Jacob's Pillow

 Inspired by Genesis 27:1-5, 15-23, 41-43; 28:10-18

As you may have noticed, a lot has transpired in this biblical narrative since my last sermon, which was on the creation story. As usual, this is the thirty-thousand-foot flyby of the Hebrew scriptures so don’t be too put off by the fact that there will be large gaps in between stories. Here is what the trajectory will look like though. We started with one couple. We then took a wider lens and focused on one family, Sarah and Abraham’s family, where we are right now. We’ll then widen that a bit more and take a look at the nation that comes from the one family, Israel. That nation then gets scattered across the known world and by the time we get to our Christian scriptures, this year the Gospel of John, Jesus will then give us the widest lens possible when Jesus flings the door wide open on God’s unconditional love of all. So, that’s our trajectory in a nutshell. 

Right now though, we’re still with this very dysfunctional family of Abraham and Sarah’s. A promise was given to them to not only have a child but for that child to be the start of an entire nation. As promises go, in that time and place, they don’t get much bigger than that! The promise of land and descendants as numerous as the stars? I mean, that was the promise to end all promises! God comes through and gives them their son Isaac, but not before a whole of deceit and taking matters into their own hands due to a lack of trust in God. Last week we then heard the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Thankfully, God comes through and stops it just in time. And now that son is old with two kids of his own, Jacob and Esau. Those two as well were born out of a whole lot of deceit and betrayal surrounding the lives of Isaac and Rebekah. 

Which brings us to today’s story, where we see Jacob and Rebekah steal the firstborn’s blessing away from Esau. Are you picking up a pattern in this family here? Lies, deceit, betrayal, theft, and I haven’t even mentioned that prejudice that comes out in their stories as well! These stories should be required reading in any course on dysfunctional families. It truly is a miracle that a nation was born from this family, let alone an entire religion! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, in today’s reading the climax of this part of the story comes at the end, the good news comes at the end. But the backdrop of this story is the deception between Jacob and Rebekah and Esau and Isaac. 

There are so many layers to this story that we don’t have time to even get into but the current deception is the stealing of the firstborn’s blessing. Old and blind, Isaac gets fooled into blessing his second-born, that which was meant for his firstborn. Now, you might be thinking, couldn’t Isaac have just reversed it, taken it back, set it right? Not according to ancient Jewish thinking. For them, words mattered. Once spoken, they could not be taken back. Once they left your mouth they took on a life of their own, a power of their own, no matter the consequences. I think we could learn a lot from our ancient siblings in the faith. Imagine if we took words so seriously. Imagine if we were so careful with our words. I could have written an entire sermon just on that! But I didn’t so we’ll move on. 

Needless to say, Esau is beyond pissed about this! He’s seeing red! He’s on a warpath! So much so that he is planning on murdering his brother Esau! Not to give him any excuses because murder is always wrong but this is the last straw for him! This is not the first time that his brother has deceived him, has betrayed him, has stolen something from him. There has been a painful pattern of behavior between these two from day one, and Esau has had enough! Again, not an excuse to murder your brother but it’s not like this came out of nowhere! And Jacob knows that. He knows that. Which is why when his mom heard that Esau was looking to kill Jacob, she sent him away and he didn’t question it. He knew that this was the only way no one was gonna killed that day. And so did his momma. So, he ran. 

Which brings us to one of the most beautiful, and oft-overlooked scenes in Genesis. You’ve probably come to know this part of the story as Jacob’s Ladder. I’d argue that it’s been wrongly named. As amazing as the dream is that Jacob has about a ladder with angel’s going up and down it. That’s not the real gem of this story. If I got to name this story, I would have called it Jacob’s Pillow. Let me back up a bit. So, Jacob is on the run. He’s on his way to his momma’s family to hopefully wait until things calm down. That’s not exactly how things turned out but that’s for another sermon. He stops for the night in an unnamed place and he must not have left with very much. Maybe just the clothes on his back because when he lays down for the night to sleep, he has to use a rock as a pillow. 

It’s then that he has this amazing dream of a ladder, but like I said, that’s not the highlight of this story. He wakes up and his whole disposition is changed. Because I imagine he went to sleep that night with a whole host of negative emotions. Fear, loneliness, guilt, shame, hopelessness, you name it. He had behaved horribly and to be honest, deserved to go to sleep that night feeling one or all of those emotions. And if he didn’t, then my goodness, he wasn’t human. But that’s what makes these stories so powerful, isn’t it? These are stories of humanity, with all our joys and flaws. It’s what makes them so relatable. We would be wise to remember that before we put these figures on such a high pedestal. But let’s keep moving. The climax of the story awaits. 

