So Weird: Meditation for 4th Advent/Christmas Sunday


Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-18

In our house, when I was growing up, the baby Jesus didn’t get placed in the manger until after we got back from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We were strict constructionists—no carols in Advent, and no baby in the cradle ‘till the night he was actually born.

But that was just about the only biblically correct thing about our crèche. Remember the part in the Bible where it says that a large fuzzy spider was crawling along Joseph’s shoulder? No? Well, we had one in our manger scene anyway. And an angel in a tutu and big clown sneakers straddling the roofline of the barn. And a little model Ferrari parked next to the camels. And a big beautiful purple wind-up Godzilla that spit electric sparks on the Virgin Mary’s head. When you have little kids in the house and you’ve put the crèche on a low table, a purple Godzilla’s not the weirdest thing that’s likely to show up to adore the Child.

But then, all the characters in the Christmas story have a touch of weird about them. Take the angel Gabriel. He’s scary. Every time he appear in the Bible, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ You don’t have to say “Don’t be afraid!” if nobody’s scared. Gabriel has to say it all the time. That’s because he scares people. You’d be scared too if a bright pulsating creature with ginormous wings dropped in on you out of the blue. Even if he were to appear as an ordinary person, which angels sometimes do, he’d still be a strange guy you don’t know—in your house.

Then there’s Mary. After Gabriel calms her down (‘Don’t be afraid, Mary!’), he tells her that God’s decided she should have a miraculously conceived baby who will be the son of God and a king with an endless reign… and would that be okay with her? In one of the greatest understatements of the Bible, Mary is said to have been ‘perplexed’ by this. Perplexed? That’s what you are when you’re looking at your electric bill, not when you’re being told about a virginal conception.

Mary also ‘ponders.’ We’re told she meditates on everything that’s happening. While it’s happening. Giving birth in a livestock shed in the dead of winter, she’s pondering. Smelly animals nose around her newborn, she’s pondering. Angels play trumpets overhead, shepherds with garlic breath crowd her personal space, and she ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’ Mary ponders. You and I would be hysterical.

And Joseph. Silent Joseph. He says nothing at all from his first appearance in the biblical record until he disappears altogether, sometime after Jesus turns twelve. Not a syllable. He probably didn’t have time to talk. Angels were always interrupting his sleep. He kept having to load up the donkey at a moment’s notice. Off to Bethlehem. Off to Egypt. Back again. Without a GPS. Maybe he was just too worn out to say anything.

And the shepherds. You want them in your Christmas carols and on your greeting cards, but not in your house. They tramp in all that … manure, tell off-color jokes, and are known to have sticky fingers. You’ll have to count the silver when they leave. You’ll be missing a few forks and the soup spoon.

No, Godzilla isn’t the oddest character in the crèche. They’re all a touch strange. But it’s probably a good thing for us that they are. If Gabriel had been a pudgy-cheeked cherub who never made anybody nervous, we might not have known that it’s good for us to be scared by the Holy every now and then. To tremble before an awesome Lord. We sing about being scared— ‘Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.’ ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand.’ But when was the last time you actually shook in God’s presence, or hid your face before God’s holiness, or begged God to go away and leave you alone, or stood mute before God’s power in the world, in someone else’s life, or in your own? The last time the world suddenly became a lot larger than you thought? Deeper and more mysterious than anybody thought? When your certainties vanished? When you dropped to your knees?

And if Mary hadn’t done so much pondering, we might not have realized just how much there is to ponder in the way our lives unfold. How much mystery is tucked into life’s smallest details. How available God is to us in the facts on the ground, the stuff of being human. If Mary doesn’t ponder everything in her heart, we might never hold some seemingly insignificant experience up to the light, turn it ‘round and ‘round like a prism, and discover there, in every facet of mess and glory, the presence and activity of the living God.

And if Joseph hadn’t been so silent, so retiring, we might not have seen how silly it is always to want to have something clever or wise to say, to interject something about everything, to be the center of attention in every conversation. If he isn’t silent, we might not discover how liberating it is to have no need to comment, no compulsion to be heard, no urge to intrude upon a drama and steal a scene. We might miss a chance to notice how seldom we hold back so there’s room for someone else to be seen and heard, or how much we need to have someone make that space for us.

