+ In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’

Genesis 28:15

If you made your living writing soap operas, you wouldn’t have to look any further than the Bible in your hotel room drawer to get ideas for upcoming episodes.  It would be all laid out for you in the pages of Genesis. Shows like Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless – with their romances, relationships, and rivalries – could find plenty of plots in the tales of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs. And few stories would give a writer more to work with than the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau. 

We met these twins – the sons of Isaac and Rebekah – last week as they were literally coming into the world.  At their birth, Esau was covered in a mantle of red hair and Jacob was hanging on to his older brother’s heel with all the strength he had in his little baby fist.  Since the Hebrew people often named their children after some distinctive personality trait, or as the result of some important event in their lives, the names of these two brothers reflected the circumstances of their births. 

Isaac and Rebekah named their first-born twin Esau, a name that is a play on words that mean “red” and “hairy”. The second twin, Jacob, was named after the Hebrew word that means “heel.”  The verb form of the word means “to usurp.”  So, from the very beginning, Jacob was identified as a Usurper – and he lived up to his name in spades. 

What Jacob usurped first was his brother’s standing as the first-born son.  Esau, as the first-born, had preferred inheritance and status.  He would succeed his father as head of the family when the time came.  He was in line to receive a double portion of the inheritance and was given a seat of honor among his siblings. Among the Jewish people, the first-born son had a special relationship, not only to his parents and his siblings, but also to God. He was considered quasi-holy, set aside as God’s own.  

Jacob wanted that status for himself, so he worked a deal with Esau one day when his brother came in from hunting famished.  He convinced Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew.  Whether Esau was suffering from such low blood sugar that it clouded his judgment, or he didn’t care a whit for what he had, we’ll never know. What is clear is that Jacob, the Usurper, engineered a transaction that set him up for life.

If you know the whole story of the relationship between Jacob and Esau, you know that Jacob was not done with grabbing what was rightfully Esau’s.  In this, he was aided and abetted by his conniving mother. The two of them took advantage of Isaac as he lay on his deathbed.  Jacob disguised himself as his hairy older brother. Then, lying through his teeth, he convinced the old man to give him the paternal blessing that belonged to Esau. 

It was an ugly scene.  And things got even uglier when Esau returned from hunting in the field to discover that Jacob the Usurper had been at work again, leaving him with next to nothing at all. Scripture says, “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him.” 

How could anyone be surprised when Esau decided that there was nothing left for it but to kill his Evil Twin?  It certainly seemed like the right thing to do based on any sense of justice.  However, since his father was near death, Esau decided to wait to act until after his father had died. It was a way to show respect.  “The days of mourning my father are approaching,” he said, “then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 

Never people to miss an opportunity, Rebekah and Jacob took advantage of the delay to hatch one more plot. Their goal was to get Jacob out of harm’s way, and they had to come up with an excuse so that Isaac would send Jacob away on a legitimate errand.  “I am weary of my life because of the Hittite women,” Rebekah complained to her bedridden husband.  “If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of this land, what good will my life be to me?” 

Her complaining worked.  Isaac called his Jacob to his bedside, blessed him, and sent him on his way to Rebekah’s brother where he could find a bride for himself among his own people.  Esau wasn’t happy about the situation, but he couldn’t do anything about it.  The Usurper – the one who had stolen his life right out from under him – had escaped once again. 

Which bring us to today’s story in Genesis. When the story begins, Jacob is making his way from Beer-sheba toward Haran. The sun is setting.  He is alone and on foot.  He has escaped with his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing, but you wouldn’t have known that if you’d met him walking the road to Haran. Jacob is a scoundrel, and a cheat, and a double-crosser. And he is also betwixt and between. He’s on the run from a brother who wanted revenge – headed north and east towards an uncertain future. 

If you look at a map of ancient Israel, you will see that Jacob traveled a long way that first day. He was trying to put as much distance as possible between him and his brother who was a skilled hunter.  Jacob had no interest in being in his brother’s trophy case.  The question in his mind boiled down to this: how far would Esau’s anger follow him?  That was the wild card. 

So, Jacob traveled as far as he could until daylight faded and darkness fell, and he had to stop for the night. He was physically exhausted and emotionally drained.  Even if his conscience wasn’t bothering him, his worry about whether Esau was pursuing him would have exacted a high price.  When he finally did stop, he was so tired that even a stone worked perfectly well for a pillow. No sooner had he laid down than Jacob was out like a light

Then he began to dream – a dream that he did not deserve at all.  The dream was of a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and all the heavenly host going up and down on the rungs between earth and heaven. 

