Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Ladders and Grace

Sermon for July 20, 2014
Proper 11, Year A, 6th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For readings click here
Lord, Open our lips
That our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen
Years ago, at the small Episcopal church I attended,
the priest invited parishioners
to share their experience of God
during their recent “pilgrimage.”
That was, for these pilgrims in Colorado,
a 7-day, 400 mile bike ride called “Ride the Rockies.” 

One woman said that she saw the face of God
in the columbine flower at the top of Monarch Pass. 
A man told how he experienced divine kindness
in the generous free food at the rest stops. 
Another stood with tears in his eyes with gratitude
for the angel EMT who helped him after his fall
on the back side of Trail Ridge Road. 

These remarks, surprisingly,
touched my heart and connected
my childhood experience of earthy grace
to the wonders of divine heaven.

These remarks were a ladder that appeared to me
when I thought God was not part of my life.

At that time, I was a “none” –
one who checked the “no religious affiliation” box
on the census.
But that day, these remarks were my ladder. 
Like Jacob, I thought, “Surely, God is in this place!”

We hear about Jacob in today’s OT reading.
That no-good younger brother of Esau & son of Isaac.
The one who bilked his brother out of the birthright
and tricked him out of his father’s blessing.
Who named God from a distance,
like when his father asked,
“…How is it that you have found [this savory food and game] so quickly?”
Jacob answered,
“Because the Lord your God granted me success.”

Jacob, a “none,”
had been sent north by his mom
to find a wife from his uncle’s side of the family.

“Don’t pick a Canaanite wife,” his father yelled.
And “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out!” could have been his parting good-byes. 

Jacob gladly left, running away
from his brother’s rage and his father’s dismay.  
Jacob left so quickly that he didn’t even take a bedroll. 

At sunset, sensing that no one followed him,
he finally “arrived at a certain place” & rested. 
Pulling up a stone for a pillow
(since he didn’t have one),
he fell into that kind of sleep with which
some people are gifted: deep exhaustive sleep.
Oblivious-to-the-elements kind of sleep.
Drooling on the pillow kind of sleep.

He must have twitched
when the ladder appeared in the screen of his mind, with the bottom rungs on earth
and the top rungs in heaven. 
Perhaps his closed eyes moved quickly
as he watched the divine messengers
going up from earth to heaven
and coming down again. 
Jacob watched as from a balcony,
which is how he had lived his life. Distant, judging.
As far as Jacob was concerned,
it was survival of the fittest.

He didn’t know of God’s faithfulness. 
He didn’t concern himself with religious matters. 
He didn’t know God. He was a “none.” 
The ladder was just a dream, at the time.

I wonder… if
Sometimes, we too don’t know of God’s presence. 
We, too, have been known
to forget about God’s faithfulness. 
We, sometimes, believe it is survival of the fittest. 

Maybe our health is declining
and we feel bereft of any relief from God. 
Our loved one’s loss brings tears to our eyes
at the strangest times for the smallest reasons. 
Our recent fight with a friend
has left us feeling isolated and alone. 
How can we find God in the midst of waging wars,
plane crashes and suffering neighbors? 
How does God find us when there are
so many who are in need? 

Our own city has a suffering population of teens
who seek a better life,
living couch-to-couch and friend-to-friend,
with little assistance from government.
One local teen said,
“Looking back, basically all my life was a struggle.
          …that was all I ever knew.
Most of these [struggles] were due to
my mother’s drug and alcohol addiction.
[So] I was focused on surviving
and not much else.” 

Our country’s borders have migrant children
who seek a better life:
fleeing violence and instability in their family
and communities.
The book Enrique’s Journey
recounts the unforgettable quest
of a 16-year old Honduran boy
looking for his mother,
after she is forced to leave her starving family
to find work in the United States.
Braving unimaginable peril,
often clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains,
Enrique travels through hostile worlds full of
thugs, bandits, and corrupt cops.
Like Enrique, these children at the borders
are scared and alone.

They are desperate for someone
to accompany them and care for them
as they seek a future that will be brighter
than their past. 
At a Diocesan meeting yesterday, a priest shared
he visited a group of these children
– sang songs, visited with them –
including 32 infants with their teen mothers.
Some have been sent by their parents;
some have chosen to leave. 
These children are leaving their homelands,
not out of a desire for wealth, but for life.

Jacob, too, left his homeland,
not out of a desire for wealth but for life. 
Jacob, who didn’t know God or God’s faithfulness,
suddenly, in that certain place,
got a full dose of God’s own, unconditional self. 
Jacob realized,
as he watched the ladder in his dream,
that The Lord stood beside him.  *pause*

Not in the background.
Not in the “heavens.”
Beside him.  *pause*

Jacob knew God’s presence in that place.

God spoke to him. 
And Jacob was afraid,
for he was expecting to be chewed out. *pause*

But God said something altogether different. 
God promised land to Jacob and his offspring.
God promised that his offspring
would be like the dust,
spread throughout the land
(and don’t we know about dust, in Tucson?)
God promised that Jacob’s descendants
would become a great nation
and a blessing to all other nations on earth.
But, wait, there’s more! 
God promised to be with him
and to keep him wherever he went.


As theologian Frederick Buechner so eloquently said,
It wasn't holy hell that God gave him, …,
but holy heaven,
not to mention the marvelous lesson
thrown in for good measure.
The lesson was, needless to say,
that even for a dyed-in-the-wool,
double-barreled con artist like Jacob
there are
a few things in this world you can't get
but can only be given,
and one of these things is love in general,
and another is the love of God in particular.”[1]

When Jacob woke up, he realized the dream’s import. 
The ladder was the bridge between
Jacob’s earthly existence and God’s divine realm. 

Now, Jacob’s life changed. 
For in that moment, in that certain place,  
God bound God’s own self, unconditionally,
to Jacob and his offspring –
both personally and forever. 

“Surely,” Jacob responded,
“the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”

So we, who sometimes don’t know God
or don’t remember God’s faithfulness,
we are assured and encouraged through this universal story.

Every day,
God binds God’s own self, unconditionally, to us. 

Every day, God pours out what
we can’t get in the world
but can only be given… 

And that is love in general
and the love of God in particular. 

Regardless of our remembering or not knowing – whether we are a “none” or a religious or a just a regular Jacob.

See, God doesn't love people because of who they are,
but because of who God is.

God invites us to dream –
to dream of a world that has never been seen
but has always been promised.[2] 

God invites us
to open our arms and eyes and hearts
to the blessings we have been given
and to pass those blessings on
to our neighbors in need
to make God’s dream come true.

God invites us
to respond to all the children –
by helping to find shelter,
by advocating for them with congress,
by seeking out local service opportunities
such as Casa Mariposa or
Youth On Their Own,
or by donating to Episcopal Relief & Development.

God binds God’s own self, unconditionally,
 in love, in faithfulness, in promise, in blessing,
          with grace.
Free grace.
It was by grace that it was Jacob of all people,
who became not only the father
of the twelve tribes of Israel, [3]
but the great-great-etc…
grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth,
The Ladder who bridged earth to heaven. 

It was by grace
that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all. 

And that is good news, indeed.
Can you see the ladder set up on earth,
reaching to heaven?
Can you see the angels
ascending and descending?
Can you feel God standing beside you?

Surely God is in this place! Now we know it.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979), p.57
[2] Inspired by The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor, To Dream as God Dreams, (The Green Berry Press, Athens GA, 2000), p.100
[3] Portions inspired by Beuchner, p.58

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