The Rev. Hannah Hooker’s sermon, Year A Proper 11
I had a wonderful meeting with a younger member of our congregation this week. We covered the whole gamut of theological issues. We talked about what, precisely, the Holy Spirit is. We talked about what it means to “hear” or “see” God, and how it is that we know God is present in the world, in our own lives, near us, at any given moment. It was so lovely to witness a young person grappling with her faith, and I was so amazed because she was never discouraged by her lack of understanding, and while some concepts seemed more doubtful to her than others, she remained committed to the idea that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is there.
We are all so aware that in 21st century America, it is incredibly unpopular to hold a conviction that you can’t quite make sense of. We are a people of evidence, empirical proof, scientific explanation. In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes us as “disenchanted.” He says that before the Enlightenment, folks didn’t question whether or not God was real, and the fact that so much of the world was a mystery didn’t really challenge that surety. But after the seed of the idea that there might not be a God was planted, it grew and multiplied and spread across the planet in such a way that now, hundreds of years later, we live in an age in which God has to make sense, has to prove his existence, or God will be discredited and tossed aside along with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.
And so I was encouraged by my wonderful conversation with a young person of faith who wasn’t putting God to the test, or asking me for proof that I can’t offer. But, doubt and questioning are an inevitable part of our faith lives, and blind faith isn’t always better than blind disbelief. And while God certainly doesn’t seem to have any intention of making our world make total sense to us, God is not aloof or distant, and God wants us to be enchanted with creation and with the way that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into our earthly kingdom. That’s why stories like Jacob’s ladder are not just tall tales from the Old Testament, with a pithy moral at the end of the story. They tell us something real and concrete about our God. So what is going on with Jacob and his dream?
As we learned last week, Jacob is a trickster, a selfish, greedy con man. In all fairness, he was raised by a dad who loved his big brother more and a mom who is even more conniving than he is. Other than Isaac’s final instructions to Jacob, we don’t glean much from scripture about Isaac passing down the faith of Abraham to his sons, so it sort of feels like Jacob didn’t stand a chance. And now we find Jacob on the run from his brother, without his partner in crime Rebekah. It is not much of a surprise that Jacob didn’t seem to see the world as a place where grace existed and the divine could be encountered. He saw the world as a place to be gleaned, a place where in order to survive, you have to take what you could. Jacob was disenchanted. If someone had told Jacob, “God loves you and is at work in your life and there is grace all around you,” he likely would have said, “yeah right, prove it,” with the same cynicism that you and I hear from nonbelievers all the time.
But God will not be stopped limited by human logic or disenchantment. God will make himself known. Walter Bruggeman, using language that WE can understand explains that “the gospel moves to Jacob in a time when his guard is down. The dream permits the news.” God comes to tell Jacob that He is with him, and will bless him, and that he is part of the covenant. And to our surprise, Jacob the con man is receptive! This narrative raises the same question that my young parishioner had about the nature of an encounter with God. While 21st century America might call such an encounter primitive or a psychological trick, this scripture insists that the world is a place for such meetings, though they may be inexplicable in their very nature and intention. While our earthly kingdoms search for a way to make sense of the world, Bruggeman says that for those of us willing to be enchanted, when we ask, “Is there a coming of a God who transforms human reality? Jacob, his dream, the ladder, the angels, this whole story answers emphatically yes.” This is the best news of all and it comes in the Old Testament. Before Jesus tells us that He is with us always, God says it first to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But lest we get too caught up in thinking that this story is only about how we should all drop our disenchanted cynicism and start preparing to meet God in the produce aisle, we should probably talk about the grace that is present here. I had several conversations with you all last week about how hard it is to love Jacob. As a character in the narrative, he is not very likable, and it is frustrating that the Promise gets passed down through him, instead of someone nice, someone who we think deserves it. It is often easier to write Jacob off than to look for how God is revealed through him. We could replace Jacob in that sentence with any number of things: children, democrats, republicans, immigrants, criminals, the people who sat in your pew last week, etc. But just like Jesus came to save everyone on the planet, even the people we hate, even the people who have wronged us, even the people who hate Jesus, God is willing and determined to have an encounter with everyone, especially disenchanted. That’s God’s grace. About this story of Jacob and his dream, Frederick Buechner says we’re reminded that “God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who God is.” That’s God’s grace. The same grace that has blessed my young parishioner in her curious faith, the same grace that enchants our whole world, and makes it a place where we can encounter God face to face, it whatever form that encounter takes. The same grace that lets us hold fast to the conviction that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is there.
Artwork: Jacob’s Dream (1639) by Jose de Ribera at Museo del Prado, Madrid