Date: July 7, 2019
Scripture Lesson:Genesis 28:10-22
Sermon: “Truly, Our God is in this place”
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
When we think of the image of a ladder, the first thing that may come to mind is the corporate ladder. This is a common concept. Climbing the corporate ladder. Making your way up, rung by rung, from a lowly job at the bottom to a more prestigious job up the ladder. Going up the corporate ladder involves working hard, it involves increasing responsibility, it involves increasing prestige and respect, and, perhaps most importantly to some, it involves making more money. Many people devote their lives to climbing this kind of ladder in their work life.
This common image of the corporate ladder is usually thought of as a one way climb – up. People don’t try to go down the corporate ladder, seeking an easier, lower paying, less important job. The corporate ladder is about going up, up, and away.
But of course, you can go up and DOWN a real ladder. Both directions, up and down, are very important to Ed Viesturs, one of the premier mountain climbers alive today. Viesturs embarked on a goal which he labeled Endeavor 8000. His goal was to climb all of the mountains in the world that are over 8000 meters high. There are 14 of them with Mount Everest being the highest. It took Viesturs 18 years achieve his goal. He is the only American to have done so. And he is one of only 5 people to summit all of the 8,000ers without using supplemental oxygen. Viesturs has made 30 expeditions to the high peaks and summited 21 times. He has summited Everest 7 times.
Viesturs’ success at mountaineering is based on getting up AND down the mountain. This is his cardinal rule in the big mountains: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” [Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks, p. 168] Many times he has seen people so fixated on getting to the top that they don’t give adequate consideration to the descent which can easily result in death as it did for 8 people descending Mount Everest in May 1996. Viesturs stays focussed on getting up AND down the mountain. Both directions. Not just getting to the top. He keeps the whole picture in mind.
This morning we listened to a part of the story of Jacob. In the verses we heard, Jacob is running away from home after cheating his brother out of his birthright by deceiving their father. And he has done this with the help of their mother. So, Jacob is in trouble. He is fleeing the scene. He is spending the night outside, alone, under the stars, with a rock for a pillow. Pretty dismal. And we’re told that he has a dream that involves a ladder. The implication is that this ladder goes from earth up to heaven. And what is happening on this ladder? Is Jacob or someone else going up the ladder? Is there traffic going down the ladder? Interesting, we are told: “. . . there was a ladder, standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and messengers of God were going up and coming down the ladder.” [Gen. 28:12] That is all that we are told about the ladder. There is a vision of a ladder and divine messengers are going up and down. I think the up AND down is significant. It’s interesting that this ladder is bi-directional. It is not just about going up to heaven. And it is not just about God’s messengers coming down to communicate with the earthly realm. We are told that the divine messengers are going both ways. The ladder forms a link bringing together the earthly and the heavenly realms. There is ongoing connection and traffic between the two areas. Heaven and earth are interconnected with back and forth communication and involvement. In this vision heaven, or the realm of God, is not some distant, isolated place. It’s not a destination to which you can only get a one way ticket after you die. The ladder gives us an image of ongoing connection.
It’s easy to see why several beautiful outdoor hikes have sections referred to as Jacob’s Ladder. These areas often involve going up high, sometimes on a steep staircase, and enjoying beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. Heaven on earth in nature. And, of course, we know from hiking, when you go up, you must also go down!
But we are given only that one little line about the ladder. There is no involvement between Jacob and the messengers on the ladder. Jacob does not mount the ladder. The messengers from the ladder do not speak or sing or offer any message in this story. It’s almost like it’s a comment about the background, the setting, the reality. But this one little verse with this simple image has gotten a lot of attention through the ages. There are movies, horror flicks, titled Jacob’s Ladder. There are songs and music about Jacob’s ladder. We’ll sing one today. There is a quilt pattern and a crochet stitch called Jacob’s ladder. There is a piece of exercise equipment referred to as Jacob’s ladder. There is a plant called Jacob’s ladder. Jacob’s ladder is used to refer to rays of the sun beaming down through a cloud formation. There are many artistic portrayals of Jacob’s ladder – some with figures going up and down, some with figures only going up, and some with no figures at all. There’s a cat’s cradle string formation called Jacob’s ladder. And there is toy called Jacob’s ladder. [Take out the toy and pass it around.]
But for all of the attention given to the image of Jacob’s ladder, what we notice in the story is that the important part really has nothing to do with the ladder. The core of the story is the appearance of God speaking directly to Jacob in the dream. No messengers involved. God directly talks to Jacob. And God has a very important message. God has made promises to Jacob’s ancestors that they would become a great people. And God confirms these promises to Jacob. Jacob will be part of fulfilling these intentions. Even though Jacob has done something very bad, God’s intentions to create a great people and give them a land are going forward and Jacob will be part of making that happen.
Basically God is saying, I am keeping my promises and there is nothing you can do about it. Jacob cheating his brother and deceiving his father is not going to get in the way of God’s plans. So even though Jacob is a low life, God is going to do great things through him.
And what Jacob recognizes is that God is in this place. He can’t get away from God. He can’t escape God’s plans for him. His bad behavior will not separate him from God’s presence. God is. And God is God. And God is ever present. And God is love. And God is good. And God is steadfast. God has life at heart. And we can’t change that. God is here for us whether we see it or not.
In this story, we see that there is no climbing the ladder to be good enough, to get high enough, to experience God’s presence. There is no climbing the ladder to prove we are worthy of God’s attentions. There is nothing here about our having to be moral and upstanding and selfless to be part of God’s reality. This story tells us about the connection between the divine and human, heaven and earth. There is this connection no matter who we are or what we have or have not done. We are still incorporated into God’s reality.
We see this perspective in the life and ministry of Jesus. There are stories of Jesus encountering all kinds of people from every sector of life. He doesn’t come just to help one group, or people who are good, or people who have the right religious beliefs. There is no test involved for those engaged with Jesus. No ladder to climb to be worthy of Jesus’ attention. Jesus is known for telling people, the realm of God is here, among you, within you. Jesus is showing people that God is everywhere, present, right here, right now, always. Inside us. Among us. And certainly in nature. We don’t have to go anywhere to find God. And we certainly don’t have to climb some kind of ladder of goodness to prove ourselves to God. God is always present. And in God, we are accepted as we are. Period.
God, in the many ways we may conceive of God, is connecting us to each other, to the natural world, to eternity, to Divinity. The transcendent and the earthly are linked. Heaven and earth woven together. The spiritual and the material blended. Life is a spiritual journey and Divine Love is our companion on that journey. There is no where we can go to separate ourselves from that Love.
In the story we heard today, Jacob takes the stone that he used for a pillow and sets it in the ground as a monument marking the place and calling it Beth-El which means the ‘house of God.’ This then became an important place of worship. But the story reminds us that every place is sacred and holy. God is everywhere. There are open borders between the human and the Divine. And religion, with its sanctuaries, its rituals, its holy writings, and spiritual practices is about reminding us continually that we live within Love, and all of life and Creation is sacred, including each one of us. That is what is real and to be remembered. This is the house of God. We are the house of God. The cosmos is the house of God. Truly God is in this place and every place. Amen.
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