Sunday, February 09, 2020

Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Waking Up to God," Genesis 28:10-17

Sermon 2/9/2020
Genesis 28:10-17

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Waking Up to God

I don’t know about you, but I grew up singing We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder in Sunday School. I’m pretty sure we occasionally incorporated motions, imitating climbing a ladder to heaven. I knew my Bible stories pretty well when I was little, but still I don’t think I really think I knew why we were singing about Jacob’s ladder exactly, or soldiers of the cross, or exactly what would happen if we ever got to the top of the ladder. Jacob’s Ladder is actually an African-American spiritual, first composed and sung by slaves in the fields in the US - and so we don’t know its exact origins. But we know it was sung call-and-response style, and that the imagery suggested that those who persevered in faith would eventually be able to rise up out of slavery - whether in this life or in life eternal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Are_Climbing_Jacob%27s_Ladder)  
The scriptural foundation for the hymn, of course, comes from our text for today from Genesis, where Jacob - Jacob who is eventually named “Israel” by God, who is the father of the twelve sons that become the twelve tribes of Israel - Jacob has a dream, a vision of what it is sometimes called a ladder, a staircase, or a ramp that goes from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. Although the spiritual is inspiring and hopeful, particularly for the slaves who were oppressed and abused, Jacob’s dream doesn’t actually include Jacob ascending to heaven. Rather, the dream seems to be more about movement in the other direction: It’s a revealing of heaven’s closeness to earth, a reminder that God comes to us where we are, that the divine has left heaven to be with us. We experience that in particular - the divine with us on earth - in the person of Jesus, but for Jacob and his contemporaries, before Christ’s birth, a dream like his was a powerful reminder of God’s closeness. We might picture a regular old giant ladder running up to heaven - in our mind and in artwork of this text. But some biblical scholars suggest that what Jacob sees in his dream might have been more like a ziggurat, a structure found in many ancient cultures that were meant to bring earth as close to heaven as possible. (Haslam, Chris, Comments, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr16m.shtml) Whatever Jacob saw, though, the most important part of his vision is that God speaks to him in his dream. God says to him, “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.” God tells Jacob his descendents will spread in all directions, and because of him, because of and through Jacob, “all the families of the earth” will be blessed.” God says, “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.” That’s a lot of promise and blessing in one dream. So it is no wonder that when he awakens Jacob concludes, “Surely God is in this place and I didn’t even know it.” He’s afraid, overwhelmed by his experience, and after our text ends, Jacob takes the stone that had served as his pillow the night before, and makes it into a marker of the holy place, and names the place Bethel - “House of God.” Jacob says the ladder he saw in his dream is the gate of heaven.  
To fully understand this scene, this vision we call “Jacob’s ladder,” we have to find out who Jacob is, what’s gone on up to this point in the story. And to fully understand Jacob’s story, it’s helpful if you know a little bit about sibling dynamics. I have three brothers, as you know. I’m close with all my brothers, and each relationship is unique. I grew up wanting to be just like my older brother Jim. He’s six years older, and I wanted to do everything he did, even if he always did make me play the “bad guys” whenever we played Star Wars together. Most of you got to know my brother Tim pretty well. We tease and kid, and occasionally drive each other crazy, but we’ve mostly gotten along fairly well. And then there’s my youngest brother Todd, the actor, who has come and performed monologues here at Christmas sometimes. If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality inventories, I can tell you that Todd and I have the same personality profile, although it comes out in different ways. And Todd and I understand each other pretty well, and we have a long history of dealing with each other through careful negotiations. If I need a favor from one of my brothers, Jim will do it if he can or wants to, otherwise he’ll just tell me no. Tim will almost definitely do it, or he’ll feel guilty for not helping. But Todd - Todd will try to figure out what he can get in exchange for helping me. Todd is always ready to make a deal. It drives my mom crazy that Todd and I will negotiate like this. She doesn’t want any strings attached - family is just supposed to help each other! And of course, if I was truly in need in a significant way, I can depend on all of my brothers. But otherwise, Todd and I have perfected the art of the deal. Yes, he’ll run to the store for me if I buy him a snack or two or three. That’s a simple version of our deals. If I’m asking for a favor, Todd just wants to make sure he can get something out of it too.   
