SERMON PREACHED BY
THE RIGHT REVEREND ROBERT THOMPSON
BISHOP OF KINGSTON, JAMAICA
ST. MICHAEL & ALL SAINTS
28 SEPTEMBER 2008
AT CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
 
 
GENESIS: 28; 16b

"Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!"

The story of Jacob is a story about us, about our fears and anxieties and the renewal and affirmation that comes about, once we discover God's commitment to us. Jacob leaves the family home in Beer-Sheba after he skillfully and maliciously maneuvered his older brother Esau out of the birthright and the blessing that were rightfully his. Jacob did this with the full knowledge and encouragement of his mother, Rebecca. Isaac gave Jacob, and not Esau, his irrevocable blessing. Esau was understandably angry and sought revenge by threatening to murder his brother. Jacob then fled into the hills for fear of his life. Fear can so overwhelm us that not even God is allowed to break in with a word of assurance and hope. That is what happened to Jacob, until of course he realized that he is not alone. That he is in fact preceded by a God who summons faith, hope and trust. The remarkable thing is that when Jacob discovered that he is not alone, that he is not an independent and autonomous soul, that his life is very much interconnected with the Other, his fear began to subside and he could therefore acknowledge God.


SOMETIMES WE ENCOUNTER GOD AT UNLIKELY TIMES IN OUR LIVES AND AT UNLIKELY PLACES.
 
This is the first thing we need to say about the text. It was while Jacob was trying to escape from his brother's wrath that he encountered God. Jacob "came to a certain place and stayed there for the night." He was a fugitive running away. He was uncertain what would happen next. He found a stone and used it for a pillow. He was so afraid and uncomfortable camping outside, that he found other rocks and built a wall to protect himself.
 
With all these thoughts running through his mind he fell asleep under the stars. One would think that he had so many things on his mind that sleep would be far from his eyes. But not Jacob. At that unexpected time and in that unexpected place God broke into Jacob's world in a dream. Jacob dreamed that he saw a ladder extending all the way from earth to heaven with angels going up and down the ladder. While the angels were doing this the Lord God stood beside Jacob and spoke to him. "The land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring." Suddenly the solitary Jacob; the Jacob whose greed and selfishness led to his refugee status is being affirmed as a leader within the community.
 
In truth, Jacob wasn't really looking for all of this. He had given up on himself, because he felt God had given up on him. But God's ways are not our ways, God was actively seeking Jacob, but Jacob couldn't know this. Fear had clouded his vision and any memory he had of God. However, from God's standpoint, Jacob is chosen to be a servant leader of God's people, and so in his dream he heard God saying; "I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it. " Jacob learned a very valuable lesson that day. While he could hide from his brother, he could not hide from God.
"How awesome is this place!" Jacob exclaimed. "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

The Second thing we learn from Jacob's experience is that after you encounter God, whether in a dream like Jacob; after some dramatic episode or in the still small voice of our early morning devotions; our response will always be the same. That is, to worship God. In other words, faith has to be ritualized. "Jacob took the stone he used for a pillow and poured oil on it, making an altar out of it. The place where Jacob spent the night was a special place because there he encountered God. That is why we are here in the awesome place resting on decades of daily prayer and Eucharistic worship, because somewhere along our journey God has revealed Himself to us. Now we come to His house to affirm the relationship which He so graciously initiated. There is no other fitting response. Sometimes, though, it's not easy to express what we really feel. A young man recently told me of the awesome experience he had at living and worshiping with Christians during a renewal weekend. For the last ten years he had lived without any conscious awareness of God in his life. Like so many people the tendency is to hold back on Sunday mornings because there are more important things they could be doing, other than spending an hour or two in Church.

Generally speaking, our world today has become very cynical about ritualized worship. They want religion without having to get out of bed Sunday after Sunday to ritualize it. Kirk Hadaway in his book, Transforming Communities of Faith, reminds us that; "The purpose of worship is to come together as God's people, as the body of Christ, and be what we already are in praise of God's glory and celebration of what God has done". In other words what worship does is to remind us of who we are, "The beloved of God", thereby seeing the world as God sees it - recognizing and realizing the Realm of God in our midst. Jacob's experience at Bethel served very much the same purpose. It created for him an alternate script for living when the old script of fear had become life denying. This is what we pray and hope the liturgy will do for each one of us.

Attracting people to a lively worship experience and offering them bible-based tips about how to live more fully will not result in lasting change. In order to act differently, people must be changed fully, and this is a matter of transformation rather than the accumulation of information. People we are told are only transformed when their settled worlds are exploded and they participate bodily in experiences that place them inside a different reality. That is what I believed happened to Jacob. The experience he had at Bethel disrupted his old way of seeing and thus ushered him into a new way of being.
 
