July 23, 2017 at Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, NY
Illustration: William Blake, Jacob's Dream
The movement of human beings is an important theme in the Bible.
God calls Abraham to leave his home in Haran and travels to a land he doesn’t know.
This week, Abraham’s grandchild Jacob, is fleeing a brother who wants to murder him, leaving home with nothing for a land he doesn’t know.
Jacob’s son Joseph will have a similar experience fleeing from his brothers for his life.
Many generations after that, Moses fearing for his life, will escape from Egypt into Midian and will return to lead an entire nation of people out of Egypt into the wilderness, where they will wander for 40 years before entering a new home in the promised land.
Many generations after that, the nation of Israel will be forced into exile in Babylon. Eventually they will return.
But the history of God’s chosen people is a history of movement, of saying goodbye to your beloved home at a time of pain and broken hopes, of entering an unknown and dangerous new land, of longing for the true home that God has promised to you.
Stories of movement are perhaps more relevant to our world today than ever.
According to the United Nations, today there are over 22 million refugees in our world: people who have fled their home country to find safety. Over 5 million refugees are from the country of Syria alone.
In our own neighborhood there are many whose lives are a story of constant movement. For the rest of July and August, this very room becomes at night, a shelter for men who are without a home.
But what can a story of movement, of exile, and homelessness, mean for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a bed to sleep in, walls to protect us, and food in our cupboards? Exile and movement can take many forms. I who live in material comfort may be wandering in my heart and my soul. God may not ask every person to leave their physical home. But God often calls us to move in our hearts and our minds-- to leave behind a space of internal comfort, and depart for an uncomfortable, and perhaps painful, unknown land within our own selves.
This week we meet Jacob as he leaves home, his parents and his older brother Esau. In the previous chapter, Genesis 27, this cunning young man Jacob decides he wants his father Isaac’s blessing, which by Isaac’s desire and by all laws of culture should go to Jacob’s older brother Esau instead. But Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, disguises himself as his older brother and deceives Isaac, who is old and blind, into giving him the blessing. When Isaac learns what happens, his old body trembles violently. When Esau learns what happens, he wails, and is filled with rage, he prepares to kill Jacob. So Jacob flees into the land of his mother’s family to escape his brother and hopefully find a wife.
And this week we meet Jacob as a refugee in the desert, fleeing from his brother’s deadly wrath. In the previous generation, when Abraham sent his servant into the wilderness to seek a wife for Isaac, he sent with him with other men, camels, jewelry-- protection and tokens of wealth. In contrast, Jacob in the wilderness has nothing to his name, except the disgrace of having deceived his father.
Well, Jacob has the blessing he stole, this thing he coveted his whole life, and risked everything to gain.
Now he has it, he finds himself in a place so desolate and empty it doesn’t even have a name. It looks like nothing. The only reason Jacob stays here is because he is exhausted, and it’s too dark to keep moving. But tomorrow, as soon as the first light peeks over the horizon, he’s getting out of this no-place and continuing on. So he goes to sleep with only a rock for comfort.
Perhaps Jacob imagined the blessing as inheriting all his father’s material wealth-- his servants, his livestock, his land. Or perhaps he imagined it as a special power that would defeat all his enemies, including his older brother. Certainly neither of those seem to be the case for him now.
Perhaps Jacob regretted ever pursuing this blessing.
If only he had known what this blessing really meant, he wouldn’t have taken it.
Some blessing! It seems more like a curse.
And then, as Jacob is sleeping, God appears to him in a dream.
And just as Jacob has been forced by this blessing to move, to live in discomfort and uncertainty in this empty, nameless place, so God in this dream is moving. God does not stay at a comfortable home in heaven. God has a ladder to come down from heaven and stand next to Jacob in this desolate place.
In our psalm this week also, God moves and meets us wherever we are: “If I say, ‘surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ darkness is not dark to you, God! The night is as bright as the day.”
And God, standing next to Jacob, says, “Jacob! Use your imagination! This place that looks dark and empty to you now, I can make into a blessing!
God says, You’re thinking too small Jacob. This blessing I give to you isn’t just for you. It’s for all your descendants, and for all the families of the earth.
And this movement, this discomfort of leaving your home for a strange land-- this is your blessing too, and this process of movement will be a blessing for all your descendants. Your offspring shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.
In the morning, Jacob no longer sees God standing next to him. The angels on the ladder climbing up and down, moving between Heaven and earth are gone. God’s images, God’s words, all seem like a dream.
How true that is to my own experience. Yes, I have experienced a sense of closeness to God, like God was standing at my shoulder with his arm around me. Yes, I have felt a vivid trust and assurance in God’s promises to me, like God was showing me with God’s own images and words, his love and protection for me.
But those experiences fade. Until they seem like a dream. And how hard it is to hold on to a dream.
But Jacob lets the dream guide his repentance. He is willing to live by the dream. He opens his heart and his mind to be changed. “Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it.”
And Jacob takes the rock he slept on, the sign of his pain and loneliness, and he makes it a holy place--- he names it Beth-El--“the house of God and the gate of heaven. “
Like God’s blessing for Jacob, the parable Jesus puts before us this week, about the wheat and the weeds, also draws us out of the present reality of a field sown with weeds, into imagining the future time of harvest.
This parable also makes a difficult assertion: there is an enemy. Jesus is clear about this: an enemy has sown weeds in the field of good grain. Who is this enemy?
When we reflect on the moment of history to which Jesus came, the reality of an enemy that Jesus teaches, should be no surprise to us. First century Palestine was a place of desolation. His people in Galilee and Judea were abused and oppressed by their political and religious leaders, and by the Roman military that occupied their land. Jesus came bringing mercy, and he was met with confusion, rejection, and violence. Even his disciples, the ones closest to him, continually failed to understand his message and his teachings, and eventually abandoned him for their fear.
I wonder if the refugees who have been forced to flee the flames of the war in Syria are uncomfortable with Jesus’s assertion that there is an enemy.
When we reflect on the reality of our world, the violence, the sowing of hatred, the exploitation of humans and creation, we should not be surprised when Jesus tells us, “an enemy has done this.”
And my response today is much the same as that of the servants in the parable: “Well, tell me to go and tear out those bad weeds!”
And the master’s response? “No. For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat. Let them both grow together until the harvest.” Jesus asks us to let the weeds and the wheat grow together, in the field of this world.
Water them all. Let them all have the sun. That plant you neglect, or every day try to tear out, is truly a good wheat plant. Wait until the harvest.
Do not tear out the weed, but love it--
Do not curse the place you have been exiled to,
Do not turn back to where you were before.
I invite you to believe that God has a ladder to meet you here, in this place, where you are now.
To believe that by God’s power this place will be a blessing--
Also for your children, and for all the families of the world.
That is the way of Jesus our Lord, the way of the cross, that continues to scandalize us.
Not to run away from pain, or even death, and to hate the ones who inflicted it--
But to love even amidst the pain.
Jesus looks at us and does not ask, is this a weed or a wheat?
But loves us.
Siblings, I invite you to believe this week, that God has come to earth to be with you.