Jacob, who we meet here in Genesis, channels my dynamic with Todd times ten, or twenty. Jacob is at best kind of obnoxious, at worst, a cheat, a scoundrel, kind of a rotten guy. And at the heart of it is his relationship with his sibling. Jacob is a twin. His twin brother Esau was born first, but Jacob was gripping his brother’s heel as he was born, and so Jacob is given his name because it means “grasps by the heel” but also “He supplants.” From birth, Jacob seems to want to take the place of his brother. See, in the law of the Israelites, the firstborn son had special responsibilities and privileges. The firstborn was given a double share of the inheritance of his father’s estate. They were set apart, especially blessed by God. And even though Jacob and Esau are twins, Esau, born just seconds before Jacob, is still the firstborn. When they’re a bit older, Jacob makes a bargain with Esau - Esau wants some of the stew Jacob is making, and Jacob says he’ll give him some - if Esau gives up his birthright. Esau quickly agrees, saying a birthright can’t do much for him right then when he’s about to die from hunger. It’s very over-the-top - think today’s teenagers and their hunger level when needing an after-school snack. This exchange isn’t meant to be binding exactly - Esau can’t really entirely give away his firstborn status in this manner. But we’re meant to understand that Esau doesn’t hold his birthright in particularly high regard. 
Still, though, nothing prepares him for what eventually happens later on. When the twins’ father, Isaac, is near death, Isaac gets ready to bestow blessings on his sons, and especially the blessings for the firstborn, Esau. Esau is Isaac’s favorite, but we’re told that Rebekah, their mother, prefers Jacob. Isaac is nearly blind, so Rebekah plots with Jacob to masquerade as Esau to get the firstborn special blessings from Isaac. He succeeds - he gets blessings from Isaac that set him up as ruler over his brother, as beneficiary of the best of all his father has. Esau is devastated - and enraged. He vows to kill his brother - and now he’s not just saying it in the way of exasperated siblings. He means it. Rebekah encourages Jacob to run away, and try to make a new home for himself with his Uncle Laban. 
It is on the way, on the run, that Jacob has the dream that makes up our text for today. That’s the context. When Jacob sees this ladder or stairway or ramp between earth and heaven, he’s just come from doing a really awful thing to his brother and father, and he’s on the run for the sake of his very life. Jacob eventually comes to have a relationship with God, but this event doesn’t mark a turning point in Jacob’s behavior. He continues to engage in trickery and swindling and eventually the Uncle he’s running to now will be someone he is running from later. The Jacob that has this dream is a schemer and manipulator, someone who is always looking out for himself, looking to get ahead no matter the cost. 
It is no wonder, then, isn’t it, that he seems surprised to encounter God. God has been very present in the life of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. But we mostly read about the righteous acts of faith of someone like Abraham. The only stories we have about Jacob are ones where he’s trying to trick someone. So I don’t think Jacob expected to have an encounter with God. I certainly don’t think he expected to have God pledge to be with him, to bless him and all his descendents, to never leave his side. And I think we don’t expect it either or appreciate it when we think about it too much. Why does God show up for scheming Jacob? How unfair! Why isn’t it Esau who gets to be comforted by God’s presence, regardless of who got the firstborn blessing? 
We have to remember, first, that we don’t really hear Esau’s story. The scripture is telling us one story - the story of God at work in Jacob’s life. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in Esau. It just means that that isn’t the story the scripture wants us to focus on. The other thing we have to remember - the thing we’re always forgetting because it is truly amazing - is that God’s love, God’s promises, God’s presence, God’s blessings - those things aren’t available to us because we deserve them, because we’re good enough to get them. They’re given as gifts to us because of God’s goodness. And God chooses to love saints and sinners, amazing folks, and average folks, and siblings that we vow we’ll never speak to again, and even, like we talked about last week, our outright enemies. 
That’s really hard for us to get our heads around, because we don’t think “bad” people deserve good things, maybe and even especially perhaps good things like God’s presence, love, and blessing. In our cultural climate today, we’re really quick to decide who is good and bad - usually that corresponds with folks who think like us and those who don’t - and we’re really good at writing off people who fall into our “bad” category. We’re done with them. We cancel them from our lives and our hearts. And to know they get God’s blessing? Infuriating! But at least we’re consistent: we also often don’t truly feel worthy of God’s presence and God’s blessing ourselves either.  
