Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon; Proper 11A; Genesis 28:10-19a

Last week we heard the story of Jacob and Esau.  Esau, being the first-born, was entitled to all the honors, rights and privileges of that position.  It was Esau who was to receive the lion's share of the family inheritance.  That is, until he sold that right to Jacob for a bowl of stew and Rebekah and Jacob contrived to trick Isaac.

Thus begins a life of conflict for Jacob.  We learned that it was God who was responsible for Jacob's plight when it was prophesied to Rebekah that she was carrying two nations, the elder of which would serve the younger.  This is God's way of breaking down earthly values and barriers that live and thrive on systems of inequality in favor of Kingdom values that work to respect the dignity of every human being.  Just because you are born into the right family, in the right order, with the right skin color and right parts should not mean you have more value than those whose differences are distasteful to you.

God is trying to do away with earthly values in favor of Kingdom values.  And this causes conflict.  It caused conflict between the brothers and Esau responded by plotting to kill Jacob.  And it causes conflict today when one group of people looks to help others who are themselves abused and oppressed by those who believe they should have the lion's share of rights and benefits based on nothing more than birth place and skin color.

But today we have a break from all that conflict.  Today we and Jacob are between conflicts.  Jacob has managed to escape from his murderous brother, but has yet to encounter his double-crossing uncle.  And today, instead of wondering where God is in this story, we might be wondering how this story can possibly apply to us today.  Let's see if I can offer something.

To recap – we got to this place today because of Rebekah.  Not only was she a driving force in getting Jacob to impersonate Esau, she is also the reason Jacob left town.  She tells him that his brother is plotting to kill him and that he should leave.  She also suggests to Isaac that he send Jacob away to find a wife.  Isaac follows her lead and sends Jacob away, reiterating God's promise to Abraham of land and children.

We know Jacob is fleeing from a major conflict with Esau.  We also know that Jacob is running right into another major conflict with his uncle Laban.  We know this, but Jacob doesn't.  Like two weeks ago with the servant and Rebekah, sometimes we can't see the guiding hand of God until after the event.  Sometimes we have trouble seeing our wilderness experiences as a movement toward God instead of a fleeing away from something else.  There seems to be a fine line between flight and pilgrimage.

Much later, the Israelites will flee from Egypt into the wilderness.  While God and Moses see this as a pilgrimage (learning to become independent, learning self-rule, learning to walk with God, learning to live into the promise), many Israelites saw it as a flight from a frightening known into a more terrifying unknown.  People do this all the time: flee from something without acknowledging or even recognizing that they may be on a pilgrimage.

Whether we see this as a flight or as a pilgrimage, Jacob is in the wilderness.  He is alone.  He is vulnerable.  And he is definitely not in control as he so often seems to be in other places.  He may be wondering how he got into this mess and may even feel abandoned by the God of his father.

It is here that God visits Jacob.  After falling asleep for the night, he has his famous dream of angels traveling back and forth between heaven and earth.  The NRSV says that God stood beside him and reiterated the promise made to Abraham of land and children.  God also says he will be with Jacob always and until the promise is fulfilled; also telling him that he will bring Jacob back to this place.

It's here that Jacob makes the move to a life of faith.  He responds to the dream by building a monument, anointing it and naming the place Bethel, or, “the house of God.”  Jacob moves from a life of fear (fleeing for his life) to a life of faith (living in pilgrimage).  And in a section of Scripture the lectionary doesn't give us, Jacob makes his own vow to God.

So, what does this story have to offer us today?  What might this story of a runaway conman tell us about our own relationship with God?

First, it's important to look forward.  Looking back can be helpful in that it can tell us where we come from and where we've been.  But it just might be that we look back in fear.  Do we look back only to see what we are fleeing from?  This story of God and Jacob reminds us to look forward.  It's in looking forward that we can make an intentional movement toward a God-given objective.  And even if we find ourselves in the wilderness, looking forward allows us to see it as a pilgrimage rather than a flight.

Second, this story reminds us that God is with us.  God told Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  This very thing is restated in Matthew as Jesus' last words to his disciples:  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Finally, this story reminds us that this place is Bethel.  In the place where Jacob met God, in the place where Jacob moved from fear to faith, in the place where God reiterated the promise, Jacob erected a memorial and named it Bethel, house of God.  Eventually Jacob and his descendants would return to that place and it would become one of the most important holy sites in all of Israel.

In our own lives we may be between conflicts.  We may be running from something, or we may be on the verge of a pilgrimage.  If, or when, we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, it's important to remember that God is with us, even to the end of the age.  And it's important to remember that this is a holy space, a place where we encounter the living God.

What this story can tell us is that this is Bethel, the house of God.  May God be with you wherever your journey takes you, and may God bring you into his house once more.



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