Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rung by Rung

Rung by Rung

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder

July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-17

Romans 5:12-19

Perhaps you have heard this old story by Matt Suhey, running back for the Chicago Bears. If you have not heard of Matt Suhey, it is probably because you are much more likely to have heard of his more famous, and faster, teammate, Walter Payton, a superstar running back in the 1970s and 80s. Anyway, Matt Suhey and Walter Payton were once on a camping trip together in Alaska. Matt Suhey awoke to find Walter Payton lacing up his running shoes. “What are you doing?” asked Suhey. “There’s a bear right outside our tent, and I’m getting ready to run.” “You can’t outrun a bear!” said Suhey. Payton replied, “I don’t have to. All I have to do is outrun you!”

So much for team solidarity. The story has a point, though, that ties in with our reading about Jacob. As you know, Jacob made his early life’s work a continuing effort to cheat his older brother out of the family inheritance. Once he was finally successful, Esau was understandably perturbed. So while the cover story for Jacob in our morning reading was that he was sent out of the country by his mother to search for a suitable wife, we know that in reality, he was also fleeing the wrath – and probably the superior aim – of his brother. Jacob was on the move. It might be less poetically stated by saying he was on the lam. He didn’t have to outrun a bear, all he had to do was outrun his brother, Esau. But he couldn’t outrun his fear of being in a strange place, his loneliness as he left behind all the familiar people and places of his life, or his guilt for what he had done to his brother.

Jacob thought that being on the move was a thoroughly horizontal proposition. We all suffer from the same delusion. Get out a road map and plan a route, say, from South Dakota to Indiana, and we’ll probably think of the whole drive as a long itineration along a surface that is mostly as flat as the pages in the atlas, more or less. Only a meddlesome person would take the trouble to remind us that we would be traversing the surface of the earth, which is a sphere, a globe, so that there is no truly direct way from South Dakota to Indiana, unless we were prepared to bore a hole in the ground and travel through the earth in order to maintain that straight line.

On a more spiritual level, though Jacob thought of his trip as a pretty straightforward journey, he was soon to discover that God had in mind another dimension for all his moving to and fro. Probably Jacob’s dream is the most graphic reminder there ever was that our journeying in this life is more than moving on the horizontal. God has in mind a vertical dimension for our lives. He made that abundantly clear to Jacob while the young fugitive lay near a rock and dreamed of the angels of God running up and down a heavenly escalator to be about God’s bidding in the world.

This is a truly revolutionary dream, because for all our suspicions that heaven and earth have little to do with each other, Jacob’s dream declared to him and to us that God has continuing association with earth, that earth and heaven are not separated by some great divide, but joined by the unfathomable purposes of God.

All of us harbor our own stories of the road. A light-hearted decision made, a mate chosen, a career almost accidentally embarked upon, a friendship casually engaged, so many events in our lives – which we would have thought existed in a more or less horizontal dimension – have developed into deep experiences which reverberate profoundly throughout our lifetimes and have influenced every action since. We are spiritual creatures, no matter how seldom we pause to think of ourselves in that way, and anything we do is riven with spiritual implications, touched by the purposes of God.

I remember once receiving a little Sears Roebuck guitar for Christmas. I didn’t much play it after I got it because in a few short days I discovered that it wouldn’t play itself, that I would have to go through the digit numbing pain of learning where to place my fingers and when to strum in order to make anything resembling music come out. All in all, it seemed like too much trouble. The little guitar sat in a corner for a few weeks, until my older brother got it in his head that he could teach himself to play, and before you knew it he was doing just that. But after all, it was my guitar. I couldn’t let that happen. So I began the arduous process of teaching reluctant muscles to work together to make music. As things stand, I would appreciate it if you would help maintain the secret that my brother remains my superior in guitar playing to this day, but my initial and hardly commendable motivation to stay even with him, forced me to learn, and kept me from missing the opportunity to expand myself in those learning-filled adolescent days, learning how to play a guitar so that my singing could be accompanied by my own playing. But, having learned that, what became of that ability?