He wakes up a new man, with a new vigor in his step. Why? Because his dream, as weird as it was, convinced him that God had not abandoned him. That as bad as his behavior was, God was still with him! Even out there, in the wilderness of his fleeing heart. This is the promise that God made with his father and his grandfather, and God was there to tell him that he had not screwed that up. The promise not only was still in effect but that God was with him wherever he ended up. And so what does Jacob do? He builds an altar with what was his pillow the night before and anoints it with oil. However, he still doesn’t quite get it. In typical human fashion, he’s still a bit clueless. Again, very relatable. He says, “Truly, God is in this place, and I never knew it! This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” 

He thinks that it’s the place that is special. He thinks that he just happen to stop at a place that was rich with God’s presence. He thinks it’s the location, the stone, that allowed him to have such an intimate experience with God there! And if I was there I’d grab him by the ears, look him in the eyes, and say, God isn’t here because this place is special, God is here because you are here! You big dummy! God isn’t here because of this stone! God is here because you are here! And God will continue to be where you are, because that’s what God has promised, and not even God can go back on God’s promise. Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on our behavior! Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on being in the right place! Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on being at the right time! Amen? 

Now, who needs to hear this in our world today? Other than us, cuz lord knows we need reminded of this too, don’t we! Jacob had trouble coming to this conclusion on his own for a whole host of reasons. How do I know this? Listen to his words that immediately follow our reading: “Jacob then made this vow: ‘If you go with me and keep me safe on this journey which I am making, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return home safely to my parents’ house, you will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will be a place of worship, and I promise to give back to you one-tenth of everything you give me.’” He just isn’t getting it is he! He has the gall to put conditions on his loyalty to God!? Are you kidding me, Jacob! 

But this is all he’s known. Think of the family that he comes from! This is how they operate! There’s conditions on everything! Nothing is free! Everything they have they think they have to fight for, deceive for, even murder for! That’s the only way that he knows how to get something or how to give something. It’s all he’s known. So, don’t be too hard on him because he is us, right! We, as humans, have trouble with God’s unconditional love, whether that be in accepting it or sharing it, because that’s not how we work, is it! That goes against our grain! Especially for us American Christians! It’s not the American way! We’re taught that nothing in life is free! That you’re gonna have to fight for everything in life! Nobody’s gonna give you noth’n! 

And this story, like so many other stories in the Hebrew scriptures, says no to all that nonsense. There is another way to live. And we, as followers of Christ, and these beautiful old stories, get to share that with others. We get to share that God goes with them, no matter what. No matter our behavior, no matter the place, no matter the time, no matter what stone we may choose for our head. When you were baptized, the pastor didn’t anoint a stone with oil, they didn’t anoint some beautiful font, they didn’t anoint the ground you or your parents were standing on, no that pastor anointed your head with oil, not because the place was special, not because the font was special, not because the water was special. But because you are special, and mean the world to God. God is here, because you are here, dear friends. I think we owe it to this world to share that, wherever they may be, whomever needs to hear it the most. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Did I Ever Tell You About the Day You Were Born?

 Inspired by Genesis 1:1-2:3

Today we begin the fourth and final year of the Narrative Lectionary. As always at this time of year we begin in Genesis and work our way through some of the most important stories of the Hebrew scriptures that we hadn’t read in previous years, leading up to the Gospel of John that we read through almost in its entirety starting on the fourth Sunday of Advent and ending at Easter. As many of you know, John is my least favorite Gospel. In spite of that, I’m looking forward to it and hope to gain a new appreciation for it. But right now we are in the book of Genesis and some of you might be wondering why it took until the final year of the Narrative Lectionary for us to read the beginning of Genesis! Well, there’s actually a logical reason for that. 

The creators of this lectionary are very Christ-centered and so when they chose the stories that we’d read from the Hebrew scriptures each year they chose ones that would pair well with the particular Gospel that would be read that year. For instance, the opening lines of the Gospel of John are, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.” Now, what better Hebrew text to pair with that than the first chapter of Genesis! So, that’s why it took so long for us to read this particular story. 

I had a real hard time narrowing down what I wanted to share with you about this ancient story. On the surface, it seems like such a simple story but trust me when I say, this story has layers upon layers of meaning, as well as a plethora of interesting little tidbits of Bible trivia. It really was a difficult task to pick what I wanted to share with you. Being the Bible nerd that I am, I constantly have to remind myself that what’s fascinating to me might not be fascinating to everyone else. But it boiled down to this, I had to ask myself what I perceive God wanting you to hear, in this place and time. And once I ask myself that, direction seems to become very clear very fast. Because to be honest with you, God is not a Bible nerd. God is and will always be more interested in your well-being than anything else, including the Bible. 

