Saturday, February 29, 2020

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, "Liminal Lent: Jesus," Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon 2/26/2020
Matthew 4:1-11

Liminal Lent: Jesus

Our worship theme this year is Liminal Lent. I’m guessing liminal isn’t a word you use very often. I don’t either. But as some of you know, I’m part of our District Leadership Team, a group that works with our District Superintendent Mike Weeden to help resource local congregations to live out their mission in their communities. Mike regularly has us reading books together, part of our learning process so that we in turn can be better teachers and leaders. And the next book we’re discussing together is How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. Great title, isn’t it? I feel like a lot of ministry is leading when we don’t know where we’re going! The subtitle of the book is: Leading in a Liminal Season
Liminal means “threshold.” Think about the doorway into a room. As you step over the threshold, you are in an in-between space, not fully in the room you’re leaving, and not fully in the room you are entering. You’re in both places at once, and not in either place fully. That’s liminal space. The in-between. Not either this or that. Not black or white, but the blurry border. Think of the feeling of being at the top of the ferris wheel, or that moment on a roller coaster after the first steep incline but before you plunge down. You aren’t climbing up anymore, or yet heading back toward the ground. There’s the moment, that hesitation. It’s a liminal space.  
Think about airports or train stations. They’re liminal places. Other than for employees, these places are mostly liminal places. They’re full of people, but they’re not the destination for anyone. Everyone is going to and from, but they’re not staying at the airport, at the train station. It’s a liminal space. (6) Think about the weirdness of the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. A week between Christmas celebrations and the start of a new year. Lots of people are on vacation. Anything productive people want to do usually gets pushed off until after the first of the year. Kids don’t have school. The rhythm of the world is just a little different for that week. It’s liminal time, threshold time, in-between time. Or think of something as simple as twilight. It’s not quite daytime, and not yet dark enough to be night. It’s the blurry threshold between day and night, a liminal time. Or think about the long season of life called adolescence. Young people are no longer children, and yet we can’t say they are adults either. They can’t be totally independent, and yet they no longer should be entirely dependent on adults around them. Young people are in liminal space, on the threshold, for years. And so it is a season where there is such vulnerability, such pain and intense emotion, such possibility, such challenge, because they’re in a prolonged state of liminal space.
Our focus this Lent is about finding God when we’re in these in-between places. We don’t always like being in liminal space. It’s uncomfortable, not knowing whether we’re here or there, ending or beginning. Hanging out in a time of transition is hard. But it is also a time, liminal time, when it might be easier for us to hear what God’s trying to tell us. And so, this Lent, we’re focusing on being in this liminal space. 
In her book Beaumont writes: “All significant transitional experiences … follow a predictable three-part process. Something comes to an end. There is an in-between season marked by disorientation, disidentification, and disengagement. Finally, and often after a very long and painful struggle, something new emerges.” (2)  A liminal period, she says, is “a disorienting period of non-structure or anti-structure that opens new possibilities no longer based on old status or power hierarchies. New identities are explored and new possibilities are considered.” (3) 
We don’t always like being in liminal space. It can be very stressful. Beaumont says, “The natural human response is to resist liminality and to strive backward to the old familiar territory or forward to the unknown identity. The ambiguity and disorientation are at times so heightened that the very work required to move forward becomes impossible to engage.” (3) Still, Richard Rohr writes, “All transformation takes place here [in liminal space]. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ ... where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.” (As quoted by Beaumont, 4-5, emphasis mine.) 
We’re in a liminal space in the life of our church, aren’t we? We’re in a season of pastoral transition. I’m still here, but we know that my time is limited! I’m in a liminal season - I know where I’m going, but I’m not there yet! We’re in a liminal season as a denomination, as we await another General Conference and the possibility of new denominational configurations. Even the church universal is in a liminal season as culture changes rapidly and the church seeks to find its place. And Lent itself is a liminal season - this is a time of preparation, of repentance, of growth as we long for and anticipate the joy of Easter. We’re always Easter people, and yet it also isn’t Easter yet
Fortunately, we know where we can turn for guidance, because the scriptures are full of stories of people who are in liminal seasons, and see what we can learn from them as we journey with Jesus to the cross. This Lent, we’ll be hearing about the liminal seasons of Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, and Ruth and Naomi. But before we hear their stories, we hear Jesus’ story. 
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus finds himself in a liminal space. He’s on the threshold, just about to start his public ministry. For 30 years, he lived in relative obscurity. We know almost nothing about the time between Jesus’ birth and the time he arrives at the river Jordan to be baptized by John. His baptism marks his intent to start preaching and teaching. But he doesn’t start doing that immediately. First, the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he’s tempted by the devil. The wilderness in the Bible almost always represents a liminal space, an in-between space for the people who find themselves there. Interestingly, what Jesus is tempted with? The devil tries to get Jesus to make certain what seems blurry. Jesus is hungry, fasting, and the devil wants Jesus to claim the certainty of food. Jesus knows he is God’s beloved Son, but the devil wants him to make certain, by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, to test that God’s angels will protect Jesus if he needs it. Jesus knows that his power will come by making himself vulnerable, weak, humble, but the devil wants Jesus to be certain of his power, promising him everything if he aligns himself with the devil. Jesus, though, is ok with being where he is and who he is. He’s in the wilderness, on the brink of something new but not yet starting. He’s God’s child. And he can stay right where he is, on the brink, until the Spirit who has led him to liminal time sends him forth to serve.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Today, we have an opportunity to intentionally claim this liminal season. In Lent, we have the opportunity to experience a different rhythm of life than the same old same old. We engage in spiritual disciplines, special practices during Lent to remind us we’re in sacred, liminal time. Resist the urge to turn back to the life as usual, and resist the urge to skip this journey with Jesus in favor of the joy of Easter. Rest in Lent for a while, on the threshold. Today, we are marked with ashes, signs that as Christians, our whole identity is in liminal space. We say that God’s reign has already arrived, and yet it’s also near, not yet fully unfolded on earth. Liminal. In Lent, instead of resisting the uncertainty, embrace this season of transition. God will meet you here, on the threshold. Amen. 

