This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, July 26, 2020. This is the concluding sermon of a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (but likely a week behind the actual lectionary).
Today’s sermon is based on Genesis 28:10-22.
Next week, August 2, we’ll hear a guest preacher’s excellent and moving sermon on the story of Noah and the flood, which this series did not include. You’ll definitely want to worship with BBUMC in person or online to hear that sermon.
Finally, in preparation for August 9, I invite you to read Mark 1. That Sunday, I’ll begin a sixteen (SIXTEEN?!) week series on the entire Gospel of Mark.
“I’ll never trust anyone ever again.” That’s what sociologist and author Brené Brown’s third-grade daughter, Ellen, exploded in an after school conversation with her mom. Brown shares this story in a speech called “The Anatomy of Trust.”
Ellen told her mom that, during recess that day, she’d shared something hard and confidential with a few trusted friends. But, by the time recess ended, Ellen discovered that her friends had shared her story with seemingly everyone. She was embarrassed, angry, and brokenhearted. And she was ready to never trust anyone ever again. Have we been there?
In a moment of inspired parenting, Brown suggested to Ellen that we can think about trust like a marble jar. Each of the people in our lives, Brown told her, has an imaginary jar into which we put marbles of trust whenever they do things that lead us to trust them. Our marbles of trust are the small things, the small moments of compassion, care, and grace. And, our marble jar friends, then, are people who, over a fairly long period of time, have demonstrated their trustworthiness.
Thinking about Brown’s image of marble jar friends, I wonder if we can apply the same image to our faith. After all, one of the ways we define the concept of faith is trust. So, honestly, is God a marble jar friend? Can God be trusted?
I know that some of us are ready to answer immediately, “Yes! Of course God can be trusted.” And yet, let’s not answer too quickly, because it’s clear to me that this is not everyone’s experience. This week I stumbled upon a new-to-me musician whose bio said that he grew up in a faithful Christian home and family, but from a young age, he found the idea of God suspicious and eventually left the faith of his upbringing. He couldn’t trust the stories of God, couldn’t believe them, or God, to be true. Another person shared a testimony about how he too grew up going to church, but soon fell away from that practice for much of his adult life. He shared that he believed in God in his own way, but that, through experiences he didn’t elaborate on, the church and its people led him to distrust people of faith, and resultantly, God. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of people who have found God to be untrustworthy or suspicious. Sometimes people, having experienced grief upon grief, pain upon pain, and long-suffering struggle, without any seeming intervention by God, determine that God certainly is not a marble jar kind of God. Some conclude from these experiences that God is either not to be trusted, or not really real at all. If we can relate to any of these stories, then we’d find good company with the story of Jacob today.
We might say that Jacob grew up in a religious home. Surely Grandpa Abraham would have told Jacob and Esau, until they could tell it themselves, about God’s promises to him and his family: that God would bless them with a land of their own and descendants as numerous as the grains of sand, who would be a blessing to the world. Surely, too, Rebekah must have whispered God’s words of blessing over Jacob: that God had chosen him to lead the family (Gen 25:23). And yet, Jacob and Rebekah resort to trickery repeatedly – trading stew for Esau’s birthright and impersonating Esau to steal his blessing from their father. Jacob grasped at power and prestige regardless of the hurt and pain it caused. He’s acted like a scoundrel, and now he’s on the run from his brother. There is nothing in Jacob’s actions, or the story of Genesis up to this point, that suggest Jacob trusted, or followed, God at all. But as he goes to sleep with a rock for a pillow, things are about to change for Jacob.
During the night, Jacob has a dream – we know this part – in which he sees a ladder, or more likely the word means stairway or ramp, connecting heaven and earth, and on the ramp he sees the Lord’s messengers moving back and forth between heaven and earth. Then, and this is the important part, God speaks to Jacob in the dream.
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants.”Genesis 28:13-14
Up to this point in the speech, readers of Genesis hear echoes of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah. Perhaps Jacob hears the echoes too. But then God continues with something new, something unheard of in the ancient near east. God says,
“I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”Genesis 28:15
As I’ve been reading through Genesis – as you hopefully have been – I’ve been surprised by how many times God repeats Godself with the patriarchs and matriarchs. Repeatedly, God shows up to the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis with the same message: I will bless you with land and offspring, so that you will be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:2-3, 7; 15:4-6; 17:6-8, 21; 21:12; 22:17-18). When you were reading, did you ever wonder why God keeps repeating the same message?
