Family Jealousy, Genesis 37

[Note:  I decided to do a Bible study blog this week after all]

The phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant and apparently always has been if the Biblical record is any indication.  We all have embarrassing stories about our families or meeting the prospective in-laws for the first time.  And those are minor issues compared to abusive or violent situations that are all too common, especially in times of great economic and personal stress and pressure.

We’ve all had those moments when a parent pulls out our naked baby pictures to show to a friend or date, and now with You Tube and other digital demons, the opportunities for embarrassing photos being widely disseminated has increased exponentially.  Many of us have had times when we would like to sell a sibling to a passing band of Ishmaelites, but Joseph’s brothers actually do it. 

No family is perfect.  We sometimes look at affluent neighborhoods with manicured lawns and assume those living there have lives that are as impressive as the facades of their large beautiful homes.  But no socio-economic class is immune from jealousy, insecurity, tragedy and other causes of brokenness.  Earlier chapters of Genesis detail family conflicts between Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau, and now the critical Joseph saga that is prelude to slavery in Egypt and the Exodus salvation of God’s people begins in a tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy that goes rapidly from bad to worse.

Before we get to the oppression of the Hebrews by Pharaoh we encounter some within Jacob’s family, within God’s own people.  Perhaps this is a reminder that before we cast too many stones at those ” bad people” out there, we should do some introspection and recognize the logs in our own eyes.  No problems can be addressed in a family or any relationship until we first recognize they are there.   When Jacob tells Joseph (vs. 14) to go “see if it is well with your brothers,” he is inquiring about their well-being, their peace/shalom.  We see very quickly there is no peace in Shechem where Joseph’s brothers are plotting fratricide and finally compromise on selling him and lying about his death at the hands of a wild animal. 

The authors of this story want to make very sure we know this is about a family.  The word brother appears 20 times, father 10 times and son 8, and there is plenty of blame to go around for all of the above.  It is easy to see the sins of the brothers who sell Joseph, but as is often the case in athletic events, the secondary offender is often the one called for the infraction because, especially in the good old days before instant replay, the initiator of a conflict escapes the notice of the referee.  Joseph and Jacob need to share the blame for this family crisis.  Jacob blew his paternal responsibilities by playing favorites among his sons and Joseph eggs his brothers on by bragging about his dreams and his special treatment from Daddy, and in general being a tattle tale. 

My point is that evil is not just out there in the villains du jour, be they Egyptians or Joseph’s brothers or our contemporary religious or political enemies.  There is jealousy and unkindness and chicanery among the household of God too, then and now.  We can’t do anything about Jacob’s dysfunctional family.  That’s history.  But we can learn from their mistakes and realize that jealousy or competition or putting on holier-than-thou airs like Joseph does will not work well as evangelistic strategies for the church today.  To attract new disciples into the church requires a level of genuine honesty and authenticity possible only when we feel secure in our own faith relationship with a loving, forgiving God.  The value of being secure and real is captured in a great quote from the beautiful children’s story, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Margery Williams:

“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.”

Jealousy is certainly not the only cause of conflict in human relationships, but it is high on the list.  Comparison of oneself to others is always dangerous because there will always be some better or worse off.  Coveting, a synonym for jealousy, is so dangerous it merits its own place as one of the 10 commandments.  Why is that?  Some would argue that competition is good motivation to try harder, and there is truth to that.  Competition can inspire great achievements, e.g. the landing of humans on the moon was powered as much by competition with the USSR as it was by solid rocket fuel.   But competition becomes destructive when the value of persons and not their accomplishments become the standard of measurement as happens in the Joseph story. 

When we feel insecure and are motivated by an economy of scarcity no amount of wealth, power, or prestige is ever enough.  Keeping up with the Joneses is quickly transformed into staying ahead of them.  Winning in business or athletics trumps integrity and community resulting in use of illegal performance enhancing drugs or unethical business practices.  Winning an election becomes more important than serving the public good.  Self-interest clouds wise and impartial judgment.  People who start down a career path intending to do good become blinded by the desire to do well. 

In many ways our culture teaches us to be discontent in whatever state we are in – always wanting more in a consumer crazy culture – always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence or tracks, only to discover when we get there that it is artificial turf. 

We are all part of God’s family in desperate need to learn to live together peaceably.  The width and breadth of the interconnectedness of the human family is lifted up for us very subtly in the final verse of this text from Genesis 37.  (Ignore the confusion in this story about whether the traders who bought Joseph were Ishmaelites or Midianites.  It says both and this is likely from the combination of two versions of this story.) 