Friday, February 28, 2020

Lent: Not Buying It

Several years ago I read Not Buying It by Judith Levine. I’d heard about the book in something else I was reading, although now I’ve forgotten what. Levine spent a year well, not buying things. I also don’t remember now the parameters of her experiment, but I know that the gist of the book stuck with me. I remember thinking: “I could never do that.” But eventually, after reading the blog (now defunct) of a woman who fasted from buying for the month of January every year, I decided I would try the experiment for Lent. I was serving a larger church at the time, and had by far the largest salary I’d ever had, and I was alarmed at how easily I spent, spent, spent. So I decided that I would abstain from spending during Lent other than paying my bills, of course, and “gas, gifts, and groceries.” I’d still by food at the store - but no “fast food.” I’d need gas to get places. And if your birthday or party happened to fall during Lent, I could still buy you a present. 

It was an eye-opening experiment. I realized, quickly, that I thought about spending money a lot. Everywhere I went, I saw something I wanted. I also realized how anxious others were about my not-buying. My mom, of course, wanted to get me treats during my Lenten fast - but that was expected. She always wants me to have everything I want! But others - parishioners and friends - wanted to take me to restaurants or buy me gifts to help me “survive” my fast. It was both sweet/thoughtful and fascinating that my not-buying was seen as something I had to endure that they could make easier. 
After I left that appointment, I went into a sabbatical year and was broke broke broke for a year, so I told myself I didn’t have to do my not-buying fast anymore. And since then, I’ve thought of it every year, but always found some reason not to do it. Until this year. For months, I’ve been planning to not-buy again this Lent. And then, as Lent drew near, I almost backed out. I forgot that I had plans with some friends mid-Lent for an overnight and lunch, which would mean spending outside my rules, and so I almost said, “Oh, I’ll just skip it.” I forgot about my twice-monthly lunch meetings at a restaurant in town, and almost ditched my whole plan. And then I realized these were most definitely sure signs of how much I needed to engage in this fast: I was looking for excuses. I can most definitely just not eat lunch while I’m at the restaurant in town. Problem solved. And I can make an exception for my overnight with the friends I rarely get to see in person without scrapping my entire set of Lenten plans. A Lenten discipline isn’t about the letter of the law, but the heart, the intention, how I might repent, change my heart, be re-formed, right? No more excuses! 

So, here I am, not-buying again this Lent. I’ve hesitated making a whole post about it, because Jesus has some stuff to say about making a show of our penitence, and because sometimes folks feel compelled to buy me stuff. Don’t worry, I’m ok, I swear! But I decided to share because 1) I need accountability, and I can better stick to my plan if you all know I’m doing it! And 2) because I think capitalism and consumerism have such holds on us that maybe you all might find my reflections this season helpful too. I’ve decided to try to keep a log this Lent of all the times I think about buying something that’s not on my list. (I give myself a pass if I’m thinking about ok things like groceries!) We’re two - two! - days into Lent, and I already have ten - ten! - instances on my list where I thought, “I want that.” Only one was close to a need - I thought about new socks as I discarded yet another one with a giant tear in it. More than half were times when I saw something on Facebook or Instagram that I wanted. Oof. I’m trying to curb my mindless scrolling, because I don’t like typing entries on my “I wanted to buy it” list. I’m hoping, praying that by the end of Lent, my entries will be less frequent. 

The first sermon I ever preached was on the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. Jesus says, “‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV) His words have stayed with me ever since, calling me to a different way. Will I listen?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Starting Over," Psalm 51:1-17

Sermon 2/23/2020
Psalm 51:1-17

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Starting Over

       “Create in me a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within me. Create in me a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord. Take not your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” 
I’m pretty sure that I’ve had you sing that song with me before, because it is really hard - maybe impossible - for me to read Psalm 51 without thinking of this song. I learned it as a camp song, which we sang frequently at Camp Aldersgate, particularly in my junior high years. It really spoke to me then. Those junior high years can be pretty emotionally fraught. Everything is heightened, as young teens deal with newly intense emotions and feelings that are hard to process. And one of the feelings I was often processing was guilt. I was trying hard to be a good follower of Jesus, but I felt like I was screwing up all the time. I got upset with myself if I let days or weeks go by when I didn’t read my bible faithfully. Struggling with body image, I got upset with myself if I screwed up on my never-ending diet. If I got into a fight with my mom or my siblings, I felt miserable afterwards. And so “Create in Me a Clean Heart” really spoke to me. A song of confession. Please God, help me start over. I think I was both very dramatic and very, painfully sincere.  
But the deep desire to be able to start over isn’t just a junior high thing, is it? How many times have you had some aspect of your life you wanted to start over? How often have you longed for a fresh start? How often have you told yourself, “tomorrow, I’ll start again?” How many resolutions have you made for New Years Day, or the first of a month, or a Monday morning fresh start, or whatever works? It can be exhausting, draining, discouraging, can’t it, all this starting over? And yet, as we wrap up our series on Everyday Jesus Spirituality, we’re looking at how to practice a discipline of starting over. Is that something we really want to do? Learn how to start over again and again? Is there, perhaps, something we’re missing about starting over? A different way we can think about starting over? 
Let’s take a look at our text, this reading from Psalm 51, to see if we can find a better understanding of starting over. The context of this psalm - the “why” of why it was written and why it shows up in our Biblest today is really important, helps us understand what the Psalm is all about. In most of your Bibles, you’ll probably find a note at the beginning of Psalm 51 that says something like this: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” There’s a complicated, messy, unpleasant story at the heart of this psalm. 
David was a king of Israel. In fact, he’s remembered as the most beloved king in all of Israel’s history. Forever after, when the Israelites think about the “good old days,” they’re thinking about King David’s days. “Remember when David was king?” He’s the golden boy, the one they’re forever longing for. This is so true, in fact, that when Jesus comes along, the biblical authors take pains to show us that he’s descended from the house of David, and they have to clarify that Jesus is actually ruler over even beloved King David, that Jesus is the Messiah in a way David most certainly was not. David is the standard by which all other kings are compared. 