In the middle of nowhere Jacob had an "Hallelujah" experience, an encounter with the living God. "The Lord is in this place and I didn't know it". When we are overcome by our fear of the future, nothing, not even God can be trusted. Until of course God himself breaks through our defenses. When this happened to Jacob, his only response, the only fitting response at that moment of encounter, was to worship his Creator; which leads me to make one final thought on the text.

JACOB 'S ENCOUNTER WITH GOD REMINDS US THAT GOD USES US DISPITE OURSELVES.

Jacob was a trickster who deceived his father; he was what we would call in Jamaica a 'con-artist' who cheated Esau out of what was lawfully his. But God still loved Jacob and had a plan for him. The promise to Abraham, expressed in Genesis Chapter 12, is renewed and vested in Jacob. "All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring"(v.14). It is impossible to understand the mind of God. Here we have a situation where the very person who contrived to gain an underserved birthright and blessing is now being affirmed as the one through whom the entire human family will receive a blessing! And yet this is no accident. It is rather the stated intention of God who accompanies the fugitive even when the fugitive tries to hide from his company. Jacob was by most definitions a crook, but by God's grace, this defrauder was heading for a transformation. In fact, one day even his name would be different. He would be called Israel.. And his offspring would bless the world.

This turning point in Jacob's life becomes a moment of renewal and hope for all God's people. For his part, Jacob never renounces his crafty ways. In Chapter 30:37-43, we read how Jacob tried the same kind of trickery and skullduggery on his father in law as he did to his own father. But despite this fact, despite the fact that Jacob is not entirely changed, neither was he the same old Jacob. His own struggle with God resulting in his name change to Israel (32:28) signifies a deeper, more profound transformation of his values. The Bethel experience meant that he never again lived apart from God's claim on his life, and he would later demand the same devotion to God from his family.

Jacob's experience is a moment of renewal and hope as it has much to teach us about how not be too quick to write off others, simply because they do not conform to our given code of behavior. This is the great challenge for every Christian community who on the one hand must preserve the universal truth of the Gospel, and what this means for a disciplined life in Christ, while at the same time listening to the changing voices of our social and cultural context. This is precisely the challenge facing the Anglican Communion today and the reason for its present tension.

Anglicanism is not a tradition that has operated through sharp distinctions - this versus that, those who are in versus those who are out, us versus them. That is how sectarian religion defines itself in an attempt to control the world today. Acknowledging difference has always been a defining mark of Anglicanism. Scriptures, creeds and historic formularies, together with the ordered sacramental life of worship and prayer provide the magnet that continually draws us toward the center.
 
Anglican spirituality is rooted in the Incarnation. The idea that God is found not only in what we set aside as sacred, but in all things, even in the painful and tragic things of life. And once we are able to acknowledge that Jesus Christ stands with us amidst all the contradictions, with the one hope of reconciling them to himself, we can live with the ambiguity of difference. If this sounds like a strange and dangerous path on which to travel, I regret I have no better news for you this morning. It is the path which God places before us, and especially so as Anglicans, and it is for the sake of our Common life together and our world that we make that journey.
 
This is no shallow or casual approach to Christian faith. How could we think so when we reflect on the life and witness of faithful Anglicans past and present; ordained and lay; persons whose lives are characterized by radical holiness, uncompromising dedication to prayer and Bible study, and a tenacious pursuit of the truth as they wrestled with the issues of their day. I am sure there is nothing casual about the men and women who lit the fire of hope in the past and on whose foundation you now build. There is nothing casual about the tenacity and faith that is sustaining your great courage at this time.
 
We are a sacramental community, living out our faith in continuity with the Anglican Tradition, conscious of being part of the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church that is united with Christ, "the vehicle of his mission in the world". A spirituality that is sacramentally rooted can neither be world-denying, nor can it be reduced to some private relationship with God. Rather, it calls us to be transformed into the life of the Divine so that in turn the life of the world might itself be transformed.
 
If God was able to use Jacob to work out His purposes, then certainly God is able to use each one of you. The good news is that God has good things in store for us even when we have done things of which we are not proud. God can turn our lives around and use us in ways we never would have imagined.
 
Jacob remained a sinner, but God was still able to use him in positive ways. Jacob's dream affirms to us that God is able to turn anyone's life around for the good no matter what skeletons might be hanging in their closet. In the life of Jacob we see a glimpse of God's grace at work.
 
It is often at unlikely times and places that we meet God. After such encounters our natural response is to worship and praise Him. Through such an experience we discover God's amazing grace. But that's not all. Once that discovery is made God is ready to send us from our cocoon of fearful anxiety to bring into being a world transformed by love and hope.
 
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