Now, if you are a person who has ever searched for God – really searched without finding God – then Jacob’s dream should make you angry.  If the Giver of Dreams gives out dreams by mistake, the dream given to this cheater has to be one the biggest.  Think of all the people who have said their prayers, or tried to live good lives, or searched for God by going on retreats or vision quests and never received the kind of gift Jacob was given.

Jacob isn’t looking for God – he is looking for an escape route and a place to land where he isn’t haunted so much by his past.  He is between the end of his past life and the start of the next phase of his life. People sometimes wait for a long time in that place for a sign telling them that they should go right or left – this way or that way.  This is where the ladder dream finds him, undeserving, unworthy, and uncertain.

While Jacob is dreaming of the ladder between heaven and earth, he suddenly becomes aware of God standing right beside him and speaking a series of extraordinary promises to him: “I am with you… I will give you… I will not leave you… I have promised you.” 

We expect God to say to Jacob what a parent would say to a child who’s done what Jacob has done: “Maybe you ought to clean up your act once you arrive in Haran.”  “I’m watching you.”  “Do the right thing from now on.”  “Straighten up and fly right.”  But that’s not what God says.  He doesn’t hold anything back.  He showers Jacob the Usurper with gifts, blessing him beyond his wildest imaginings.  And here’s the rub for any of us who think life should be fair – there’s nothing fair about what happens to Jacob – not the dream – not the promises – none of it. Jacob doesn’t receive what he deserves. Jacob receives God’s grace instead.

When Jacob awakens from his dream, he is still the same person he was before, but there’s a difference. Jacob understands on some level what the experience means.  “How awesome is this place,” he says.  “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  He may not deserve the dream that’s given to him, but he understands that God has entered his life and that changes everything.  The story says when Jacob arose the next morning, “he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.”  And. he called that place Beth-el – the House of God.

We need Jacob’s dream now more than ever.  We need to know that in every part of our lives God is with us.  What looked to Jacob like just a place to rest for the night turned out to be the house of God.  What looked to Jacob like a rock turned out to be the Gate of Heaven.  Who knew??  What Jacob discovered that one night as he slept on the hard ground of Canaan is that there is a lot of traffic between heaven and earth. 

Angels still bear the good news that God is present, that God cares, that God loves us.  There isn’t a single thing we can do to earn it. Nor do we in any way deserve it.  In fact, the blessings God showers on us sometimes come when we deserve them the least.  Can we begin to believe this?  Can we begin to believe that some of the most ordinary places and situations in our lives can be our Beth-el’s?

I would never presume to say that believing this is easy.  It can be very, very difficult.  Most of us are far too busy to dream.  Or we have been conditioned to look at reality through hardened lenses.  Dreams live in a world that’s wide open and full of wonder.  We think of dreams as the stuff of childhood, and most of us have, as St. Paul put it so eloquently, “put away childish things.”  And, let’s be honest: In the nightmarish world we live in right now, it’s hard to believe in Jacob’s sweet dream of God’s presence and blessing. 

But I, for one, don’t want to think of living in a world without Jacob’s dream.  If life is only about the uses and abuses of power, about what can be bought and sold, about what can be measured and manipulated, then the world is gray and colorless place.  I have lived long enough now to have more than a few of my own dreams shattered, so I’m cautious when it comes to dreaming. 

But I believe in what the late Verna Dozier called the Dream of God. She said, “”The dream of God is that all creation will live together in peace and harmony and fulfillment. All parts of creation. And the dream of God is that the good creation that God created – what the refrain says, ‘and God saw that it was good’ – [will] be restored,” “The role of the church,” she went on to say, “is to be the people who work with God to bring that dream about.”

The world needs the Dream of God right now.  This remarkable church is one place where people can catch a glimpse of it and then share it with others. The dream we share is of a world united in love with God through Jesus Christ and united with one another by the power of the Spirit. The Dream of God is why we started feeding our hungry neighbors all those years ago, why the deaths by gun violence in this city still break our hearts after years of trying to stop these deaths, why Black Lives Matter, and why we are currently raising money to change “redlining to greenlining” in North Lawndale.

In the dream of God, God is still promising abundant blessings.  God says to us what God said to Jacob, “I am with you… I will give you… I will not leave you… I have promised you.”  And God calls us to show the world where the “bright rungs of God’s ladder touch down on all the ordinary pieces of the earth.”*  Let’s keep answering the call. 

Amen.                                           

*With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for this quote.