It is the late reference to Midianites in this text that intrigues me because centuries later in this story of God’s people (Exodus 2), Moses, the hero of the Exodus story, marries Zipporah, daughter of Reuel/Jethro, a priest of Midian.  It’s a small world because we are all sisters and brothers in God’s family and need to learn to live together like real siblings should.

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My Book on Amazon & Barnes & Noble

My book, Building Peace from the Inside Out is now available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in addition to lulu.com. 

Building Peace from the Inside Out  is not a book that tells about peace.  It is a collection of inspirational plays and stories that show by positive and negative example what peace looks and feels like. The characters in this book wrestle with common challenges of the human condition: ageism, materialism, insecurity and self-centeredness. They illustrate the destructive results of fear, anger, hate, prejudice, a lack of vision and integrity. 

On the positive side of the ledger, there are also characters who embody and live out values that lead to peace. They demonstrate that peace requires openness to surprise and how compassion is critical to any hope for peace and justice. Through narrative, we see how the “have-nots” can teach the “haves” what brings real peace in our lives—integrity, courage, and forgiveness.  The power of having a vision and the courage to trust and follow one’s purpose also show up repeatedly on these journeys to peace.  

A portion of all proceeds from this book will be donated to three peacemaking organizations:

Habitat for Humanity

C. Everett and Mary Tilson Fund for Social Justice Ministries, Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Tariq Khamisa Foundation, an education program to end youth violence

 

Matthew 14:13-21, “All We Have is Enough”

Matthew 14:13-21, “All We Have is Enough,”  Gospel Lesson for July 31, 2011

The old Beatles’ song, “Eleanor Rigby,” has a haunting refrain that says, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”   I don’t know where they come from, but I know to whom they come – the church.  They come hungering for physical and spiritual food.  Frederick Beuchner says it’s not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church every week, but the absence, the hunger.  And the needs of all the lonely people can feel overwhelming.

Someone once said that being in ministry is like being in a tank of piranhas; no one wants much of us, but everyone wants a little piece.  And often we feel empty and inadequate, barely able to keep our own souls and bodies together.  How can we feed all those lonely people?

Many years ago when I was a youth minister in a large suburban congregation I was working at the church on a Sunday afternoon making last minute preparations for two youth group meetings that evening.  Dressed in the typical youth minister uniform of blue jeans and sweatshirt, running late and feeling harried, I looked more like the church custodian than one of its pastors.  Having no time for any interruptions, I was dismayed to look up and see a man walk into the church office.  From the way he was groomed and dressed I knew he was probably homeless and looking for food or shelter or some kind of assistance.  When he asked if the pastor was around I immediately rationalized that he really meant “was the Sr. Minister around,” and without missing a beat I said, “No, I haven’t seen him.”  That stranger went away, still hungry, and 25 years later I am still living with the regret of not responding to his hunger. 

Sometimes we feel like the disciples out there in a lonely place with Jesus and a crowd of hungry people.  Jesus and his weary band of disciples had tried to get away from it all for some badly needed R & R, only to find there was no place to hide from all the lonely people.  The disciples  were probably frightened, having just heard that John the Baptist had been brutally beheaded by King Herod.  They needed time to grieve and regroup.  But even in those pre-Twitter days, people heard where Jesus was and their hunger drew them to him.  He, of course, had compassion on them and could not send them away.  He knew that when those hungering and thirsting for righteousness come knocking on our door, if we don’t feed them, they’ll stop off for junk food somewhere else on their way home from church.

You know who they are, the unemployed or underemployed, the sick and lame, the lonely, the broken-hearted, those suffering from doubts and fears and addictions, the abused, the single parents, confused teens and young adults, the elderly, those without health care.  There must be 5000 of them!!   We can’t possibly feed them all.  Let’s send them off to McDonalds or Taco Bell, Jesus, so they can find something for themselves to eat.  “No,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us, “You give them something to eat.”  “What,” we moan in disbelief.  “You don’t understand, Jesus.  We only have 5 loaves and two fish!”

