170723 – Ladders and Circles

Yr A ~ Pentecost 7 ~ Genesis 28:10-19a

The gospel lesson this morning was one of the Kingdom parables.  The kingdom of God is like a seed, a sower, a woman with a lamp and many others.  This morning the reading was to be about the parable of the wheat and the tares.  It is not an easy one to re-vision and I decided to let Larry explain it to us when it comes up in the lectionary in three year’s time.

So, I have chosen to look at the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures.Picture1

You may know the story well.  Jacob has just stolen his brother’s birthright.  The first born son received a double portion of the wealth of the father as well as Judicial rights that he might have held, which meant he filled a priestly role and was the leader of the tribe.   Esau, gave it all away for a bowl of stew.  But Jacob went further and through deceit also stole the blessing that was given to the first born son.   He robbed his brother of treasured gifts from their dying father.

Now I am not letting Esau off freely.   He sold this treasured inheritance for a hot meal.  He could not have placed great value on it until it was gone.

As the story opens Jacob is settling down for the night.  He must be exhausted from his flight, for remember Esau is the hunter in the family, if he is tracking Jacob, Jacob has a right to be terrified of him.  So as the dark settles in, this tired, frightened man lays down to sleep, his pillow, a rock.  He only partly grasps that he is a wanted man.  He knows he is wanted by Esau, but he is also wanted by God.

He had years to listen for God’s voice, to look for God in the everyday places of his life, but he didn’t pay attention until he was in a hopeless situation.

Sometimes we might be like Jacob.  We rest in our comfy, cozy beds and don’t get it until we are lying on a cold hard hospital stretcher in a hallway in pain and frightened.

Jacob was on a journey from Beersheba to Haran is over 300 miles, he has come about 85. He has been on the road for a week or more.   When he decided to re-locate  to where he hoped he wouldn’t be followed, he was serious.  Haran was where extended family lived and he hoped he would find safety there.  But this night he is nowhere, he is at an in-between place.  He has left the familiar and is heading for the unknown.

Isn’t that life?  There are times when we all want to stay in our comfortable chairs, or pews, or homes and situations.  But the world changes, society changes, the rules and norms change and we adjust or become curmudgeons, antiques, museum pieces.   At times I feel that there are only in-between times…we are always on the move.  And as I read our sacred stories,  that is the God I see.  One who calls us to new adventures, kicking and screaming sometimes, but I hope trusting and anticipating more often.

So here is Jacob on his stone pillow, lying on the ground, and he has a dream or a vision.  A ladder, or more correctly translated a staircase between heaven and earth, angels are going up and down and God is at the top.

God speaks and makes wonderful promises to Jacob.  He gives him the ground on which he lies, a place to call home,  He promises a great family who will be a blessing to all who follow after, and God promises to stay with Jacob, to protect him, and to bring him safely back to this land.

Jacob wakes up and realizes that God is in that place.  Sound familiar?  God is in this place, help me notice.  Filled with awe, gratitude and hope, he stands his pillow up, pours oil over it and names the place Bethel.  Beth-house, El-God.  The house of God.

The ladder Jacob saw made him aware of God’s presence, he was not alone in his fear and misery.  The Holy was present in that place.

Picture2This dream ladder for us can represent our connection with the holy, the divine, the awesome mystery we call God.  The wonder, the miracle is not that,  God shows up and breaks into our lives,  it is that once in a while, we see it, recognize it and own it for ourselves.

I’m going to take a different understanding of this story at this point.

For many years this story has been interpreted to mean that connecting with God means a difficult climb.  That is the interpretation in the song,  We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, and it has seeped deeply into our theology.  .  God is at the top of this great ladder and we must ever struggle upward to reach God.  It is hard work and uphill all the way.  We earn God’s favour by what we do, by our good works.  And we can lose God’s favour when we mess up.  There are many verses in the bible that can be quoted to back up this theology, but for me it is  “fake news.”

Many years ago I read a book written by Matthew Fox.  In it he takes on this theology and turns it on his head.  He is in good company for Jesus took many of the things that people knew and understood and turned them upside down in his teaching.

As I read the book this is what I came to understand.

Ladder theology is a very limiting and almost oppressive way to approach our spiritual journeys.

Think about it.  A ladder allows only one person on each rung at any one moment and a finite number can get onto the same ladder. If you envision many ladders then we are separated, divided and apart.  It often becomes a race to get ahead of each other.  People on ladders would step on each other as they tried to best the other person.  There can be no eye contact as one is always looking at the prize.  One can’t even let go to hold a fellow climbers hand, never mind sharing a hug.

Think of the phrases that come to mind,  bottom and top of the ladder, low man on the ladder, corporate ladder, social ladder. If I suggested a Christian ladder  would you want to add it to that list?

Ladder theology is not congruent for me with the teachings or life of Jesus.

Instead Fox suggests we think in terms of Sarah’s circle.  I think he chose Sarah as she is called A Mother in Israel.  She is also Jacob’s grandmother.  Not that she was any less flawed than her grandson or than you or I, but a woman of courage and hope and faithful in her life.

So what about circles.  There is no limit to the size of a circle, always room for more.   Circles can be as small as two or as large as one needs.  There is no hierarchy in a circle, no head, no foot.  We stand side by side, holding hands, or linking arms, and we look each other in the eye, sharing tears or smiles.  Fox suggests we don’t struggle in the circle we dance as we celebrate God’s presence.  And where is God?  In the centre.  No one is nearer to God than any other.  How intimately one knows God is up to each one.

When I think of its usage, the first term that comes to mind is the family circle.  Then circle of friends and third the circle of fifths.  That’s a musical one.  Yes there are negative uses as well, but we use it in positive ways most often I think.  I think almost at once of our hymn, Draw the Circle Wide…and the line in it   God the still point of the circle….the centre….

I have no idea what you will take from these words.  But I ask you to think about how you would describe the kingdom.  One of Jesus images,   ladder, a circle or something that has meaning to you.  As you think about God’s presence this coming week, ponder also the meaning of God’s kingdom for you.

 – Sermon by Betty Turcott