God’s Always Beside and Within – July 19

A sermon based on Genesis 28: 10-19a

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 19, 2020

by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Last week I preached on Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower.” And I suggested one meaning we can find in that parable is we are to be Jesus’ and God’s hands that toss love out (sow it),  toward everyone, everywhere with the idea that God will do the rest and help it grow where it can. We are not to concern ourselves with whether the condition of the soil will grow love we’ve sown.

While I was working on last week’s sermon I explained the basic idea of the sermon to a pastor friend,  and I noted that I was a perfect example of how Jesus meant that sowing to play out.  When I walked into a church in the 1990s no one would have guessed the seed of love tossed out by church people at me would take root and grow.  I was an agnostic – border-line atheist–  lawyer with such a disdain for Christianity I came into that church with a quiver full of argumentative arrows to shoot the religion down.  I had gathered those arrows over the years because I had experienced some Christians wound and hurt people with meanness,  and some churches chase me away because I objected to such harm. I had those arrows at the ready, in defense, for years.  And the very last place I expected to find love, let alone God, was in a church.

In other words, going back to “The Parable of the Sower,”  by all appearances you would think I was not good soil for a church to waste tossing  seeds on.   But doggone it, if the pastor and the people in Lincoln City Congregational, UCC didn’t just go ahead and sow the seeds of love anyway.   I cannot speak for them, but I was sure surprised when the seeds of love germinated, took root and grew so strong that the fruit of that successful sowing resulted in not just a Christian, but a Christian pastor advocating for the faith I once hated.   I was an agnostic/atheist lawyer no more,  who emptied his quiver of anti-church arrows and picked up a bunch of seeds of love to put in the air instead.  I didn’t add that personal note to the sermon last week, because it was already long and complicated enough.  And I am glad I held back,  because that personal note works well with the story about Jacob that is before us today.

To shift the metaphor to today’s Lectionary lesson, like Jacob settling in for the night in a seemingly Godforsaken barren desert – ironic as it sounds– when I walked into that church in Oregon I figured I was in a Godforsaken place.  And like Jacob, I was awakened to find I was actually in a God-soaked place.  That metaphor, for me, is not a stretch either. When I had my spiritual and religious awakening at that church I pretty much responded as Jacob did exclaiming “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!”  In fact, I can say that now in this church too. Before I awoke to God in Oregon – in a place very much like this church – I never would have guessed the God of Love was in any church, that seeds of love were actually spread far and wide in and through many of them. I did not know it. Now surely, I can say it, the Lord is here.

That’s all good news and good stuff for sure, but it is probably not much in the way of new news to most of you.  But it does hint at the deep meaning of the lessons in our Lectionary text, a famous story that most Christians have some knowledge of. I suspect if I asked about Jacob most of us would recall Jacob’s ladder and probably think about angels going up and down it; and we’d probably name that awesome spiritual, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” But my guess is that not many of us remember much more about Jacob or today’s Bible story. We probably don’t think much about the story unless a pastor chooses the text for a sermon, that’s a shame because most of us have times when we do not experience God even though God is always near, we feel in a Godforsaken place.

I have to smile a bit, because my story is on one end of the spectrum of possibilities and Jacob’s is on the other end.  And my end is pretty obvious. Seems like a no brainer because while I was surprised to find God in church, to most people it seems a pretty obvious place to find God.  That being so, I know for a fact that many people think churches are void of God. Sadly, my experience is not unique.  But I get that it is easier in general to understand why Jacob would have been surprised to find God that night in the desert.  And not just because it was a barren and dry and desolate place,  but because his life at that point was full of misery, angst, sin and hate. He’d just ripped off his brother Esau’s inheritance by working with his mother to deceive both his brother and his father, Isaac.   While the scheme worked. It had dire consequences. Isaac was violently upset and Esau was now out to kill Jacob. This caused Jacob to run away.   His inheritance was a long ways off, and now his family and home were a long way off too.

Until this terrible low point in his life Jacob had not prayed to, or knowingly encountered,  God.  So that night when he lay his head on a rock to sleep he seemed to have no one and nothing, no family, no friends, no food, no drink, no soft place to lay his head– and he had no conscious connection to a greater power.  As Jacob set his head on that rock pillow he had already hit rock bottom. And what happened? Unlike my encounter with God in a house of God, Jacob encountered God in a seemingly unholy time and unholy place, and he himself sure seemed unholy. And yet God transformed it all, by being there soaking both the time and the place . . . and the man.