John Westerhoff tells the story in his book Will Our Children Have Faith? of a young couple in a Roman Catholic church who desperately wanted to have children but seemed doomed to remain childless.  It wasn’t that they weren’t trying.  And when the normal reproductive process didn’t work they consulted the best medical practitioners they could find.  Still no baby.  Through several years of frustration and disappointment after disappointment the couple leaned heavily on the spiritual and moral support of their local priest, Father John, who prayed with and for them, comforted and consoled them.  Then one day when they thought all hope was gone a miracle happened and the young woman conceived.  She gave birth to a beautiful healthy boy and they named him John in honor of their priest.  Father John was thrilled to baptize little Johnny and enjoyed watching him grow into an inquisitive toddler.

When Johnny was almost two years old he was out in the front yard with his mother early one beautiful summer morning.  They were laughing and playing with a ball when their black lab chased the ball into the neighbor’s yard.  The mother went after the run-away puppy, momentarily taking her eyes off her son.  Johnny toddled after a butterfly and ended up in the driveway just as his father came rushing out of the house late for work.  Dad, not seeing Johnny behind the car, jumped behind the wheel and backed over Johnny, killing him instantly.

Father John rushed to the house as soon as heard of the tragedy.  When he got there he found the young couple devastated and in shock sitting on their bed holding each other.  The priest was speechless.  He could not muster any words that seemed anything more than pious platitudes or clichés; so he just sat on the edge of the bed and cried with them.

The funeral for Johnny was one of the hardest things Father John had ever done in 20 years of ministry.  A few days after the funeral he went by the family’s home to see how they were doing.  He was filled with dread and regret as he rang their doorbell because he had been so inadequate in addressing their unimaginable grief.  Much to his surprise the young wife greeted him with open arms and thanked him profusely for what he had done for them.  “But I didn’t do anything,” Father John protested.  “I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I just sat and cried.”

“I know,” she said.  “You gave us all that you had, and it was enough.”

The disciples want to send the crowds away because they have so little to offer them, just 5 loaves and 2 fish.  Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”  Notice what happens next.  When the disciples tell Jesus what resources they have, he simply says, “Bring them here to me.”

 God doesn’t ask us to give more than we have.  That would be unfair, and we do not serve an unjust God.  God simply asks us to give ALL that we have.  Jesus gave us his all and asks the same of us in return.  And when we do, it’s enough.  God doesn’t ask those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket to sing solos in church, but we are asked to fully use the talents we have been blessed with, to share the resources we have with those who have less.  And when we entrust what we have, all that we have, to God, it is blessed and multiplied; and all those lonely people are fed.  And not only are they fed, they are all filled.  And not only are they all filled, there are enough left-overs to feed the next bunch of hungry, lonely pilgrims that are already coming down the road. 

When we feel overwhelmed and inadequate to respond to all the lonely people, remember these two things:  Jesus doesn’t call us and then go on sabbatical.  He is with us always, even to the end of the age.  He is always there to take our meager gifts and transform them into an overflowing cup of living water.  And most importantly, if we respond in faith and entrust God with all that we have, I promise you in Christ’s name, our five loaves and two fish will always be more than enough.

Parenting and Peacemaking

I wrote this post several years ago but found it especially relevant this week having just spent a couple of days caring for two wonderful energetic grandsons.

Peace lessons are not always easy to swallow.  I lost my cool and raised my voice with my four year-old granddaughter yesterday.  She recovered much more quickly than I, but the experience has helped me relearn a couple of lessons yet again.  We’ve been visiting with our kids for 5 days now – my step-son and his wife, and two children, ages 4 and 1.  Being with them is fun, but doing it 24/7 when I am not used to it is sometimes quite challenging.  Yesterday I knew my patience was wearing thin and should have given myself some time off from grandpa duty.  Instead I agreed to spend some time playing with the little ones when we would all have been much better served by some time apart.  That was the first lesson. – trusting my feelings and instincts instead of shoulding on myself.

The second lesson came as I observed my wife handle a similar situation with the four-year-old shortly after my “grandpa gaffe.”  Both scenarios were typical adult-preschooler power struggles.  But where I had let myself get hooked into the level of the four year-old, grandma stayed firm but calm and waited the little one out.  My wife stayed grounded and centered.  She didn’t respond from emotion but from a secure position of reason and authority.

How often do we miss out on peacemaking opportunities in interpersonal or international relationships because we forget these two simple lessons?  Taking just a few seconds to pause, breathe deeply and ground and center ourselves before we react to what others have said or done can make all the difference in the outcome and how all parties feel about themselves and each other.  Ground and center is the difference between making peace and escalating a conflicted situation, between a win/win and a lose/lose outcome.  Grounding and centering gives one time to reflect and assess reality and trust one’s feelings and instincts.  Proactive peacemaking happens when we know our own abilities and limits and are willing to ask for help when we need it instead of reacting from an emotional level. 

