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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 28:10-19a

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.  We are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.”[1]

This old hymn that we just sang was originated by slaves during the Civil War in which they described a different kind of soldier.  Like our days, it was a time of political turmoil about human rights and shared humanity.  It was a time in which the interpretation of one’s faith had everything to do with how one behaved and persevered.

“Every round goes higher and higher and higher soldiers of the cross.”

Political activist and distinguished professor, Bernice Johnson Reagon, who is also the founder and guiding force behind the group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, sang a beautiful rendition of it in Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War said this:  “This African-American spiritual has become widely known for its use as a gospel hymn and popular song of worship…Its beautiful melody is exquisitely captured in this acapella rendition: a format that is true to its roots as a song sung by slaves during the long hours of labor.  I find this piece, she says, extremely powerful and moving:  the lyrics reflect the spiritual reverence for God and the hope for salvation, freedom, and happiness that imbues the song with an energy that permeates through the entire piece, ultimately culminating in a melancholy yet faithful climax.  The refrain of ‘soldier of the cross’ is a reminder of both the devotion to God and the devotion to fight for freedom that is at the heart of many African American spirituals[2]

In her version, she includes verses that are not in our hymnbook but I think were surely akin to their original context:

“Keep on climbing we will surely make it; keep on climbing – we will surely make it; keep on climbing we will surely make it – soldiers of the cross

Children, tell me, do you want your freedom?  Children, tell me, do you want your freedom? Soldiers of the cross.”

There are times, my friends, when the spoken word is not possible and we need a song in our heart.  We need a melody; a tune that we can whisper beneath our breath if we have to.  A song that warms the spirit and reminds us of who we are and what we are all about despite the trials and tribulations that we might be facing.

This hymn that many of us might have first sung as little children in Sunday School began in the ancient passage that Rebecca just read where we find the patriarch: Jacob.   Jacob, the son of Isaac,  grandson of Abraham,, twin brother of Esau, favored of his mother Rebekah.

Jacob, who from the moment he was thrust through the birth canal appeared marred with trickery and deception.  He was a thief and a liar, a rogue, a scoundrel, a schemer, a plotter, a striver; a by-any-means necessary kind of guy.

My guess is that most of us would not have liked Jacob very much.  We would not have wanted him to be part of our group or even our church.  We certainly would not have wanted him to be part of our family.  You know how we are with the Jacobs in our family  and on our jobs.  Except of course if the circumstance was just right, we might actually be persuaded to be a little bit like Jacob ourselves, right?  From time to time.   If we had to in a pinch.

He stole his brother’s birthright.   When his old, sick, and blind father was about to pass on the family blessing, it was Jacob who went into concert with his mother, and pretended to be the elder son and heir.  A diabolical plot is described in which Jacob put on animal skin and prepared a savory meal – all the things that Esau would have done and tricked his old, blind, sick daddy into giving him the birthright that should have belonged to Esau. We don’t know whether these stories are true or happened exactly as recorded but they certainly do seem real enough, don’t they?   Family drama of the highest sort.

And so of course, Esau becomes furious.  He is livid threatening to kill his brother; twin brother.  It was a family mess; it was a family mess: one brother willing to ready to kill the other.  Mama and daddy at odds picking favorites.  And Rebekah, torn between the son she favors most and the son who is entitled, sends Jacob away to live with her brother Laban.

The drama unfolds.   Jealousy, parental favorites, lying, stealing, cheating.   Years pass.  People aren’t talking.  Babies born; people die.  Life happens and finally we come to our lesson for today.

Jacob is on his way to Haran the place where God had told his grandfather Abraham years before to get up and leave.  It was an ordinary night. He is tired and alone.  Afraid.  It’s a dark night of the soul and of reality.  He is a man on the run; conflicted; the past is haunting and the future is complicated.  He has been running for his life but also running away from his life.   Running from Esau – yes but also running from the true promise who he really was.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s commentary on this text says that Jacob “is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry.  He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”[3]

Until this night.  Until this ordinary night in an ordinary place where he just decided to stop by chance.  Perhaps.  Hot and tired; and bothered; sick and tired of being sick and tired.  Alone, hungry and thirsty, and worn out,  Jacob settles himself down and places a rock for his pillow.  And he falls into sleep; that kind of sleep where dreams are formed.

Have you ever had weird dreams that you just could not get out of your head; left you hanging for days all muddled up trying to figure them out?  Those dreams that left you wondering what it all meant and where do you go from here.

Jacob had one of those dreams and there was a ladder or a structure set up on earth reaching all the way into heaven.  And there were angels – heavenly beings – coming and going and God stood beside Jacob and began talking to him.

And it seems to me that this was the perfect time for God to confront Jacob for all his wrongdoing.  This is the moment while Jacob is tired and worn out; so vulnerable and afraid that God would have ripped him apart; shakened him to his core; commanded him to straighten up and fly right or else.

But that’s not what the Scriptures tells us happened.  That’s not what it says at all.  The Scriptures tell us that in the dream God said: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; 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…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[4]

My friends, this is the third generation promise.  The third generation to whom God has made this promise of blessing and presence.  And down through 42 generations God held onto that promise – regardless of what any of the players did or did not do.  God held onto the promise and a child was born in Bethlehem who would be the Savior of the world.  And you and I are still part of the promise.  This makes clear to me that the blessings of God are not predicated on what we do – you and me – though we want to do good because God is good and good is God’s way for all people.  So we endeavor to do good because it pleases our God.  But the promises of God are not predicated on our good deeds – but on who we are as God’s beloved.

And Jacob arose from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”[5]

How often are we guilty of being in the presence of God; being truly blessed; being in the presence of something or someone – just plopped down in our midst for us – and we didn’t even have the wherewithal to recognize it?  We didn’t know; we could not appreciate it for the gift it was.  God was with us but we couldn’t see, couldn’t grasp; couldn’t experience?   That thin line where heaven and earth meet together.

I think that’s what the slaves were hoping for and singing about: that thin line of hope beyond hope.  That somehow if by-chance, what they had been heard in Scriptures though their experience was a different story – could somehow if it was really true – have some relevance for their own lives.   That the thin line of promise of God’s presence might actually be for them as well.

The psalmist speaks of it this way:

“You search me and you know me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you know my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue you know it completely….

If I ascend to heaven, you are there.  If I make my bed in hell, you are there

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea

Even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me becomes like the night, even the darkness is not dark to you O God.  The night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you.”[6]

I think those original singers were seeking to confirm that despite their pitiable state, there was a place within themselves that could not be chained or beaten or killed; that they would rise up and escape out of it somehow.  And they were longing for a better day for their children; grandchildren; great grandchildren; great great grandchildren; great great great grandchildren just like thousands of others throughout time.

How about you?  Is this your song?  Does that stir your heart?  “Keep on climbing we will surely make it; keep on climbing we will surely make it.  Keep on climbing we will surely make it soldiers of the cross.”

 

[1] We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, United Methodist Hymnal #418; Words: Afro-American Spiritual (Gen. 28:10-17)

[2] http://georgetownradio.com/song-of-the-day-we-are-climbing-jacobs-ladder-bernice-johnson-reagon

[3] http:///www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-20-2014.html  Dreaming the Truth, Gospel Medicine.  (Sermon Seeds  Reflection by Kathryn Matthews Huey)

[4] Genesis 28:13a-15

[5] Genesis 28:16b

[6] Psalm 139:1-4; 8-12