In the scene after our text ends, after Jacob acknowledges God’s presence with fear and amazement, after Jacob has received God’s incredible promises, Jacob responds. And in character, Jacob’s return promise to God is conditional. He negotiates a bit, kind of like me and my brother Todd. “Listen, God, if you go with me and keep the way that I go and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and bring me back to my father’s house in peace someday, then you shall be my God, and I will give a tithe, a tenth to you of all that you have given to me.” God’s promise to Jacob is unconditional, but Jacob can’t seem to help but bargain with God. Jacob’s promises are conditional, and he doesn’t seem sure that he can accept or trust all that God wants to give. Jacob seems to expect that God will act with him just like Jacob acts with others, and Jacob’s promises are never unconditional. He’d never promise something for nothing, and he can’t believe God will either. (Schifferdecker, Kathryn M., “Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19”, The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3355.) Eventually, a long eventually later, Jacob’s prayer to God loses the conditional. God keeps showing up for Jacob, and eventually Jacob trusts. But God doesn’t wait until Jacob’s response to God’s love and blessings is perfect to be faithful to Jacob. And God doesn’t wait until we get it all figured out either. We can count on God’s love and presence - even when we don’t deserve it, and even when we can hardly accept it. God is there, unexpectedly, even when we’re on the run from everyone and ourselves, even when we’re in the midst of making the dumbest decisions of our lives, even when we’ve hurt people and broken relationships. Always, we’re in the presence of God. Jacob didn’t find God because he managed to hit just the right spot, the right location. We don’t need some magic place to encounter God. God is here. God is with us. 
So, we’re called to practice a discipline of waking up to God’s presence. We might anticipate finding God at church, or out in nature, or when our hearts are open because we’re serving others or being served by others. But I think we forget to be on the lookout for God when, like Jacob, we’re on the run from our troubles because we’ve screwed up badly. And we forget that God is showing up for the people who are on the run from us because of their bad decisions. And so that means that God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to each one of us: even, say, Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump - whichever part of that sentence is harder for you to hear! God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to the little brother, the sibling, the family member, the co-worker or classmate that always drives you crazy. God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to your enemies. And God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to you and to me. Always. So the hard work of our discipline of waking up to God is waking up to the ways our response to God is often conditional, like Jacob’s was at first. We want to put conditions on the way we respond. We’ll give God just so much of our hearts. We’ll love God as long as God loves us and not our enemies, as long as we succeed in the end. We’ll love God as long as our way forward is clear. Thankfully, God loves us unconditionally despite all our conditions! But when we wake up to God, we realize that God isn’t going anywhere. And there’s nowhere we can go without God. No negotiations required.
Let’s wake up to God’s presence. For God says to us, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and ...  I will not leave you.” Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Feeling Pain," 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Luke 6:27-31

Sermon 2/2/2020
2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Luke 6:27-31

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Feeling Pain

Back when I had my surgery in November, I was given one of those pain pumps - I think mine had morphine in it - that I could press every so often - within a set limit - after my surgery. I never pressed it, not once. They kept asking me about it, reminding me it was available, but I didn’t use it. This isn’t because I’m so tough. Thankfully, I truly wasn’t experiencing a lot of pain post-surgery. More discomfort than pain. But I also hate the way narcotics make me feel. I either feel very nauseous, or I start to feel a weird sense of anxiety. And usually, I would rather tough through pain, unless it’s extreme, than feel nauseous and anxious!
Still, I do remember one of the first times I had serious pain medication. I was a junior in high school. I’d had kidney stones, and some surgery to get rid of said kidney stones, and after the surgery I got a pretty heavy dose of pain medication to go home with. I can say that having kidney stones is, to date, by far the worst pain I’ve ever been in, and I was quite thankful for all the pain medication I had. Just after my surgery, I was scheduled to attend an event in Texas for young people who were considering entering the ordained ministry. My church had paid for my registration and flight, and although I wasn’t really feeling up to going, I felt like I didn’t want to waste all their nonrefundable money. So, heavily medicated, I went. And I spent almost the entire event trying - and failing - not to fall asleep during the sermons of some truly excellent preachers. It was pretty ridiculous. I can tell you that it was of my most relaxing experiences flying I’ve ever had! And it was the first time I actually understood why and how people ended up dependent on drugs and alcohol. I was always a pretty well-behaved student. I didn’t drink, or smoke, or experiment with drugs of any kind, ever. And I had a hard time relating to why people did. Had they not sat through the same lectures in health class about the dangers of these things I had? But after being so heavily medicated for my trip, I understood, if just a very little, how the numbing effect of drugs could be appealing for people in pain of many kinds. 