If Joseph had been a chatterbox, his son Jesus might not have developed that beautiful capacity of his just to let things be. Jesus might not have disappeared to hilltops at night to be still and listen to God, and catch the sounds of human suffering and hope rising from below. Maybe it was the example of Joseph’s silence that kept Jesus from being provoked when, bloody and accused, he stood before Pilate and the crowd. Maybe Joseph’s relinquishment of the need to be somebody enabled his Child to stand before the powers, without uttering a single self-defensive word.

And if it weren’t for the stinky, shifty shepherds, some people might think they have to spiff up to go to the mange and meet God. They might never go at all if they think it requires clean hands, expensive clothes, a spotless conscience. They might miss the chance to know the God who welcomes everybody who comes, even the odd and undesirable. Welcomes everybody and everything who comes for whatever reason, even if it’s to try to steal the silver.

Without shepherds who steal the silver we might never come to love this God who doesn’t seem to mind being taken advantage of. Who would hand over the whole treasure to us in a heartbeat. Who does hand it over to us in the life of a shivering Child. Who never demands a thing in return except that we hand ourselves to each other in mercy, justice, and love.

In my family’s crèche there was a spider crawling all over Joseph, a Ferrari parked next to the camels, an angel in sneakers perched on the roof, and a plastic Godzilla, purple and proud, spitting sparks on Mary’s head. It was a weird scene. But then, so is my life. And so is yours. And so is the world’s.

And, the Story goes, for some unfathomable reason—call it love—God can’t resist joining us in our weirdness. And so, the Story goes, the Word became flesh and lived among us. And because he became all that we are, nothing that we are is out of bounds at his cradle. Not you, not me, not purple plastic Godzilla.

Odd as that is. Strange as it seems.

‘Do This’ [Luke 22:7-23]

dark bread on white

The night of the last supper, all was not well among Jesus’ disciples. Everyone was on edge. They all saw the handwriting on the wall—soldiers and swords, crosses and nails. One of them had already sold Jesus to the authorities. And Peter was boasting he’d be brave and follow Jesus, even if it meant death. Every time he said it, eyes rolled. It was Peter, after all. But they were all off kilter, scared and queasy. None of them felt much like eating.

The Bible says Jesus was aware of their fear, their questions, and their confusion. He loved them all. He knew their hearts were in the right place, but he also knew he’d end up alone. They were so frail.

As was he. He would have given anything to escape what was coming, and in prayer he begged God that it might pass him by. The Bible says fear ran down his face like drops of bloody sweat. He had seen crucifixions. He could imagine his.

The only difference between Jesus and his disciples was that when the time came, he didn’t run. But that doesn’t mean he welcomed his fate. He didn’t feel much like eating either.

But that’s what they did. On the night Jesus was betrayed, they shared a meal. They gathered at the table. Because that’s what they’d always done. A large part of their three years together was spent at tables.

In Jesus’ ministry, the table was where things got real—eating together, they began to understand that God’s love for them was real, no matter who they were or what they’d done. There they were, saint and sinner, rich and poor, all welcome to eat.

The table was where truth got told—Jesus would tell you stories about invited guests who were too important and preoccupied to come to a king’s banquet, so the riff-raff took their places, going into the kingdom ahead of the privileged and the powerful. And so the last are first.

The table was where the principles of Jesus’ movement got spelled out in object lessons of service and humility. Jesus on his knees with a towel around his waist, dragging a bowl of water from foot to foot, washing his disciples clean. ‘Servants,’ he told them at that table, ‘are not greater than their master. What I have done for you, now do for each other.’

The table was where pardon was given—to a sinful woman who could not stop bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to an odious little tax collector who’d climbed down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus into his home.

At table with Jesus it somehow felt possible for hard things to get better, and lost things to be found. At table with him, you could imagine a time when you would be able to forgive just about anything.

And so that queasy night they ate with him. And while they were at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’

The bread, his broken body. A sign of broken dreams, broken promises, broken hearts. A sign of mercy and presence to show us that in things that break, God is there.

‘Take, eat, all of you. Here is frailty made blessing,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And after the supper was over, he took a cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, drink, all of you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for the pardon of sins.’ Medicine for what ails you. And a covenant, a promise that we can begin again. And we will.

’Take, drink, all of you. Healing and the dawn of a new day,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And then, after he broke the bread and poured the wine, he said to them, ‘Do this.’

