"The Path To Insight"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/18/1999
Romans 8:12-25; Genesis 28:10-19a
The marvelous account of Jacob's dream in today's Genesis story represents a turning point in his life. But who was Jacob? Was he really an individual suitable to become one of the major hinges on which the faith journey of all of us would swing? After all, Jacob was a man who stopped at nothing in order to achieve what he wanted, even if that meant setting aside the powerful rules that governed the Hebrew family.
You may recall from last week's Scripture lesson that Jacob was the second son born to Isaac and Rebecca. Jacob's twin brother Esau was the first born and was thus entitled to total control of the family once his father died. There was a rivalry between the twins which, according to the Genesis account, began in Rebecca's womb. In fact, when the twins were born, Jacob was found holding onto Esau's heel as if trying to hold him back.
Isaac and Rebecca each developed favorites; Isaac loved Esau and Rebecca loved Jacob. Thoughts of treachery loomed within Jacob from the earliest days of his childhood. First, Jacob manipulated Esau during a very vulnerable moment. Esau had just returned from a hunting trip and was famished. Jacob required Esau to surrender his rights as the first born before giving him food. Esau surrendered his rights willingly in exchange for the food.
As life continued, Rebecca conspired with Jacob to fool her elderly, nearly blind husband into giving his final blessing to Jacob before dying. This blessing was a major event in the life of every Hebrew family. It meant passing control of the family to the first born son. Once this was done it could not be reversed.
Through trickery, deception and manipulation, Isaac was fooled into transferring power to Jacob instead of Esau. When Esau learned that he had been robbed of what was rightfully his, he swore vengeance and began plotting to kill Jacob. At this point, Rebecca sent Jacob away to hide at her brother's house in a neighboring territory.
These are great stories whose themes are recycled throughout history. Almost everything mentioned in the Scriptures has its counterpart in our own experience. What family has not experienced sibling rivalry? The setting and the characters have changed, but the dramas are the same. What is interesting is that so many of us fail to notice this.
When something challenging occurs to us, it comes in a form that appears so personal and so unique that we respond as if it has never happened to anyone else. We forget that hundreds if not thousands of people could have said, "I've been there and done that." Throughout these cyclical themes, God creates. God miraculously has worked through murderers like King David and betrayers like Judas to mold and shape history. Every communion service, we celebrate "God's mighty acts" that were always done through people just like us.
Today we have inherited a community that has come in the form of the church. Life in any church family has the same elements as were present in the family of Isaac and Rebecca. A unique feature of the church is that it is a smaller version of what appears to be a more challenging and complex world. The form and name we give to our unique community of faith does not sanitize what goes on inside of it. We are like the same flawed people that have appeared in every chapter of history.
The chief difference between the church family and the world is that in a community of faith we talk collectively about the Kingdom of God. We talk about the teachings of Jesus. We talk about the will of God. We talk about signs and symbols that help us remember that life goes on once we leave these bodies. We keep the memory of our relationship with God alive.
What happened inside the Hebrew family and tribe is that they, too, preserved the memory of their walk with God. That is what St. Matthew's does for us. It helps us remember who we are and who God called us to be. Our faith gives us the opportunity to use what others do not have access to. Collectively, however, we are filled with the same frailties that were present in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God's will, nevertheless, continues to unfold.
Why should we ever be surprised by anyone's behavior in the church? People inside the church can be pretentious in their clothing. Some of us can be masters of deception. Some of us can have a very lackluster or checkerboard past and present. The term "hypocrite" is a proper adjective that applies to all of us. We gossip. We hold resentments. There are people who are a challenge to talk to. There are times we cannot be friendly. We judge others as worthy and unworthy. None of this is new or surprising.
The people who believe that we are somehow better individuals because we follow Christ have not spent much time remembering the lives of the twelve who were with Jesus day and night. The object of walking with the Lord has never been to insure our personal, exclusive salvation as some believe; it has been to keep the Word of God visible so that the "mighty acts of God" can continue. God does a lot of wonderful things through us in spite of our flaws and imperfections.
What we have is a faith that provides us with a door and a window to interpret life. Those outside the church will not have such a perspective because knowledge of God is not one of their active ingredients. All of us live with the consequences of what we know. Think about this. Had it not been for Jacob's faith, he would never have had the tools to understand his dream. There would have been no life-changing experience.
Listen again to what Jacob said when he awakened from his dream: "The Lord is here! God is in this place and I did not know it! This must be the house of God. This must be the gate that opens into heaven." The dream would have had no meaning had he not had the faith orientation of his parents.
In spite of Jacob's being aggressive, competitive and a thief, God was able to communicate and create through him. Jacob had the road map to interpret his experience, a map that had nothing to do with his qualities of character. That map placed him among the powerful patriarchs of the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Once the Apostle Paul had been guided by hate. St. Augustine loved women before learning that he had a greater contribution to make. The list of imperfect people is endless. Yet God poured insight through such people.