And yet - David was no saint. In fact, he was a sinner just like we all are. In fact, David does some really terrible things. Once, when David was King, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, a common practice. He saw her and he wanted her for himself. And because he was the king, he could get her. When this story is told in in the book of 2 Samuel, we don’t ever hear from Bathsheba herself, because it seems it is really only what King David wants that matters, and what he wants is Bathsheba. 
David is already married, but having many wives was legal and common. The trouble is - Bathsheba was already married too, to Uriah, a soldier. That doesn’t seem to matter at first - David isn’t interested in marriage, but in sex. He has sex with Bathsheba, and that’s that. But then they realize she is pregnant. So David makes things worse - he tries to cover up what’s happened. Uriah is off at war, fighting on behalf of David, his king. But David calls him home, hoping Uriah will have sex with Bathsheba, and the child can be passed of as Uriah’s. Uriah is a faithful soldier, though, and he won’t revel in the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers are out fighting. So David makes an even worse choice: since he can’t trick Uriah, he instead has him sent to the frontlines of battle, hoping Uriah will be killed in war. And he is. And when Uriah is dead, David simply makes Bathsheba one of his wives. Problem solved, right? 
David seems ready to just move on with his life, content with how it has worked out. But David has a spiritual advisor, Nathan, who is a prophet to the king. That’s not an easy role - Nathan gets to tell a powerful ruler how they’ve screwed up, something David probably doesn’t want to hear. But Nathan uses another scenario, telling David about a hypothetical rich man who took property from a poor man that didn’t belong to him. David is outraged at the story, at the injustice, and wants the rich man to be punished - and finally Nathan reveals: “You, David, are the man.” David is the one who has acted unjustly. Finally, David is convicted of the magnitude of his sinfulness, of the way he has abused his role, of that fact that he orchestrated a death in order to have what he wanted. His child with Bathsheba dies, and David is filled with grief and repentance. Finally, he is broken and ready to turn to God for help. 
This is the context of Psalm 51. David didn’t just mess up on his diet or fight with his siblings. He took a life. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” How David needs it! “Have mercy on me, O God!” the psalm begins. “Wash me thoroughly … my sin is ever before me.” “You desire truth in the inward being,” David realizes, and finally he is ready to be truthful with God. “Create in me a clean heart - don’t cast me away.” In the psalm, David promises to teach others about the ways of God too. “My tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance” God, he says. And he concludes that what God wants most from us is not the sacrifices and burnt-offerings that were the ritual of David’s day - not when they masked guilt and sin. No - what God wants from us is our broken and contrite hearts. Our honest brokenness is worth so much more to God than our prettied-up, covered-up sinfulness disguised as being right with God. 
How do we start over? How do we start over when we’re so far off track? Most of us probably haven’t orchestrated the death of a subordinate so we can steal their spouse for ourselves. But our sins are real, our brokenness is real, and our need for a clean heart - it’s so real, so deep. How do we get there? How do we get clean hearts? 
We make sure, in part, we have folks like Nathan in our lives. We don’t all have a prophet on our household staffs, but I hope we all have close friends we can turn to in crisis. It’s really hard to listen when someone tells us we’re doing wrong, and it’s really hard to lovingly tell someone who means a lot to us that they need to examine their actions. It’s not for casual friendships or acquaintances. One of the things that amazes me about my dearest friend is that she’s really open to me being honest with her, challenging her if I think she’s not seeing situations in her life - and her actions in them - very clearly. I admit that my tendency when situations are flipped is to get defensive. To be sure I’m right. But I try hard to listen when I have someone like Nathan in my life, who can tell me the truth when I’m not walking on God’s path. Who is a Nathan to you? And how can you be such a faithful and loving friend that you can be Nathan to someone else? 
