Promises

Promises

July 23, 2017
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, July 23, 2017
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 11)

Focus Theme
Promises

Focus Prayer
O God of Jacob, you speak in the light of day and in the dark of night when our sleeping is filled with dreams of heaven and earth. May Jacob's vision remind us to be open and watchful, ready to discover your presence in our midst. Amen.

Focus Reading
Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 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. 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. 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; 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. 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." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place ó and I did not know it!" 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."

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. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

All readings for the week
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Focus Questions

1. Have you ever found yourself "in a limbo of [your] own making"?

2. When have you found God in "unexpected places"? How did that feel?

3. Do you ever make promises to God, in gratitude or perhaps for persuasion?

4. How do you think our scientific age deal with dreams and their spiritual meanings?

5. What dreams matter most to you, and to all of us?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

Jacob is perhaps the most interesting of the patriarchs, if not the most admirable among them. Of course, every one of them is deeply flawed, and at one point or another in the story, their duplicity and even cowardice dismay us. Think, for example, of both Abraham and Isaac lying about the identity of their wives, Sarah and Rebekah, to protect their own skin. But Jacob's lies are astonishing in their breezy self-interest and greed as he repeatedly reassures his poor, blind--and suspicious--father that he is not Isaac's younger son but his older, favorite son, Esau.

What a shameful way to obtain a blessing! In fact, Jacob strikes me less as "Father Jacob" and more like the charming "Big Brother, Second-Born Jacob," the rogue who repeatedly gets into trouble but still evokes love and devotion from at least one parent and many descendants, as well as lovers of great stories to this day. And that's a good thing for readers of these ancient family stories, for everyone who "struggles with God" (and their families!), and for all of us who are far from perfect ourselves.

On the run from his brother

Out there on his own, Jacob is on the run from his brother's threats after his mother sends him away for "a while." (Who knew it would turn out to be twenty years, and multiple wives and children before he returned?) His mother has invented an excuse to get him out of town, complaining about her foreign daughters-in-law, Esau's Hittite wives (she simply could not bear another one): Jacob was to travel almost four hundred miles to find a wife more acceptable to Mother Rebekah. Sidney Greidanus tell us that Jacob, at this point, has traveled only fifty miles or so.

Unless we're deep-woods wilderness campers, we've probably never experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out there, in the dark, on the road back to his father's homeland. Aloneness, and anxiety, too. Gene Tucker writes that Jacob "is at great risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him." But it's worse than that, according to Richard Pervo, who calls Jacob "an unperson in an unplaceÖ.an immoral and irreligious rogue. No religious seeker, he will have to be run to ground by God, who is not without experience in handling hard cases." Have you ever felt like an "unperson"?

Not realizing where he was

Several other scholars also describe Jacob as a somewhat secular figure, in spite of his auspicious lineage as the grandson of Abraham, who had first (and then repeatedly) heard from the God who promised a land, many descendants, and the vocation of being a blessing to all the families of the earth. Greidanus suggests that, whether Jacob realizes it or not, the very spot where he stops to sleep is the place where "his grandfather Abram, upon reaching the Promised Land, had built an altar to the Lord (12:8)." And Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, observes that Jacob "is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making."

All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that "unplace." That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in "unexpected places," to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him. Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us. Taylor writes: "Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down--not where it should be but where he is."

Interpreting the dream

There is the dream, and there is the interpretation of the dream. Many scholars connect Jacob's vision of heavenly beings, messengers perhaps, going up and down a ladder to heaven, with the Babylonian ziggurats that the biblical authors would have known well. Richard Pervo writes imaginatively of the "Babylonian temples, with a penthouse apartment for the god and a ground-level chamber for formal receptions," but--speaking of imagination--Greidanus invites us to picture the response of the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, when they heard these promises of God's unfailing presence to Jacob (and his descendants, surely), no matter where they go. We remember that, in a little while, Jacob's name will even be changed to "Israel," which surely must have touched the homesick exiles in their deepest hearts.

The God of heaven and earth doesn't actually need all those messengers going up and down the steps in order to deliver the promises once again to Jacob. God stands right there, at Jacob's side, and tells him once again what the future holds. No matter how many times we read or hear those elegant promises, they are utterly beautiful and fill us, at each hearing, with a sure and sustaining hope. (Nevertheless, just for our information, Sibley Towner does count this as "the eighth reiteration of the divine promise of the land to a patriarch and the seventh direct or indirect repetition of the promise of numerous progeny," and God "also makes the fifth and final statement of the overarching theme of blessing to the nations.")

The difference one word makes

In many translations, we miss something important, Holly Hearon writes: "Jacob's dream is punctuated at four points by the word behold (omitted in the English): 'behold, a ladder [more likely, staircase or ramp],' 'behold, angels of God,' 'behold, the Lord stood beside him,' 'behold, know that I am with you.'" How does adding this one word change the hearing of this story for you?

