Sunday's Sermon / July 23, 2017

Genesis 28: 11-22

    It is so funny the kinds of stories from the Bible you read as a kid, that you read again as an adult, and think, wait a minute Ė is that really right? Is that really fair? Is that really how the story goes? The story of Jacob and Esau is one of those stories, to me. Isaac and Rebecca for a long time cannot have children, and then when Rebecca does conceive, itís twins, Jacob and Esau, who have already started fighting in the womb. Thatís how much they struggle. Esau is born first, which means everything in that day and time. It meant he inherited everything his father had, it meant he would be the patriarch, the ruler of the family, all of it. Esau was also the stronger twin, the hunter, the one who brought his father wild game that he liked to eat. Jacob, on the other hand, came out of the womb holding on to his brotherís heel, and he pretty much kept right on grabbing at his brother for the rest of his life. As a matter of fact, thatís what Jacobís name means Ė it means grabby or graspy. ďTrickster,Ē as some people translate. Someone who is always grabbing at the heels of someone elseís success.
    He does this two big times to his brother Esau as adults. First, he tricks Esau into selling him his birthright, his inheritance, for a bowl of stew. Esau comes in famished from a hunting trip and Jacob refuses to give him food until he sells him his birthright. Not exactly a stellar example of brotherly love or mutual respect. Then, at the urging of his mother, when his father Isaac is very old and blind, he dresses up like Esau, puts wool on his arms to simulate Esauís hairy arms, brings Isaac his favorite stew, and he receives Esauís blessing. His father had intended to bless Esau, had asked for Esau, but Jacob came and tricked him instead. Just minutes later, Esau comes in with his bowl of stew and finds out heís been had. Please, father, bless me too. But Isaac says, Iíve already given your brother everything, dominion over all I have, and over you Ė what kind of blessing could I give now? In those days, a blessing was more than just a nice prayer. It was sort-of part prophesy, part passing the baton from one patriarch to the next, and part reading-of-the-will, before the deceased was even deceased. It was prophesy, position in the family, and property. And it was done in the name of God. There were no take-backs, no re-dos, no mulligans. Father, canít you give me a blessing too? Esau, son, Iíve already given your brother the prophesy, the position, and the property. What is left for me to give to you? Can you imagine how Esau felt, as his father lay dying, telling him that? Heartbreaking.
    After all this, Rebecca decides that tricky Jacob needs a wife, not from among the Canaanites, like Esauís wives, but from her own people. Isaac agrees and they send Jacob on an errand. This may have been the real reason, or it may likely have been to shield Jacob from Esauís anger. After all, when Isaac needed a wife, they sent a servant, but now they send Jacob himself. It was partly a matchmaking adventure and partly an escape from danger. So far, if youíre keeping track, Jacob has done nothing redemptive. Heís done nothing to earn our love or be the hero of the story. I mean, really Ė he fought with his brother in the womb, he came out hanging on to his heel, he pit his parents against each other, stole his brotherís birthright while he was starving, and then stole his poor, blind fatherís blessing without his knowledge. And still somehow we tell this story like Ė isnít that great, kids? All the awful things Jacob did to his brother? He was the chosen one! No.
    So Jacob the backstabber, the anti-hero, sets out to find a wife. He mustíve been traveling light, because he forgot a pillow. He sets out towards Haran, and when it gets dark, he lays down for the night, with a rock as his pillow.  And he has a splendid dream, of a ladder all the way to heaven, and angels of God, messengers of God, going up and down the ladder, and then God stands beside Jacob and says, ďďI 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.Ē
    Wow. What a vision. Jacobís ladder is such a part of our religious imagery, we sing about it, we tell the story to kids. It is in famous paintings. Thereís a childrenís toy called a Jacobís ladder, a quilt pattern called Jacobís ladder, a movie by that name, and some kind of exercise machine that looks really hard and horrible. This short vision has inspired our imaginations in all kinds of ways. In one dream, it redeems Jacobís whole story. Itís like the game of chutes and ladders, or snakes and ladders Ė you remember that board game? When you do something good, you climb a ladder. When you do something bad, you slide down a slide. In the Methodist church we might even call it backsliding. Your goal is to reach the top. Jacob, in his story, keeps getting the chutes, the slides down, because of all his bad behavior, and then suddenly he gets that one glowing ladder all the way to the top. The one that ends the game.
    Is that fair? Ė does the brightness of this vision that we love erase everything we know about Jacob? All of his trickery, all of that? Can you get a stairway straight to heaven? What do we do with it, now that God has made this pronouncement that Jacob is the one? Luckily, not even Jacob knows what to do with this information. He doesnít immediately become a better guy, a Godly guy. He kind of fumbles around and does the best he could Ė he wakes up and says, ďSurely the Lord is in this placeóand I did not know it!Ē Which, wow, thatís an underwhelming statement. Jacob woke up from his bright vision and said, ďWow, God is in this place. Who knew?Ē Didnít he know God is everywhere? Maybe he thought when he was doing all those bad things, God wasnít watching, which could explain a lot. And then, the scripture says, Jacob was afraid, and said, ďHow awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.Ē So he takes the rock he was sleeping on, which, if you were using it as a pillow, canít have been that big. What do you think this big? This? And pours oil on it, and names the place Bethel, which means ďhouse of God.Ē Which, sure itís nice, but itís not like he built a temple or even a stack of stones. He pours oil on his pillow rock and calls it good.
    And then, Jacob makes some promises back. And he swears to God that IF, listen to that, IF, God will fulfill that promise, take care of him, provide for him, and bring him safely back to his own land, IF God will do all those things, Jacob will worship God and give him 1/10th of everything he has. Ever the bargainer, Jacob doesnít fall flat on his face and worship God right then. Nope. He says, OK, I will worship you. Oh, no, not now. When you deliver on all of your promises. Oh, and when you do Iíll cut you in for a percentage. Ten percent, letís say? Nice guy, right? Oh, Jacob. What are we going to do with you?
    Normally when we read this Jacobís ladder story, Jacobís sins get outshone by the bright ladder, the angels coming and going, the amazing promises of God. We forget Jacobís past, and we think of him in new light. Well, if God is for this guy, who can be against him, right? But maybe this story isnít so much about Jacob, and what a shining guy he becomes. After all, he doesnít actually get to go up the ladder, he stays pretty firmly on the ground. Maybe this story is more about what God can do through even a trickster. Even a wheeler-dealer like Jacob. Itís always a good reminder to us, that God doesnít operate on a merit system. We donít earn Godís favor. We receive it, it is a free gift. Like a bright vision of heaven given to a con man, cast out by his family,  sleeping on a rock. Thatís an important piece of good news from this story. God can use anyone, even Jacob, even us, for great and amazing things.
    But there is a second gem hidden here in this story Ė not only does God make huge, grand, promises to someone who is, by our standards at least, unworthy -- God also seems to genuinely care about Jacob. Crazy, right? God cares for this tricky underdog. After all, why give him this vision at all? Why not just do those things without telling him? Why tell him that you, God, are with him protecting him always? The end is about the same. But God, for some reason, wants to give Jacob this wake-up call. God wants, slowly, gradually, for Jacobís life course to be corrected. God wants Jacob not only to be the father of a great nation, but to know God. To walk with God. God wants to have a relationship, not just a covenant.
    And you know what? Jacobís life does turn around. Slowly. Very slowly. Itís not a ladder straight to heaven, for sure. Itís definitely the slow, tired climb the long way around. Jacob, on that climb will be tricked in return. He will wrestle with an angel that leaves him crippled. He will have all sorts of struggles with his own children. You know how your mama or daddy used to yell at you Ė I hope when you grow up you have kids that are just like you? Yep, that happened to Jacob. His kids were just as tricky. Just as awful to each other. But Jacob does grow closer to God. He reconciles with his brother. He goes back to his homeland. And he does become the father of a great nation. And this vision was his turning point. It was his wake-up call. It was his notice that God loved and cared for him, even with all the things heíd done, and was still doing, that were not what weíd think of as good behavior for a patriarch of the faith. He doesnít get to take the shortcut, the ladder straight to heaven, he has to go the long way. But he goes. The ladder was his wake-up call. The ladder showed him what was possible.
    And the wake-up call started small. Jacob, remember, didnít sit up from his vision, and think, wow, Iíve been horrible. Iíve got to change all my ways and fix everything Iíve done wrong. Nope Ė his whole wake up call was this: Wow, God is in this place, and I didnít know it. That was it. That was the starting point. Small, small, small, gradual, and small. Just the recognition that God was there with him. That was it. That was all this vision accomplished.
    A spiritual teacher once asked me this very good question: What do you know, that you live like you donít know? What do you know, that you live like you donít know? Jacob probably knew intellectually that God was all around, with him all the time, but he lived like it wasnít true. He lived like he didnít know what God was there with him. This was his wake-up, that God was with him. So what is that thing for you, today? What do you know, that you live like you donít know? I can give you easy examples, from my life. I know that I shouldnít eat as much refined sugar. But I donít always live like I know that. I know that I should floss more often. But I donít always live like I know that. There are deeper things too. I know that God loves me. But I donít always live like a beloved child of God. I know that God uses imperfect people, like Jacob, like me, that God even uses our imperfections, but that doesnít stop me from being a perfectionist. From thinking that God would love me more if I was perfect. You get the idea. So what is that thing for you Ė what do you, right now, know, that youíre living like you donít know? What do you know that youíre living like you donít know?  
Because I believe what God wanted for Jacob God wants for us too. God doesnít just want us to go down the good path set before us. God wants to walk it with us. God wants us to know that we are loved, protected, provided for.
    Re-read the story of Jacobís ladder this week, and ask that question. What do I know, that Iím living like I donít know? God might, even right now, be trying to wake you up. Might be trying to let you know that youíre loved, or give you a new direction. Listen for that call. Jacob woke up from his bright vision and said, ďWow, God is in this place. Who knew?Ē

