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Recent Sermons

Know That I Am With You

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
July 23, 2017

The stories in the Hebrew Scriptures often take us into some of the darkest places of human experience. Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Sholom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem has suggested that there is not a single character in the Torah whose life should be seen as a model for living; rather we might want to read them as cautionary tales of how not to live a compassionate and justice filled life!

Jacob’s story is no exception. The twin son of parents, Rebekah and Isaak, who each favored only one of their children, encouraged by his mother to steal his brother Esau’s birthright as the oldest child, he leaves home in search of a wife in the homeland of his grandfather Abraham carrying a burden of guilt and fear at his own actions. Still God promises him a blessing of fruitfulness, abundance, and land. It is not how good he is as a human being, but how good God is in loving him unconditionally.

When Jacob experiences a vision of angels on a ladder reaching up to heaven, he knows that God can redeem him and guide him. He realizes he is not alone. He knows he is loved, he is blessed.

God’s promise to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” is God’s promise to all of us. The Hebrew scriptures had an understanding of chosenness that allowed the children of Abraham and their offspring to believe God would always be with them, no matter what.

Jesus challenged that assumption even as he affirmed it when he said, “I am with you always even to the end of the age!” But he also stood before the rich and powerful of his day and demanded that they take their birthright as God’s children as a responsibility to serve and to care. He wanted them to understand that we are blessed and loved but ultimately it is how we respond to that blessing that defines us. We are blessed to be a blessing!

It was not enough to be born into a Jewish family. One must be “born again” or rather transformed by the Spirit of God’s love into children who manifest that love to all of creation. It was and is a tall order, one that none of us fully lives up to, and yet, the promise that God’s Spirit, poured out on all flesh, is our birthright of strength and peace and empowerment is ours to claim, this day and everyday.

Jacob realized that the place where he had his amazing dream was holy ground. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.” He called it “the house of God, the gate of heaven, which is what ‘Bethel’ means in Hebrew.” He set up the stone he had used as a pillow as an altar stone. He poured oil on it to sanctify the place. He made it special. How many places do we make special in our lives? Do we sanctify our churches? Do we have a home altar? Do we see our work places as sacred space? Do we go into the woods or onto a mountain top to realize the presence of God? The holy? Can we experience our own bodies as sacred space? Jesus called the body a Temple of the Holy Spirit. Do we experience the sacred space within us?

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. How do we experience reaching up or out to heaven? Can we experience heaven reaching down or into us? The idea of heaven being up there and everything down here being suspect or worse, is not Biblical. The Earth is the Lord’s, all of creation is sacred, made in God’s image as we are made in God’s image,
                          
Our capacity to love, to experience awe, to reason, yes, are all sacred. Our work is to remember, moment by moment, this sacred gift and to respond with open hearted willingness to receive and to share from the abundance of this blessing and all the blessings of life. When we are willing to love even the dark places within us and around us, to have compassion on the brokenness of ourselves and others, we become channels for the creative love of God.

We are living in difficult times, no doubt. Just turning on the television or listening to the news makes that evident. I am reading a wonderful book by Pema Chodron (actually re-reading it), called “Facing the Places that Scare You.” She offers very practical advice on how to respond to the most pressing challenges we experience moment by moment:

First, don’t set up the target for the arrow ~ don’t start the fight, don’t put yourself in harms way if you can avoid it. Yes, we must take stands on the issues that create injustice in our world, but choose your battles wisely, look for the most effective ways to move forward.

Then, remember to connect with the heart ~ see those who would attack you as human beings. See their brokenness and need as well as your own. Surround your circumstances with compassion. Practice being respectful and kind. Develop a listening heart and mind.

Next, work to see your obstacles as teachers ~ Don’t tell someone else they have a lesson to learn from their hardships, that feels like judgment and abuse, but you can ask yourself, what can learn from this? God isn’t done with us yet! There is always more to learn!

Finally, step back, if possible and remind yourself, this is all a dream. I sometimes find myself singing, “Life is but a dream, shaboom…” Jacob’s dream gave him the courage to go forward, to believe God was with him and guiding him. Can we allow ourselves such a dream?

Mary Oliver offers us visions of beauty and power in her poetry. And this poem, “Mindful” seems a good reminder to close with:

Mindful~ — Mary Oliver (Why I Wake Early, 2004)
Every day
   I see or hear
      Something
         that more or less
kills me
   with delight,
      that leaves me
         like a needle
in the haystack
   of light.
      It was what I was born for—
         to look, to listen,
to lose myself
   inside this soft world—
      to instruct myself
         over and over
in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
         about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
   the very extravagant—
      but of the ordinary,
         the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
   Oh good scholar,
      I say to myself,
         how can you help
but grow wise
   with such teachings
      as these—
         the untrimmable light
of the world,
   the ocean’s shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

As the Talmud tells us, “Every blade of grass has an angel that whispers to it, ‘Grow! Grow!’ May we also listen to our angels as they whisper…! Amen.