Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Five Truths Found in a Dream"

Genesis 28: 10-22
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I’m just going to confess up front that I spent entirely too much time this past week Googling about the song Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. I won’t tell you how much time, but, suffice it to say that I think Googling for more than thirty minutes about a forty-year-old rock song is probably too much. And I spent more time than that, I’m sure. I mean, it takes almost 10 minutes just to listen to the song, right?

How did I go on this little tangent, you ask? Well, as I was reading the story about Jacob’s dream in the desert, I noticed the footnote that some translations say it was a stairway to heaven, instead of a ladder. So that got me Googling.

Stairway to Heaven is one of those classic rock anthems that has become so deeply ingrained in our culture, it’s difficult to avoid at least knowing about its existence. The song is alternately credited as being one of the greatest rock songs of all time and ridiculed for being so ubiquitously overplayed that it’s lost all meaning.

Those of us who were raised in the era of the Wayne’s World movies remember Wayne going into the guitar shop to try out the Fender Stratocaster he’s been coveting. He begins strumming the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven, only to be reprimanded the salesman who quickly stops him and points to the sign on the wall, which says, “No Stairway to Heaven.”

Those a little older than the Wayne’s World generation will remember that, despite its length, this song still received an enormous amount of airplay. And in the early 80s, it became the subject of attack by some members of the Christian Right who were certain that this song, and others, contained satanic messages when played backwards.

So when you Google Stairway, suffice it to say, you find a lot of stuff.

There are thesis-length articles out there on its meaning. I even ran across one by a self-described Evangelical Christian who has gone to great lengths to show that the song actually points to Jesus and is a thinly veiled attempt to convert its hearers to Christianity.

What is it about this song that continues to speak to people forty years after its release? You could argue it has a lot to do with Jimmy Page's expansive guitar solo, and you’d be partially right. But I think it’s about more than that.

There is something about the mythical, dreamlike, timeless quality of the lyrics that reaches out and grabs you. There is something about the interplay between melody, production, and storytelling that makes this song timeless. As the refrain in the song says, “It makes me wonder.”

In so many ways, today’s story from Genesis is like Stairway to Heaven.

Now, let me be clear, if Stairway does have satanic messages in it, this Biblical story does not! But there are other similarities.

Even if we couldn’t tell the story ourselves, we probably all have at least a passing familiarity with it. It’s ubiquitous. Anyone who’s ever played with a wooden Jacob’s Ladder toy, or been to a church called Bethel, or, for that matter, heard the song Stairway to Heaven, has been, in some way touched by this story. It’s a classic.

Thousands of years after its first telling, it just sticks around. There is something about it – something about the mythical, dreamlike, timeless quality of the story that reaches out and grabs you. There is something about it that makes you wonder.

It’s rare to find such a concise story in the Bible that tells us quite so many things. I typically try to focus my sermons around one thing that the text is telling us about God, but with this story, there’s just so much. This one brief story, easily understood by children and adults alike, lays down an entire theology for us to explore. And it’s a good one.

So I’m not going to cheat you out of the multifaceted nature of this story. Instead, I want to walk through five truths about God that I believe this dreamy story contains.

Truth number one: God finds us – even when we’re not looking for God.

I’ve known people who are on a lifelong quest to “find God.” I bet you’ve known them, too. Heck, you might even be one of those people. Honestly, I think many of us are – at least to some extent. But let’s be clear – Jacob was not one of these people.

For a guy from such a religious family, you don’t really get the sense Jacob spent a ton of time thinking about God. He was really more self-focused and worried about how he could get ahead in the here-and-now.

Certainly, he didn’t seem to be looking for God at this particular moment.

He is on the run. After lying directly to his blind, elderly father’s face to obtain his blessing, Jacob faces the wrath of his brother, Esau, and heeds his mother’s advice to run away from home.

In his culture, it would have been highly unusual to find yourself sleeping outdoors, alone, because the typical practice was to just stop in at a stranger’s home and rest there. For whatever reason, Jacob is alone. Outside. In the middle of nowhere.

He is far from his family and probably not sure if he’ll ever see them again. We might imagine he would be scared and wracked with guilt, but the text says nothing of this. It simply says he is tired, and lies down to rest for the night. There is nothing in the story to suggest he is on the lookout for God.

And yet, it is here that God finds him.

The psalmist that we heard from earlier this morning said, “You search out my path and my lying down….Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” God searches out Jacob’s path and knows where he lies down. God finds Jacob when finding God isn’t even on Jacob’s radar. And we can rest assured that at some point in our lives, when we are least expecting it, God will make Himself known to us, too.

And in those moments of Holy Encounter, another truth about God becomes clear. Truth number two for today: God is not limited by place.

Now, even Jacob knows what to do when God shows up. First, you pay attention. Second, you mark the spot. And I think the third temptation would be to try to somehow stay in this one place forever. After all, if this is the House of God, as Jacob marks it, who wouldn’t want to hang there for a while?

