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And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’ And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The song (Turn, Turn, Turn – heard before this sermon) written by Pete Seeger, many of you will know, is written entirely from the words of chapter 3 from the book Ecclesiastes, with one line added at the end for the purpose of hope. And it captures a truth that we really would like to resist, doesn’t it, which is that there is a time for everything. There’s a time for peace, and there’s a time for war. There’s a time for joy, and there’s a time for grieving. There is a time when things become more orderly and our systems and structures of our society work better, and then there is a time where disorder, chaos comes forward and things start to break down. And it’s easy during those times to believe that order will never come again.
Reading the New York Times poll that says Donald Trump is running even with (President) Joe Biden makes me feel like order will never come again.
Spending my vacation in Nova Scotia, wedged between fires and floods makes me feel like order will never come again. Driving along Hammonds Plains Road, which is a major road that goes along the edge of Halifax to a suburban area, seeing where the fire leapt and burned down suburban houses to the foundations on both sides, and then knowing that five weeks later in the nearest shopping mall to that very place, people were being taken out by boat because the water was rising so rapidly, makes me feel like order will never come again.
I turn, sometimes, to the words of Brian Saam, a theoretical quantum physicist, who says somehow chaotic systems just give birth to order.
If you take a look at all of the great narratives in the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures, you’ll notice that they all take place, almost without exception, in the times of disorder when, for Israel, things have fallen apart. There’s the exile, more than once, when Israel is conquered by foreign armies with empires, and the best and the brightest – the elite, the people who hold the systems together are sent away on this terrible journey of exile.
There’s the great narrative of the exodus, when the Israelites flee from Egypt after 400 years of captivity and they go through this 40 year journey through the desert. Anybody who reads carefully through the book of Exodus realizes that this was not a well planned, point-by-point camping trip. They spent 40 years wandering over a territory back and forth smaller than Nova Scotia, trying to find their way.
The lectionary passages in this summer tell of a different series of journeys, and those are the journeys of the people we used to call the Patriarchs, when religion was patriarchal. We used to tell the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, forgetting that Sarah and Hagar are just as much a part of the story as Abraham, forgetting that Rebecca is just as much a part of the story as Isaac, forgetting that Rachel and Leah and Bilhah are just as much a part of the story as Jacob. I think that this set of stories in the book of Genesis says a great deal to us in this time. It speaks to us helpfully in this time because everything’s falling apart.
The politics, the religion, and the lives of the people in these narratives look like a game of thrones! It’s strange, it’s dangerous, and it’s disorienting. The great father of the three Abrahamic religions – Abram, later called Abraham – sent his wife off to become the concubine of two different kings, and it turns out that she’s his half-sister!
Jacob journeys with Lot for a time. Lot goes off to Sodom and Gomorrah and those cities are destroyed for a complete lack of righteousness. And as Lot flees with his family and his possessions, they are warned ‘do not look back.’ But his wife looks back and she is turned into a pillar of salt. Then the part that somehow never gets in the lectionary: Lot ends up fathering the children of two of his daughters, one of whom becomes the founder of the nation of the Moabites, and the other the Ammonites. It just happens that the Moabites and the Ammonites were the enemies of the people writing these scriptures – I wonder if that had something to do with this. It is a weird and strange time when everything seems to be broken down, and there’s danger.
All three of these Patriarchs, and their families, wander back and forth in and out of the land that was promised to them, never seemingly being able to settle and being caught into the warfare of the little city-state kings in between, when they’re not being driven off to Egypt and into total exile.
In some ways, I would say that these are extremely apt narratives for the church today because it is a time for the church that is weird and dangerous and disorienting. The discovery of hundreds of bodies buried outside residential schools is disorienting and dangerous. The exodus of younger generations from the church is disorienting and heartbreaking.
Part of my time when I was away in Nova Scotia was study leave, and one of the things I did, is dive into the demographics of the church, both nationally and globally in this time. Do you know that the epicenter of Christianity is shifting deeply south? There was a time when 80% of Christians in this world were in the Western Hemisphere, (with) the vast majority of them, white. Now 67% of Christians are black, brown or yellow, and the samething that is happening globally is happening in this country because the churches that historically have been dominated by upper middle class white Protestants especially, are dying at the fastest rate. The United Church of Canada is declining at the fastest rate of any religious organization in Canada.
Now part of that is because renewal within the church is largely happening through immigration, so when Presbyterians from Korea come, they show up looking for a Presbyterian congregation. When Anglicans from Africa show up, they come looking for an Anglican congregation. When Catholics from the Philippines come, they come looking for a Catholic congregation. Almost nobody shows up looking for a United Church; the great counter example, being Chrizler, who comes from the United Church of South India in Chennai.
It is a time for us to accept the turning and to accept that we need to turn to those great narratives of disruption, and, in them, see our own.
The second thing these narratives have to teach us is much, much more hopeful and that is, in the midst of the disruption God shows up over and over and over and over and over again. So much so that one comes to believe that God shows up this much because of the disruption. You know that great line by Leonard Cohen – it’s the crack that lets the light in – that’s how the light gets in. This is tremendously good news for a disruptive people.
