glimpse that this isn't an opportunity to be wasted. It isn't a place to go in and do everything you can to avoid really looking around because the images of sick people are hard to see. It isn't the time to pretend that you're not like the "sick people" you see. As hard as it is to go there, God reminded me today that He is present in that place. And when God is present, hope comes.”

My friends, Kristie didn’t go to that desert, to that no-nothing, treatment center looking to meet God. But God showed up, just like God did in the desert with Jacob.

Just over two years ago, my cousin Kristie died. She was 42 years old. She touched so many people with her life and her witness. One of her favorite phrases was that she was just a girl with a really big God. And when that really big God is present, whether on a spiritual retreat, at the ocean shore, or in a church sanctuary, whether in car line picking up your child after school, in a committee meeting, or even at the oncology center, hope comes.

Yes, hope comes because surely the presence of the Lord is in that place.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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