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Sunday, November 13, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
O God, full of compassion, I commit and commend myself to you, in whom I am, and live, and know. Be the goal of my pilgrimage, and my rest by the way. Let my soul take refuge from the crowding turmoil of worldly thought beneath the shadow of your wings. Let my heart, this sea of restless waves, find peace in you, O God. Amen.
Augustine of Hippo
There have been times in my own life when I have felt like I was running for my life. Trying to save myself. That’s what Jacob was doing. He was running for his life. Trying to save himself.
In my mind, the phrase “running for one’s life” describes both the internal feelings and the external actions of someone who feels as though something or someone is after them. The heart races. The mind is on hyper-alert. There’s a feeling of frenzy on some level. Running for one’s life is how people act and feel when they are overwhelmed by a force they fear will either overpower them or literally extinguish them. Something’s going to “get me.”
I’m wondering when you have felt as though you were running for your life. I can think of plenty of scenarios. Pressure at work when your job is on the line and you know that everything you are doing is being documented. Living in an abusive relationship, when you feel as though you are walking on eggshells and struggling to just keep the peace and stay safe or have enough time to plan your escape. Going through a divorce and trying to stay ahead of and informed about divorce law so you can protect yourself financially. Dealing with a new and scary health diagnosis. Serving in the military in dangerous places around the world. Walking down the streets of Chicago in your own neighborhood and being followed by a squad car because you are black. (This has recently and repeatedly happened to one of our longtime female employees)
The list of “running for your life” scenarios could go on and on.
Jacob was running for his life, because he thought his brother, Esau, was going to catch up with him and murder him. Why? Because Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright. If you don’t know the story, go back and read chapter 27 of Genesis. Jacob was the secondborn son to Isaac and Rebekah. Esau was the older son. Jacob shouldn’t have been given the birthright from his father, Isaac. That was reserved for the firstborn son. But Jacob—whose name means “supplanter” or someone who has taken something away from another—aided by his mother was able to fool his father, Isaac, and steal his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. In that day, this was a big deal. Jacob was thought of as a conniver and a trickster.
So Jacob was running for his life. Granted, he brought on the situation by himself. He was not a paragon of virtue. He took something that rightfully belonged to his brother. You could say he deserved what was happening to him. Esau chasing him—out to murder him. But even so, the feeling of running for one’s life isn’t reserved for just those folks who have brought it on themselves. A lot of us have experienced what it feels like to run for our life as though something in this world is going to bring us down.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, shortly after both of my parents had died from various forms of cancer, I truly felt as though a curse was following me—that I was running for my life. I was scared. I grabbed onto anything I thought could save me. Words spoken to me. Some of them I held onto for dear life. They were words of hope. Treatment plans and sorting those out. The things the doctors said and didn’t say. Lyrics in songs I was hearing over the radio. I was grabbing and grasping for life and for hope and for survival. And it was sometime during those months that I had a dream. That dream is why this particular story about Jacob and his dream is one of my favorites.
In my dream I was surrounded by darkness, as though I was in my bed at night, and suddenly as I looked upward, I saw a circle of light. It was as if I was below a manhole cover and the manhole cover was suddenly removed. I saw a perfect circle of light. Around the edges of the manhole cover there were faces of friends peeking over the edge, looking down at me. But not only looking down at me: they were extending their hands and arms down toward me, as if offering to lift me up and out of the deep place I was in. They were smiling and encouraging, cheering me on as I tried to make my way up toward them and the light. I experienced that dream as a message of hope from God and a reminder of the power of those people around me who were friends, some of them, and other folks, all in the business of helping me. God’s angels, ascending and descending the ladder between my darkness and a different kind of light and hope and help.
Walter Brueggemann talks about the power of dreams in the Bible. God finds ways to speak to us, to intrude on our lives, and sometimes those ways are through dreams. He calls these dreams God’s “Holy Intrusion.” He says, “The ancient world and the biblical tradition knew about dreams. The ancients understood that the unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day. The ancients dared to imagine, moreover, that this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us."
