If I Were Going To Heaven, I Wouldn't Start from Here
If I Were Going to Heaven, I Wouldn’t Start From Here
Sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds, Parish Associate
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)
July 17, 2011
Gen 28.10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12and he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13and the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17and he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and 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. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
One of the privileges I have as a Hospital Chaplain is to visit and counsel mentally ill patients in the Behavioral Health unit. In those visits, I hear stories of hallucinations, dreams, and fearful stories of persecution. Having myself struggled with depression, I try to turn the patients with fears toward a focus on what is good rather than what is dark and fearful—on what is hopeful rather than what brings dread. In that effort, I believe I am engaging the spiritual in the person, for religion attempts to reinterpret extreme tensions inside the individual into meaningful challenges to serve something greater than ourselves.
One spiritually-immobilized patient I met with admitted to seeing visions of animals in cages moving along a track. After some give and take, I learned that the patient was concerned with environmental destruction where animals lost their habitat. We discussed some opportunities for the patient to work in conservation. The vision, which terrified the patient, was reinterpreted into a commitment for more profound engagement with the world. We never discussed God. But I believe ours was a religious exchange because it took the symbols of the unconscious and interpreted them for wholeness, self-achievement and social action.
That is the method of interpretation that I bring to the most famous dream of the Bible, Jacob’s dream of the ladder between heaven and earth with messenger-angels ascending and descending from God at its apex. It isn’t an expected view of how heaven and earth are connected. We humans expect that earth climbs to heaven from our own achievements—that we merit a relationship with heaven and God through our own efforts. The symbolism of Jacob’s dream suggests the reverse, that heaven is linked with earth through God’s initiative—that that initiative engages humans with a choice—to convert to the One God and engage with living history, or to maintain one’s prior adaptations to life in the form of self-serving denial and avoidance of purpose.
The Talmud of the Jews states that “A dream uninterpreted is a letter unread,”and I intend to read this letter from God to us in the form of the Biblical Dream of Jacob at Bethel. I believe that we can discover even in this archaic religiosity of dream interpretation a spirituality of commitment and personal and social action. What is beyond dispute is that the nomad spirituality of the Bedouin Jacob included the interpretation of dreams as a way that God communicates with God’s people. God speaks in this dream of Jacob in this way because God speaks and acts consistently, so that we find that the words of God supplement the imagery and symbolism of the dream.
God says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”
In the framework of the narrative, these words of God must agree with the imagery and the symbolism of the ladder of ascending and descending angels.
God speaks of human history, the offspring of the earth west, east, north and south, so that the movement of the angels corresponds to history in which Jacob’s seed becomes as prevalent as dust on the earth. God stands beside Jacob so as to describe his future.In other words, the active laddering of the messenger angels is the historical dynamism of national tribes as they ebb and flow upon the face of the lands. This is my interpretation of the dream’s symbolism, and I believe that the text speaks of all of human history bound up in Jacob’s coming and going.
Jacob’s travel speaks to a universal human condition. I believe that condition is that of the refugee. The travelogue of Jacob is both national and personal. It speaks of Jacob’s fleeing from his father Isaac and brother Esau at the counsel of his mother Rebekkah, while it also speaks of Israel’s national exile from the Promised Land in Egypt and Babylon. This personal and national character of the refugee’s flight in both the archaic dream narrative and travel narrative of Israel suggest that there is something characteristic in God’s action on the earth—an action of God that meets the fugitive and the refugee on their flight and brings on a task for that person or group. I believe that this story of Jacob’s dream shows something essential about God Godself: that God reaches out to the refugee because it is in God’s nature to rescue the fugitive, especially the fugitive from human politics. God is a helper--a helper of fugitives from human perversions of peace and justice.
My interpretation agrees in part with Sigmund Freud’s view of dreams and personality. Jacob is a schemer who is closely bound to the tent-life of his mother. Jacob at Bethel comes a narcissist enmeshed with his mother Rebekkah. Jacob has looked to his world through the gaze of Rebekkah, of whom it is said favored Jacob to Esau. When Esau’s rage at Jacob’s stealing his blessing from the father Isaac causes Jacob to flee the tents into the wilderness for safety, we can presume that Jacob’s worldview has come crashing down. What he believed mattered most—cunning, intelligence, domesticity—has instead been shown by events to be dangerous. As Jacob settles down to a hardscrabble bed that third night out from the tents in the wilderness at Luz—making a pillow of stone for his head—his is a broken grandiosity; He is a broken man.
Here is where I depart from a Freudian perspective of Jacob: his engagement with God is not a result of his self-love and infantile character, as Freud would assert, but rather an authentic engagement with conversion as God would have him convert. I believe that the narrative of Jacob suggests that God reaches out to the fugitive in a way that demands a response. That response is conversion in both word and deed. And Jacob does indeed convert. He wakes up from his dream with a holy fear and acknowledges that even in this God-forsaken place, God is. Jacob’s first words on awakening startle him into a new consciousness—“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” It was the beginning of a new life. Fear followed on surprise. Jacob converts by his words, and then he undertakes two actions, one stereotyped and the other existential. Jacob anoints the stone of his bedding-down with oil and sets it up as a memorial to his astonishment that God is even in this place; that God is present outside of civilization in wilderness! Jacob calls the stone Beth-El, the House of God. This act is stereotyped in that any pagan of that age might have done this. But then Jacob does something that suggests that his character is developing. He makes the first recorded vow in the Bible: to tithe from all that God will give him going forward.
