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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 16 - Proper 11 - Year A
Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 139:1-12,23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
"Grace"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

Ordinary 16 - Year A
Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 139:1-12,23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
"Grace"

    Then Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.  He came to a 
    certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun 
    had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under 
    his head and lay down in that place.  And he dreamed that there 
    was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to 
    heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on 
    it.

In the hit TV series and movie The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble is a man 
on the run from the law. Wrongfully accused and then found guilty of his 
wife's brutal murder, he escapes his own death-sentence by miraculously 
surviving a terrible accident and then by managing to elude a relentless 
police detective.  He is a man for whom we cannot help but feel sympathy 
and compassion; and his simple honesty and goodness elicit the same kind 
of response from just about every stranger he happens to meet.

There is something about the underdog, the decent person who has been 
dealt a bad hand by life with which just about any of us can immediately 
identify.  We can't help pulling for this guy to make it in the end 
because we want to believe that somehow, somewhere goodness is on our 
side.  That justice will prevail.  That right will win out.  That God will 
not forget about us.

                                   +

The Bible's version of how all this plays out is the story of Jacob; and 
it is as different from any Hollywood story of how goodness prevails as 
night is from day.

Jacob is a fugitive in this week's text but not the kind of fugitive for 
which anybody feels an iota of sympathy.  He is a man on the run not 
because of what others have done unjustly to him but because of the nasty 
things he has done to them.  He is also a momma's boy who owes his life to 
his mother twice: the day she brought him into the world alongside his 
twin-brother Esau and the day she saved him from being strung up by Esau.

Jacob is a died-in-the-wool crook and his seamy adventures throughout the 
twenty-fifth to thirty-sixth chapter of the book of Genesis tell like a 
long-running soap opera if it weren't for one thing: Jacob survives by 
being cunning all right, but also because he never seems to get what he 
deserves.  Jacob always gets more.  He cheats his lame-brained brother out 
of his birthright and gets away with it.  Then years later, he cheats him 
again, this time out of the blessing that was rightfully coming to Esau, 
and he gets away with that too.  He not only gets away with it; once his 
crime is known, both Rebekah and Isaac cover up for him.  When Rebekah 
discovers that Esau is ready to slit his brother's throat for what he has 
done, she makes up a lame excuse to her husband  that it would be a bad 
idea for Jacob to marry a foreign girl now that he is heir to the family 
blessing.  It is just what Isaac needs to tell Jacob to take a hike back 
to the ancestral homeland while Esau cools his heels.
 
That's where this week's story starts. Jacob is on the lam between a place 
where he is no longer welcome and a place where he has never been.  He's 
guilty, defenseless and scared; and he hasn't got a friend in the world. 
He finds himself out in the hill country north of Beer-sheba.  Worn-out 
and strung-out, he lies down under the night sky with nothing but a stone 
for a pillow.  It is what happens next that Hollywood would never have 
written.

Jacob dreams a dream.  Now, sophisticated people like you and me know that 
dreams are what come back to haunt you during the night - like that left-
over pizza you shouldn't have eaten or that tax deduction you should have 
reported.  We toss and turn at night, often because that is the time we 
come face to face with the things we have been running from all that day, 
or all of our lives.  With his defenses down, and his unconscious running 
the show, you would expect that Jacob would have slept the sleep of the 
guilty, complete with nightmarish visions of the father he had deceived 
and the brother he had betrayed.  Getting what he deserved, right?  Think 
again.

For the story says Jacob dreamed a dream that nearly brings tears to the 
eyes with its unexpected beauty and wonder.  Jacob dreams a dream of a 
stone stairway set up on the earth and reaching all the way up into 
heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending on this ramp; and there, 
right beside him, is the Lord God himself, speaking to Jacob, not words of 
reproach and accusation, but of great comfort and blessing:

    "...the land on which you lie I will give to you and your 
    offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the 
    earth... and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in 
    you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep 
    you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I 
    will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." 
    - Genesis 28.13-15

Now, let's not get sidetracked by this.  You know, off on some tangent 
about the mystical kind of experiences one can have at the most 
unforeseeable times or the nature of dreams and their place in the 
spiritual life; because that is not the point.  The point, as always, is 
what God says in the dream to the people who dream it; and here what the 
dream says, quite pointedly, is that God is going to give Jacob, the 
biggest crook in 'them-thar' parts, absolutely everything he could ever 
want or need: more land, family, power and honour than he could ever 
imagine.  It was more than Jacob ever dreamed of trying to get.  More than 
his own father could have given him. More than God had ever promised 
anyone; because he even reassures Jacob by saying that he will stick with 
him until every last part of the promise is kept.