So, my goal for my next opportunity to interact with a four-year old, no matter what age or size he or she may be, is to ground and center myself and remember these lessons my granddaughter and my wonderful wife taught me.

Genesis 29: 15-28, “It’s not fair! You’re not the person I married!”

 Last week’s surprises for Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22) are soon trumped by the big surprise he found in his bed the morning after his wedding!  There’s a famous scene in one of the Godfather movies where Jack Woltz is surprised, no horrified, to find a horse’s head in his bed.  Jacob is less shocked at the bait and switch Laban, his new father-in-law, pulls on him. But he is quite surprised and a bit angry, and rightfully so.  Jacob had a deal with Laban that was very specific.  Genesis 29 is very clear that Jacob loves Laban’s younger daughter Rachel.  He has it bad for Rachel, so much so that he agrees to work seven long years for Laban to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage.

 So imagine the look on Jacob’s face the first morning of his life as a married man.  He thought he had consummated his marriage to Rachel in the darkness of their wedding night, only to discover when the sun rose that he was with Laban’s older daughter, Leah, instead.

What are we to make of this strange and rather humorous tale that could be an episode of the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother?”  First, let’s suspend our disbelief about how this could actually happen.  We can speculate about how much wine Jacob drank at the wedding reception or how heavily veiled brides were in those days, but there are far more relevant issues in this story worth exploring for our lives today.

1.   There is sweet, ironic justice that Jacob, who had plotted and schemed to cheat his older brother out of his birthright, literally from birth, should now be the victim of deceit himself.  Dare we say “what goes around comes around” or more biblically, “we reap what we sow?”

2.   Both the Jacob and Esau story and the Leah and Rachel story involve issues of cultural sensitivity. The prevailing customs in those days were very patriarchal and sexist.  The eldest son got the birthright and lion’s share of the inheritance, and the eldest daughters were to have their marriages arranged and consummated before their younger sisters.  Jacob tries to overturn both of these traditions, and a good argument can be made that both of those cultural norms were unjust and in need of change.

How does such change happen most effectively?  First, by being aware and sensitive to what cultural norms and customs are.  President Richard Nixon ran afoul of several cultural norms in this country, leading to his resignation from the Presidency.  But one of the more humorous faux pas he made was on a trip to Latin America where, as he did everywhere, he flashed his famous “V” for victory sign to a large crowd gathered to greet him.  To his chagrin and that of his handlers, a lesson about avoiding Ugly American syndrome was learned the hard way.  In that culture the “V” gesture was used in the same way the obscene middle-finger salute is used in ours.  Oops!  

Once an unjust cultural custom is recognized it takes time and patience to change.  We cringe today to think of arranged marriages as they were done in Jacob’s time, but it took over 3000 years from that period of history before women were given the right to vote in our democratic process.  It has only been in our lifetime that the change was made in the wedding ritual so brides no longer have to promise to obey their husbands.  And in some wedding ceremonies the bride is still “given away” by her father and/or mother as if she is a piece of property being transferred to another owner.  Cultural customs change at a glacial pace, but that does not make the change less valid or necessary.  I am always pleased to share with couples in pre-marital counseling that the United Methodist marriage ceremony 20 or 30 years ago replaced the “giving away” of the bride with asking both families for their blessing on the marriage.

3.   “That isn’t Fair!”  Even if the rules are not perfect, and even if Jacob got his just desserts, there’s a part of us that recognizes the unfairness of what Laban did to Jacob.  Why didn’t he tell Jacob up front about the necessity of the older daughter being married first?  We don’t know, but the relevant question for us is how do we respond when life deals us a bad hand?  When something isn’t fair, are we tempted to fall into the victim mode and have a pity party.  Jacob starts down that path when he says to Laban, “What is this you have done to me?   Why have you deceived me?”  (Note the victim’s focus is always what has been done by someone or something To Me.)  But then Jacob seems to suddenly mature as Laban explains the customs of that culture to him.  Jacob may have prayed that part of the serenity prayer that says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”  Because when Laban says, “OK, here’s the deal.  Work for me seven more years and you can have Rachel too,” the text simply says, “Jacob did so.”