Do this. To remember me.

Do this, and I am with you.

Do this when you’re broken. Do this when you sin. Do this when you get sinned against. Do this when you’re afraid. Do this when you just can’t believe the way hard things have dropped into your life uninvited. Do this when you disagree and fear you won’t find common cause or a clear way forward. Do this when you want good company, when you don’t want to be alone. Do this when you’re joyous and want to multiply your joys. Do this when you’re grateful and want to taste again the goodness of the Lord who’s been so good to you.

Do this. Come to the table. Sit down. Eat and drink.

And so on that awful night they did.

Now, if I were making this story up, I’d tell you that after eating with Jesus, all the disciples got up from the table, repentant, converted, faithful and brave. I’d tell you they were loyal, loving Jesus and each other with a love that could withstand anything. I’d report that they didn’t abandon him, but were with him to the end.

But that meal didn’t make the weak strong, or cowards brave. It didn’t give Peter a personality transplant or any of them more wisdom than they had when they first sat down, which was pretty much zero. They shared with Jesus a meal of love and memory; a meal whose heavenly food and intimate company was all they should’ve needed to find a faith nothing could shake. But it wasn’t. They went out that night and failed him, and he went to his death alone.

After Jesus rose from the dead, they ate together again. At Emmaus he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, just as at that last supper. And just as on that night, they were still who they were—betrayers, deniers, deserters, willing spirits with weak flesh.

In Galilee, he grilled fish and bread for them, and they ate breakfast in the cool dawn air by the lake. And just as on that night, he also fed Peter, who had sworn just two days before that he did not know and had never met this tender Lord.

Nobody at the table of the Lord was perfect, before or after the meal. The table isn’t magic. But it is necessary. We have to eat.

Jesus and his disciples ate together many times after his rising. And after he ascended to heaven, they keep on eating with him in the Spirit, in the church, in holy communion.

For two thousand years Jesus has been eating and drinking with disciples like us whose hearts are in the right place but whose lives are still kind of a mess. Two thousand years of ‘doing this,’ and we’re still suffering the small cuts and deep gashes of our human frailty. It hurts. The damage is real. There’s no denying the pain or evading the consequences. And still he comes to us. Still he says, ‘Sit down. Eat and drink. You, just as you are. You, just as I find you. Come. Do this. Again.’

What matters to him, it seems, is what’s real. What matters is that we are who we are. That we don’t hide our wounds in the dark where no light can reach them for healing. What matters to him is not that we have the right answers or the right opinions, or even the best behaviors, but that we do this. That we come to the table and do this, again and again.

It might take us another two thousand years to fully grasp the table’s lessons, two thousand more to receive the table’s truths, two thousand more to be transformed by its grace. But he is patient. And in the end—who knows?—it may be that becoming perfect, or even becoming ‘better persons,’ isn’t the most important thing. Maybe just being here together is. All he asks is that we don’t stay away because of our weaknesses, and that we don’t prevent others from coming because of theirs. ‘Do this,’ is all he says, ‘even when you don’t feel much like eating.’

Anchor your hearts here. For as long as we meet here again and again, as long as we are together giving thanks for the amazing grace that so willingly embraces the poverty and beauty of our hearts, as long as we are sharing the bread of life, all will be well, even when it isn’t—for Christ is with us always, and he is so kind.

So come today, lay it all out, everything you have—your emotions and questions, your strengths and weaknesses, your beauty and your struggle, your joy and praise and thanksgiving. Here with each other and with him, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, you will taste and believe again, like never before, the trustworthy Word of the Lord—that as many times as we stumble, we’ll be helped up; as many times as we fail, we’ll learn and grow; whenever we sin, we’ll be pardoned; when we’re sinned against, we’ll find a way to offer pardon; when we’re full of joy, our joys will multiply; and when we die, we’ll rise.

‘Do this,’ our Lord said.

Sit down. Eat. Remember me.

Do this.

Eat and drink. I am with you always.

Do this.

Again and again and again.

Until I come.

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman

exodus_2 exodus_1

Images: Sculptures by Philip Rattner, The Rattner Museum

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours, for example, if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you are clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you have chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you have ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not another step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will come: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he has tossed into the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s strong currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which pharoah and which army is arrayed against us—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts, we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

The Assumption of Mary, August 15



–Russian Icon, The Dormition of the Theotokos

Yesterday, August 15, Roman Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.* This is the belief that the mother of Jesus was assumed, or taken into heaven, ‘body and soul,’ immediately upon her death, without having to undergo the grave’s decay. By this feast, the Church teaches that the future resurrection of all flesh—that restoration of all creation to which scripture attests—is anticipated in Mary.

It’s because of her unique role in the drama of salvation, Catholics believe, that God bestows on her this anticipated glory, but it isn’t for her alone. Mary is simply given first what all the redeemed receive later. In the Assumption, we get to see in her what will become of us all because of the saving grace of Christ. The Assumption is the Church’s way of affirming the ancient conviction that ‘humanity’s future has a body’ (Luke Powery).

This festival has deep roots in Christian liturgy and devotion. The first extant mention of it is in the 4th century in the East. It was universally celebrated by the 6th. Clearly there was ‘something about Mary’ the ancient church appreciated more than we do today—especially we who are Protestants and tend to view Marian doctrines as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Here’s what I’m appreciating about the Assumption today—

The feast asks us to imagine that a human being in her body, not just her soul, now lives in the eternity of God we call ‘heaven.’ Forget for a moment the triumphalist trappings and physical problems of this doctrine. Go to the nub of it and allow yourself to see Mary in her body welcomed into heaven, enjoying God forever in a fully bodily way, breathing, sensing, moving… in all her body’s uniqueness. If you grant this vision, even for a moment, and if you grant that her present is our future, what does this feast day say?

It says the body belongs in the presence of God. It says the body is holy. It says that God and bodies are not opposites or enemies. It says that bodies are not ‘mere’ bodies, not inferior housing for a superior soul; not to be escaped from, dispensed with, or despised. It says there’s no such thing as ‘spirituality’ without real ‘bodiality.’ It says you have to love the body because God does. Even when it’s hard to love the body, your particular body, and especially when it’s hard to love somebody else’s, it says you have to honor them all. It says you can’t kill Michael Brown. It says you have to love his black body. It says you can’t make any body no body. It says God cares, infinitely cares, what we do with our bodies. It says when a body’s hands go up, the guns go down.


*The Orthodox also observe this mid-August commemoration, but they call it the Dormition (falling asleep)of the Theotokos. They prefer to think she was taken to God without experiencing even the slightest twinge of death’s customary pangs. Anglicans call this observance the Feast of Mary the Virgin, or more familiarly, the Feast of Mary in Summer. It’s a more generic celebration of Mary, but the collect of the day mentions God taking Mary to Godself, a clear nod to the ancient doctrine of the Assumption.



5 Doxologies


Praise God whose love will never cease,

whose justice raises up the least

and sits all creatures at the feast—

God’s mercy is our hope and peace!


Praise God, the source of breath and birth,

who formed us from the dust of earth,

and made us kin in unity

to love and set each other free.


Praise God, whose image we all bear;

Praise Christ, whose mercy we all share;

Praise Spirit, making justice grow—

One God from whom all blessings flow!


Praise God, who made all people one,

whose healing work is never done,

who calls us steadfast to abide

in mercy at each other’s side.


Praise God, whose life and grace belong

to good and bad, to weak and strong;

whose ways are not our human ways,

whose mercy gladdens all our days!


Some Reflections on Jacob’s Story [Genesis 32:1-3:1-4]



—Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Marc Chagall

If you know the biblical story of Jacob, then you know that our hero is a real piece of work—a crafty con man, always working an angle, manipulating the system, scheming to get ahead. He was, in fact, born trying to get ahead. His twin, Esau, was delivered ahead of him, but not by much. There’d been a struggle in the womb, and when Jacob emerged, he was still snatching at Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back in and overtake him so that he could be born the elder. As one commentator noted wryly, Baby Jacob seems to have known from the start that in this world, you only matter if you come in first.

Esau makes it out of the womb first, but it’s the last time in his life that Jacob will come in second. Before the boys are fully grown, Jacob will have bribed a famished, foolish Esau with a bowl of stew, stealing his elder brother’s birthright. And if that weren’t brazen enough, he will also cruelly manipulate his blind, dying father into bestowing upon him, the second son, the irrevocable blessing reserved for the first.

