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“Where Two or Three are Gathered”

Matthew 18: 15-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 29th, 2011 – Monmouth College Chapel Service

 

I have always appreciated the sense of family one can feel as a member of a church.  This is particularly true in the small church.  My husband, Dan, and I have both served as pastors of small churches.  After finishing his coursework for his Ph.D. in California Dan was wooed across the country to a small, rural community in Jefferson, SC by me (oh…the things you do for love) where he pastored Rocky Creek Presbyterian Church and worked on his dissertation.  To this day, I am still impressed by the way the small town, blue collar, deeply Southern members of Rocky Creek welcomed Dan….a liberally minded intellectual type, moving to South Carolina from Los Angeles, California.  Their worlds couldn’t have been farther apart.  But Rocky Creek adopted Dan (and me) as their own.  We were a part of the church family.

Later, I served as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church in North Carolina and Dan directed the church choir.  This was where our babies were born and baptized.  While both of us were busy leading worship our babies were being passed from one member of the church to another because Isaac and Ella were not just our children there…but the church’s children…and they were loved extremely well.  In fact, when Dan and I announced the news that we were moving to Monmouth the folks at Cameron were sad, but they understood our sense of call.  They were willing to send us off with their blessing…..but, they said, you have to leave the children.  J Eventually we negotiated their release by promising to send lots and lots of pictures.

Now that we are here in Monmouth, Dan and I have both appreciated the sense of community we have found here…in our churches…Dan is the part-time supply pastor for Sugar Tree Grove Presbyterian Church….a church as sweet and welcoming as it sounds…in the community of Monmouth….and here at Monmouth College.  One of the benefits of serving a small, residential college is that it does feel like a family.  We live together and we work together.  We know each other and each other’s lives.  We are a family…in fact we often refer to ourselves as the Monmouth College family.

In our scripture text for today, Jesus emphasizes the importance of community.  Jesus tells us today that community is sacred; “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  Jesus also tells us that community is family.  We are to care for and respect our community members as we care for and respect our family.  We won’t pick this up from the New Revised Standard Version of the text that we read today, but Jesus uses familial language to speak of community.  A more literal translation of verse 15 is “If a brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”  By using this familial language Jesus raises the bonds of community to a higher level.  As a community we are to care for one another.  But as a family, as brothers and sisters, we are obligated to care for one another.  No matter what happens….you can’t leave your brother behind…he will always be your brother.  No matter how much you fight and squabble with your sister….you are bound together by your birth…you are family.  This, Jesus says, is how we are to relate to each other in community.  We have an obligation to care for each other and respect each other, even when conflict arises.  And conflict always arises…whenever human beings live together in community conflict is inevitable.

In the church conflict arises when marriages break apart and members are forced to choose sides.  Heated debates take place over the interpretations of scripture or the use of church polity.  Feelings get hurt and people sulkingly and silently disappear.  And, of course, there is always the color of the carpet…we never really can agree over the color of the carpet.

Conflict also inevitably arises in a college community…especially one such as ours that values a diversity of voices and encourages questioning and debate.  Students will know conflict with other students, faculty with other faculty, staff with other staff, and roommates…well how can you not fight with your roommate when you are sharing such a small space….just don’t hurt each other, okay?  (I hear a lot of crazy stories as a part of the Student Affairs staff…so just don’t hurt each other.)

But we are a family, Jesus says to us today.  We are a family in this sacred space of community.  So we are obligated to each other.  We are obligated to respect each other and care for each other even in the midst of conflict.  I appreciate Jesus’ advice today for the practicality of it.  When someone offends you, or sins against you, go to that person directly.  Speak to him or her about it.  Work to resolve it.  Don’t talk to everyone else about it, except for the person with whom you are angry.  Don’t blast off an angry email or post your gripe on Facebook.  Have enough respect for the relationship, for the relationship with your brother or sister, to deal with them directly.

If this doesn’t work, then, Jesus says, get the community involved, because it is a community issue.  Unresolved conflict is a festering wound that affects the whole community.  If two sorority sisters are at odds with each other…everyone feels the conflict and the whole sorority suffers.  If two church members can’t stand the sight of each other…the whole church body is forced to tiptoe around the tension….and how much good work can we actually do on tiptoe?

If getting the community involved still doesn’t resolve the conflict then Jesus says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Oftentimes we read this line with relief…oh good, we say to ourselves….if I can’t resolve the conflict then I can just let that person go…I can be done with them.  But this is not how Jesus intended this line to be read.  All we have to do is remember how Jesus, at every turn, extended himself graciously to Gentiles and tax collectors, to prostitutes and lepers, to all those pushed outside of the community…to truthfully interpret this line.  Jesus commands us never to give up on our brother or sister.  Never stop reaching out in love to them.  Never stop yearning for grace to restore what has been broken.  Never stop caring for and respecting the members of your family.  “In the next few verses beyond this passage in Matthew, Peter needs to make sure he has heard Jesus correctly, ‘Lord, if a brother sins against me how often should I forgive? Jesus’ ‘seventy times seven’ response means, ‘as long as it takes.'”[1]

I recently had a wonderful conversation with a student in which he asked me, essentially, why I choose to follow Jesus.  Now there are lots of reasons why I choose to follow Jesus, lots of reasons why I love Jesus.  But the answer that came to me in that moment was “Because Jesus teaches me not just how to be a good Christian, but how to be a good human being.”  People, all people, are important.  Healthy relationships are essential for a healthy life.  And community is sacred, because it is God who draws us together.

Now to this God who has brought us to this community be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Charles Hambrick-Stowe, “Theological Perspective”, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2011), pg. 48.

Follow Me

Follow Me

Matthew 16:13-28

Daniel J. Ott

 

Sometimes I think that being a Christian is way to easy for us here in the U.S. in 2011.  Other times I think that being a Christian is just about impossible living in our culture and in our time.

I remember reading about some Chinese Christians just a few months back.  They were members of what is commonly called a ‘house church’ in China, but this is no house church like you or I would imagine.  There are about 1000 members in this ‘house church,’ which is unregistered and unrecognized by the Chinese government.  Nobody knows for sure, but conservative estimates are that about 80 million of China’s 100 million Christians attend these ‘house churches.’  The government’s attention to these churches ebbs and flows.

The headline was that as many as 200 members of this particular house church were detained when they tried to worship in public.  It seems that their attempts at securing a building in which to worship had been frustrated by the government, so they had planned to worship publicly as a kind of soft protest.  The government found out about the plan and placed their leaders under house arrest on Saturday night.  Hundreds still showed up at the designated areas, but were greeted by police and plainclothes security agents who herded them onto busses, confiscated their cell phones, interrogated them, and “made them sign documents promising not to worship outdoors again.”[1]  Some refused to sign and were kept in custody.