 A very simple three-word sentence speaks volumes.  “Jacob did so.”  When faced with tragedy, failure, grief, or unpleasant circumstances that cannot be undone, the sooner we accept reality and ask ourselves, “what next?” and do what is required, the better it is for everyone.  My six year-old grandson was in the hospital this spring and had to have an endoscopy and a colonoscopy done, which are never fun for anyone.  This little boy was miserable during the prep and long wait without food or drink for his tests to be done, and he let us know it.  So when the nurse came in to tell him she needed to do another enema, all of us, the nurse especially, were flabbergasted that he simply said “OK” and rolled over on his tummy.  He had accepted what he couldn’t change and knew that fighting it would only make things worse. 

4.   “You aren’t the person I married!”   Can’t you just hear Jacob saying that to Leah on the morning after?  All of us who are married have felt that at times, haven’t we?  We can be on our good behavior while dating, but sharing a bathroom and a TV remote and a closet 24/7 will expose anyone’s true nature.  No matter how long you’ve known your spouse before the wedding, there are always surprises.  Some of them are pleasant and bring smiles to our hearts.  Other irritating habits or quirks discovered on the honeymoon quickly help us learn why that “for better or worse” part is in the marriage vows.  We are all fallible human beings; we all have flaws and weaknesses.  Sure, we all know that the “happily ever after” ending to love stories is just a fairy tale, but it is still a rude awakening when the bubble of our own romantic notion bursts and the hope that somehow we are exempt from that reality of the human condition is shattered. 

That’s when we learn that love is not something we fall into or out of, it’s a choice we make every day, even on those day we don’t like each other very much.  Change is inevitable.  All of us are either growing or regressing. The journey of life is like one of those moving walkways at the airport.  You can’t just mark time and stay where you are.   When we bemoan the fact that our spouse is not the person we married, aren’t we really saying he or she isn’t the ideal, romanticized person we hoped we were marrying? 

 Judith Versed, in Love & Guilt & the Meaning of Love, came up with a humorous distinction between love and infatuation that applies here:

“Infatuation is when you think that he’s as gorgeous as Robert Redford, as pure as Solzhenitsyn, as funny as Woody Allen, as athletic as Jimmy Connors and as smart as Albert Einstein.
Love is when you realize that he’s as gorgeous as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Solzhenitsyn, as athletic as Albert Einstein and nothing like Robert Redford in any category. But you’ll take him anyway.”

Even if it were possible, would you really want to go back to living with or being the immature person you were at 20 or 25?  Sure, it would be nice to have the stamina and energy we had as teenagers or twenty-somethings, but do we really want to give up the hard-fought lessons and wisdom we’ve earned from the years of life experience we’ve had since then?  Selective amnesia fools us into believing the good old days really were.  The theme song to the old Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford movie, “The Way We Were,” says it well: “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” 

Rather than wishing for the perfect spouse or the perfect life and being frustrated because perfection is not humanly possible, our marriages and families and all relationships can be greatly improved if we heed the advice of Wilferd Peterson, who says in “The Art of a Good Marriage,” “It is not just about marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.”

We can also learn a great deal from our old friend Jacob, who accepts what he cannot change, that Leah is not the woman he thought he had married, and makes the relationship work anyway.  Thank God the same is true for our relationship with our Creator.  God must wake up most mornings and look at us and say, “These aren’t the people I created!”  But God loves us anyway, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”  And God’s deal is even better than marriage, which is “till death do us part.”  God’s guarantee of love is not just for this life, not for 5 years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first.  God’s love is unconditional and forever.  Thanks be to God.

Jacob’s Ladder and God’s Surprises

This is the first of a weekly blog of ideas for preaching and Bible study on texts from the Revised Common Lectionary.  I will be working a week or two ahead in hopes these ideas and thoughts might be helpful to my colleagues in the pulpit.

“Jacob’s Ladder and God’s Surprises,” Genesis 28:10-22 (Hebrew Scriptures lectionary text for July 17, 2011)

 If there had been a TV show in Biblical times called “Israel’s Most Wanted,” Jacob would have been a headliner – wanted for fraud and extortion, for impersonating a son.  Jacob is like the prodigal son in the New Testament, only worse.  The prodigal son only took his share of the inheritance, but Jacob wanted his Brother Esau’s share too.  He took what was not rightfully his.  By my count Jacob broke at least 4 of the 10 commandments before they were even given to Moses!!!

