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Land of Enchantment
the Reverend Dr. David Evans
July 19, 2020
Jacob left the town of Beersheba and started out for Haran. At sunset he stopped for the night and went to sleep, resting his head on a large rock. In a dream he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, and God’s angels were going up and down on it. The Lord was standing beside the ladder and said:
I am the Lord God who was worshiped by Abraham and Isaac. I will give to you and your family the land on which you are now sleeping. Your descendants will spread over the earth in all directions and will become as numerous as the specks of dust. Your family will be a blessing to all people. Wherever you go, I will watch over you, then later I will bring you back to this land. I won’t leave you—I will do all I have promised.
Jacob woke up suddenly and thought, “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.” Then Jacob became frightened and said, “This is a fearsome place! It must be the house of God and the ladder to heaven.”
When Jacob got up early the next morning, he took the rock that he had used for a pillow and stood it up for a place of worship. Then he poured olive oil on the rock to dedicate it to God, and he named the place Bethel.
For six months, until the end of May, I served as the Acting Head of Staff and Pastor at our sister congregation in Kerrville. My months in Kerrville turned out to be healing for both First Church and for me. But it is good to be back with my UPC family. Even if only “virtually”.
On the first Sunday in June, my first Sunday back, I found myself thrust into the deep waters of the Genesis narrative. The first book of the Bible has more twists and turns, more human depravity, than “Days of Our Lives” and “The Young and the Restless “combined. As Matt observed a few Sundays ago, after the repeated “and God saw it was good” mantra of the 1st chapter of Genesis, the human condition sinks to unimaginable depths of human depravity. And out of this chaos comes God’s blessing.
The context for our text today is that Jacob is fleeing from his home in Beer-Sheba. Why? Because his twin brother, Esau, wants to murder him for stealing the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. So, in the cover of night, Jacob grabs his backpack and sets out for Haran. Hear the Word of God as it is found in the 28th chapter of the book of Genesis.
There are times when I read a text and I know exactly what the sermon is going to be, and then there’s another time when I read a text and I have no idea what the sermon is . Then there are times when I read the text and I am seeing so many sermons that I have no idea which way to go. The story I just read is the latter. How to approach such a rich narrative? There are many choices.
One way to get into this text would be to explore the “sibling rivalry” theme. It seems that sibling rivalry permeates scripture, beginning with Cain and Abel, through Joseph and his brothers, and into the New Testament where we see the rivalry of the Elder Brother and his Prodigal sibling over their inheritance.
Then there’s the Twin angle. That is something I know a little about after watching my Twin grandsons for the past 13 years. Their relationship absolutely fascinates me. And that tact would have given me the opportunity to use my favorite sign from The Ditch:
“Do Twins Know that One of Them was Unplanned?”
Or there’s the “morally bankrupt and narcissistic” angle as we read Jacob’s life story. As if trying to find the providence of God in human goodness isn’t hard enough, we preachers are regularly assigned the task of helping you find the providence of God in sneaking and thieving and scheming and seemingly morally deficit characters like Jacob. I have spent all my life preaching Paul’s conviction that we are “treasures in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (II Corinthians 4:7) But I have to confess that some days I just grow weary of justifying morally bankrupt biblical characters as “treasures…” and trying to find some justification.
Those is a sampling of some of my choices today. If this were a democracy, then you could vote on your favorite. Here’s where I went.
I miss Austin. This week I realized that I had only been into the City two times since the beginning of the year. I went in for mid-winter lectures at Austin Seminary in February. And then, early in March, I was so hungry for an absolutely perfect hamburger that I drove down to Crown and Anchor and sat on the deck and ate what I consider to be the best hamburger in Austin. From the moment we moved here in 1978, Austin has been an “enchanted” place for me. Deep in my soul, I believe that Barton Springs is the original Garden of Eden. Then there’s that “enchanted” intersection of 6th and Lamar. Your internal GPS is hard at work right now, locating that spot with Whole Foods and REI and BookPeople, all in a single block. I love that part of Austin. Going to REI feeds my outdoor narrative. Going to BookPeople feeds my need for books. There couldn’t be a more perfect urban landscape in any city in America.