These may not seem like life-and-death matters to us, but our spiritual forebears tended to kill each other over such things. Sure enough, when he discovers Jacob’s deceptions, a distraught Esau vows to do away with his chronically deceitful brother. In a wonderful new translation of The Five Books of Moses (Everett Fox), we learn that in Hebrew, Jacob’s name means “Heel-Grabber,” or “Heel-Sneak,” or, even more to the point, “the Cheater.” His name sums him up nicely.

To be fair, however, it isn’t ‘all swindling all the time’ with Jacob. Occasionally he gets what he wants the old fashioned way—by working for it. The most celebrated instance occurs when he’s on the lam from Esau. He hides out with his mother’s people in the land of the Easterners, in Harran. On the day he arrives, he meets his cousin Rachel coming to fetch water at the family well. Jacob is smitten, and subsequently agrees to hire himself out for seven years to her father, his uncle Laban, in order to earn the right to marry her.

Now, Laban is no slouch in the dirty tricks department himself. When seven years are up, he deceives the Deceiver into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. To Laban’s mind, this is only fair. A first-born child is supposed to have precedence over the others (a cultural rule that Jacob never quite got right). Here Laban metes out a bit of poetic justice to his ambitious nephew.

Laban knows that Rachel is the woman of Jacob’s dreams. Leah, not so much. So he tells Jacob that if he still wants to marry Rachel, he can, providing that he agrees to keep Leah as his wife too, and work another seven years. Jacob goes dutifully back to work. (All this took place, by the way, back in the good old days when marriage was the way God intended it to be, the union of one man and… any number of women.)

Jacob settles in at Harran. It isn’t long before he’s up to his old tricks. He figures out a way to breed robust livestock for himself and weak animals for his uncle. For Jacob, all’s fair in love and agri-business, and as time goes by, he gets really rich. He also gets really sick of living in the witness protection program. He’s had enough of his in-laws. They’ve had enough of him too, especially once they figure out his smarmy breeding practices and decide to take him down. In the nick of time Jacob has a dream in which God commands him to do what he’s obviously already decided he’d better do—get out of town.

What’s surprising, however, is his intended destination. He wants to return to Canaan, to go back home. But home means Esau, and Esau means accountability. Our hero, the Heel-Sneak, has always found accountability an unnecessary distraction. So why go home? Why now?

The text doesn’t say. Maybe the long absence from the tents of his people has dimmed Jacob’s memory and made his heart grow fonder. In the grip of nostalgia, home cam sometimes seem better to us than any other place, even if it’s a snake pit.

Or maybe Jacob is thinking more like Jacob, banking on smoke and mirrors. Maybe he thinks that when he marches in with his showy caravan of wives and concubines and children and goats and donkeys and camels, the family will be so awed by his power, so snowed by his wealth, that no one—not even Esau—will remember the things of the past.

Or is there something deeper going on? Perhaps there’s a voice, a question, in Jacob’s twisted little soul—a question that only going home can answer. When are you going to stop fooling around with your life? Is now the time to find out who you are without all the games and lies? Is it time at last to ‘fess up, give up, pay up, face up—grow up?

Whatever it was, Jacob packs up his family and everything that belongs to him (and a whole bunch of stuff that belongs to Laban too) and heads for Canaan. And this is where we enter his story in the reading today.

They are all encamped at a stream called the Jabbok. The scouts have just brought alarming news. It’s Esau. He’s got an army, and he’s headed Jacob’s way. Jacob immediately prays to God, and if you listen carefully to what he says to the Lord, for the first time in his convoluted story you get the feeling that Jacob is really, really worried. What if the wiles and wits that have charmed his life so far don’t work? What of he can’t weasel or cheat his way out of trouble this time? “I am afraid…” he says.

And so he prays and puts his life in God’s hands. Then he hedges his bets. Swinging into action, he prepares a lavish gift for his brother and sends it on ahead of him to try to appease him. Then he splits up his huge household and sends the two groups in different directions, hoping that if one is attacked and lost, he may at least still end up with the other. He himself stays behind.

All alone at the Jabbok, he waits.

For what? For the other shoe to drop? For the past to catch up with him? For the thing he most dreads to happen? For the disguises and defenses of his life to drop away? For something or someone to come out of the river mist and find him, finally stripped down, finally vulnerable?