And so Jacob had a dream, too. In the middle of his running from Esau, he finally fell exhausted and had to sleep. He had nothing much with him. No backpack. No North Face equipment and clothing. He picked up a stone of some sort, put it on the ground, and used it as a pillow. Some pillow! And he finally let go, allowed himself to sleep, to spend a few hours not fighting and not running, and God broke in with a dream.
In Jacob’s dream, he saw a ladder set up on the earth with the top of the ladder reaching to heaven. On that ladder, Jacob saw the angels of God ascending and descending. Angels ascending and descending on that ladder between earth and heaven.
It is in the middle of that journey, when least expected, when Jacob has stopped running for a few hours, that God breaks into Jacob’s scrambling to save his own life and reveals who God is to Jacob. God stands beside him in the dream and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; . . . .and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. . . . Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you will go and will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about Jacob’s journey into the wilderness. Jacob was never described as a person with much knowledge of God. She says, “Jacob is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.” And it’s then that God intrudes on his life in a dream.
God breaks into our lives even though all of us are connivers like Jacob, in varying degrees—always conniving to hold onto ourselves or our positions, to hide our fears and vulnerabilities. God breaks into our lives even though we all spend so much of our time concerned with our own well-being and position in the world. God breaks into our lives when we are scared. But maybe there’s more of a chance of us noticing God’s intrusion if we can stop running for a bit.
To Jacob, God said, “I am the Lord your God, and I will be with you, and will keep you wherever you go.” When Jacob had this dream, he recognized that God had broken into his life. He even pronounced “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” but he didn’t suddenly become a saint. He continued to wrestle with God for a long time to come. That dream for Jacob was just the beginning of his long work of turning his life over to God. It’s long work for all of us, to keep turning our lives over to God. And we can’t run for our lives forever, because eventually we’ll fall down exhausted.
Aren’t we all kind of running for our lives right now? Trying to save ourselves after the divisive election we have just experienced? Trying to save our own positions, defend our chosen choices? Defend against being typecast one way or another? Aren’t we all working hard to hold onto some semblance of stability? To bat away fear? Participating in a lot of blaming and finger pointing? Experiencing a lot of righteous indignation?
Admittedly some groups in this country are truly fearful because they know their lives are threatened. You’ve read about the incidents of violence unleashed. We’re trying to figure out what to do with the outrage, and there is outrage on both sides, in both political camps, and there is fear. And there are groups on both sides that have been forgotten and whose lives have been threatened with neglect and no real access to what they have expected as the American dream.
It is like we are all running for our lives, trying to hold onto what we know and value. My hope is that we can take what David Brooks, New York Times columnist, has called a reflective pause. A pause, not an escape or an abdication from responsibility, but a pause. That maybe we could pick up that hard stone of exhaustion and put it under our head as a pillow, lie down for awhile and stop running, so that God can break in somehow again—break in with a sense of assurance, break in with a reminder that we are not alone, break in reminding us of the core of our faith, the core of our baptism promise, that we are all children of God, and the core of what we are called to: justice, compassion, reconciliation, working for good beyond ourselves on behalf of those forgotten.
I hope in those reflective pauses that we all have dreams to remind us that the angels of God are ascending and descending the ladder that exists between this earth as it is and a heaven that hasn’t been fully realized yet. I hope we all have dreams that remind us that there are people peeking their heads into the darkness, reaching out, reaching down, trying to pull this world toward light and justice and God’s love and compassion for all. I hope in our dreams we are reminded that God’s love and compassion is for all, truly for all, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and those who supported each one or didn’t. I hope we’ll all find ways to be one of those angels ascending and descending the ladder between earth and heaven. And as we wake from our dreams and come out of our reflective pauses, I hope and pray we’ll all be able to proclaim and know that surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. I pray for God’s Holy Intrusion into this world and into each one of our lives. Amen.