Thank God that professing Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the Living God is easier for us than this.  But we should remember that it was not so for Peter and the other early followers of Jesus.  Much is at stake as Peter answers Jesus’ query, “Who do you so that I am?”  Peter’s answer, if and when it fell on the right ears, would be heard as heresy and sedition.  To say that Jesus is the Son of the Living God marks a break with traditional Jewish faith.  During Jesus’ life and after, Jesus’ followers contended with Jewish authorities and became something of an outcaste sect.  They were a minority group often seen as fanatical.  Being Christian was not easy.

To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that he is the bringer of the Kingdom of God.  In the Kingdom of God, the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the rich will be sent empty away.  God will rule over all the earth and his Messiah will be seated at his right hand.  Can you imagine how Caesar or one of his client kings would react to such a proclamation?  Well, tradition says that they, in fact, hanged Peter on a cross head downwards.  Being Christian was not easy.

Thank God, making a confession of faith is easier for us today.  But maybe we make it too easy.  I think we might.  I think there at least two brands of Christians who make Christianity pretty easy.  Maybe this morning we can call them ‘Rock Christians’ and ‘Stumbling Block Christians.’

Rock Christians are the ones who are good at bricks and mortar.  They’re the ones that build great buildings and great institutions.  But many times they get pretty comfortable in that big building they build and the religion that they practice never leaves its four walls.  These are comfortable Christians, bourgeois, if you will.

In his novella Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre gives a description of a typical Sunday morning that shows how absurd this bourgeois religion can be.  Doctor So-and-So stops to tip his hat to Monsieur Such-and-Such as the Who’s Who of the little Suburban town of Bouville stroll up and down the promenade on their way to and from church.  Some stop in at the new bakery to taste the perfect confectionaries.  Others carefully choose their spot at the café – it must be prominent enough to be seen by those passing by and private enough that gossip can be shared.  Sartre describes the scene in so much detail, as is his style, that the banality of this charade becomes painfully obvious.  How can people this comfortable be Christian?  Perhaps you and I aren’t quite this comfortable, but I wonder if we Presbyterians as a group don’t fall pretty neatly into the category of Rock Christians

On the other end of the spectrum are the ‘Stumbling Block’ Christians.  These folks can’t be said to suffer from gentility, as do the Rock Christians.  Whereas Rock Christians are cool and collected, Stumbling Block Christians run red-hot. Whereas Rock Christians are keen on establishment, Stumbling Block Christians overflow with unbridled zeal.  They adore Jesus.  They sing of their love with uplifted hands.  They go to Christian concerts and festivals and they dance and whirl about in ecstasy. They speak often of their intimate relationship with Jesus. They cling to Jesus.  And sometimes I wonder if this might be a problem.

When Jesus told his disciples that he would have to suffer and be killed, Peter immediately piped up and said, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  And why did Peter object so adamantly?  Because he didn’t understand, of course, but also because he loved Jesus.  He adored Jesus.  He didn’t want Jesus to suffer and die.  He wanted to continue to walk hand-in-hand with Jesus, to lay his head on Jesus’ breast, to eat with him and speak with him and to tell him how much he loved him.  Peter clings to Jesus and says, “This must never happen to you.”  But Jesus turns to loose his grasp and says, “Get behind me.  You are a stumbling block.”

 

You see loving Jesus is the easy part.  For us, testifying that Jesus is the Son of God and Messiah is not hard or risky.  Building a church and coming here on Sunday morning is pretty simple.  But following Jesus is hard.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Let’s pause here for a minute and think about what Jesus is telling his disciples.  “Let them deny themselves.”  Deny themselves of what?  Well, Jesus demanded of his closest disciples that they leave their jobs and their homes and their families, that they radically rethink their faith, and that they take positions that basically mark them as rebels in the Roman Empire.  “Let them take up their cross.” Jesus walked and asked his disciples to walk under the constant pall of death – and not just any death, but death by one of the most horrific tools of torture and public humiliation known to the history of humankind.  Jesus said, “When you’ve denied yourself of your comfort, your home, your family, your people and you’re ready to carry the cross on which you will suffer and die, then you can follow me.” That’s not easy.

So, what do we do with this text?  Can we put at arm’s-length and say maybe it was addressed to those first disciples and not to those of us who want to follow Jesus today?  Maybe.  I do think people in different contexts can and should hear Jesus’ words differently.  We don’t live under foreign oppression or tyranny, so perhaps we are not called to take up our cross in any literal way.  Unless we feel called to the mission field or the monastery, perhaps likewise we’re not called to give up our homes and families and jobs.  But, on the other hand, I wonder, are these just the justifications of comfortable Christians?

Or perhaps we don’t have to take this text so literally.  Couldn’t we think about the spiritual lesson that Jesus is conveying when he says that his followers should deny themselves and take up their crosses?  Well, of course, I’m not against looking past the literal to see what is going on symbolically.  Denying ourselves and putting Christ first is indeed a powerful image.  We can even say that we are put to death in Christ so that we can live anew.  “The old life has gone and a new life has begun.”  There’s certainly truth in this line of thinking, but there’s also what seems to me a dangerous disconnect with the fact that Jesus and Peter and the prophets and martyrs throughout the ages actually left home and comfort and suffered in their very bodies and they died.

Perhaps the most faithful thing we can do with this text is to ask ourselves some honest questions this morning?  Are we really ready to follow Jesus?  Is there any sense in which we can say that we’re ready to deny ourselves?  What exactly are we ready to give up?  What would it mean to lose our lives so that we might gain them?

One of the most rewarding and frustrating parts of being a professor and working with students is advising.  Usually, the most effective advising does not happen around choosing classes and majors.  It happens in conversations in the classroom or in the lunchroom.  And I take it as part of my little mission in the world to try to get students to think a little more broadly about what they might do in college and afterward.  I ask them to think about how they can make a difference in the world.  I ask them to think about not only what would make them happy, but what would be helpful to others.  I ask them to think about the meaning of life itself and how study and work fit into that larger picture.  And I’m glad to report that students are interested in having these conversations.  They have ideas about what makes life meaningful and how to make the world a better place.  Sometimes they even start to re-imagine their studies and/or their careers and see how they can do things differently and make a difference.

But then often enough something happens.  They have a conversation with a friend or a fiancé or they go back home and talk to Mom or Dad and they lose that vision.  They start talking about needing a job, providing for a family, paying the bills, wanting to be as successful as Dad.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with those things necessarily and of course it’s not the fault of the friend or the Mom or the Dad, but it’s frustrating.  It’s frustrating that we as a culture do that to these kids.  You see, we don’t ask them, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world, but forfeit your life?”  We don’t tell them that those who lose their life will gain everything.  We don’t ask them to deny themselves of anything.  We don’t ask them, because we don’t ask ourselves.

Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

 

 


[1] npr.org

“How do I become a Christian?”

First, you’ll need to go to church.  Church is where Christians worship God, learn about Jesus and try to honor Jesus’ teaching by the way they live together and the way they live with their neighbors.  I’m Presbyterian so, of course, I would suggest you try one of our churches, but I highly recommend that you go to one of the ‘mainline’ churches: Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran or Presbyterian.  These are the churches with the longest histories and the richest traditions.  Don’t ‘shop’ too much.  Find a place where you are reasonably comfortable and folks seem to be at least trying to live Christian lives and stick with it.  You’ll soon learn that there are no perfect churches.  Churches are made up of Christians and Christians are human, so don’t expect too much.

Next, you should probably read the Bible.  Don’t start at the beginning!  Start with the Gospels.  Mark is the shortest and simplest.  I’d start there.  Notice what Jesus does.  He heals the sick, he ministers to the poor and outcast, and he talks a lot about the Kingdom of God.

That’s your next clue.  You’ll have to do these things too.  Christians try to figure out what the world would be like if God were in charge.  Usually, it involves caring for the vulnerable, building loving and just communities, and opposing forces in the world that seek to spread fear, hate, violence and death.

I would say that this will give you a good start.  Sorry if it doesn’t sound easy, but the reality is it’s not.  Becoming a Christian is something that you’ll need to work on everyday for the rest of your life.  It certainly has its rewards, though, starting with the gifts of faith, hope and love.

A couple of things to remember:  1) Becoming a Christian is not about praying a magic prayer that gets you into heaven.  Faith is a journey and it is as much about the here and now as it is the hereafter.  2) It’s not all about you.  You’ll need to join with other Christians and learn to live, worship and work together.  You’ll also need to learn to serve others.

 

 

This entry is part of a series of answers to Christian FAQs.  For more information about the idea behind the series and the approach being taken by the authors check out:  https://aflyonourwall.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/christian-faqs/

 

Reconciliation

“Reconciliation”

Genesis 33:1-17

Daniel J. Ott

 

Does anyone really want reconciliation today?  Do we want to be reconciled?  Several scenes from this week made me wonder.

The debt ceiling debate drove me nuts.  Teri had to tell me to put down my mobile devices, I was so obsessed with the stupid thing.  I’ve been disaffected with American politics for sometime, but even I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  First there were seemingly fruitful bipartisan talks:  Simpson-Bowles and then the ‘gang of six.’  Then Coburn walked out on the gang.  And then he was back.  And then the president started having his talks.  Those seemed to be making progress.  Then Cantor waived the Tea Party flag and those talks came to halt.  Then Boehner and the president were going to work things out.  One had a press conference, the other walked out.  Then the House was going to solve everything.  The vote was scheduled… and then delayed.  New deals were made.  The House passed it the Senate rejected it.  The Senate had their plan, even though everybody knew it wouldn’t fly.  McConnell swooped in and met with the president, a deal was struck, and finally… finally on Tuesday, they passed a law that would raise the debt ceiling in the short run and lower the overall deficit in the long run.

This was a completely aggravating drama to watch, but what perhaps infuriated me the most were the headlines that I awoke to on Tuesday morning.  “Who won?,” they asked.  But they didn’t mean, “Who won?” as in “Did retirees win or lose?” or  “Did the economy win or lose?” or “Did poor people win or lose?”  or “Did entitlements or defense budgets win or lose?”  They were asking, “Did Boehner lose power or gain power on the Hill?”  “Was this a small loss for Obama that he could turn into a larger win when it comes election time?”  “Was Mitch McConnell now the most powerful man in Washington?”  “Was this a victory or a defeat for the Tea Party?’  No wonder the process was so aggravating.  Our leaders are playing a zero sum game that at best reflects their own narrow ideological interests and at worst has only to do with reelection.  Where are the leaders ready to humble themselves and make compromises with the best interests of our nation and our planet in mind?  When will we elect some folks who are ready to put party politics a side and seek justice and reconciliation?

On a more personal level and perhaps more tragic, I witnessed a family in deep need of reconciliation when I took Isaac to his swimming lesson this week.  I guess you could call them a family.  They were at least all related to this cute little boy who has the brightest eyes and a Mohawk for his summer cut.  Most of the parents retreat to the air-conditioned lobby during the lessons.  I like to stay in the pool area so that I can root Isaac on a little.  This night it was me and this family left by the pool.  Dad sat at one end of the bench.  Mom and Grand-mom sat at the other, me in the middle.  Mom and Dad spent most of their time trying to make sure that their gazes never met.  Grand-mom tried to keep the focus on the boy.  The tension was palpable.  At one point the Dad got up to go to the poolside and happened to walk past Mom.  I thought her head might pop off she got so tense.  They were leaving as we were.  Mom and Grand-mom gave the boy a hug and a kiss while Dad very purposefully stood ten feet away gazing in the other direction.  Eventually, the boy came up behind Dad and grabbed his hand and they walked quietly to his truck.  My heart broke for them.  I wished I was like Jesus.  I wished I could tell them everything they’d ever done.  I wished I could tell them that there was hope, that we can be reconciled.

One final scene made me wonder about the possibility of reconciliation:  Tanks rolling through the streets of Hama, Syria.  The news was that all telecommunications had been cut off along with electricity and water supplies.  President Assad’s troops pushed into what had become the center of a non-violent protest for change in Syria.  Snipers took to the rooftops, initially shooting at whatever moved, according to reports.  News was also trickling out that Assad’s troops were carrying out executions in the streets.  We’re hearing that at least 200 have been killed this week and around 2000 since the uprising began in June.   We can only hope that these numbers won’t climb to the proportions of the massacre of 1982 when President Assad’s father gave the orders and his uncle conducted a scorched-earth campaign that killed as many as 40,000.  The events have certainly reminded us of an ongoing history of violence and tyranny in Syria.  There are no sings of any immanent reconciliation.

We do get glimmers of hope for reconciliation from time to time.  One of these was the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu and his colleagues who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid.  When the structures of racial supremacy that enforced a system of segregation and caste finally came down and black leaders took charge of the government, nobody was exactly sure what would happen.  But soon those leaders showed that it was their intention to restore civility and community in South Africa and they would do so by actively seeking reconciliation.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a forum for victims of civil and human rights atrocities to give voice to their suffering and even provided for perpetrators to receive amnesty under certain conditions, which included the public acknowledgement of their wrong.