 The story seems very familiar to us because many of us learned to sing about Jacob’s ladder at an early age.  But if we look more carefully, it is full of surprises:

 Surprise  #1.  Jacob is surprised God is out there in the wilderness, in a place one might describe as “god-forsaken” where Motel 6 doesn’t even leave the light on.  God’s presence is not good news for Jacob because of his guilt over tricking his poor old father and cheating his brother.  Remember, he’s out there in the wilderness because he’s on the lam.  So, Jacob is first fearful and then pleasantly surprised that he doesn’t get judged and punished for his sin.  He could have been a crispy critter on the spot.

I remember a Bible study several years ago where our youth group discovered some of the R-rated stories in the Hebrew Bible—the ones you never learn in Sunday School about incest and rape and adultery and murder.  Many of the youth knew that in his later life Jacob had 12 sons, but they were quite surprised to learn that those sons were from 4 different mothers and that old Jacob wasn’t even married to two of them.  Finally, one of the youth said, “Those aren’t very good people.  What are they doing in the Bible?”   Because like us, they are sinners and like us they are loved by God anyway.  That’s why Jesus ate with sinners; if he hadn’t he would always have eaten alone.

Surprise #2.  For this one, stop and think about what you envision when you think about Jacob’s dream and the ladder or stairway to heaven.   Where is God in that picture?  Up there, like the giant at the top of the beanstalk right?  Now listen to what the NRSV translation says in verses 12 and 13: “and he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father….”     How did we miss that?  God is right there next to us to guide and direct us, not far removed in Heaven.

An old curmudgeon decided to tease some children on their way home from Sunday School.  He said to them, “I’ll give you 10 cents if you can tell me where God is.”   One sharp little girl responded immediately, “I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me where he ain’t.”

One of the problems with our theology from sources like the Jacob’s ladder song is that it perpetuates a narrow view of  the hierarchical nature of our faith journey toward a God “who art in Heaven.”  The song says, “We are climbing – higher, higher,” but we aren’t.  The world is in worse shape now that it’s been in years.  The ladder theology implies if we just climb high enough, we’ll know all we need to know about God, and that’s not the way God works.  Someone once said that talking about God is like trying to bite a wall – none of us ever climb high enough to have the whole truth about God.

When United Methodist clergy are ordained, we are asked a lot of questions that date back to one of our founders, John Wesley.  One that always gets a chuckle is “are you going on to perfection?”  The point is simply that we all need to be reminded regularly, especially clergy, that we are called, as the prophet Micah puts it, to “walk humbly with our God.”   None of us can ever climb up the ladder of perfection, and the good news is we don’t have to – because God is already right here beside us.

You’d think that would be good enough wouldn’t you?  But are we satisfied with that?  Was Jacob?  Surprise #3: God has just spared Jacob from divine judgment, given him unconditional love, forgiveness, renewed God’s eternal covenant with him, and what does Jacob do – say thanks, or sing the Hallelujah Chorus?  No, he starts negotiating, putting conditions on the relationship with God!

Unfortunately, the lectionary selection of this story usually ends at verse 19, but I would urge you to also read verses 20-22 to get more of the story.  In those verses we find the five conditions or “ifs” that Jacob tries to put on God:   If God will be with me, if God will keep me in this way that I go, if God will give me bread to eat, if God will give me clothes to wear, and if God will bring me to my father’s house in peace–then the Lord shall be my God!  And even then God only gets 1/10th of Jacob’s income.   Such a deal!  We give bigger tips to the servers at a restaurant.

Jacob doesn’t get it.  God’s covenant isn’t measured in material rewards.  The only promise is that God is with us, no matter what happens or where we are.   Appropriately, the Psalter lesson for July 17 is Psalm 139:  “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.”

You get the point — we really can’t go anywhere that God isn’t.

Surprise #4, perhaps the biggest of all: If rascals like Jacob and you and I are in Beth El, which means the house of God, then everyone is.  To paraphrase St. Paul, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female – Muslim or born again Christian.  We are all one big dysfunctional family like Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Esau. 

 Jacob doesn’t deserve God’s love, and neither do we; but that doesn’t mean we have to hoard it or cheat others out of their eternal inheritance. God’s amazing grace is bountiful enough for every one of God’s children everywhere.  There is no need for sibling rivalry in the family of God

Our spiritual journey isn’t about anything we can or have to do – it’s about realizing Jacob’s surprise — that God is right here beside us, even if we don’t know it or deserve it.  Our spiritual growth and salvation isn’t about us.  It’s not about our climbing higher and higher on the stairway to heaven.

We can’t draw closer to God –not because we aren’t good enough, but because God is always so near to us that whenever we cry, God tastes the salt of our tears.