A friend of mine waited a long night like that. But not at a river. In a southern city jail cell. He’d been sober for over a year, but he’d started drinking again. On a bender, his buddies took all his money and left him passed out in the street. He had a fine education, a fabulous job, a loving family, but, had they known about it, none of that would have mattered to the cops who picked him up from the gutter and tossed him in the drunk tank. He was just another bum.

The last time this happened, his bosses paid for him to go to a first-class rehab. When he came out, they gave him his job back. His relieved family supported gladly him with love and money. But this time? What would they do this time? He had to call and tell them where he was. They’d believed in him—this was going to kill them. He made the calls. Left messages. And waited…

You know people who are waiting too. Not exactly like that friend of mine, maybe, but something like it. Maybe it’s you. Waiting for chickens to come home to roost, waiting to pay the piper, waiting to find out what you’re made of, what your bottom line might be.

Maybe it’s a long wait while your spouse decides whether to stay in the marriage. Or a short one—only as long as an intake of breath from an old friend who doesn’t know you are gay, but is finding out as you finally come out. Maybe it’s a wait for something only you can give yourself, but you don’t know if you have it in you to give.

I know a woman who’s lived with a tight knot of dread in her stomach for as long as she can remember, a dread that someone will find out that she’s not all she’s cracked up to be, that she’s not fine, but rather that she is exhausted by the burden of trying to be fine and appearing to be fine. She dreads people discovering that she does not have the perfect marriage, the perfect kids, the perfect job, but is perfectly enraged that she expects herself to be perfect because she thinks she needs to be perfect in order to be happy and to make everybody around her happy.

She’s waiting. Waiting for official orders to come down from Permission Central, orders that will authorize her to throw her Superwoman costume away, and with it, the shame she feels for being lousy in the role. Permission to be who she is and who longs to be—normal, ordinary, and perfectly adequate. It hasn’t happened yet.

Jacob waits. He waits alone. Soon it is night. He doesn’t see the stranger approach him out of the dark—we never do. No matter how much we’ve longed for or dreaded the approach and the ensuing struggle; no matter whether we’ve been preparing for it or fleeing from it all our lives, it always feels like an ambush when it finally comes.

Jacob fights like hell. Just before daybreak it appears he’s winning—and he is, until the stranger deals him a cheap shot below the belt, and he crumples in pain. Yet Jacob holds on to that mystery with more strength and skill than he knew he had. The man who preferred to win by deception is in this struggle fair and square.

This is a revelation. It’s something completely new. And maybe that’s why he starts to suspect that the stranger is God, the source of every blessing. And so he asks for one. But the stranger refuses to bless him unless Jacob tells him his name.

Ah! His name! There’s the rub. In the biblical world, your name is the expression of your being. To give away your name was to open an access road to your soul. But, as another preacher has noted, all his life Jacob has been hanging back, hiding behind his ambiguous personality. But you can’t get a blessing by keeping your distance. You have to be up close, you have to say your name. Blessing comes only when you lay open your life and your character before God. The stranger who demands Jacob’s name is calling him to nothing less than confession. To confession, and to surrender.

And so Jacob, exhausted and hungry for blessing, gives in and hands over his given name: “I am Jacob,” he says. “I am ‘the Cheat.’”

Finally! Finally a simple truth comes out of his mouth! He confesses who he is, and how he lives.

But what will God do with his confession? Perhaps something worse than what Esau is coming to do? No, the stranger has a surprise in store—a new name: “You are Israel—‘the One Who Stood Up to God.’” The new name wipes out the shame of being ‘Jacob.’ It is a name to live into, a name to live up to. A blessing.

No longer just Jacob, always scheming to survive. Now he’s Israel, full of inner strength for leading a forthright life. No longer only Jacob, the furtive one. Now he’s Israel, who sees God frankly, face to face. In the honest display of his sordid life, summed up in the syllables of his old name, a different future becomes possible. Out of the terror of the struggle, he receives the most prized blessing of all—a blessing he didn’t have to steal—the deep, abiding blessing of being named anew and fully known. Fully known as Jacob, and still loved. Loved more than he deserves, he is Israel.

In the dark of that long night’s struggle, as Fred Buechner says, Jacob looked right into the only face more frightening than Esau’s, the face we all flee from, unable to bear its unrelenting tenderness towards us—the face of God. One never goes that deep without injury. Jacob comes away limping, and as he crosses the stream to meet his brother, he drags that trailing leg behind him like a prize.