Ok, so I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this pattern in my preaching but I often begin with the good news of the text at hand and then end by challenging you with something. I don’t always do that intentionally, that’s just the way it turns out often. And by the way, I know that I challenge you pretty strongly, don’t think that gets lost on me. I know I stretch you near the breaking point sometimes, and I love you and thank you for not giving up, for sticking with me on this journey we’ve been on for five years now together. And believe me when I say, not every pastor can say that. I hear pastors all the time say things like, “Oh, I could never say that in a sermon!” Or, “If I talked about that subject in they’d leave me!” Suffice to say, this is one of the many reasons I am proud to be your pastor. 

Today, however, I’m gonna challenge you first and then end with the good news. Now we obviously don’t have time to take this story verse by verse, we’ll do more of that on Wednesday evening so I hope you’ll join us for that. But as far as what this story challenges us with, I’ll share three insights that stood out to me. The first one is that we humans are not the end-all be-all of creation. For too long humans have taken this story to mean that we are God’s ultimate creation, the shining jewel of all that God accomplished on those seven days, as if it was a trial and error kind of week for God and finally at the end God got it right with us! 

Now, here’s the reality, did you notice that we humans didn’t even get our own day during that week? You know, I’ve heard this story a million times and I don’t think I ever noticed that. But we humans were created on the same day that the rest of the Earth’s beasts and creepy crawly things were. So there’s clue number one that we humans aren’t quite as special as we’d like to believe we are. 

The second insight that challenges us here is this, humans being created in the image of God. Now, what the image of God actually means we can talk about on Wednesday evening but it certainly means more than physical characteristics. For today, it’s enough to recognize that the author is not just pointing out the image of God in ourselves, but in everyone else around us. Thereby being a call to first see, with our eyes, the honor and dignity in every human being on the face of the planet that has ever lived and will ever live. And I don’t have to tell you that this has not been the case and still isn’t. We still have people in our world fighting to be recognized as fully human with all the rights and privileges and respect that should go without saying. Ok, insight number three is gonna tie those first two together. And then we gotta move on to the good news I promised you! 

Creation was not made for us, we were made for creation. More specifically, creation was not made to serve us, we were made to serve creation. We humans are the only ones that were given a job during those six days. And the job was to be stewards of everything else that was created, to be caretakers of the rest of creation, and that includes everything: other humans, other animals, cuz that’s all we are at the end of the day right, a bunch of filthy animals, plants, trees, waterways, air, oceans, insects, you name it, we were ordered to be caretakers of creation, from our very first day of existence. Now, how are we doing with that job? I’m not even gonna make you answer that, but as theologian Kathleen O’Connor puts it, “We cannot survive if we do not live in harmony with the world around us.” 

Now for the good news. And I’ll start with a personal story. I am my father’s only child. He had me relatively late in life at the age of 30. Like most parents, his parents couldn’t wait to meet their first grandchild. Unfortunately, when my mom was five months pregnant with me, Grandma Valadez died. Now, in spite of that being a sad story, it has oddly been a story of comfort for me. And it took me a while this week to figure out how to articulate this but I think it’s because, other then the blood we share, that’s my only connection story that I have with Grandma Valadez. And the thought that she was eagerly awaiting my arrival, and loved me as only a grandma can in spite of never meeting me, has brought me comfort every time I have heard that story over the course of my life. 

Now, why am I sharing that? Birth stories, or in my case, pregnancy stories, can often be a source of comfort for us. And that’s exactly what this story was for God’s people when it was first written down. In spite of the fact that this is the first book in our Bible, it was not the first to be written, far from in fact. This was written during the end or just after the trauma of the Babylonian exile, when Persia had taken over and began to allow them to return home and rebuild their lives. Talk about a time when they needed some comfort. And the author chose to do that by telling them the story of their birth. It was the author’s way of holding them in their arms and saying, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?” It’s a story the helped to reground them in God’s love, to reconnect them to the God of the universe that seemed so far away to them at the time. 

This may seem like a stretch but there’s a beautiful moment in one of my favorite scary movies that I think speaks very well to this. The movie is called Signs, and in the scenes that I’m about to show you, there’s a family of a dad, his two kids, and his brother. The mom has since died and there’s something outside their house that’s trying to get inside to get them and so they’re frantically boarding up the windows to try and keep it out. Don’t worry, there’s nothing that will scare you in these scenes. Roll the tape…


Birth stories can be such a powerful source of comfort for us. Whether they be our own birth stories, or children’s birth stories, or even birth stories that didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. I’d invite you this week to ponder those stories in your own life and in the lives of your loved ones. When’s the last time you shared one? When’s the last time you asked someone, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?” Or, “Have I ever told you about the day I was born?” I encourage you to ask those questions, and share those stories—because in those stories we find hope, we find strength, we find perseverance, and we find comfort for the days ahead. Thanks be to our creator, who loves to ask us just when we need it the most, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?”

Forever and Always Starts Now

 Inspired by Revelation 20:10; 21:1-6, 22-25; 22:1-5

So we have come to the end of our five weeks in Revelation. I hope it has been a meaningful five weeks for you. It certainly has been for me. Next Sunday we start year four of the Narrative Lectionary, which is hard to believe that much time has already gone by. This too has been a joy to journey with you through. As with every new year of the Narrative Lectionary, we will begin in Genesis and work our way to the Gospel of John this year, stopping along the way at some of the most important stories of the Hebrew Bible that we’ve yet to read in the first three years. Next week’s reading will be particularly timely because it matches so well with today's! It’s almost like they had it planned that way! So let’s dig in to today’s reading. 

We begin our story with the end of the dragon from last week’s reading. We skipped to the end of the book, not because it was boring or anything, far from. But other than some more death and destruction, all we really skipped was the beginning of the last battle. The last battle between Christ and the dragon. Our reading for today picks up at the end of that final battle, when evil is finally defeated, never to return again. No more last gasps of strength, no more flailing fists of fury. Evil is no more. Gone. For good. Now, let us just pause there and bask in that good news. Because honestly, the book could have just ended there! For far too many of us, it is enough to know that the evil of this world does have an end, it has an expiration date, it will die, its power will be no more! 

I think for a lot of us, that’d be enough! Whatever comes after is just icing, unnecessary! Well, let’s not get crazy, I love me some icing. It’s the only reason to eat cake in my opinion but I digress. The end of the pain and heartache that this world provides would be enough, but for God, it’s never enough, is it! God is always ready and willing to go the extra mile. And so we get these final two chapters of Revelation where John describes his final vision, God shows him the new Jerusalem. Now, for us that might sound like an odd way to describe Heaven. Jerusalem doesn’t have the same ring to us that it did for them. But we have to remember all that Jerusalem represented for them. Jerusalem was the one and only place on earth where you could claim to be the closest to God that you could ever be in this life. 

And we also have to remember, that the Jerusalem that they knew, was just a shell of what it once was, not to mention the fact that the temple, the very lightning rod that connected them to God was no more, destroyed by the Roman Empire, the dragon of their day. And so, a new Jerusalem brought for them all the warm fuzzies that you could imagine, it tugged on all the heartstrings for these early Christians, newly birthed from the Jewish faith. This meant everything to them. This meant that things were finally, ultimately, going to go forward to the way things were intended. Not go back. This new Jerusalem was going to be an entirely transformed Jerusalem. This wasn’t a Make Jerusalem Great Again movement!  

But at the same time, this was not John’s way of saying that God was ready to discard all that God had made and start over. God was in no way giving up on creation. But rather, God is ready to make something new with us. Something that will not be tainted by evil. So much so, that it will be something altogether new. How new? This place will be so different, there will be no need for a temple!  

Now, again, that might not sound like a big deal to us but to them, it was not only a new idea but it was probably a blasphemous idea! That was the only place they could be assured of their nearness to God! John says, no need, God will be there, like really there, as in the garden of Eden kind of there, face to face with us. John describes the new Jerusalem like this, “God’s very self will be with them…and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore.” 

Can we just stop here again and bask in more of that good news. I mean, not only will evil be defeated, not only will God live among us, not only will there be no death or pain or tears, but what I love about this is the affirmation that those things were never part of God’s original blueprint for creation. Can we just stop and admire the truth here that John is sharing with us, that God hates those things too. Pain, suffering, death, tears, mourning, God hates those things as much as we do, and never has and never will use them as tactics to get God’s way.  

Now, for some of you, this might be a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how often pastors hear comments like, “Well, I guess that was God’s plan” after someone dies. Or, “Well, there’s a reason for everything” after tragedy strikes. Bull! Poor John probably turns over in his grave every time someone says something like that. Because John knew that those things sadden and frustrate God as much as they do us. And that is gospel to our ears. 

This last vision ends with John seeing more of what makes this new Jerusalem so special. The river of life-giving water will run through the city. The tree of life, harkening back to that story of creation from Genesis, will be there, for the healing of the nations. And there will be no need for an outside source of light, because God’s glory and the wee little wounded lamb will be providing all the light that is needed. No need for the sun, moon, nor night. And this really struck me. In this last vision of John’s, God is so powerful, so providential, that God won’t even need the sun or moon or temple to make God known. God is enough. God is enough. And so, with that in mind, let’s ask that question we always ask ourselves after reading a Bible passage, “What does this mean for us today?” 

And for a little help with that we’re gonna turn to another author. In the final years of his life, Mark Twain wrote a book called Letters from the Earth. It includes a collection of letters written by Satan from Earth, to the angels Gabriel and Michael in Heaven. There’s this one section where Satan is comparing and contrasting the way things are in Heaven and the way things are on Earth. Humor me a moment and let me read you a portion of it, “In man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: "Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of [Heaven], 'rah! 'rah! 'rah!" Meantime, every person is playing on a harp -- those millions and millions! -- whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument in the earth, or ever wanted to. Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church -- an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so -- consider what their heaven provides for them: "church" that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end!” 

This was written during a very difficult time in his life, after the death of both his wife and one of his daughters. So aside from being typical Mark Twain writing, the sarcasm is at an all-time high, and so is his criticism of the Christian faith. What struck me about this passage though was his keen eye in realizing the discrepancy between God’s ways, as they are in Heaven, and our ways, as they are on Earth. Snarkiness aside, Mr. Twain hit the nail on the head. John of Patmos would urge us to ask, should there be such a discrepancy between Heaven and Earth? Of course there will be some discrepancy, but should there be such a discrepancy, such a wide discrepancy? John ends our passage by saying that God and God’s people will rule forever and always. Well, can’t forever and always start now? Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says it can’t start now? 

I don’t mean in its complete form but the ways of this new Jerusalem that John saw in his vision seem pretty doable now. At the very least we can get a good head start on them! Think of all the images that John has shared with us, an ornate city, gates that are forever open, the river of life, the tree of life, a garden-like setting, a place of perpetual light, angels singing, a marriage, a wounded lamb, a feast. These images represent protection, security, beauty, peace, abundance, joy, community, celebration, sacrificial giving!  

We know those things! We can do those things! Forever and always can start now! And it doesn’t have to be as hard as we often make it. Our God is so powerful, God does not need any of our help. If we can just allow God to shine, the way God shines in the new Jerusalem, without any outside help. Imagine how many new people could hear the good news of God’s unconditional love? 

But we always got to complicate things! We’re always looking for some new way to reach people. The latest craze that’ll pull people in! What if it’s not about pulling people in anyway! What if it’s just about letting people know that God loves them, no matter what? Especially in light of the fact that other people, other churches, have told them just the opposite! Which is why I’m so proud to be a part of a Reconciling in Christ church. Those rainbow hearts and flags and pamphlets that we have around, those might seem a little silly to some but to those who have been told you don’t belong in church because of who you love, those colors can seem like a river of life flowing from this place. And maybe they come through those doors someday and maybe they don’t. Either way, we can sleep tonight because we’ve allowed God to shine, not us, God.  

Here’s one last example and then I’ll shut up and let you get on with your day. Sometimes I think I’m in the twilight zone when I see such a fuss over the phrase Black Lives Matter. In what universe do people argue over whether a particular group of human’s lives matter? Any group! Blank lives matter. I never thought I’d live in a world where blank could be filled in with a group that people would actually argue over! If this book calls us to do anything, it’s to look around our world and see who needs some of God’s light to shine on them, who needs a drink from the river of life, who needs some of the healing leaves of the tree of life, in the here and now! And just like a rainbow flag, imagine how people of color feel after passing by the church in this photo? I’ll tell you how, they feel seen and they feel loved.  

I can tell you that because that’s how I’d feel as a brown person who has walked into too many rooms in my life, into too many buildings in my life, and have not felt welcome. The church in this photo is an Episcopal church in Mobile, Alabama. Needless to say, they have had to replace that banner several times and have said they will continue to do so. Like a rainbow flag, these are not new ways of reeling people in. They are simply allowing God’s light, God’s truth, God’s love, that we have had the privilege of knowing, to shine through to people who have not! And again, whether they ever walk through those doors or not isn’t the point. That church can sleep tonight knowing they’ve let God’s light shine through. And have continued the process of closing that discrepancy between that new Jerusalem and Earth. Thanks be to John of Patmos for sharing these visions with us. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to the wee little wounded lamb. Amen.