Monday, July 28, 2014

Neither Here Nor There

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 28:10-19a:

One of the things I like about the Bible is that, for the most part, it does not try and hide the skeletons that are in the closet, they are there for everyone to see, warts and all.  In the gospels, the disciples just never seem to get it, one of them betrays Jesus and all the others flee at the end, and Peter, the seemingly key disciple, through his impetuousness constantly getting into trouble and putting his foot in his mouth.  There are three major patriarchs in the Book of Genesis, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Indeed, God will sometimes be referred to as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac or the God of Jacob. Abraham twice lies in order to save his own life and says that his wife Sarah is not his wife but instead his sister and as a result, Sarah is taken into two different harems.  But that seems like nothing compared with Jacob, who is probably the hardest of the three to talk about because to use some church appropriate language, Jacob’s a scoundrel, but he’s not even really a lovable scoundrel.

Last week we heard about Abraham sending his servant back to his native land in order to find a wife for Isaac.  That wife is Rebekah, and in passages that we skip, Rebekah and Isaac have twins.  Esau is the first of the twins to be born, but as Esau is born, his younger brother comes out holding onto his heel, and because of this he is named Jacob which means something like “usurper” or “overtaker” or “grasper.”  And so it will be as when they grow up with Jacob becoming a con-artist, someone who takes as much advantage of situations as he can to get what he wants. Esau is the one who goes out does the hard work, whereas Jacob wants to stay close to the house, and he’s definitely a momma’s boy.  One day Esau comes in from the fields, and he finds Jacob in the house having been cooking some stew, and Esau basically says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse, and so Jacob tells Esau he can have some food if he’ll turn over his birthright, which Esau does.  Now we can certainly question what Esau is thinking here, but it begins to indicate how Jacob is going to go about things.  But then, under the direction of Rebekah, who seems to favor Jacob over Esau, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him blessing to him rather than to Esau as the first born son. 
Now the story of the trickery over gaining a blessing and the birthright, should remind us of the finagling that Sarah does in order to get Isaac the blessing and inheritance as the second born son, by expelling  Ishmael into the wilderness, which is where we find we also find Jacob.  Except Jacob is not in the wilderness because he has been expelled, but instead because he is fleeing for his life.  When Esau hears what Jacob has done in stealing his blessing, Esau plots to kill him, and so Rebekah tells Jacob to go back to the ancestral land, her land, to find himself a wife, and so Jacob flees into the wilderness, which is where we find him.

Although Jacob now has both the first born birthright and blessing, these don’t mean anything to someone on the run, someone running for their life, and for the first time, maybe in his life, but certainly in the narrative, Jacob is alone.  He is not at home and he is not where he intends to be, and he is certainly nowhere where he ever imagined he would be, maybe he’s even beginning to think about the type of person he is, although I think that’s probably a stretch as we will see, but Jacob lays down in the middle of nowhere and goes to sleep, and to show how desolate his existence has become we are told that uses a rock for his pillow, not the most comfortable of equipment.  And yet it is here that Jacob encounters God.  He is not in the family land, where he is heading, nor is he in the Promised Land, where he is fleeing from.  He has neither what he had or what he will get.  He is neither who he was nor who he will become, he is in other words neither here nor there.   He is between places.  He wants to be better and more important than he is, and he wants to be someplace else, he is between two worlds and yet that is where he encounters God.

But, when we look in scripture we find that this is not unusual as it seems that people encounter God more often when they have left their normal lives, when they are in the wilderness either literally or metaphorically, and so it is here with Jacob.  Jacob does not encounter God at home surrounded by family, he encounters God out in the wilderness.  Traditionally we know this story as Jacob’s ladder, but that’s really incorrect.  Instead, the word here for ladder is best translated as staircase or ramp, but Jacob’s ramp just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Now here is a picture of the famous Ziggurat of Ur, which is in modern day Iraq.  The soldiers going up the stairs give you a sense of the dimensions.  A Ziggurat, which is obviously a manmade structure, is where the gods of the ancient near east were said to have lived.  People would go up the stairs to the top in order to commune with the god they were worshipping.  This is probably what Jacob is dreaming about, and that’s what the word here would indicate, but there is a key difference between what Jacob dreams and how a Ziggurat was understood.  The gods of the ziggurats did not go up and down the steps, the way the angels do, not does the god come down to the ground.  The god who lives on the ziggurat stays at the top and if anyone wants to have a conversation then they have to go up to the top.  But notice what happens in Jacob’s dream.  God does not stay at the top of the staircase; instead God comes down and talks with Jacob.  That would have been a truly remarkable idea in the ancient world, just as the idea that God is not stationary would have also been extraordinary, but what God says to Jacob is that God will go with Jacob and bring him back.  God is not limited to a particular location.

Now the reality is that while we may acknowledge that God is everywhere, we often don’t live like it.  We come to church on Sunday in order to “get close with God”, but then when we leave here we act as if we leave God behind.  Never interacting with God until we come back here again next week.  Or worse, we leave not just God behind but our faith and beliefs as well.  I once worked with someone who constantly acted unethically, and when I called her on it she said she said her confessions each night so she had nothing to worry about.  That is leaving god behind and going out into the world and then coming back to where you think God resides and acting as if they two places are not connected.  It also says that we can deal with God where and when we want, and perhaps God is not present in those other places.