We may expect God to be in churches, but not so much with deceitful desperados on the lam in dark desolation resulting from their own dastardly deeds. We certainly would not expect a holy visit or holy promises there. Or learn that it is a holy place allowed to be consecrated by such an unholy man. But by God,  that is exactly what happens. And it happens through a very interesting vision that needs some explaining. In the non-Jewish religions of Jacob’s time and place towers (like the tower of Babel) were built to reach up to the gods. Holy people would go up the towers to meet their god or gods at the top and then come back down with messages for their religions and adherents  Those ancient towers did not have ladders but ramps or stairs and that is probably a better image and translation than ladder.

The angels on the stairs in the dream, are in Hebrew the “messengers of Elohim.” Those messengers first go up the steps from the earth and come back down the steps like the Holy people on the towers of other religions did. The story’s angels, are not angels in the traditional sense, in that they start from earth and go up to heaven, not vice versa. Elohim, as I have mentioned before, is a pluralistic term for gods. While those messengers of the Elohim and the idea of multiple gods is not directly disparaged in the text, it IS Yahweh in Hebrew (the singular one God) who meets Jacob not at the top of a tower, but right there by his side down on the desert floor and personally delivers the message.

Yahweh comes to the dirty man in the dirty desert, and comes not to smite Jacob, but to offer hope and promises and to declare a constant forever presence “know that I am with you and will keep with you wherever you go . . .” Talk about “The Parable of the Sower” playing out. I may be biased, but it seems to me an agnostic lawyer has nothing on this dirty scoundrel Jacob. In the rock bottom of his life, God takes whatever seeds of love Jacob’s family or tribe sowed in him and makes them grow. Yahweh waters them in the desert of Jacob’s waywardness, and in the literal desert of wasteland he has been forced to take refuge in. If God is in such deserts, God is with everyone everywhere. No matter the sinful deed, no matter the wasteland. God’s there, and makes and keeps promises! This is so amazing and unexpected that the first thing Jacob does when he awakes is exclaim: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”

I love that the rather simple mundane rock that makes us uncomfortable to consider using as a pillow is the very thing that is lifted up to flag God’s presence in that place. I love it because God is present from that seemingly ordinary rock on up. When we start seeing God in the ordinary, we start seeing there is no ordinary. It is all soaked with God and that makes it all extraordinary. Even in the lowest, most desolate of times, places people and things.

A lot of the time we all miss seeing God soaking our existence. You don’t have to be a agnostic lawyer or a scoundrel on the lam to miss God’s presence. We can be anywhere and miss it. Even in a house of worship, even in a barren desert, even in a plain old rock on the ground – even in a terrible pandemic that upturns our lives, we may not know God is there, until we awake and see it. It is hard to believe that God is present in all of this reality we inhabit, no matter what, but it is true.

All of existence has God in it. Every thing, and moment, and person is soaking in God. So, if we take a time to stop and, say, lift a rock up we can find God in the moment and in the rock. And we can intentionally do that with anything because, as the ancient Greek poets Paul quoted said,  God is what “we live and move and have our being in.” Our Psalm today is all about that, there is nowhere we can go and flee from God. This will date me, but like the unsuspecting beauty shop customers in TV commercials of yore finding their hands were in Palmolive dish soap we “are soaking in it,” God, that is. And fortunately, sometimes when we least expect it, God’s presence seeps out in visions like Jacob had, or in encounters with sowers of seeds of love like I had.

Not everybody, of course, who hits rock bottom or who wanders into a church will sense God soaking the place or the person they are.  But they could. Because God is there, and in them too. The lesson is, there is no place God is not and there is no person God is not beside and within.  We just need to be shaken awake to the presence either by human action like sowing of love, or divine action like sowing of a vision.

But being shaken awake is just the first step, we need to pay attention and focus and see the presence we are awaken to, and honor and embrace it and live into it. We need to pay attention and be fully present. When we do that anywhere we will sense God’s presence. The kind church people who sowed love for me caused me to stop and sense awe, wonder and love. The vision God gave to Jacob caused him to stop and sense it too.

So, here’s the thing, right now if any of you, feel you are in a godforsaken place, a physical or mental or cultural  desolation . . . a dark pandemic, please hear the good news that God is there with you. You, we, are not alone. If you stop and look, you can sense the awe, wonder and love that is present. And it is always present. And it is always God. If God can be known by Jacob in a desert in a horrible time that he caused, God can be known by us in any circumstance we find ourselves in. That is good news and one of the truths in the Bible. God is with us and God is good . . .  all the time. And all the time . . . God is good. AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:

  1. One of the many blessings given to me at Lincoln City Congregational, UCC was exposure to the Jewish mystic Rabbi Lawrence Kushner who among many other things wrote a remarkable book on the story of Jacob’s vision and awakening. The book is called God was in this PLACE and I, i did not know it (sic), 1994. That book has long influenced my understanding of Genesis 28:10-19 for decades now, and it influenced my thinking on this sermon.

 

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