What does this have to do with the relationship between Esau and Jacob? These twins have a contentious relationship from birth. Jacob is born second but born hanging onto Esau’s heel with all his might. Esau is born to be a hunter. Jacob to be a more of an indoor person. One is strong and covered with red hair. The other is fair and quiet. Their father, Isaac, loves Esau. Their mother, Rebekah, prefers Jacob.
Here we have all the elements of one of the most intense sibling rivalries since Cain and Abel. Esau sells his rightful birthright as the first born for a mess of porridge and Jacob steals the blessing from his father and the stage is set for Jacob to flee into the wilderness to escape the wrath of his twin brother.
As we join Jacob today, he has made it to a “certain place” at nightfall. He is traveling light, so all he has for a pillow is a stone. This certain place turns out to be an enchanted place. As Jacob sleeps, he has a dream about a “ladder”. Or perhaps better, …a “stairway” that reaches all the way to heaven. The angels of God are ascending and descending up and down the stairway. Jacob dreams that God is at the top of the stairway. And what does God do but confirm the blessing that Jacob has stolen from his brother. In that moment, I see God becoming a co-conspirator, an abettor of crime, an encourager of the morally bankrupt of the world.
“Behold, I am with you and will keep you, wherever you go…” God promises Jacob.
When Jacob awakes from sleep, he says in words that have become a song for our time:
“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”
Jacob’s response is to set his stone pillow on a mound, pour olive oil over it, and proclaim that this place in the wilderness will forever after be known as an enchanted place, “the house of God.” And the lying, thieving, conniving scoundrel Jacob enters the pantheon of morally bankrupt “treasures in earthen vessels” who become instruments of God’s amazing story of love and grace and redemption of all humankind.
So where in the world do we find a word from God in all of this? Maybe here: up until now Jacob seems to have lived as if God is of no consequence. But suddenly, in the moment in this certain place in the wilderness, God enters Jacob’s life in a dramatic way. And the world becomes a land of enchantment.
Recently, I drove through southern New Mexico on my way home from keeping watch with a friend whose wife was in hospice. As I drove I-10 toward El Paso, I was thinking about the fact that New Mexico advertises itself as the “Land of Enchantment”. Where is this “land of enchantment”? Because, if there is such a thing, I miss it. The world in which have been living lately seems disenchanted. Stark. A world devoid, it seems, of wonder and beauty and life-sustaining relationships. A world that is just a godless machine grinding us down in every conceivable way.
A Land of Enchantment seems like a pipedream. Is it still possible to imagine creation bursting at the seams with unapologetic wonder and holiness and beauty and love? Is it possible to imagine a world in which God inhabits every corner? Is it possible to imagine an enchanted world like Jacob found at Bethel when his scheming and narcissistic life is interrupted with a vision of all creation singing praises to God?
It’s obvious that Jacob has something of a conversion experience at Bethel. He finds his land of enchantment at this “certain place” in the wilderness. Which begs me to ask in this coronavirus saturated and racism-soaked world: “Where can I find my Bethel?” Where can I find my land of enchantment? Where is the place that you can boldly proclaim:
“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”
My wife Linda was fond of a saying that came from the lips of Mother Teresa. It goes: “Find your own Calcutta.” The saying comes from correspondence a woman had with Mother Teresa. The woman desperately wanted to move to Calcutta and join Mother Teresa in her work among the most despised people on the earth. Mother Teresa’s response was surprising and curious and profound to me. She wrote back saying:
“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are—in your own homes and your own families, in your workplaces, in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.”
I think that Mother Teresa saw that Bethel – enchanted places – are everywhere. Wherever we find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, the “rejects” of the world, there we will discover Calcutta, Bethel, the enchanted places on earth.“ There, if we have eyes to see, we will see the enchanted place that God has created for us.
One last thought: Annie Dillard wrote a book called For the Time Being, and in that book, she has a line that struck me deeply: “There was never a more holy age than ours. And never a less holy age than ours.” What I think she’s saying is that in an instant, the sacred may burst from its grave, and an enchanted world may be opened up to us. In an instant, a bush may flare up as the presence of God. Your feet may find themselves standing on holy ground. You may see a bunch of souls in a tree, she says. In an instant, you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies. To accept failure or the grief of loss. To endure a pandemic. To find the courage to confront racism. This is what an enchanted world looks like. A world that is holy, and that calls us to find our place in the world where we’re called to witness to the presence of God to those who are in need.
Thanks be to God. AMEN
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