There’s a time and place, a great need sometimes, to be able to become numb to the pain we’d otherwise experience. I’m thankful, for example, for Novacaine when I’ve had to have dental work. Last year, though, when I had to have a cavity filled, my dentist seemed to overdo it a bit with the Novacaine. For hours after my appointment, I couldn’t move the whole side of my mouth. I couldn’t really eat or drink, because trying to do so just resulted in me dribbling my food all over the place! Actually being numb, unable to feel anything, outside of very limited situations, is really not as desirable as it might sound.
This week, as we continue to look at Everyday Jesus Spirituality, and disciplines we can practice to draw close to God, we’re looking at the discipline of feeling pain. It sounds weird, doesn’t it? Why on earth would we want to make a habit, a practice of feeling pain? Sure, we know it will happen to us. Pain, no matter what ways we might try to numb it, avoid it, lessen it, postpone it - we’ve all been in pain. But a discipline of feeling pain? That sounds like feeling pain on purpose, and that seems a little nonsensical, doesn’t it? Why would we want or choose to experience pain? 
Our two scripture readings today give us some insight. First, we hear from Jesus in the gospel of Luke. This is part of a long section of teaching that appears in a similar way in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has just finished giving a series of “blessings” - what we call the beatitudes - and a series of “woes” - words of warning to the rich and powerful. But then Jesus offers these words that challenge all of us: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those threaten you. Wow - not just “be nice” to your enemies. Not just “avoid fighting” with those who hate you. Not just “ignore” those who curse you. No, Jesus asks us - tells us - to love our enemies. Do good things for those who hate us. Bless and pray for people who curse us. I’m pretty good at tolerating enemies. Being polite. But love? I love friends and family. I try hard to love strangers. Enemies, though? People who seek to or who have hurt me and my loved ones? Jesus continues: If someone strikes us, we should offer them our other cheek. If someone takes our coat, we should give our shirt as well. If they ask us for something, we should give it. If they take something from us, we shouldn’t ask for it back. In sum, Jesus says, do to others as you wish they’d to to you, not as they do to you. For, Jesus says just after today’s text: If you love people who love you, that’s not exactly impressive. Everyone does that. If we say we’re Jesus followers though, we’re called to a different way, a way that puts others first. 
Why though? Why does Jesus want us to treat our enemies with love? Why should we open ourselves to more pain and scorn from those who hate us? Isn’t it just smarter to avoid them, work around them, ignore them, work to bring them to justice somehow? Does it just feed some kind of martyr-complex for us? You know, where it makes us feel good somehow, where it feeds our self-esteem to let ourselves be the target of the hatred and mistreatment from enemies? Why does Jesus want us to love our enemies? Why does he love them
For us, when in doubt a good model for living is always to be as like to Jesus as possible. And for Jesus? Why does he love his enemies? Bless those who curse him, even when they are crucifying him? It is because Jesus knows this: The most powerful party - person - nation - force - is never the one who has the most might and absolute dominance. A dictator can subdue people with fear and aggression, with war and threats and destruction, sure. But the power they show isn’t actually very deep, and it isn’t lasting. Power that is selfish and self-serving like that - someone else always comes along who is a bit stronger, or a bit more ruthless, or has more money, or a bigger army, or bigger weapons. But for a person or group or people - or a Messiah - to choose to make themselves weak? To choose vulnerability? To choose humility instead of exultation? To choose to be last instead of first? To choose to serve all instead of being served? An enemy can’t take away power that I have already offered of my own free will. An enemy can’t stop us from loving. An enemy can’t take everything from us if we’ve already chosen to give it. We can’t be shoved into last place if we already took that spot on our own. 