Sometimes this is so we can ignore God’s strictures in our lives, but often it’s because we don’t think that God wants to deal with us, and so we think if only I were a little better then God would like us and would want to love us, or we want to put off dealing with God until something else happens.  As soon as I stop drinking or doing drugs, as soon as I stop feeling so depressed or miserable, as soon as I stop mourning, as soon as I feel ready then I will be ready to encounter God, because then God will be willing to love us.  The problem with that is that just like with Jacob, God cannot meet us where we want to be, or take us for who we want to be, God can only meet us where we are and as we are.  God did not wait for Jacob to reach his destination, or to become a better person, to become less of a scoundrel, instead God encounters him where he is not where he wants to be.

Noted Christian author Tony Campolo recounts a time in which he had gone to Honolulu to speak at a conference.  His first night there, Campolo woke up at 9am his time, although unfortunately it was only 3am in Hawaii.  Knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep, he decided to walk to a small diner nearby that was open all night.  At 3:30, he says, a loud, provocatively dressed group of prostitutes came into the restaurant at the end of their night.  Their crude and loud talk made Campolo uncomfortable, and so he prepared to leave, but as he did so, he heard one of the women say “tomorrow’s my birthday.  I’m going to be thirty-nine.”  Her friend responded, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party?  You want me to get you a cake and sing you happy birthday?”  “Come on” the woman said, “why do you have to be so mean?  I was just telling you, that’s all.  I don’t want anything from you.  I mean, why should you give me a birthday party?  I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.  Why should I have one now?”

When Campolo heard those words, he made a decision.  He stayed in the diner until the women left.  Then he said to the owner, “Do they come here every night?”  “Yeah,” he said, “you can set your clock by it.”  “What’s the name of the woman who said she was having a birthday,” Campolo asked?  “That’s Agnes” he said.”  “What do you think of us throwing  a party for her – right here – tomorrow night?” Campolo asked.  A smile crossed the owners face, and he said, “That’s great!  I like it!  I’ll even make the cake.” (SLIDE 6, CAKE)  At 2 the next morning, Campolo went back to the diner.  He put up decorations and a big sign that said Happy Birthday Agnes.  The workers at the diner had obviously gotten the word out, because by 3:15 just about every prostitute in Honolulu was crowded into the place.  At 3:30 sharp, the doors swung open and in came Agnes and her friends.  Campolo had the entire group scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes.”  Agnes was so stunned, that a friend had to hold her up, while everyone began to sing Happy Birthday.  When the cake, covered with 39 candles, was brought over, Agnes began to cry, and before the cake was cut she asked if she could take the cake down the street to show it to her mother and then come right back.  The owner said that would be fine, and Agnes walked out with the cake.  When the door closed behind her, a silence filled the diner.  Campolo broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”  He said it probably seemed strange for an entire room of prostitutes to bow their heads in prayer, but that’s what happened.  Campolo prayed for Agnes and the other prostitutes in the diner, affirming that they were beloved daughters of God, with great value, worth and promise.  When Campolo finished praying, the owner said “You never told me you were a preacher.  What kind of a church do you belong to?”  In a moment of divine inspiration, Campolo said “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”  And the owner said, "No you don't. There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. I'd join a church like that!"  The owner had certainly never heard the story of Jacob

Jacob did not plan on meeting God where he was, and I am pretty sure that Agnes never thought she would meet God at 3:30 in the morning either.  In fact, I am pretty sure that Agnes, and every other prostitute in that diner, probably thought they were unworthy of God’s love and that they would not be welcome in any church that they walked into.  How many others like Agnes are out there?  People who are hungry for the word of God, people wanting to be told that they are beloved children of God and that God loves them and cares for them and wants to be in relationship with them, but are afraid to allow God to meet them where they are and are even more afraid of how they might be received if they are to walk through those doors?  Are we a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning? Are we a people that believes in a God who not only throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30, but that loves them as beloved daughters?  Are we a people who can encounter God at 3:30 in the morning in the middle of nowhere?  Because I would be willing to bet that Campolo had an encounter with God that morning just like Agnes did.  I know that there are lots of people in this community, and maybe even some of you here today, who believe that God cannot have a relationship with them, that they are not ready or worthy, but God cannot meet us where we want to be but only where we are, but there are only two ways they can know that.  One is for us to tell them, and the second is for us to welcome them with open arms when they walk through the door.  When asked why he was having dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors and other sinners, Jesus said “those who are well have no need of a physician… for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Rev. Geoff McElroy, a United Methodist pastor in Georgia, says “Jacob’s vision at Bethel speaks to one of the core beliefs of biblical faith: the Creator God, the God of Israel, the God of the covenant is not a God that abandons or ignores but is a God who is ever-present. Even in the dark times of life, when the biblical writers speak from their own places of abandonment and exile, there is usually a conviction alongside their laments, a conviction that God is somehow, someway still present and at work, that the promise still holds.”

Jacob is the ultimate scoundrel, fleeing for his life, and is on his way to someplace else, but he encounters God in the in between, he encounters God in the neither here nor there, and God tells him that not only is he important but that the promises of Abraham will continue through him.  We have a message for the world.  We are here to proclaim the gospel, that is literally the good news, but we also need to remember that God can only meet us where we are and as we are.  All of us know people who are desperate to hear the word of God, and so my charge to you this week is to talk with just one person this week and to tell them that God wants to have a relationship with them, that God loves them and that we love them and want to have a relationship with them, that we are here not because we are perfect, but because we are imperfect and that God cannot meet them were they want to be but only where they are regardless of where that is, so invite them to join us next week to hear another message about one of the ultimate con artists and his literal struggle with God, and it’s a message I think they might like to hear.  And then here is my next charge, we need to be ready to welcome them as another child of God with whom God wants to be in relationship.  May it be so.  Amen.

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