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Vacation Bible School / July 30 - Aug. 2, 2017

Dear friends,

Hi from Pastor Monica at Cedar Grove UMC! Just wanted to let you know about VBS this year:

Who: Any kids, ages 3 and up! Even older kids or youth are welcome to come as helpers.

What: Hero Central: Discover your strength in God! Fantastic super hero theme with puppet show, Bible stories, games, snacks, music, crafts and more! The last night will be a cookout with games and water balloons - families invited!

When: Sunday July 30 - Tuesday August 2nd, 6-8 PM

Where: Cedar Grove UMC. All the activities will be at church.

Why: So many reasons! We are getting this together quickly, since I just came and Karl didn't have time to plan much with his injury. BUT this superhero theme was too cool to pass up, and I really love VBS and spending time telling the stories of God to kids.

Here's what I'd love from you:

- If you have kids who want to come, shoot me an email back letting me know their names and ages. We will have full registration on site the first day.

- If you have friends who have kids who might enjoy it, pass this email along!

- If you, your teen, or a friend would like to help out, also let me know! Our intern, Portia, and I will be leading VBS but we need some more helpers! If you're interested in helping, let me know what areas you're interested in.

Thank you all so much - I'm so excited to meet some super kids and super heroes this month! If I haven't met you yet, I'm excited to meet you.





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