Dreams often wake us up with a powerful sense of having experienced something important: how would it feel if God were the one to explain our dream for us? Perhaps we have become too analytical, too distanced from our dreams to experience them as a deeper reality, perhaps even as a source of spiritual insight, as they so often were for our ancestors.

Distance and nearness

Two issues of distance and nearness, and of connection between the two, provide material for reflection as we make our way through another text from Genesis. There is the question of family relationships, in the smaller and specific sense, but in the larger one as well, across time, across generations. Remembering how alone Jacob was out there on the road to Haran, we are heartened and inspired to read James Newsome's observation that the "solitary Jacob, a refugee from his own community...is portrayed as being the focus of that community, the interface between his community's past and its future." In fact, the one "who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing!"

Jacob's "ah-ha!" moment is a conversion experience as well, but it extends far beyond his own personal life to his family and indeed, to all humankind. We note that Jacob will continue his crafty ways in the future, but while he "was not an entirely new person," Newsome writes, "neither was he the same old Jacob." Can't the same thing be said of us, after we feel that our lives have been tranformed by grace?

The distance between God and us

And then there is the question of place, of the distance between humanity and God, and the way God, in a sense, intrudes upon our lives, comes across the divide, and makes a home in our midst. Jacob senses this power of God, this reality of God dwelling among us, when he marks and re-names this holy place of his dream of heaven and earth, and the voice of God reaffirming the promise to his ancestors.

Jacob has sense enough to call this place what it is, "Beth-el," the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awe-some place. We of course have more technical terms for such things, although in this case, a quite lovely one in Holly Hearon's "liminal space where earth and heaven meet." Or, as Celtic spirituality calls it, a "thin place."

God with Jacob wherever he goes

And yet, we hear in God's promise something more, something new, for God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise. In those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time. It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised.

Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land of promise, just as his grandfather heard them on his way in. In either case, and in our case as well, James Newsome reminds us that God is the one who takes the initiative in these stories, and it's up to us to respond faithfully to "God's compassionate intrusion into our sinful ways." Like us, Jacob only needs "to say yes to the living God."

Hearing Jacob's response

It would, however, be helpful to read this text beyond the lectionary limit to verse 22, in order to hear all of Jacob's response to God, to hear that "yes to the living God." I sometimes wonder how these text limits get set, and I don't want to think it's because Jacob includes a tithe in his promise to God (in many churches, tithing seems to be a forbidden topic). It would, however, be interesting to hear how folks respond to this account of an almost-irreligious character promising to give God a tenth of all God gives him.

Might this not be a great text for stewardship reflection, in a year-round stewardship ministry? Some may question Jacob's faith, as if he's making a deal with God: is this all too good to be true, and do I need to give God an incentive to keep these extravagant promises? Not so, Richard Pervo writes: "God is stuck with Jacob, and vice versa." Terence Fretheim also strikes a note of mutuality in his observation about where things will go from here: "There is a 'must' for God in this text, and a 'must' for Jacob as well."

Experiencing God where we are

There is a tension for people of faith in our love for our places of worship, our sacred spaces. While Holly Hearon claims that "God is not associated, ultimately, with place, but in relationship and promise," we embodied creatures do experience God in places that we can feel, places that we can cherish, places that evoke memories, places that we mourn when they are destroyed. I remember a scene in the movie Romero, when the church is destroyed and the people are devastated, and the archbishop walks bravely back in to recover the Eucharist. That is an embodied and sacred experience. In a similar way, so is the sorrow of my friend, whose childhood church and place of her ordination is now for sale.

Terence Fretheim writes beautifully about our need to create places of worship, "because human beings are shaped by place as well as time." Thinking back to Jacob and thousands of other ancestors who wandered, who were led, who were taken in exile, who went on pilgrimage, we find his words inspiring for us, too, their descendants in faith: "The rhythms of the ancestors include the rhythm of journeying and worship; their journeys are punctuated by moments of worship at specific places. Yet the place never becomes a final objective, where one settles in; it provides sustenance for the ongoing journey."

The church as a base camp

One of my favorite images for the church is that of a "base camp," a place of safety where we are fed and rested for the journey (and work) outside its walls, but I must acknowledge that we are prone at times to see ourselves as always at work, or to be constantly reminding ourselves dutifully of the need to work. So we may miss the encounters with God that happen at any time, anywhere, in so many places and times of blessing: at rest and at play, in the quiet, alone, or even in a crowd.

Indeed, we experience God in more places than our church buildings, no matter how beautiful or inspiring they are. We may have a place in nature, or a quiet spot in our home, or maybe we have unexpectedly stumbled upon sacred ground in the most unexpected places, like hospital waiting rooms, or the operating room, or the doctor's office during a diagnosis. (I imagine hospice chaplains having many stories like these.) In good news or bad, in joy and sorrow, we hold fast to the sure knowledge that God is with us always, just as God promised, no matter where we go.

