Oct 5, 2008
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19
Sermon Title: "The Gates of Heaven"
The UCC has a slogan: No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
It could not be any more appropo for today’s reading, for this is certainly the House of the Lord, and these are the Gates of Heaven....
...Today we continue our sermon series on the Book of Genesis, looking at the family of Isaac and Rebekah. As we experienced last week, things are not well.
Jacob manipulated Esau into selling his birthright. And Esau was foolish enough to do so, all for a moment of instant gratification.
Next, we are told Isaac is dying and wants to gives Esau the family blessing. Once again Jacob manipulates things, and by pretending to be his brother, Jacob tricks his nearly blind father into giving him the family blessing.
As you can imagine, when Esau gets word of this he is engulfed with rage. Bad enough Jacob stole his birthright, but now the blessing too! Esau hates Jacob so much he is prepared to kill him.
When Jacob hears about this he runs away. He’s no longer safe living where he is. He leaves his tent, he leaves his family, he leaves his hometown and runs towards Haran, a place 400 miles away.
That is where today’s reading begins. Jacob has traveled about 50 miles from home. It’s been a long, lonely journey. He’s outside in the elements. Vulnerable. Either no one will take him in or there is no house around.
He is helpless. Full of fear and terror. Alone. There is no one to manipulate. No one to trick. And no more daylight. There is but a pile of stones, and Jacob takes one, puts it under his head, and falls asleep...
...And he has the most magnificent dream. A ladder. Angels. And God standing beside, above, near him, saying to him "I am the God of your father and grandfather. I will give you offspring. I will give you land. Everyone will be blessed by your kin. I will be with you wherever you go, and I will not leave you until what has been promised comes true."
What a thing to hear! Jacob had left the protection of his father’s home but was told the God of his father with him.
He had no shelter but was promised land.
He wasn’t even dating anyone, much less married and yet he received the promise of numerous descendants.
And unlike the birthright and the blessings, Jacob didn’t manipulate anyone into giving it. It wasn’t earned, no one was tricked. It wasn’t even sought after. It was sheerly and truly all by God, the grace of God!
Jacob awakes, and with the sky up above and his head on the stone, he says "Surely the Holy One is in this place! This is none other then the House of God and this is the Gate of Heaven."
Jacob, the deceiver, Jacob the cunning conniving conflict causing source of consternation, has let down his guard, has ceded his need for control and in return has an experience with his father’s God that ushers him into a new stage of his life, a more mature stage where he will grow, and he will learn, and he will become who he was destined to be.
This is a favorite biblical passage of many and the reasons are easy to see. It’s poetry, its imagery, its promise of God’s presence.
It’s also a story many, if not most of us, can relate to. The notion of running away. The image of fleeing from one’s problems. The image of being left with nothing but a rock to sleep on, and the unexpected discovery of God being in the ordinary.
We are all a little bit like Jacob in that we have run away. For some it’s a literal running away from home. For others a running away from problems. For others its an emotional running from things they wish not to deal with or look at.
I have my own running story, one I haven’t shared with everyone, one that causes embarrassment, but a running story nevertheless.
As you may recall, God called me to be a pastor when I was running around the high school track. I was 17 at the time and in no way ready to be a pastor.
So I continued to run, and I ran to Minnesota to go to college for journalism. Then I ran back to Long Island and worked as a waiter. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, ignoring both God’s call and my college degree.
I got my own place, I dated, I went out, I partied.
But one day, January 17, 1994 to be specific, my whole life changed.
Someone I had broken up with the year before decided to stalk me. It began with a rapping on my window and a late night phone call and continued with death threats to me and the people I was dating, slashed tires, car chases down the highway, the spray painting of my car, my apartment and my place of work.
The stalking continued for four months. It didn’t matter that I and my landlords had filed orders of protection. It didn’t matter that my father was a cop, or his friends were cops, they was nothing they could do to stop it.
I was living every day in fear, not knowing what to expect next. I didn’t sleep at night. I stopped going out. I was on constant guard. I spent more and more money on new tires and spray paint remover.
Eventually, I did the only thing I could do to feel and be safe: I packed up all my belonging, said goodbye to all my family and friends, and drove to Minneapolis, where I started my life all over.
Although for victims of crime there is no such thing about starting "all over", for the memories of the experience lingered for years afterward, affecting the decisions I made and the people I let into my life.
There were a few things that got me through that period of my life. Watching reruns of "Designing Women", reading my Good News Bible, and going to church on Sunday.
Sunday service was the only time I felt safe. I knew instinctively that for that hour and a half I would be OK, that nothing bad was going to happen to me or my car while there.
And in the midst of the fear, chaos and loneliness, I had a holy moment.
The church celebrated communion every week. We would come forward just as we did today, but I noticed that some people drank out of the same cup the pastor did. When I asked why they did this, I was told anyone can drink from the communion cup if they simply raised their hand.