Jacob’s conversion is thus existential: it signals a change in his character from being self-concerned to being focused on God and concerned with others’ welfare. It is the beginning of a long conversion and growth in character whereby Jacob learns patience, humility, courage, gratitude and commitment to family. We will learn of these character traits in future chapters of Genesis, but let it be said that Jacob allows himself to act as a Patriarch to the whole of human history: he commits to family creation, social generosity, and divine veneration. Jacob has begun to set aside his peculiar blend of self-love and nihilism in the desert at Beth-El.
In this personal narrative of the fugitive, we discover a model of conversion. God reaches out to the distressed and the displaced and presents the opportunity to convert to God and ommit to a future life. But as it often does, the old, old story speaks with the perspective of human society, so that we might learn lessons from the Bible for groups who are refugees.
Just as Jacob becomes Israel, these old, old stories about individuals may be read as historical patterns for groups. As Jacob became Israel and Israel took refuge first in Egypt, and much later in Babylon, the pattern of Jacob’s life in this old, old story is the national epic of refugees. and this refugee epic relates to us the old, old wisdom of how refugees are to be encountered.
As we look to the 45-50 million refugees in the contemporary world stage, we might note that they are fleeing hard conditions at home, like Jacob’s flight from Esau, and that they face exploitation in their temporary camps as they seek to eke out a living, like we will discover next week when we learn that Jacob’s labor is exploited by Laban. It seems to me that the refugees’ plight is one of forsakenness and exploitation, as Jacob’s refugee story makes plain.
Almost 1% of the world’s population is made up of refugees, and with forecasts that the world will grow by 3 billion more people in the next 40 years, to 9 billion, there will be economic, political, and environmental instability that likely brings a growth in the both the number of refugees and the severity of their traumas. If we take the old, old story and its message seriously, we should conclude that God favors the refugee and goes forth to meet them on the road. In one example of that, our Presbyterian denomination participates in relief work in Church World Service, which works alongside organizations like Doctors Without Borders to try to relieve humanitarian crises in the camps.
There are refugees in all world regions. I have visited refugee camps in Bangladesh. The observations I’ve made of these camps include my surprise that they may become permanent. Geneva Camp in Dhaka houses refugees from the 1971 war of Bangladeshi independence. There is in Bangladesh little sign that these refugees either assimilate into their host societies or return home. Many here in this church are aware that the Palestinian refugees in Jordan have been displaced since the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. Refugees tend to become permanent aliens in their host societies.
My second observation of the refugee camps I’ve visited is how young the population skews: there are large numbers of young children and grandchildren of the original settlers wandering all about the camps. The trauma of the refugee is compounded by the tragedy of life-long waste of vitality and talent as they wait for a settlement of their fate. That settlement waits for international mediation that is often not forthcoming. For example, the U.N. passed Resolution 3236 in 1974 articulating a right of return for Palestinians to their ancestral lands, and yet that return is frustrated by international politics in Israel and elsewhere.
In America, we are confronted with economic refugees, most these days from this hemisphere. Yet since 1950, there have been more deportations of immigrants than new certifications of citizenship. America forcibly evicts more people than it allows to settle, and various state laws in South Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere are more harshly defining economic refugees as illegal residents, with all the potential for their exploitation as labor. The old, old Jacob story can have much to say about this age-old epic of refugees.
Like Jacob, the refugee knows that he or she has lost most of what was once most dearly held: family life, economic liberty and self-sufficiency, self-respect, self actualization of talents. Like Jacob, the refugee may encounter the helping hand of God and be confronted with the choice to convert. Jacob encountered the help of God in the form of his dream, and converted to a new way of life. The modern refugee, if fortunate, meets the helping hand of God in charitable relief and the occasional opportunity to convert to a new way of life in the host country.
But I believe that the old, old story of Jacob promotes something besides charity and conversion. I believe it tasks the fugitive and the refugee with the responsibility to prepare for return. God promises Jacob that he will return to his homeland after a period which will consist of character conversion and labor. It seems too easy to abandon the difficult way of return when the refugee is encumbered with children. A program of encouraging return by refugees may be an implication of the old, old story of Jacob if we dare to make use of it. In no way, though, does this deny the need by Christians for charity and for political efforts to bring about the right of return for refugees.
Such are my thoughts on the meaning and the application of the old, old story of Jacob. I believe it is a story that has wisdom for meeting the challenge of increasing refugees that we may expect from globalization, political unrest and climate change. On a personal level, the story lays out a pattern of conversion for fugitives and a model of divine charity for relief workers. The old, old story of Jacob’s dream acknowledges that our displacement from settled patterns is part of God’s plan for history that requires personal change: our growth in character and concern for others. Jacob, that old man Israel, speaks to the human condition here and now, and his dream demonstrates that the way to heaven is in God’s hands and not in our own.
Let us pray: Ever loving God, we thank you for your Word to us in vision, dream, and story. We praise your guidance and your wisdom that comes to us through these stories. We ask that you continue to lead us by your Word to bring in your chosen world of peace and justice; we pray for the refugee and fugitive among us. Help us with those tasks you give us to feed and shelter the least among us, those who are descending in history while we ascend it. We commit to your world and your people. In Jesus name we pray, AMEN.