Bishop Tutu was and is a man of peace and wisdom and a great model for reconciliation in our time.  This week, I reviewed an article that he wrote wherein he talks about the necessary steps in true reconciliation.  First, there needs to be a desire for reconciliation.  Reconciliation is of course a two-way street.  If either party is not willing to seek reconciliation, then there can be no reconciliation.  Both parties have to humble themselves, face their fears and come together.

The first formal step in the reconciliation process, then, is confession.  This of course is not easy.  Most of us have a hard time admitting our wrongs.  We want to justify ourselves and so we try to convince ourselves and others that we are right – that we have done no wrong.  But if we want reconciliation, confession is necessary.  Tutu uses the example of a marital dispute.  He asks us to imagine a husband and wife who have quarreled.  The quarrel comes to an end, but there is no admission of any wrong.  They have not discussed the cause of their rift.  The husband brings home a bunch of flowers “and the couple pretend all is in order.”   Tutu insists that “they will be in for a rude shock.  They have not dealt with their immediate past adequately.  They have glossed over their differences, for they have failed to stare truth in the face for fear of a possible bruising confrontation.”  “Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are.  It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.  True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth.”[1]

Once this truth is acknowledge than there is the chance for forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not easy and it is not a mere sentiment.  Nor does forgiveness condone or forget the offense.  Forgiveness “means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.  It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and to have empathy…”[2]  “Forgiving [also] means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”  Tutu uses the example of three ex-servicemen standing at the Vietnam Memorial in DC.  “One asks, “Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?”  “I will never forgive them,” replies the other.  His mate says, “Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they.”[3]  “True forgiveness deals with the past… to make the future possible.”  If we live in the past and allow grudges and resentments to poison our relationships then we will never have reconciliation and we will never have peace in the present or in the future.

The final stage of reconciliation is reparation.  We cannot merely apologize and move on if injustice persists.  Tutu cites the ongoing economic disparity between blacks and whites in South Africa as a continuing challenge for the reconciliation process.  In as much as these disparities were caused my Apartheid they must be addressed as part of reconciliation.  In as much as we can address any lasting damage that has been done, reconciliation demands that we do make reparation.  This is not a condition for forgiveness, but it is a necessary final step in reconciliation.

Well, how did old Jacob and Esau do in their effort to be reconciled?  First, they do both show humility and seek reconciliation.  Jacob’s humility is rather formal.  He and his retinue make a procession and pass before Esau bowing as one would before a prince.  Jacob refers to himself as Eau’s servant and addresses him as “My Lord.”  Esau, on the other hand, is much more emotional and follows his gut, as we might expect.  He runs to his brother, embraces him, hugs his neck and weeps.  Both brothers show their readiness to begin the reconciliation process.

So, next comes the confession right?  Jacob has quite a bit to confess.  He needs to tell his brother that he was wrong to take advantage of him and barter with him for his birthright.  He needs to confess to his brother that he stole his blessing.  Perhaps he could tell his brother about his seemingly insatiable desire to be on top at just about any cost.  But, do we get such a confession?  Do we get any admission by Jacob of any wrong?  No.  Jacob has already moved straight to the reparations.  Like a husband trying to smooth things over with gifts, Jacob has sent ahead cattle and servants.

Esau does not want to receive these gifts.  Amazingly, he seems ready to forgive without either confession or reparation.  But Jacob insists, “Pray take my blessing that has been brought you, for God has favored me and I have everything.”  “And he pressed him, and he took it.”

As further evidence of his forgiveness, Esau invites Jacob to journey with him.  Really, Esau is not only inviting Jacob to travel with him, but he is inviting him to be reconciled.  He’s inviting him to reunite their two households.  He’s inviting him to be his brother again and live with him.  But Jacob demurs and even adds one last deceit.  He tells his brother that he will come to him at Seir, which is Esau’s new home and the future home of the Edomites. But Jacob has no such intention of joining his brother at Seir.  When he parts with his brother, he heads in exactly the opposite direction to Shechem, in Canaan.  And this passage, thereby, establishes the everlasting division between the Edomites, the people of Esau and the Israelites, the people of Jacob.  This is a story of two brothers divided, of two nations divided, and a story of a reconciliation that never was.

Merciful God, although Christ is among us as our peace, we are a people divided against ourselves as we cling to the values of a broken world. The fears and jealousies that we harbor set brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation.  Lord, have mercy upon us; heal and forgive us.  Amen.


[1] Desmond Tutu, “No Future without Forgiveness,” in Approaches to Peace:  A Reader in Peace Studies, David P. Barash, ed. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 278.

[2] Ibid., pp. 278-279.

[3] Ibid., p. 279.

Christian FAQs

Teri and I have noticed that the posts that tend to get the most hits on our site are the ones that answer common questions that Christians and others might have.  I think Teri’s sermon “What Does God Provide?” is our all-time leader.  So we thought it might be fun to do a little series of questions and answers.  I did a very unscientific and non-exhaustive search of the web and came up with ten FAQs of Christianity:

  1. How do I become a Christian?
  2. Why go to church?
  3. How should I pray?
  4. Will God solve my problems?
  5. What is sin?
  6. Is pornography a sin?
  7. What is the ‘rapture?’ And what is the ‘second coming?’
  8. What happens after death?
  9. Who is God?
  10. What is Islam?

There are, of course, lots of sites on the web that answer these questions already.  The problem is that many of them answer the questions by belting the reader with the Bible.  We hope to give more humane or pastoral answers.  Our answers will of course consider what the Bible says and they will be influenced by the fact that we are Presbyterian ministers, but we will not be trying to give THE BIBLICAL ANSWER or THE REFORMED ANSWER or even THE CHRISTIAN ANSWER.  We’ll be giving Teri’s answer or Dan’s answer that will hopefully be of help to you.

Look for these answers in the coming weeks!

On Wrestling With God

“On Wrestling with God”

Genesis 32:22-32

Daniel J. Ott

The story of Jacob’s dark night wrestling match is one of the most intriguing and mysterious in all of scripture.  There are ambiguities in the text that leave us with questions and leave open room for interpretation.  Who is it that comes to Jacob in the night?  Is it a man?  Is it a spirit or a demon?  Is it a personification of Jacob’s own fears and anxieties?  Is it the spirit of Esau?  Or is it a god, or is it the God, or a representation of multiple gods?  And what is the nature of this wrestling match?  Is it a battle to the death?  Is it the intimate wrestling, like of two brothers or a father and a son?  Is it a dream struggle – a psychological event?   Or is it a metaphorical struggle that may be several of these things at once?