It’s dangerous to call on God to come and bless us, because God always shows up determined to change us. For most of us, it’s a rearranging that occurs through deep, painful, even devastating experiences. Not every human battle is a revelation of divine purpose, to be sure; and not every kind of human suffering brings new health and growth. But sometimes such things are nothing less than a holy wrestling with God. And in those instances, contending with the mystery with everything you’ve got until the day finally breaks can bring the blessing of a new name, new purpose, new truth—new and lasting wholeness.

Meanwhile, back at the Jabbok, there’s another surprising twist. The much-feared avenger, Esau, turns out to be one of the nice guys of the world. Like the father in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, even while Jacob is crossing the river to meet him and take his lumps, Esau is running longingly towards his long-lost, wayward sib. He throws his arms around him, kisses him, waves off his groveling speeches and the lavish gifts meant to buy off his imagined righteous anger. “Let us travel on from here,” he says, “I’ll go at your side.”

It would be great if this were the happy ending it appears to be, if they walked off into the sunset, reunited and tight. But there’s a lot more to Jacob’s history, and not all of it is pretty. Read it for yourselves if you have the stomach for it. But whatever you do, don’t be scandalized by Jacob’s subsequent behaviors. Don’t be too disappointed if he goes back to some of his old ways: this is not an episode of Dr Phil: lives don’t change forever during an hour-long program with four commercial interruptions. Things don’t get better overnight, even over a night like that powerful one at the Jabbok. Conversion takes a long, long time. Jacob is still Jacob most of the time. He still lives mostly by working the system, scheming for success, and pretending to be in control of his own destiny. He’ll be Jacob till the day he dies.

There is plenty of good news for us in his story nonetheless. The good news is that until that day he dies, Jacob-being-Jacob is also always Israel—a man who knows in his heart, indeed, in his hip joint, that God does not despise us for our supplanting and deceit, but is forever ambushing our lives with new chances.

He knows in his bones that God will not renege on a blessing, even when made under duress. He knows in his flesh that God may slip away at daybreak, but never abandons us. He knows that God can render us finally vulnerable to all our fast-approaching Esaus, siblings whom we robbed of birthrights and with whom we must make peace. He knows that the gracious reunion of sinners and sinned-against is the best blessing of God.

Until the day he dies, he is still the old Jacob, but he is also the new one, Israel, whose every halting step is living proof to all the rest of us deceivers that Someone knows us deeply, loves us fiercely anyway, and is waiting to go to the mat with us and make us new at the next river crossing in the dead of night.



Jacob’s Dream, Adam Elsheimer, 1600 

Genesis 28:10-17

In his dream Jacob is presented with a vision of a ladder. Its bottom rungs are set on the earth, and its top rungs reach right into heaven. Going up and down it freely are God’s messengers, the angels, who in the Bible often take human form, and who are as much at home here with us as they are in paradise with God.

Jacob is mesmerized by this commerce between heaven and earth, by the easy movement of messengers. He even speaks to God, and God speaks to him. In their conversation, they reaffirm the ancient covenants of love, obedience, territory and protection.

This is heady stuff. No wonder that when Jacob wakes up, the first thing he blurts out is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yikes!” He is astounded that “God was in this place,” and even more astounded that he didn’t know that God could be in such a place—astounded and perhaps a little afraid, since if God had indeed been there, in the place where he was sleeping, where else might God have been without his knowing it? Maybe Jacob is wondering now whether he’s been asleep all his life. Maybe now that it is dawning on him that God might be anyplace, and everyplace, he will never be able to sleep again.

“Yikes!” he says, and, overwhelmed with awe, he looks around for something tangible, something big and permanent to mark the place of this stupendous experience, the place where God was at home, which is roughly what the name “Bethel” means, and the name by which that spot eventually became known to later generations. Jacob sets up a stone, and that stone serves as a memorial and as a foundation for the pilgrimage shrine that subsequent generations will build there.

This ancient story about Jacob’s dream is often chosen as the text for dedications of new church buildings. You can see why. We refer, after all, to churches as “houses” of worship, a church is God’s house. As such, church buildings usually have a distinctive feel; the last thing church designers and builders want is to make them ugly and forbidding, such that congregations, upon beholding them, might say, “Surely, God is not in this place!” Rather, they hope people will come into these buildings, look around, and echo Jacob at Bethel, “Surely God was here, is here, could still be here!” Church buildings are like Jacob’s stone, set up for the awed remembrance of a vivid encounter, helping to return people to that experience time and again, and to create the conditions in which new encounters might take place.

As soon as the early Christians were permitted to build buildings for worship, they set out to make them awe-inspiring. They adorned them with marble, alabaster, and shimmering mosaics, all to show that the distance between heaven and earth is not so great; that up through high ceilings, more porous than they appear, angels easily come and go from the feet of God to our feet and back, transacting the business of divine mercy. In those early Roman basilicas, Christians attempted to capture their original experience of the majesty of Christ and the mercy of God, and to help others have it too.

Now, this sort of spiritual aesthetic can get out of hand. We humans tend to stop short of depth in almost everything we do, so that instead of falling in love with the God they point to and whose beauty they try to help us imagine and feel, we fall in love with the gorgeous things and the pleasing rituals with which we adorn our churches. We become preoccupied with the beauty of beauty, and forget its Source and End. And that’s partly why, centuries later, the Puritans decided that instead of aiming to find that necessary awe in church buildings, they would try a little harder to encourage it in church people. It was the people, after all, who were the Body, the congregation, the Spirit’s living temple – called, gathered, sanctified and sent.

For the Puritans, the angels of God came down and went up transacting the business of grace not so much on ladders, but via covenants of mutual affection and accountability, of unity and faithfulness to the gospel journey, covenants freely entered and assented to by free people. Their “ladder” ascended to heaven and descended to earth again not from a sacred piece of beautiful real estate, but from within the union of sincerely-converted hearts; from within consciences bound only to the Word of God and to each other in covenant; and from within a life in the world characterized by responsive, grateful and earnest duty.

So Puritans stripped their buildings and adorned their people – adorned their minds, souls and hearts with the Word of God, presenting to them an awesome vision of God’s otherness and sovereignty, the great and consoling beauty of God’s mysterious will, the “soul-ravishing” love of the Savior, and the transforming, sanctifying work of the Spirit.

This they tried to do through biblical preaching and teaching, the singing of psalms (mind you, no organ and a plain unvarnished melody line), devotional reading, persevering self-examination and frequent mutual counsel and admonition. They did not call the places of worship they constructed “churches,” they called them “meeting houses,” and they kept them plain.

Today, those of us in the Reformed tradition still call the spaces in which we gather ‘meeting houses,’ although many of our sanctuaries are far more ornate and colorful than our ancestors would have approved. We have traveled a long way from their aesthetic sensibilities, as well as from many of the tenets of their theology. Some of our 19th century buildings especially are so adorned that first-time visitors often ask whether they were originally Catholic churches. Those who built them were moved by aesthetic fashion more than theology—people at the time were fascinated with old things, especially medieval European remnants.

Given the ethos of rational moralism in which they lived, the builders of these fancy Protestant buildings may have been hoping, through their rich adornment and massive scale, to be moved, to recover some kind of awe, to elicit some kind of life-changing encounter with mystery, some kind of responsiveness and gratitude on which to draw for their religious lives.

And in the end, that’s the point, isn’t it? No matter whether our churchbuildings are aggressively plain or fine examples of the most ornate Gothic Revival, what matters is that there be people in them in whom God can induce Jacob’s visionary sleep, people who want to dream about strange ladders, transactions of mercy, easy commerce between God and creation, God and us; people who will awake with excitement to testify to the world, “Yikes!” God is in this place; and if in this one, then surely in that one too; and that one; and now I know it, and so can you!”

What matters most is that a church building, ornate or plain, doesn’t become just another stone monument we set up to remember someone else’s experience, while never experiencing anything fresh of our own. What matters is waking up awed ourselves, not enshrining someone else’s awakening. What matters is keeping the ladder up and operating, the access of heaven to us and the access of us to heaven in good working order now.

No matter their style, what matters is that our churches—and by this I mean our congregations—embrace a calling to be awestruck and awesome, that we shape churches in which each action, witness, decision, ministry, bold word and gesture of mutual caring begins in awe and ends in awe; begins in grateful adoration and surrender to God’s mystery and returns to that place where God is at home in beauty and delight.