All of this has tremendous implications for us. We have already learned several things about God. Immediately we recognize that we do not have to be perfect persons or even good persons for God to communicate to us. God loves the just and the unjust alike. God's love is equally bestowed on all of us. God has no favorites.
We have also learned that to understand God's communication, we have to have the equipment necessary to receive it. God loves to visit us in a form we can understand, but if we do not have the belief system that makes us aware of the possibilities, God remains invisible and silent. An analogy known by all of us is a perfect illustration of this. We are surrounded by radio and television signals, but if we do not have the proper equipment, it is as if those audio and video waves do not exist. All were the equivalent of atheists until they turned on a radio or a television for the first time. Their experience made them instant converts.
A third element we have learned is about the level of confidence we receive when we understand that God is using us to make history. Think of it. Listen again to what God said to Jacob, "I am God and I will give to you and to your descendants this land on which you are lying. They will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the earth. Through you and your descendants I will bless all the nations."
Suppose God made you aware that God was going to change the world by what you wrote, what you said, by how you raised your children, by how you influenced people at work, by where you gave your money, and by how you invested yourself in service. When Jesus invited us to become disciples and go into the world, he was asking us to mold history, to change the world.
Think of your energy. Think of your fearlessness. You would not care how God intended to do it. You would be free to extend yourself wildly in all directions simply because you understood that God was going to accomplish this, not you. Furthermore, your fearless energy would increase from realizing that there is nothing in the universe that can prevent God's will from being done.
How does God give us insight when we are running the kids to soccer practice, closing on some deal at work, getting our daughter married, or packing and moving to a new house? On and on goes the list of endless distractions. Where does insight into life come from when we are on the roller coaster of activity that does not stop for anyone or anything?
People who have the equipment influence others all the time. God creates through us. For example, some years ago a high school boy experienced the death of his father who had been an acute diabetic. The young man was on the high school football team, but he was not a very good player. The coach was being generous to let him play at all.
He went to his football coach and said, "Coach, please, please let me start for Saturday's game." This was a big game against a undefeated team. The coach knew about the death of the young man's father. When he read the expression on his player's face, he said, "All right son, you can start, but it will be for only the opening series of downs."
On the first play of the game, the young man tore through the offensive line and sacked their quarterback. That play set the tone for the rest of the game. The boy was all over the field making one big play after another. The coach let him play for the entire game. He single-handedly led his team to an upset victory, 12-0.
After the game, the coached publicly awarded him the game ball and said, "What got into you today? You played like a pro." The boy responded with these words, "A lot of you did not know that my father's diabetes had made him blind. Today was the first game he ever saw me play, and I wanted to show him what I could do." The sound of the silence in that locker room was deafening. A mighty act of God had just been communicated.
Jesus said, "When you have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, (not character strength the size of a football field) you will be able to tell a mountain to be cast into the sea and it will be done." Just a little bit of faith about what God can do allows us to walk through doors and peer through windows that stand wide open for everyone. Jesus invited us to teach others how to find those doors and windows. And although we are flawed like Jacob, God's will is done!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How grateful we are, O God, that by your design we are able to perceive your presence. You have not left us alone, nor are we incapable of experiencing what we cannot see. You have created us with the capacity to seek, to discover what is not yet known, and to learn new ways of understanding creation. We marvel at the breakthroughs which occur, the victories we have over our resistance, and the joys that result. Encourage us to realize that it is we who create the delays in our understanding. Help us learn that our sinfulness is the result of our seeking wholeness from those things which cannot give it. We long for the moment when our doubts surrender to knowing, when our blindness yields to greater vision, and when our thoughts enable us to reflect your nature. May we stand forth with the confidence to be all that you created us to be. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
There are times, O God, when we enter the worship service of our choice and you cause us to experience something very important. Perhaps we are on the verge of making a decision that will change the direction of our lives. Maybe we are thinking about how and when to enter the life of another person with the hope of re-directing that person's energy. You visit us with such clarity that we know what we experience is being directed to us. How can we thank you for communicating in such a personal way?
So many activities vie for priority status in our lives. There are so many claims on our time and resources. We search and hunger for finding the place where stillness and peace can be experienced. We miss the walk in the forest, our moments of sitting by a stream, or the staring at the surf as it washes across the sand at our feet. We long for the moments when no phones are ringing, when no radios and televisions are sponging up the hours of life that we have left, and when no one is expecting anything from us. How ironic that such a time is what we have right now.
Spare us from ever growing so distracted by our schedules that we no longer carve out of our week these moments. There is no other experience that can help us to remember that life is more than the sum of our activities. Allow us to still our minds, to be in no hurry to be elsewhere, and to fill our thoughts with thanksgiving and gratitude for your presence in our lives. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .