Carolyn L Roberts
I begin this morning with thanks–thanks to Glen Pearcy for so beautifully filling the pulpit last Sunday, and to Gillian and Hannah and the friends and members of the congregation who celebrated God’s presence in our lives in the service of worship. It was a special gift for John and me to officiate in the baptism of Kate and Aaron’s son Charlie. And it was a special gift of Immanuel United Church of Christ and their pastor Dale Krotee to extend the invitation for us to do so.
Baptism itself consists of naming the individual and then in some manner or another–depending on the tradition, bringing that person in contact with water in the name of God our Father and Mother, in the name of Jesus the Christ, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. That naming and that water together become the sign of a covenant now established between the individual and God and the church. And that naming and that water together remind us that in Christ, we become new all over again.
Back when new Christians were first confessing their faith, they also changed their name, because nothing says you are now a new person, you are now in a different relationship, there is now a marker that identifies the old you and the new you....nothing says that better than a new name. That’s why even with infants, the ancient traditions included a question that asks the parents, by what name do you call this child? Even in not-so-old literature, you’ll eventually read something along the lines of “So-and-so’s Christian name.” Of course, we know that re-naming isn’t limited to Christian baptism. We did it in this country on Ellis Island and its equivalent: from Galina to Linda; from Bich to Kathy; from Kuei-Mei to Alice...immigrants were given if not Christian names, certainly common English names–easier for the intake staff to spell and pronounce–regardless of what that did to the immigrant’s sense of identity. And of course, the Bible tells us that re-naming takes place in Hebrew scriptures as well: Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah. And as we shall see next week, Jacob becomes Israel. Regardless of where you are on life’s journey, you are named.
And for today, Jacob is still Jacob; Jacob the heel-holder, is still the one who supplants, the one who grasps. And at the moment, Jacob is seems to have run out of luck. He’s running for his life because he has manipulated his older brother Esau into giving up his birthright for what surely is the first reported instance of fast food...a kettle full of porridge. A birthright is the super-sized portion of their father’s entire estate, which culturally went to the first-born male in a family. After Jacob receives Esau’s promise that he–not Esau–will receive the birthright, Jacob manipulates the system even more by tricking his elderly father into giving him the blessing that again, culturally is given to the eldest son. So with two short, bold actions, Jacob has set himself up to supplant Esau, the elder son. Esau may not be the brightest bulb in the household, but he isn’t stupid. Understandably, Esau is now livid, and vows revenge. Rebekah–mother of the twins Esau and Jacob–catches wind of Esau’s plans and suggests to Isaac that he should send Jacob to Rebekah’s ancestral home to find a wife. So off Jacob goes. Our less-than-commendable hero leaves the home of his birth and begins his quest. But even flawed heros get tired. After putting roughly 50 miles between home and self, between certain retribution and an uncertain future, Jacob is ready to bed down for the night. And he dreams.
Not the dreams of finding someone to be his wife, or even the nightmares of Esau finding him and exacting the promised revenge; Jacob dreams of angels and of God, of a meeting of heaven and earth, of what Celtic spirituality calls a thin place.1 “Many scholars connect Jacob’s vision of [angels]...going up and down a ladder to heaven, with the Babylonian ziggurats that [the Hebrew community] would have known well. [They have been described as] “Babylonian temples, with a penthouse apartment for the god and a ground-level chamber for formal receptions.”1
Regardless of how we envision or describe this meeting, though, one thing is certain: Jacob experiences God’s presence in an up close and personal way. God stands beside Jacob, and introduces Godself: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. Then God reiterates for Jacob the promise that began with Abraham. This is such a rich story that we could spend an entire season looking at its many facets. But for today, consider this: that from our perspective, there is little about Jacob that would commend him. He’s manipulative and deceitful and completely self-centered. He lies to his father and colludes with his mother to deceive Isaac and cheat Esau. Then instead of sticking around to face the consequences of his actions, he turns tail and runs away. Yet God doesn’t visit Isaac or Esau or Rebekah. God visits Jacob. We don’t believe for a moment that God is clueless as to the kind of person Jacob is...and it seems more than a bit arrogant to assert that God’s judgement is more than a bit off.
But there is another possibility. God knows Jacob in the same way that God knows the psalmist who first wrote that magnificent Psalm 139 with which we were called to worship. God knows Jacob’s sitting down and getting up...and yet Jacob is still included in the promise. Regardless of who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are named, and in God’s infinite love, you are known. Not incidentally, Esau continues to be included in the promise as well. He also becomes father of a nation–the Edomites, just as Ismael, the elder son of Abraham by the slave Hagar, is considered to be the ancestor of northern Arabs, and of Muhammed. But especially since it is not their story we hear, we would be foolish to think that they are any less powerful, any less formative today than in the days they first were shared.
This fact merits a pause. We re-read and re-tell these stories of faith because they give us insights into our founding myths, and like all foundational stories, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob tell us something about who we are and about the God we worship, so that we better understand the Christ whom we follow. At the same time, there are parallel stories that build from these same foundations, specifically stories of Muslims and Jews. Each of these great faiths returns in part to these stories, and at their worst, use their individual story to claim superiority to the other’s story.
It is deeply ironic that even in the Hebrew scriptures, when Hagar and Ishmael are cast out of Abraham’s home and driven into the wilderness, God speaks directly to Hagar...but never again to the jealous Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and the mother of Isaac. The enmity between Sarah and Hagar is hardly confined to the stories of Genesis. The brokenness continues in the current violence between Israel and Palestine where rockets fly and fear and hatred feed upon themselves. As we hear the news of the latest rounds of violence in the land each Abrahamic faith calls holy, we need to remember that the God who calls each of us by name also knows each of us, Jew, Christian, and Muslim. Today, God cannot help but grieve over the invasion of Palestinian lands by settlement and by armed force, cannot help but grieve over the deaths of Palestinian men, women, and children, just as God grieves over each Israeli death, over the lack of security and trust on both sides of that hideous wall.
Even so, the story of Palestine and Israel is not finished, and Jacob’s story does not end with his flight as a refugee from his own home. And so we come to Jacob’s dream in which God’s promise to Abraham and to Isaac is now repeated in Jacob’s hearing. By all accounts Jacob is a scoundrel and a thief. He does not come to this place of rest as part of a vision quest; he in no way appears to be looking for God. He’s only interested in getting some rest before he puts much more distance between himself and his birth family.
Yet as Erasmus2 notes, bidden or unbidden, God is present. This is where God meets Jacob and reminds Jacob that God is present with him and will not leave him...not because of any merit on Jacob’s part, but because God cherishes Jacob, pure and simple. And because God cherishes Jacob, we find the first indications that Jacob himself may be open to changing his ways. That is the incredible significance of the last portion of our reading. Jacob holds out the hope that he will be given the basics to live, and that he will return to his father’s home in peace. As we shall see, this hope becomes reality. Jacob becomes a changed man. But that is a story for another time. For Jacob and for each of us, it is enough to know that regardless of who you are or where you are on life’s journey, God knows you by name, and cherishes you. That is very good news.
1Huey, Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named,” July 20, 2014, www.ucc.org.
2Erasmus of Rotterdam, Dutch humanist, Catholic priest, 1466-1536.