God with us, Emmanuel

Richard Pervo observes, "The claim of continuing presence in verse 15 resonates with Matthew's theme of Emmanuel (1:23; 28:20)," and Sidney Greidanus reminds us that "Jesus himself will refer to this Old Testament passage" when he says in John 1:51, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." Greidanus notes that, in this vision, Christians see Jesus as a ladder, "the link between heaven and earth."

I was reminded of the question of sacred space by a devotional from a UCC congregation, the Cathedral of Hope: Dr. Gary G. Kindley, a pastoral counselor, provided a thoughtful meditation on the way we see the site of the World Trade Center since 9/11. Because of the tragedy and heroism that occurred there, and because of the ashes that will always remain, we experience it as holy ground, and I agree.

A changed perspective

Dr. Kindley compares this to Jacob, who "had a profound experience that changed his perception of the place," so that he "consecrated the site, renaming it." I read Dr. Kindley's reflection, on how "the ordinary can become extraordinary," so that "in unexpected and creative ways" we can consecrate work or living spaces as holy ones, in light of this claim by Gene Tucker, that a space's "sacredness must be either discovered or disclosed, and then recognized." How do you respond to the tension between our choosing to consecrate a space, and a sense of sacredness that is "discovered or disclosed"?

Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text is quite beautiful, and this long reflection could be extended with excerpts from it, but I recommend reading the entire sermon in Gospel Medicine. Taylor reminds us that we are dreamers, but, raised in a scientific age, we "have also lost confidence in...our dream".of a healed earth full of holy people, where we see no longer in a mirror dimly but face-to-face at last".a dream of reunion, of divine communion...."

Where people meet God

Another source of reflection on this experience of finding God--and the promises of God--in unexpected places, that is, not just in the sanctuaries and altars we have built, is Diana Butler Bass's wonderful book, Grounded: Finding God in the World--A Spiritual Revolution. She speaks so clearly about the reality of the "nones" and the "dones" who feel God's presence with them, wherever they go, and yet are judged so often by church folks.

And she acknowledges her own struggle with the church that has made it difficult to participate in traditional worship: "This has not happened because I am angry at the church or God. Rather, it has happened because I was moving around in the world and began to realize how beautifully God was everywhere: in nature and in my neighborhood, in considering the stars and by seeking my roots. It took me five decades to figure it out, but I finally understood. The church is not the only sacred space; the world is profoundly sacred as well." I trust centuries of mystics would agree with her.

We hunger for the same things

Just before I retired, I had the amazing opportunity to be on a panel discussion about this book with Dr. Bass at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland. Here is something I learned that day, sitting in a room full of "church folks": they, too, as committed church members in a mainline denomination in a (gorgeous) tall steeple church with an extraordinary pastor, nevertheless grasped immediately what Diana Butler Bass was talking about. They, too, shared that profound need to heighten their awareness of God's presence and promises with them, wherever they go, not just in church.

I'm also reminded of Taylor's excellent book, An Altar in the World, which leads us on the path of learning the practice of doing less and being more open to those experiences of the sacred which await us here and now, wherever we go. She reminds us in her sermon, after all: "We are the dreamers of the promise, set apart to bless all the families of the earth," here, "where it has pleased God to be with us".where the bright rungs of God's ladder touch down on our own ordinary pieces of the earth" ("Dreaming the Truth" in Gospel Medicine). These two brilliant women theologians echo the simple elegance of Jacob's story, so ancient, so new, a story that calls us to watch for God in those most unexpected places of blessing and promise.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Nadia Hashimi, When the Moon is Low, 21st century
"In the darkness, when you cannot see the ground under your feet and when your fingers touch nothing but night, you are not alone. I will stay with you as moonlight stays on water."
and
"We all cross a hundred peaks to get even this far. And there will be more before we each make it to whatever God has fated for us."

C.G. Jung, 20th century
"Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."

John Lewis Gaddis, 21st century
"It is worth starting with visions, though, because they establish hopes and fears. History then determines which prevail."

Pico Iyer, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of The World, 21st century
"Finding a sanctuary, a place apart from time, is not so different from finding a faith."

J.D. Stroube, Epiphany, 21st century
"As I turned to leave, I looked down. Beside my foot, a sprout of greenery was clawing its way through the pristine nothingness to begin anew. It was later that I realized my haven had sent me a message, and it had shown me that nothing is ever completely lost, unless you cease searching."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"People only see what they are prepared to see."

Rachel Naomi Remen, 21st century
"Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing."

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"My parents, and librarians along the way, taught me about the space between words; about the margins, where so many juicy moments of life and spirit and friendship could be found. In a library, you could find miracles and truth and you might find something that would make you laugh so hard that you get shushed, in the friendliest way. There was sanctuary in a library, there is sanctuary now, from the war, from the storms of our family and our own anxious minds. Libraries are like the mountain, or the meadows behind the goat ladies house: sacred space."

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