Weekly Preaching: July 19, 2020

July 13th, 2020

Three great passages; some thoughts on each one. Genesis 28:10-19a (which echoes the Psalm, 139, in intriguing ways, as Jacob is learning the answer to “Where can I flee from your spirit?”). It’s hard to ponder this text without hearing “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” Even reading: you pause after “are,” and after “climbing,” as if you grasp a rung and pull, then pause before the next rung. “Every rung climbs higher, higher.” Singing it requires some patience. The pace is slow but certain. No wonder slaves on plantations, dreaming of going up and over and outta there, loved this song. 

Thomas Merton shrewdly suggested that you can spend your life climbing that ladder society directs us to climb. But then you get to the top, and you realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. Jacob had been a ladder-climber, doing whatever it took to get ahead, cheating his brother, deceiving his father, whatever. But in Genesis 28, as he comes to “a certain place,” no place really. He’s exhausted. Must rest. In a fitful sleep he has a dream, one Freud might analyze, a vision, one we might covet. A ladder bridging the great chasm between earth and heaven. The Hebrew really means it’s a long, steep ramp, the kind archaeologists have uncovered on the sides of those tall Tower-of-Babel-like ziggurats in Iraq. 

Angels — not the sweet ones we know from little statues, but mighty heavenly warriors and messengers — going up and down, down and up on the ramp. What could it mean? Jacob snaps out of his sleep or reverie, and dumbfounded can say nothing but “The Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” I wrote an entire book of recollections from my childhood, youth and adulthood of times and places God was there, but at the time I did not know it (Struck From Behind); only in retrospect could I say Aha! God was in that moment, that person, that circumstance.

God was there but I not only didn’t know it. I wasn’t seeking it. I wasn’t praying. Jacob isn’t on some spiritual quest. He’s on the run from — his brother? His parents? His past? His demons? “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”? We’re groping in the dark for we don’t know what. And it turns out to be the way to God — or God’s way to us. Jacob, after all, doesn’t seem to even try to climb the ladder. He’s awestruck, he makes a vow and then goes on his way to a new job, a couple of wives, children who squabble and a lot of heartbreak. God was in those places, too, he now understood. Jacob was “a border crosser, a man of liminal experiences” (Robert Alter).

I am thinking this Sunday we might "broadcast" from my home — to suggest ways Jesus is there without us knowing it. We are having Holy Communion — again from my home, pondering if Jesus is there in all our meals, not just the official Eucharistic meal. The coronavirus situation might enable me to illustrate this to my people in a way I could not if we were stuck in the church building. At least, I hope so.... 

Jesus mysteriously told Nathaniel, “You will see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). St. Catherine of Siena thought of Jesus’ cross as a wooden ladder to heaven, and of his crucified body as that ladder on which we climb toward God.

Who’s doing this climbing? “Soldiers of the cross.” Of course, the old spiritual was thinking one way. But maybe we can jump to the soldiers at the cross, the ones who nailed Jesus to it, the ones snickering, the ones gambling over his clothing. And the ones he forgave, although they didn’t repent or ask for any mercy. Pondering this, the way God showed up to Jacob in his anxious flight from God and goodness, and the way Jesus, our ladder to heaven, forgave unrepentant soldiers of the cross, we know the only answer to the hymn’s other questions: “Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” and “If you love him, why not serve him?”

Romans 8:12-25, so rich, inviting us to cry Abba! – and in our moaning it’s the Spirit groaning, praying within us. And we are one with the whole world in our agony – which to the eyes of faith aren’t terrors but labor pangs. Notice we become heirs with Christ, not “if we suffer with him” but “provided we suffer with him.” Oh my. I’d prefer Paul to have written something more soothing. 

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. Images are our only chance to help people imagine a diverse, divided church staying together. I was vacationing in Scotland and lucked into a conversation at a pub with a shepherd. Like a professional. One question I asked was Why do you never see just sheep, or just goats, but always both? He replied, We’ve found over the centuries that they just do better together.

Jesus found a vivid image: wheat and tares, growing together. The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t Am I wheat? Or tares? You’re both, of course… But this story is about the community, the people of God. The Church is wheat, and tares, both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s name tag so we could accurately identify who’s who. And we’ve got to do something about those danged tares. 

Robert Farrar Capon points out, "This is no way to run a farm. Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter... Programs designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do. Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody." He suggests that the devil's best strategy is to sucker good people into taking up arms against one another, while he sits back and laughs.

Churches divide — grieving Jesus’ heart, who prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does. I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, which Jesus said we keep them together. 

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.” We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

I love this scene in Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road. Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering. His response? 

"'God sees much more than we see. He sees the beginning and the end of things and He is doing what is best from all that He sees. God would never kill a child. But there is an invisible war that goes on around us while we live here on earth. God promised to destroy the Devil.' The young man asked, 'Why won't God finish it now?' Silas thought for a moment, and then suddenly leaped up, bent over with excitement. 'They asked Christ the same question. Look here, watch down here.' He bent over. 'Christ said the Kingdom is like a sower who sowed good seed, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. See, here are the good grasses' — his hands stroked the grass — 'and this pennyroyal here is like the weed.' One hand closed upon a large mint-leaves pennyroyal stem. 'Look at it, and look what happens when I pull it out.' Silas yanked the pennyroyal up by the roots. It exploded from the ground, showering both of them with dirt from its spreading roots. 'This is what Christ said. The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat. See the grasses that have died here because I pulled up the pennyroyal? We know pennyroyal roots grow underground, tangled beneath the other grasses. God knows the roots of evil grown around every sickness since Adam and Eve. Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that self same moment. What kind of God could do that?'"


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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