Here’s what God’s inspired me to see in this. God keeps showing up with the same, repetitive message, in the ordinary events of life, to show that God is a marble jar kind of God. And so, when God speaks to Jacob today, God is renewing God’s promises, so that Jacob can trust God.
And indeed, when he wakes up, Jacob vows to trust God, setting up his stone pillow as a pillar of worship and covenant praise. Through Jacob’s dream, God reveals that God is with Jacob wherever he goes – not just in one region or land, as was the common ancient near eastern belief. God reveals Godself as God of blessing, but also as God of presence, God of protection, and God who is at home and connected with God’s people. God reassures Jacob of God’s trustworthy presence with him, so that he can follow God faithfully.
After spending two months in Genesis this summer, our reading today reaffirms this basic message of Genesis: God is the trustworthy God who calls us into covenant relationship with God, so that God can bless the world through God’s people. God inspired the oral tradition of Israel to keep telling these origin stories to reassure them that God is their trustworthy, covenant partner. God inspired the writers of Genesis, whether in the 10th Century BCE or the 5th, to reassure the people of Israel that God is always and everywhere their trustworthy, covenant partner, blessing them to be a blessing. And whenever we read Genesis, God inspires our reading to reassure us that God is, above all, our trustworthy covenant partner, who is always with us, blessing us to be a blessing for others. Through the origin stories of Genesis, God reassures us that God is a marble jar God, so that we can faithfully follow God.
Still, if God’s trustworthiness is the overriding message of Jacob’s dream and Genesis as a whole, the question may still remain: how does God show up in our lives building trust, beyond reading Genesis? Like Brown’s marble jar, God becomes a marble jar God to us, more often than not, through our seemingly insignificant, everyday experiences of God’s grace. Perhaps we’ve had dreams in which God has spoken to us, renewing God’s promise of care and blessing. There’s a marble. Perhaps, we’ve experienced little glimpses of God’s care through the compassion of those working in God’s name, those of the church – like bringing meals when we’re sick, showing up at our loved ones’ funerals, or calling us when we’re struggling. There’s a marble. Perhaps, we’ve experienced God’s guiding hand through a difficult season of our lives, only seeing God in retrospect. There’s a marble. And perhaps, we’ve experienced God’s healing care through the work of medical professionals, or counselors, or gifted friends. Again, there’s a marble. In countless small ways, often through others, God continues to show up in our lives, reassuring us that God is, above all, trustworthy, that God is with us, that God is working all things for good, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not the mistakes we’ve made, or the experiences we’ve had, or the doubts we still carry. God reassures us of God’s trustworthy presence, so that we can follow God faithfully, and reveal God’s presence to others through acts of care and grace.
For these marbles of trust and more, we, like Jacob, gather to worship God, praising God for God’s faithfulness, for God’s trustworthiness, for God being a marble jar God. But after his dream, Jacob reveals the biggest challenge: walking with God in faithfulness, so that we can bear God’s blessings for others. God reassures us of God’s trustworthy presence, so that we can trust God and bear God’s blessings for others. May we make today a day in which we proclaim: “The Lord is our God, and we will follow God with all our being.”
- This sermon bites off a lot: a reading and interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel, and an interpretation of the Book of Genesis as a whole. What does this sermon miss on either front for you?
- Have you ever experienced God speaking or showing you a message through a dream? What was that like? How did you respond? What did you tell to others?
- Do you have trouble trusting God? What experiences in your life make God seem untrustworthy?
- Alternatively, what experiences in your life lead you to trust God, to view God as a marble jar friend?
- In what ways are you aware that you’ve helped others to trust in God? That is, what is something you’ve done which has born the fruit of God’s presence in the life of another? Or, more succinctly, how have you revealed God to others?
- Sometimes the questions of #5 are hard. What about flipping it. What are some ways others have revealed God’s presence for you?
- Jacob’s story is especially fascinating because he’s such a non-hero. He’s a trickster, a scoundrel. What does it mean to you that God would show up to this person particularly with such a promise of blessing and presence?
- Don’t forget Esau. Imaginatively think about Esau. Later, in Genesis 33, Esau and Jacob reunite with peace and thanksgiving (even though Jacob was afraid this would not be the case). How could Esau grow through and/or past this experience to get to the point of forgiveness?