As I read the story, images come to my mind.  I picture Robert Duval as the less than perfect Pentecostal preacher in the film The Apostle yelling at God till sun up.  It’s a dark night, thunder rumbles in the background and in an attic window one lone lamp glows.  The apostle paces back and forth raising his fists and his voice:  “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme peace, gimme peace.  I don’t know who’s been fooling with me you or the devil, but I’m confused.  I’m confused.  I’m mad.  I’m angry.  I love you.  I love you, Lord, but I’m mad at you.  Deliver me.  Deliver me.  I know I’m a sinner every once in a while… and a womanizer.  But I’m your servant.  Since I was a little boy, I’ve been your servant.  I call you Jesus and you call me Sonny.  So answer me Jesus.  It’s Sonny calling.”  On into the dark night he wrestles never getting the answer or the peace that he wants, but never letting go either.

I remember the poem by the medieval mystic John of the Cross, The Dark Night.  John’s poem is one of mystery and struggle – the night is truly dark.  But his poem is one of intimacy and love.  The mixture of intimacy and pain that John expresses in the final stanzas of his poem remind me of Jacob’s adversary who touches his hip socket thus wrenching it.

O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that was united

The lover with his beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her lover.

Upon my flowering breast

Which I kept wholly for him alone,

There he lay sleeping,

And I caressing him

There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret

Parting his hair,

He wounded my neck

With his gentle hand,

Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself

Laying my face on my beloved;

All things ceased; I went out from myself,

Leaving my cares

Forgotten among the lilies.

The dark night is a night of blessing, a night in which we are wounded by the love of God, caught up with God in intimate wrestling.

I also think of the Jewish people and their beautiful tradition of wresting with God.  This text is a pivotal one for Jewish people.  Jacob gets his new name, Israel, “Because you have struggled with God and men and won.”  The people of Israel sustain this struggle. The Jewish tradition is not passed down as a set of decided doctrines, but as a set of important questions with which one should wrestle.  And out of the wrestling comes the blessing.

Next to the Bible, the Talmud is perhaps the most important book in Judaism.  The Talmud is a book of arguments, a book of wrestling.  In its pages you read the Rabbis wrestling with texts, arguing with each other, struggling to understand the scriptures and to understand God.

I often share a video with students when I’m teaching about Judaism.  The footage is of a small seminary in Israel.  The classroom is also their prayer room and it’s about half the size of this sanctuary.  When the video cuts to the classroom the viewer is accosted by a cacophony of sound.  There are thirty or forty men, young and old, standing around in pairs, yelling at each other.  They are not angry, but they do seem to be arguing.  The voiceover explains that this is the education method employed at the seminary.  The students are paired up with each other or with a teacher and they argue, debate, wrestle with texts, struggle with questions.  And they believe that by wrestling with each other, they also wrestle with God.  They come to understand God and what God is trying to say to them a little better.  Wrestling is very important in the Jewish tradition.

Another symbol that might have something to do with our story this morning is the sacrament of baptism.  As Jacob wrestles with God in this story he is marked, named and blessed.  In our baptisms, we, too, are marked named and blessed.

When I met with D. and M. about being baptized this morning, they were a little concerned about the mode of baptism.  Would I be dunking them?  Just how much water would I use?  Would they need a towel?  They knew that they would be marked with the water, but what would the mark be like?  Sometimes I wish the mark of Baptism were more visible and lasting.  We need to remember our baptisms.  We need to remember that we have been marked as Christ’s own.  Maybe we should have a cross marked on our foreheads with indelible ink – sort of like the ashes that we wear at the beginning of Lent, but permanent.  I guess that’s a bit much, but simply wearing a cross around our necks has become meaningless – usually a fashion statement.  Maybe something like Jacob’s mark would be most appropriate.  He was marked with a limp.  That’s something you sure can’t forget.  It’s also a great symbol, because it reminds him not only that he has a relationship with God, but that he has wrestled with God.  Those of us who dare to wrestle with God can never be the same.  The wrestling changes us.  No longer can we live meaningless, apathetic, selfish lives.  God-wrestlers are the ones who ask the big questions, the ones who dare to care, the ones struggle everyday to better love God and their neighbors.  Baptism marks us as God-wrestlers.

In some traditions, like Catholicism, those being baptized receive a new name.  Usually, today it’s added on as another middle name.  In other traditions and cultures, young men and women are given new names as part of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.  Jacob’s name change is rather dramatic.  He goes from the heel-grabber, the supplanter, the crooked one, to God rules, or God is Lord.  This is quite a transformation.  The one who was always angling and seeking to control, now attests by name that God is in charge. Actually, I think Daniel is probably a good baptismal name for me.  It means something like “God will judge. “ A theologian who makes his career guessing what God is like and presuming to explain God to others might need to remember that God will judge.  What would your baptismal name be?  If you’re a fearful person, maybe “God will guard.”  If you’re riddled with shame, maybe “God forgives.”  If you have doubts or struggle with your faith, maybe “God wrestles.”

Finally, when Jacob hangs on to God for long enough, God blesses him.  Surely, we are blessed in our baptisms.  But what kind of blessing do we receive?  In just a few minutes I will read the official answer as part of the baptismal liturgy.  In our baptisms God claims us.  God seals us to show that we belong to God.  God frees us from sin and death and unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection.  We are made members of Christ’s church and join Christ in ministry.  That’s quite a set of blessings!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jacob keeps asking for blessings.  Jacob’s striving to be blessed is one of the main themes of these stories.  Jacob even asks this mysterious night wrestler for a blessing.  And the wrestler eventually blesses him.  But what is the nature of this blessing?  What is the outcome of this blessing?  Is it a foreshadowing of his immanent reconciliation with Esau?  Is it a reiteration of God’s promise to return him to Canaan and prosper him there?  Or is the blessing to be found in the wrestling itself?  Is God’s deepest blessing to Jacob that he continues to come to him in the night, to speak with him, to be intimate with him, to wrestle with him.  Perhaps the deepest blessing we receive in our baptism is that God promises to come to us, to come close, to wrestle.

I am writing a sermon on Matthew 14: 22-33, the passage wherein Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him…in the midst of a storm.  Peter has always seemed to me to be the naïve, overeager, overachiever type.  He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks.  Peter is far from perfect, but he wants so badly to be perfect, he wants so badly to please Jesus and to prove his faith. So when Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat, walking on the water, overeager Peter thinks he should walk on the water too.  So he asks Jesus to command him to come to him.