It was, to say the least, quite a promise, quite a blessing and quite a 
dream.  One would have expected God to have had something a little more 
just in mind for the little cheat, a taste of divine wrath, perhaps, a 
dose of Jacob's own medicine for a change, some good-old 'chewing-you-out' 
words, for starters.  But this unbelievably beautiful dream was what Jacob 
got, not to mention the God who went with it.  It would take a while for 
everything to play itself out and for Jacob to become the great father of 
Israel just as he had been promised; but it didn't take long for Jacob to
realize what had happened, and to make the most of it.  Upon awakening, he 
built a monument in honour of the place, called it Beth-el, 'house of 
God', and then made a vow to God, just to show him that he hadn't lost his 
touch:

    "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, 
    and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I 
    come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be 
    my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall 
    be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give 
    one tenth  to you." - Genesis 28.20-22

Jacob responds to God's completely unconditional promise of blessing and 
protection with a completely conditional promise of his own.  "IF you will 
give me the land, food, clothing and protection, THEN I will be your man." 
In response to this incredible blessing of God, all Jacob can think of 
saying is, "SHOW ME THE MONEY!"  I mean, can you believe this guy!  God, 
out of the unbelievable goodness of his heart, gives Jacob holy heaven 
instead of holy hell, and Jacob, demonstrating that he hasn't learned a 
blessed thing, says in response, "Prove it to me!"

Still looking for some kind of easy moral in this story?  It's time to 
forget it.  There just isn't one.

                                   +

What there is, instead, is the remarkable tale of the God who insisted on 
sticking with the likes of people like Jacob and his brood down through 
all the dark days their lives would take them and all the crooked paths 
they would insist on taking to get wherever they got

And did any one of them ever realize just what it all meant?  Did Jacob 
himself, for instance, ever "come to his senses" and finally express 
remorse for having "done" all the people he ever "did"?  Did he ever once 
appreciate the kind of generosity and goodness that he was being shown? 
Enough to mend his ways, have a change of heart? 

The judgment is still out on that one, I suppose, the way it's still out 
on whether people like you and me have ever fully appreciated what that 
strange night visitor has been doing for us, going with us every step of 
the way, and promising never to leave us until it is all ours, too, ever 
since he said he'd do the same for Jacob and his family.

But the message of the Gospel is that that is precisely what God has been 
doing all along, what he did most clearly in Jesus of Nazareth, and has 
been doing ever since for a world, for a church, and for people like you 
and me who, most days, cannot think of much better to say in response 
than, "Show me!"  It is enough to stagger the imagination, let alone break 
the heart.

What did Jacob finally give back in the end to the One who gave him 
everything?  What will you and I give back?  What can we give back?  What 
should we?  One tenth of our lives?  Everything?  Who knows.  The only 
thing that is certain is what the One who meets us at Beth-el always seems 
to do, which is to grant us blessed dreams, precisely when we need them, 
and to give us everything we have never and could never deserve.

It is what the Bible means by grace; because in the Bible it is not 
anything about us that makes God stick with us. It is something about God.

                                   +

Genesis 28:10-19 - The remarkable story of Jacob's dream at Beth-el, house 
of God, on his way to escape the wrath of Esau, resists any attempt to 
find an easy moral.  It is the kind of story that forces us to see the 
disturbingly unconditional nature of grace, the grace that followed Jacob 
and his family and that continues to follow each one of us.  The point of 
the story is not that there are experiences in which God is present to us, 
but that God is present in such a decisive way to one who does not deserve 
it.

1.	 What kind of emotions do you imagine Jacob feeling as he spent the 
night at Beth-el?  Why?
2.	 What is the message in Jacob's dream for you?
3.	 When have you had an experience of love you did not deserve?
4.	 How have you responded to such grace?


Romans 8:12-25 - God has acted towards us with resolute commitment and 
love, says Paul.  As a consequence of that action we have not just been 
treated "like" family, we have been made "part" of God's family, made to 
belong so much that we can now address God the way Jesus taught his 
friends to address God.  However, as a result of that transformation we 
can also expect rejection and suffering in this world, having been made 
aliens in a world which does not understand such love.  God's work is not 
finished.  Creation still waits to see the day when it is revealed that 
all belong to God and that no one is excluded.

1.	 In what ways has your experience of grace set you apart?
2.	 In what sense is your church a community set apart?
3.	 Where is the freedom in being set apart by grace?


Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 - The point of the much disputed passage of the 
wheat and the weeds seems to be that God is far more patient than we would 
be and reflects the insistent message of Jesus: that there is far more 
grace in God than any of us will ever have hearts to receive.  What is 
difficult about Matthew's allegorical interpretation of the problem is 
that there is no suggestion of God's extraordinary patience.  Perhaps 
Matthew was less pleased than Jesus with God's long-suffering and the 
text, as a result, mirrors well the church's continuing discomfort with 
the radical message of Jesus.

1.	 What seems to be the message of the parable (v. 24-30)?
2.	 What seems to be the message of the interpretation (v.36-43)?
3.	 How does your church experience reflect this same dichotomy?


A PERSONAL INVENTORY - List all the things you have managed to "get" for 
yourself by your own intelligence and will.  Then, list all the things 
that have become or are yours through no merit of your own whatsoever. 
Which are more important to you?  Why?


HYMN:  Nearer My God, to Thee  (Voices United 497)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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