God shows up to Abraham repeatedly in dreams. God even shows up in the dreams of Abimelech, who’s one of those local kings, that Abraham has to relate to in one of these many journeys through what comes to be called the Promised Land.
God shows up for Isaac, and Isaac’s kin. And then God shows up, repeatedly, for Jacob in the stories that we read today. In one of these many journeys back and forth, Jacob finds himself on the land which is promised to the people of Israel. He’s alone, he’s wandering in the wilderness. Jacob is not a man without means, so what’s he doing lying down with a stone on his head, by himself? He’s vulnerable. He’s been cast out of his comfort. He’s been cast out of his protective circle, and in that moment where he actually has to lie down at dusk out of exhaustion, and rest his head on a rock, that’s when he has his greatest vision, and he ascends Jacob’s ladder! [Aside to Mikey Zahorak, Music Director: I thought of it too late. If I’d thought about it, I would have got you to do Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, instead of Turn, Turn, Turn.]
It’s because Jacob’s alone and vulnerable, and it’s because of the power of the place – the localized power of the Divine. I see people nodding – I know there are people who have experienced the power of place – the localized power of the Divine.
And then, Jacob encounters the Divine in a man who wrestled with him all night long. [Aside: Bob and I used to wrestle all the time when we were roommates and especially when we worked together at summer camp. One time, we were wrestling, and we almost knocked down one of the staff accommodations. It was done with such force – good thing we didn’t do it all night – and I don’t remember you ever blessing me but maybe your being here today is offering that blessing.] And Jacob walks away with a dislocated hip, – more dislocation – wounded, but knowing his future.
So, what does this have to teach us, besides the great assurance that God shows up when we’re dislocated?
If you read these narratives carefully, their arrival at their destination, the escape from slavery, none of these things happened because of 10 point multi-year strategic plans. None of these things happened because of the intelligence or the wisdom or the skill of the leaders. As a matter of fact, just like Jesus’ disciples, the characters in these stories are knuckleheads much of the time!
Now, it is true that the cunning of these guys and gals – the cunning – is part of their power but the way forward always comes through revelation. A flash of insight in a strange moment! A flash of insight when you’re vulnerable and needy, as an individual or a community, in a dream, in the wrestling with a stranger. In prayer, when you’ve wandered onto what the Irish call ‘a thin place’.
Now, the flipside of that is what I believe is the single greatest threat to the church today. The threat is what Parker Palmer calls ‘functual atheism’. The belief that our strategic plans are what’s going to save us. The belief that our management of our money and our building is what’s going to save us. The belief that our intelligence, our skill as leaders, the insight of our preachers is what’s going to save us. It’s too chaotic a time. If this progressively weird church is going to be saved, it’s going to be saved through revelation.
Revelation in these stories happens predominantly in two ways. The first is through spiritual practice – paying attention to our dreams. Spiritual practice – going out and accepting the hospitality of the other and listening deeply – spiritual practice. Prayer – spiritual practice. Going to those places in nature, the whole power, it’s moments of revelation there plus the second thing, which is the encounter with the other.
Do you know how this whole journey begins? Abram and Sarah are sitting at the Oaks of Mamre when three total strangers show up and tell them that God has blessed them and will give a whole land to them and that even though he’s almost 100 years old and she’s 80, they’re going to have a baby and they’re going to go on a great journey. It’s the encounter with the others – the man who wrestled with Jacob, with Abimelech who takes them in, that saves them.
Now here is the key point for the United Church of the last 50 years, because when we encounter the other in the United Church for most of the last several decades, we think our job is to help them because they’re less fortunate than us. When we encounter Indigenous people, we think our job is to help them to create programs that make their lives better. When we encounter marginalized and racialized people of other kinds, we think our job is to help them from a place of privilege and security. And maybe it was our job 50 years ago but what all of those groups have in common, now, is a rejection of that kind of encounter.
What does the biblical encounter say happens through a deep encounter with the other, such that God has revealed? We’re the ones who are changed. We change, and it changes everything.
Just because this sermon has been so light [guffaws from the congregation], without any challenge or depth of content, I’m going to add one ancillary comment – the epilogue: There’s not one ladder anymore. There was a time when the United Church of Canada was homogenous. You could go to any church, it could be rich, it could be poor, it could be rural, it could be urban, there’d be little differences but you would recognize the hymns, you would recognize the format of worship, you would know what it meant in the announcements when they said the UCW was gathering in the parlour afterwards with their cherry and cheese sandwiches – it was homogenous to a great extent, and in this time of disruption, we can’t be.
We need Trinity-St. Paul’s UC to climb its own ladder and look at the field of the Divine up there. We need St. Matthew’s UC to climb its own ladder. We need Bloor Street UC to climb its own ladder. We may find friendship with each other up there, but we need Carmanville UC, and the Indigenous church at Grand Bend, and the Roman Catholic Church in Boston to climb their own ladders and see what they see, and they will give birth to the new phase of Christianity which will be much more diverse, much more heterogenous, much more risky, and much more vital.