Even if you don’t know the story you can see where it is headed.  Jesus invites Peter to step out of the boat. Peter gets out, takes a few shaky steps on the water, then panics because the wind, and the storm, and the waves are still raging around him.  Peter sinks.  Jesus has to save him.  Then they both get in the boat and the storm, miraculously, ceases to rage.  This is the point where I imagine Peter, wet and water-logged, traumatized by his near drowning, and humiliated for being told he had so “little faith,” is thinking to himself, “Okay, Jesus.  Couldn’t you have made this a little easier?  Couldn’t you have made the storm cease before I stepped out of the boat?”

Have you ever found yourself asking this question?  Why is faith so difficult?  Why does Jesus call his followers out of the safety and security of the boat into the middle of a storm?  Why does faith require so much courage, and effort, and strength of will?  Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?

But faith isn’t easy.  By its very nature, faith isn’t easy.  Faith is not something that we can rationalize, or explain, or even obtain with any measure of success.  If we were to attempt to explain it we might talk about reaching for the unreachable, finite hands grasping for that which is infinite.  Faith is the bridge that is built between stark dichotomies; it is hope in the face of despair; it is love in the face of hatred; it is peace in the face of violence; it is beauty in the face of ugliness; it is justice in the face of injustice; it is courage in the face of fear.  Faith is a dynamic, spirited force that moves us from the place where we are to the place where we ought to be.

Which is why it is so difficult.  Faith is supposed to move us.  Faith is supposed to change us.  Faith is supposed to better us and open us, deepen us and mature us. And that journey isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s the most difficult, most intimidating, most risk-filled journey we will ever take because it means consistently stepping out of the safety of the boat into the wind and the waves and the storm.

Theologian Paul Tillich describes faith as “dynamic.”  If faith becomes static, if it fails to move us, open us, deepen us, better us, then it is no longer faith.  Instead it is an idol; it is simply another idol that we put up on the mantle to worship but with which we don’t actually do anything.

Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?  Thanks be to God the answer is “No.”

 

“The Trickster Gets Tricked – a Love Story”

Genesis 29

Daniel J. Ott

 

I know my wife loves me.  And I think, in general, she’s pretty contented with me as a husband.  But I also think she could probably name a few minor points where I could use some improvement.  And I think one of those would be that she would like for me to occasionally sit down with her and watch what we call a chick flick, a romantic comedy.  But, unfortunately, I just can’t do it.  She is quick to point out that I did watch a few with her back when I was wooing her, but of course everything changes after you’re married.  In my own defense, its not that I think that I’m too macho or that I mean to be unromantic.  The problem with chick flicks for me is their unrealism.  Of course, the unrealism of Star Wars or Batman is completely acceptable, but the point is:  the kind of love that you see in romantic comedies just seems so unrealistic that, to me, it almost makes a mockery of love.

First, there’s the fateful falling in love.  The two bump into each other in the hotdog line at the Cub’s game and immediately there are stars in their eyes.  Or perhaps its slightly more complicated:  Middle aged guy is dating the younger sister, impressing her with his sports car and expensive dinners out.  He reluctantly goes on vacation with her family only to find out that he had once dated the older sister, now divorced.  The two fall in love and the plot untangles from there.  In any case, there’s always magic involved and we see the love in the lovers’ eyes from the moment they spot each other.  Then, comes the conflict.  Some sort of misunderstanding arises.  He says something he shouldn’t, or she sees something and misconstrues it, or he goes out on a night with guys that goes wrong, and as a result the two have a big fight and grow apart.  Of course, this only lasts long enough to play a few sad ballads behind scenes of him looking longingly into the old Italian restaurant where they used to dine and her sitting alone on the edge of the fountain into which earlier in the movie they dived in with all of their clothes on.   Then there’s the obligatory hear-to-heart with the best friend scene, thus leading to the reconciliation scene that takes all of five minutes after which the stars return to the lovers eyes, some uplifting music is played, a frolicking in the park scene, a wedding scene, and cue the credits.  Just like it happens in real life, right?

Interestingly, when our story about Jacob and Rachel begins, it looks like it’s headed to chick flick land.  The setting is common to betrothal scenes in the ancient Near East.  The well cues the reader that romance is on the rise.  Soon after Jacob arrives, it so happens that Rachel appears.  Sparks fly.  Jacob is so stirred by Rachel that without thinking he moves the stone from the well, a feat that would ordinarily require a collection of several shepherds.  After this show of virility, he then shows his caring and compassionate side by watering Rachel’s flock.  Then, in tenderness, he kisses her and even begins to cry.  She’s smitten, too.  She runs to tell her father what has happened and to seek his approval.  And, happily, her father accepts Jacob into his house with open arms.

What happens next is not the ordinary misunderstanding that we might expect from a romantic comedy, but it’s also not a complete surprise for those of us who are getting to know the ‘heel-grabber.’  Laban comes to Jacob with what seems to be a genuinely gracious offer.  Jacob has been tending his uncle’s flock for a month now without pay.  Laban says, “Tell me what your wages should be.”  This is just the opening that the trickster needed.  Without blinking an eye Jacob says, “I will serve seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel.”

Now, at first blush, we might think that there is nothing wrong with this proposition.  Seven years seems like a long time to work in exchange for the right to marry and, besides, the youngsters are in love.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, remember Jacob is in exile.  He has nothing.  Ordinarily, the suitor would offer the father a substantial bride-price, but Jacob has no way to pay.  In fact, where would Jacob stay and how would he work if it weren’t for his uncle taking him in.  Doesn’t Jacob owe Laban his labor just for shelter and sustenance?  Furthermore, Jacob knows full well that the father always offers his daughters in birth order, eldest first.  But of course what does Jacob care for birth order, right?

In any case, Laban agrees, figuring that Jacob is better than any of the other lads he’s seen hanging around.  When the seven years are up, Jacob insists sharply and crudely, “Let me have my wife and let me bed her.”  Perhaps because of this rudeness or perhaps it was his plan all along, Laban then begins to unfold his trick for the trickster.  Laban hosts a feast and gets Jacob drunk.  And when the time comes he makes the switch.  Rather than giving Jacob Rachel, Laban gives him Leah, his eldest.  Here the fairy tale ends.

Jacob is enraged and he shouts at Laban, “What is this that you have done to me?  How could you deceive me?”  One of the old Rabbis also imagined that Jacob complained to Leah herself, “Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!” She said, “There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples.  Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?”[1]  The trickster’s tricked and he doesn’t like it one little bit.

Laban makes a concession and offers Rachel for another seven years labor.  When Leah’s wedding week is done, Jacob marries Rachel whom he will always love more.  In fact, the text says that Leah was despised.  ‘Despised’ says what it means in the sense that Jacob harbored ill feelings for Leah, but this term is also a technical term for the un-favored, second wife.