How do we get clean hearts? We ask for them! David asking for a clean heart from God is an act of repentance. He admits he has been wrong and that he needs God’s help. It takes him a while to get there, but eventually he does. Often, I think we are sure that we can do it on our own, do it ourselves. We tease when toddlers get to that awful phase of burgeoning independence, and everything is “I can do it myself” and it means that getting in and out of the car takes five hours because you have to let them slowly, with great struggle, climb into the seat on their own effort. But we don’t ever really grow out of that phase, do we? We are sure we can do it ourselves, and we are taught, as adults, that independence is good and needing help is bad and weak. Friends, we cannot clean our own hearts. We cannot take away our own guilt from our sinfulness and brokenness. We need God for that. We need God so much! We long for clean hearts - and we can have them. But we have to ask the one who creates our hearts to begin with for help, because transforming our lives is not something we can do on our own strength. We need God. We need strength in Christ. And we need our community of faith. We get clean hearts when we ask for them. 
How do we get clean hearts? We realize that God gives clean hearts not new hearts. I think sometimes we want to just start over, start from scratch, and leave the past behind us. In one part of our Psalm, I realize I disagree with David. He says, “Against you, you alone [God], have I sinned.” That may be technically true - all of our sins are breaking our covenant with God. But David’s sin hurt more than just himself and his relationship with God. His sin certainly hurt Uriah. He hurt Bathsheba. He hurt his unborn child. He hurt his nation, because he abused his role as king and leader. He hurt his relationship with Nathan, such that Nathan had to concoct a fake story to get David to listen to him. When we turn away from God, it doesn’t just hurt us and God. It hurts the people around us too. And so while we might sometimes long for a new heart, what God gives us is a clean heart, because in the process of cleaning our hearts, we go through the process of repairing the harm that we’ve done. We have to make amends. Confident that God forgives us, we have to work on reconciliation with those around us who have been hurt by our actions. It’s hard work! But patiently, diligently working for reconciliation is the way that God cleans our hearts. We’re forgiven - absolutely, 100%, no matter how many times we’ve screwed up before. But being forgiven doesn’t mean our work is done. Our work is just beginning! We let God clean our hearts by committing to the work of mending, with God’s help, all the torn places in our lives. 
 This week, Lent begins, and we walk with Jesus the hard and sometimes lonely path to the cross. But we’re always Easter people, even in Lent, and we know that we are resurrection people, new life people. Peter Shurrman writes, “We can all get in a rut where we can’t [imagine] a new day with redeemed relationships, alternative vocation, and a fresh perspective on the future.” But, he says, “We are called to practice resurrection, to practice starting over - not from scratch, but like a fresh chapter or page in a story in which the plot arcs toward resolving conflict, healing fractured families and bodies, and mending a polluted creation. Faithful discipleship means turning from our disappointments toward prayerful hope and joyful service … Each new day is an opportunity to practice starting over - in a new place with a new practice, a new perspective, and new people. The reality of resurrection tells us not only is this possible; it’s the movement of God in the world and our gift and calling as Christians. Starting over is Christian hope in action.” (Shurrman, Peter, Reformed Worship 130, 13, emphasis mine.) 
Let’s practice resurrection. Let’s put the hope of Christ in action, and start over, even again. Not from scratch - because forgiveness is ours, God’s love is ours, and God never has to do that over for us. But let’s start again, with God’s help, with each other’s help, with our brokenness offered to God. Create in us clean hearts, O God. Amen. 

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. (  
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, 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, 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. 

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...