This is the way of Jesus, and it disarms those who look to rule over. This is the way of Jesus, and it turns the world upside down. This is the way of Jesus, and it will change hearts, open hearts to God, bring healing and reconciliation in a way that cajoling and manipulating and punishing never can. The way of Jesus is love, compassion, a deep vulnerability, opening ourselves to hurt, yes, but also opening ourselves to being agents of God’s amazing, transformative, life-changing, world-changing grace.   
I think that’s what Paul is trying to get at in our passage from 2 Corinthians. Paul says that we carry in our ordinary selves - regular old clay jars, something found every day in Paul’s world - the very light of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we carry in us the extraordinary power of God. That power isn’t power over. It doesn’t protect us from harm, as Paul knows firsthand. He’s been through a lot - beaten and imprisoned and mocked and run out of town because of his commitment to preaching about Jesus. He’s not defeated though, because he knows he is doing exactly what he’s meant to be doing. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” I always come back to that phrase: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” 
We can’t be complete, all-in followers of Jesus unless we carry his death with us, because only when we carry his death with us can we truly reveal his life as well. And why is that? I think it’s this: Jesus is the Christ, both fully divine and fully human. And as the Christ, he takes on all that humanity experiences. He even takes on pain, suffering, and death, absorbing into himself the weight, the despair of human brokenness. Jesus’s power shines through in what some would see as weakness, his humbling himself even to death on a cross. If we want to participate in the work of Christ, we follow in his footsteps. Not death on a cross - I don’t think God leads many of us to that path. But like Christ, we don’t live for ourselves. We live for God. And so, writes scholar Lois Malcolm, “As all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Jesus -- whether we have created that dysfunction or others have imposed it on us -- Jesus’ life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. But that flourishing and renewal also entails sharing in the sufferings of Jesus -- continually being put to death by all that goes against what this crucified Messiah, the Wisdom of God, embodied. In fact, it is precisely as we share in Jesus’ life and sufferings that the light of God’s glory shines -- amid our fragile human existence -- in the “face” of this crucified Messiah. This is how death in us becomes life-giving for others.” (Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3669#post_comments
One of the most rewarding, most responsibility-laden, most sacred parts of being a pastor is that folks invite me in to the most difficult times in their lives. People, sometimes even people who don’t know me well, but just know that I am a pastor, trust that they can open up to me about the deepest pain and hurt they’re experiencing. If their professional life has just come to a crashing halt, they can tell me. If their personal relationships are breaking into pieces, they can tell me. If their hope for the future has been completely dashed, they can tell me. If they or a loved one is sick or dying, they can tell me, and even let me show up to witness, to stand by, to pray, to watch with them, to see. In a world where we very much like to pretend we’re invincible and able to do it all on our own, because we’ve been told that’s how we should be, that people will show me their broken hearts is a gift that I do not take for granted. 
People do it, I think, share so much, because pastors are meant to be representatives of Jesus in the world. I don’t mean that to sound presumptuous or grandiose. I mean that at the core, that’s what pastors are supposed to do. We’re supposed to help people draw close to God, to form a relationship with Jesus, in part by trying to embody Jesus in the world. And Jesus - as I said, one of the things that Jesus does is take on our pain and suffering. This task, though - representing Christ - even though pastors might do it in a particular way, in the context of our life together at church, I think all of us who are Christians are called to this task. I think that’s what Paul is getting at. I think that’s what’s behind Jesus’ hard teachings. We’re meant to live in such a way that we can invite others - broken people, hurting people, angry people, scared people - we can invite them to see Christ in us, and in seeing Christ in us, so that they know in us, through Christ in us, they can find a way to lay down their burdens, and find peace in God. Please hear me: I don’t mean we should stay in relationships or situations where we’re being abused. And I don’t think it means we shouldn’t set any boundaries around the way we invite others to be vulnerable with us. But what Jesus calls us to is a way of opening ourselves to others that can sometimes be marked by pain - ours and theirs. It’s easier, so much easier, to be numb to the world. To build walls. To put up shields. To guard ourselves against any pain. But unless we carry the death of Jesus with us - unless we remember that true power is in weakness, serving rather than being served - unless we do the hard work of really loving our enemies - we’ll never reflect the light of Christ as brightly as we’d like to. And what a shame that would be! To miss out on Paul’s vision - grace, extending to more and more people, thanksgiving increasing, and glory to God. Through hope and joy, and even through pain and struggle, may it be so. Amen.