And here’s where the real love story begins.  So far, we’ve seen a fairy tale beginning and we’ve seen the kind of twists that a love story can take.  We’ve seen that often love is tainted by tricks and often love for one implies un-love for others.  But the real love story here is not the one about Jacob and Rachel, but the one about God’s love for Leah.

“God saw that Leah was despised and God opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”  God blesses Leah with sons.  And Leah hopes with each birth that she will finally earn Jacob’s love.  The first son she names Rueben, literally ‘look, a son.’  “God has seen my suffering,” she says, “Now my husband will love me.”  The next she names Simeon – close to the verb ‘to hear.’  “For God heard that I was despised.”  The third she names Levi, a play on the word meaning “will join.”  “This time at last my husband will join me, for I have born him three sons.”  Finally, she gives up on Jacob and gives into God’s love.  She’s blessed with a fourth son, whom she names Judah.  “This time I sing praise to God.”

When Leah suffered, God saw.  When she cried out in despair at being despised, God heard.  When she could not win the love of her husband, when she was loveless, God loved.  Now there’s a love story worth telling.

There’s a Buddhist monk named Tich Nhat Hanh whose teachings have been very important to me in my own spiritual journey.  I often hear his voice in my head.  In the recordings I have of him, he speaks softly and slowly, peacefully and tenderly.  When I read about God seeing Leah’s suffering, I heard his voice and one of his central teachings.  He says that we all suffer very much. We all have inside of us a little boy or a little girl who suffers.  Each of us has inside of us a little girl or a little boy who longs to be loved, who feels forgotten, or despised, or rejected.  And if we want to ease our suffering, then we will need to take good care of that suffering little boy or little girl inside ourselves.  We will need to touch her tenderly and tell her that we know that she suffers and tell her that we love her very much.  And if we want to ease the suffering of our wife or husband, or if we want to ease the suffering of our daughter or our son, or if we want to ease the suffering of our father or mother, or sister brother, we will have to care for the suffering child in them.  We will have to tell that suffering child, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.  Let me help you.”

And it seems to me that this is the kind of love story that we see over and over in scripture.  God sees the despised.  God hears the oppressed.  God visits the exiled.  God comes to the loveless.  Over and over again, God comes and says to them and to us, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.”

And God also calls us to be agents of this kind of love in the world.  If we want to know what love is, if we want to live our own love stories, then we, too, will need to see the suffering, and hear the cries of the oppressed, and love the loveless.  God calls us to love the suffering and loveless ones in our homes, here in our church, here in our community and even to the ends of the earth.

I want to close by telling you a story about a time when I saw someone answering God’s call to love the loveless.  There was a couple in one of the little churches that I pastored in South Carolina who took in foster children.  The couple didn’t have a lot.  They were your basic working-class folks who lived in a very nice double-wide on a piece of family land.  They took these children in and gave them everything they had, they treated them no differently than they would their own children who had grown and left the house.  I don’t want to make them sound like saints, because that would ruin the story.  They were just generous and loving parents, generous and loving parents like you and me who sometimes get frustrated and annoyed and sometimes do a better job of parenting than others.

Well, one of the little girls that they took in turned out to be a little more than they bargained for.  I think she was eleven or twelve when she came to them.  She was a smart and attractive little girl who liked to sing and fit in well with the other kids at church.  She was doing pretty well, but soon her foster-mother began to tell me that they were having some rough spots at home.  At first, we all thought it was the kind of thing that is to be expected of a foster child in a new home.  But as she began to get a little older and enter into puberty things got worse and worse.  She began to do outlandish things.  She threw tantrums and became violent.  She vandalized some property while away at church camp.  Her foster mother suspected that she might be acting out sexually.  Through all of this, my friends were steadfast in their love for the girl.  Folks at church were praying for her and pitching in to help.  The couple took the girl to counseling and attended family counseling.  They were keeping several appointments a week, working with psychologists, social workers, and others to try to figure out how best to love this suffering child.  Eventually, the psychologist diagnosed her with Reactive Attachment Syndrome.  This means that the girl, probably because of early childhood neglect, was not able to make healthy attachments with others.  Good attention and bad attention didn’t make any difference to her.  She didn’t understand intimacy and sought it from the wrong people in the wrong contexts.  Her frustration boiled over and she lashed out with no inhibition since she was truly incapable of caring and love.  My friends found out that they were truly loving the loveless.

Of course this story didn’t have a fairy tale ending.  Eventually, the girl had to be institutionalized.  But that didn’t stop her new parents’ love.  They visited her and took their pastor to visit her.  They listened patiently to her fantastic stories and her insatiable complaints.  And at the end of every visit they hugged her and kissed her and told her, “We love you, Baby.”

Thanks be to God, for love stories like these.

 

 


[1] Robert Alter, Genesis (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), p. 155.

Genesis 29

The real love story is not between Jacob and Rachel.  The real love is God’s love for Leah.  God loved her in her suffering (32).  God loved her when she was despised and degraded (33).  God loved her even when her husband wouldn’t (34).  So, Leah gives up on her husband’s love and returns God’s (35).

Tich Nhat Hanh often reminds us that we all suffer.  We all have a little suffering child inside us who longs to be loved.  We all have a despised child inside us who needs our care.  We all have a loveless child inside us who needs our gentle touch.  God loves this little child in each of us.  And we can be God’s love to suffering, degraded and forgotten children. Some of them live in our homes, inside our spouse or our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters.  Some of them live a little further away in our churches and communities. Some of them live in far off lands.  We can love them with God’s love.  This is a love story worth telling.

 

 

Even at the Gate of Heaven – A Bargain

Genesis 28:10-22

Daniel J. Ott

 

It’s amazing what people are willing to do in order to have contact with God.  Since the dawn of civilization people have been bending over backwards, sometimes literally, in order to have religious experiences.  The ancient Mesopotamians built ziggurats, large, stepwise, pyramid-type buildings with stairways to the heavens.  Their priests would climb the stairs to offer sacrifices and perform rituals for the gods in hopes that the gods would in turn descend the staircase to be present to them and bless them.  In our own tradition, some Christian ascetics climbed to the top of pillars and lived there for years, fasting and praying most of the time.  Some Sufis in Turkey have been known to go many days without sleep while drinking strong coffee.  I’ve never tried it, but that seems to me a sure-fire way of having some sort of mystical vision.  In the 60s, Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert did many experiments with LSD and other hallucinogens, trying to trigger religious experiences.

Of course, many of us engage in more ‘ordinary’ practices in hopes that we will encounter God.  We pray, or practice meditation and contemplation.  We rehearse the stories of others’ experiences of God.  We come here on Sunday morning and invoke God’s presence, engage symbols that point us to God, practice rituals that we hope will open into some sort of experience of God.