But Jacob doesn’t stay put. He moves on. And he does so because of the promise God makes to him. God’s promise is to be with Jacob wherever he goes… “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

In a culture where gods were often tied to specific places, this was a radical concept. In fact, I think early Judaism was pretty unique in the ways in which our religious ancestors were breaking away from this notion that God was limited by place.
People were suddenly experiencing God in new and unexpected places. And the rest of the Bible is the story of how our un-boxable God continues to move in unique locations…in the staff of a stuttering prophet, in the apartment of a non-Israelite prostitute, in the words of prophets who came from no where and didn’t seem to amount to much of anything, in the cry of a newborn baby born in a stable, on the rush of a wind that came to a group of forlorn disciples. And on and on.

Our God is not limited by place.

Neither is She limited by textual location. There are many Christians who think we should pretty much just throw out the Old Testament.

Here in our worship services, we refer to these texts from the first part of the Bible as the Hebrew Scriptures, because we want to honor them. Some folks think that Old and New Testament make it sound a bit like only the shiny, New-fangled Testament really matters.

I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. And this passage is a prime example of how the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is the same One as the God of the Gospels and Epistles. This God is radically inclusive and expansively welcoming. This brings us to truth number three of this story: God’s blessing is for all.

If you’ll remember way back with me to the beginning of Genesis, you’ll recall that the punishment that God inflicted upon the man and the woman as they left the Garden had to do with farm work and childbearing. The man was to toil tirelessly to produce food from a cursed ground. And the woman was to experience pain in childbirth. Women and men were punished in very specific ways.

It’s intriguing, then, that the blessing offered to Jacob in this passage effectively deals with both of these areas of concern. God promises Jacob and his descents land and lots of children. And this is not a unique promise – by this point in the ancestral stories, we’ve already heard it several times. And we will hear this dual promise a total of seven times before God is through.

This is a promise of blessing meant specifically for both men and women. In a culture where land ownership was reserved for men, God is extending a blessing of prosperity. And in a culture where childbirth was one of the few areas where women could attain importance, God extends a specific blessing for women.

And this blessing is not just for Jacob’s family. It is a promise for the entire world. The purpose of this blessing is not just so Jacob’s family can live long and prosper. The point is that they will become a blessing for others. God says all the families of the earth will be blessed by Jacob and his descendents. It sounds a lot like the bumper stickers that says, “God bless the whole world (no exceptions).

And this God who blesses men and women throughout the world, likewise, blesses the Esau and Jacob in each of us. As much as we might not want to admit it, I think each of us has a bit of each of those twins in us.

Esau is the charmed brother….blessings just come his way naturally. Perhaps because of this, Esau is cavalier, trading in his blessings for a bowl of soup. After all, if you’ve always been blessed there’s no reason to assume it will really go away over something that silly, right? But when he discovers he’s been duped, he becomes enraged. Happy-go-lucky-Esau turns into bitter-betrayed Esau. Anyone who’s ever felt a sense of entitlement suddenly vanish knows all too well the rage that comes when that illusion is stripped away.

Jacob represents our more ambitious side. He feels that he has to work for everything –and he’ll go to any lengths necessary to take care of himself in the world. But it is here, when everything has careened out of control and he is reaping the fruits of his dishonest labor, that God comes to him in a moment of rest and reminds him that he doesn’t need to keep fighting so hard for everything. God reminds him, and all of us, that Her blessing isn’t contingent on whether or not we remember to feel it.

And this is where I see truth number four in this story: God is restorative. He wants us to be at peace with the conflicting parts of ourselves. God wants us to be at peace with out brothers and sisters. God wants us to feel at peace with our place in the world. And God is actively working to restore us.

One of the ways we allow ourselves to be healed by God’s restorative care is by listening. I’ve said it from this pulpit before and I’ll say it again: God is still speaking. It’s such a simple statement, but it’s so rarely lived out in our day-to-day lives. This is a fifth great truth of this story: God is still speaking…and sometimes it’s through dreams.

If this is true, when why do we often feel so shy about admitting God has spoken to us? I have met so many church folks who have quietly and sheepishly admitted to me that God spoke to them – through a dream, or a still-small voice, or some other “supernatural” occurrence. If we say we worship a Stillspeaking God, why are we so timid about admitting we’ve heard God speak?

I think we owe it to each other to speak up when we believe we’ve heard the voice of God. And I think we owe it to each other to be attentive and supportive when others tell their stories of God’s voice.

One of the interesting things about Jacob's dream is that he doesn't try to interpret it....but the Community has been interpreting it for thousands of years in various ways....and through that conversation about his dream and what it might mean, we have all been richly blessed; if no one had ever taken the time to record this story of Jacob’s encounter with the Stillspeaking God, we never would have had the chance to be blessed by it.

Even the telling and hearing of this story of Jacob’s dream has brought about God’s promise. Multitudes of people for many generations have been blessed by Jacob and his story. Even today, we are uncovering rich theological truths as we examine the story once more.

Thanks be to God for stories that make us wonder.

Thanks be to God for mythical, dreamlike, timeless stories that reach out and grab us.

May we always be intrigued, seized, reminded, restored, and strengthened by the telling and hearing of these stories.