So the next time I came forward, I raised my hand, and they gave me the cup to drink, and a feeling washed all over me. It was a jittery feeling, like being nervous. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but what I had experienced was the Spirit moving through me.
To this day I can not tell you a single scripture I heard read there, or a sermon that was preached or even the name of the pastor, but I can tell you that in that church God was there, and I felt safe.
That God reached out to me during the celebration of communion. And I was at the gates of heaven.
Now I share this story for many reasons. It is part of me, a big part of me that I don’t often show. As with most victims of crime, it is hard to discuss what I have endured.
But at the same time, what I endured has helped shape who I am, for better and for worse. It has shaped the choices I have made, relationships I have backed out of. It is also the reason why having a place to call home and to say I feel safe in is so important.
It has also shaped my understanding of church, the Lord’s Supper and my theology of worship.
When I refer to worship being a holy time or a holy space, when I repeatedly use the words sanctuary, peace and harmony, they are not quasi-feel good statements left over from the hippie generation. But true reflections of how I feel, true gifts that came from a period in my life in which peace, harmony and sanctuary did not exist, except for those 90 minutes a week in church.
Looking back on my story, it was church that got me through it all and it was church in which I felt safe. And it was in drinking from the communion cup that I first felt the Spirit of God.
Unexpected, unplanned. Hope in the midst of a scary, barren, lonely wilderness I was in.
So let me ask you this: What does church mean to you? Why do you come to church? We all have our reasons.
Some people come to church because that’s what they are used to. It’s what their parents and grandparents did. It’s what’s expected.
Some come to church to see friends, to catch up on the latest news.
Others come to church hoping to make a business connection or secure a job opportunity.
Others to nab themselves a man.
Others come to give thanks to God for all that God has done. To petition God for the things they want or need.
To sing songs of praise. To hear the Word read. To be inspired by the message. To be challenged by the message. To learn something new by the message.
Others come to seek forgiveness. To not feel so lonely. To be safe. To know they are not alone. To be fed. To have someone shake their hand.
To forget about the week that’s been and to prepare for the week ahead.
People enter into church for so many reasons, and regardless the reasons, it is hopeful that they leave feeling as if they have had an experience with God.
Hopefully sometime during the service there is a moment of "aha!", I have just felt the presence of God. Be it a song that is sung, the sermon as its preached, or time spent in fellowship downstairs.
It is hopeful that somehow, before, during and after the service, you become aware that there is a multitude of angels surrounding you. Not heavenly angels like what Jacob saw, but living breathing angels in the brothers and sisters who sit beside you, around you.
That no matter who may have hurt you during the week, that within these walls and stairs are living angels here to offer you a smile, a kind word, to provide a source of inspiration and comfort.
There is enough deceit and treachery out there in the world, that when you come in here you should feel respected and loved.
Out there in the world there are enough reasons to run away, get away that when you come in here you should feel like you can sit and be still in the presence of the Lord.
Out there in the world there are enough people saying negative things and badmouthing the future, that when you come in here you should feel and hear God’s hopeful words and promise for your future.
Out there in the world there is enough to fear and worry about, that when you come in here you should feel safe and secure.
Out there in the world, it is a wilderness, but here, here is the house of the Lord, and these are surely the Gates of Heaven.
And it’s not because we are surrounded by extraordinary things. Not because we are occupied by extraordinary, unusual folk. Not because we have extreme, expensive items.
But because God has taken what the world may see as ordinary and deemed it holy.
Ordinary wood that was taken and refashioned into pews and high beams and an altar where we place our offering.
Ordinary grape juice that we drink. Ordinary bread that we eat.
Ordinary water that we get baptized with.
An ordinary stone, albeit marble, that we walk past before entering into the sanctuary.
Ordinary folk playing music. Ordinary folk preaching the word.
Ordinary folk leading the worship. Ordinary folk sitting beside us.
But in God, through God, they become extraordinary, holy, empowering. Working together to create a sanctuary, working together to pass on the blessings of our fathers and grandfathers, working together to remind us that no matter where we go, God is right there, beside us, with us.
The world is a wonderful place. I can vouch for that, especially when I now look out my apartment upon the lake and the ducks. But the world is also a dangerous place, I can vouch for that with four months I once spent living in terror and fear.
But this place, this building is holy. It is safe. It is precious. It is God’s.
Let us give thanks that no matter what, no matter who, we are all welcome here, and being welcome we are secure, we are blessed, we are loved.
That even when we run away or feel the need to run away from it all, we have a home to come back to, a place to give thanks and a God who loves us so.
All thanks be to God who surrounds us with living angels, to the Spirit that ushers us along our path and to Jesus, the living, breathing ladder that connects us directly to God.