But in our story this morning Jacob doesn’t do any of these things.  He’s not really seeking God at all when God comes to visit.  The ladder or staircase to heaven that he sees in his vision is not a ladder that he’s climbing.  He will set up some symbols and perform some rituals later in the story, but he is not engaging symbols or performing rituals in order to instigate some contact with God.  In fact, before Jacob dreams his dream, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that Jacob is even thinking about God at all.

Perhaps the only thing that we might point to as a possible prompt for God’s visit is Jacob’s vulnerability.  Jacob is on the run.  His mother told him that Esau was enraged and planned to kill him in revenge for the stealing of his birthright and blessing.  She sent him to take refuge with Laban, her brother, Jacob’s uncle, in Haran way off in Mesopotamia.  He stops in the middle of nowhere at a place with no name.  There is no shelter in that place, no place to lay his head.  So he takes a stone, and with no tent and no guard, he lays his head down and goes to sleep.  He couldn’t be any more vulnerable.

Now knowing something about Jacob, we might have expected him to deal with his vulnerability differently.  We might have expected him to come up with some sort of scheme or to strike some sort of bargain.  But Jacob is all alone in the wilderness, so there’s no one to trick and no one with whom to strike a bargain … except perhaps God.  Why didn’t Jacob think of that?  Why didn’t Jacob try to strike a bargain with God?

I know I’ve tried that in some of my most vulnerable moments, haven’t you?  We’ve all heard of the soldier’s foxhole bargain with God or the dying person’s deathbed rededication.  “God, if you just get me through this, I’ll be in church every Sunday.”

Why didn’t Jacob try something like that?  “God, if you just see me safely through to Haran, I promise I’ll be a good boy.”  Or “God, I promise I won’t trick anyone anymore if you just ease my brother’s anger and make it safe for me to return to Beersheba.”  Jacob is so good at this sort of thing that he could have built a loophole into the bargain.  Maybe he’d only have to stop his trickery for a couple of years or something.  But Jacob doesn’t think of that.  God’s visitation is not even prompted by one of Jacob’s famous propositions.

No, God comes to Jacob completely out of the blue – no proposition, no invocation, no prayer, no sacrifice.  God comes on God’s own initiation.  God comes as sheer grace.

And God’s word to Jacob is one of unconditional blessing and promise.  “I am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.  The land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to your seed.  And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west and the east and the north and the south, and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through you, and through your seed.  And look, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”

Now that’s the kind of experience of God that we all really want, isn’t it?  In our most vulnerable moment, we want God to come to us and say simply, “I will guard you.”  In our darkest hour, we want God to come to us and say, “I am with you.”  In our deepest despair, we want God to come to us and say, “I will not leave you.”  No bargain needed.  No ‘if s’ or ‘buts’ – just sheer grace precisely when we are most vulnerable.

And this is the sheer grace that God is to Jacob.  And Jacob, at least for the night, is profoundly thankful.  He wakes from his dream and says, “God is here.  This place that I thought was no place must really be Beth El, God’s House.  I thought I was in the middle of nowhere, but this must really be the gate of the heavens.” And he returns to his sleep in what I imagine was a deep, deep peace.

But something changes in the morning.  In the morning, it seems like Jacob loses the immediacy of that experience of sheer grace. He tries to set it in stone, literally.  He erects a pillar and performs a ritual, media that God never needed.  And, most tragically, Jacob, now, in the morning, decides that it’s time bargain.  The speech that he makes before God has something of the tone of his bargaining with Esau from last week’s story.  Remember?  Just to be sure, even after the sale had been done, birthright for soup, Jacob insisted of Esau, “Swear to me now.”

Jacob makes his vow to God, “IF God be with me, and IF God will guard me on my way, and IF God will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and IF I return safely to my father’s house, THEN I will serve God, THEN I will worship God, THEN I will give God my offerings and tithes.”  The night before, God had given Jacob unconditional promises – no ‘ifs.”  Now, in the morning, Jacob makes his conditions.  Even at the gate of the heavens, a bargain.

O that we could quit bargaining and bartering with God; quit building our staircases to God and our houses for God; quit making God into the great wish-fulfiller in the sky and see that God is sheer grace.

Teri and I watched a documentary film early this week called Ram Dass:  Fierce Grace. It’s the story of Richard Alpert, the same Richard Alpert that I spoke of early in this sermon.  Alpert is best known for his association with Timothy Leary and their experiments with hallucinogens while teaching at Harvard.  Those experiments eventually got both Leary and Alpert fired.  But that didn’t stop the experiments.  The professors found some private sponsors and continued.  Before long, though, Alpert grew weary of the ups and downs that accompany sustained LSD use and looked for meaning and religious experience elsewhere.

He traveled to India where he met Maharaj-ji and had a conversion and enlightenment.  Maharaj-ji gave him a new name, Ram Dass, servant of God. He returned to the U.S. and built a substantial following as one of the spiritual voices of the hippie movement.  He wrote a book, Be Here Now, that sold over a million copies.

The movie, though, is really about his life after he had a stroke in 1997.  Ram Dass prefers to say that he ‘was stroked’ and he has come to think of the stroke itself as a kind of grace, fierce grace.  Life after the stroke is kind of a new spiritual school.  He’s had to learn to be less in control.  He’s learned the humility of needing a driver and an attendant.  He’s also been humbled by having to learn to speak again.  The one time professor, intellectual, writer, speaker and guru, now struggles to find the words to fit his concepts.

And by his own telling, he’s had to learn to quit bargaining with God and badgering God.  He had to learn to quit asking the question, “Why god, did you do this?”  And instead, he learned to rediscover how life is a blessing and how in his new life, he could be a blessing to others.  He came to see his stroke as a kind of second enlightenment, a fierce grace that opened him to new dimensions of what it means to be thankful for life.

To be honest, I’m still not sure whether I like the movie and the conclusions that Ram Dass came to.  I’m not at all sure that I could say that a stroke is a gift from God, given to teach us new spiritual lessons.  I’m not sure that I’m ready to see God as the granter of fierce grace.  Instead, I like to think of God as sheer grace.  I think of God as that promise, that unconditional promise that comes to us in our dark night.  I think of God as the way that emerges mysteriously when we thought there was no way.  I think of God as vision that comes even when our sadness, or our grief, or our pain has made our eyes dim.  I think of God as hope that comes, even if only as a glimmer, when despair, or depression, or despondency threatens our very lives.

God doesn’t need our sacrifices, or the houses we build, or stairways to tread.  God can’t be coaxed with bargains, or vows, or deals.  God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who comes to us in the wilderness, during the night, and offers us nothing other than unconditional promise and blessing – sheer grace.