Now, make whatever you like of that small illustration, but that simple journey toward musicianship, begun almost as much in competitive spite or sibling rivalry as with any more admirable motivation, has over the years resulted in uncountable hundreds of opportunities before wonderfully diverse gatherings of people in varying states of appreciation for my musicianship; fellowship, in my growing up years, with dozens of other fellow-travelers who like to play guitar together; zillions of campfire sing-alongs with the faces of young people and old folks smiling and singing, people who – even though some of their voices have now gone silent – remain more real to me at this very moment than many of the folks who populate our more run-of-the-mill dreams; and many evenings in which the only audience for my playing was myself and the angels who must have needed some musical accompaniment while they made their way on that heavenly escalator back and forth into my growing-up world.

All of us have similar stories. Things we thought we did for only the most pedestrian of reasons, we later may have discovered were experiences that have enriched our lives, breathed into us the very breath of life. Perhaps a casual conversation started at a dining table in school was transformed into courtship and a life-long conversation over breakfasts and dinners; or a childhood choice one day to read instead of play baseball was transformed into a decision to major in English and teach others to love reading; or a fascination with toy trains became a first step toward a lifetime of engineering or public works; or any of a hundred other decisions, once made and for whatever reasons, have turned into life-transforming journeys.

Jacob’s dream was granted to him to tell him what we all know in our bones if only we stop to think about it long enough. It is that the God who created us loves us still and will make of our own common experiences something holy, something truly redeemed. It is perhaps summed up in the phrase which typifies God’s dealings with Jacob and everyone of us ever since. “Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

It was a promise that God would have to repeat several times through the years before humanity would begin to really believe it, if we ever really have.[1] That is why it is one of the names for Jesus that we hear most often at Christmas: Emmanuel. God with us. Jeremiah reports that God gave the assurance of his presence to his troubled people in just these words that Jacob heard no less than 6 times as they were being assailed by armies they could neither defeat nor understand.

“I am with you.” It is the heart of the story – the heart of any story worth anything more than a good cry, when you get right down to it. All good love stories have that element. Juliet promised to be with Romeo, even unto death. And, as it turns out, that plot wasn’t invented by William Shakespeare. The very same promise was God’s promise to his people, and Jesus lived and died that very promise for us. Says Paul in his letter to the people in the tiny church in Rome, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift of that one man Jesus abounded for many.”

New Testament scholar, Paul Achtemeier says, “thus does grace triumph over evil, by burying evil in an avalanche of grace.”[2] I really respond to that image! Think of the little things we have entered into, the small decision to take up the guitar, the tiny misstep from which we have learned immeasurable lessons. To shift metaphors, the tiny specks of our little life’s choices are bobbing on the ocean of human existence, until God picks us up on a mountainous wave and we find ourselves cascading atop the foaming water on our way toward the shore of his purpose.

Perhaps Paul was able to see it more clearly than anyone before him. From the time of Adam we have been on the move, yet the one evil we have never outrun is our sinful selves. But one day, Jesus appeared on the road of our aimless wanderings and things took on such a direction that the world has never since been the same.

Since I began with a story about two friends, perhaps I can end with one. There is an old Asian story[3] that one day a man found his neighbor on his knees, searching for something. “What are you looking for?” came the obvious question. “My key. I’ve lost it.” Both men proceeded to take to their knees and continue the fruitless search. After a while the neighbor said, “Where did you loose it” “At home.” “Then why are you searching for it here?” exclaimed the exasperated neighbor. “Because there is more light here.”

If we have found ourselves – like Jacob – tempted to wander far afield, leaving home looking for something to fill the emptiness of our lives, we can be sure that as earnestly as we may search, God is as near at hand as our next heartbeat, as present to us as our restless dreams, as ready to define our lives into purpose and meaning as he is to suffer and die on the cross for us.

Dear friends, as we scurry about the level places of our lives, we may be reminded that there is a ladder, extending to heaven, and that earth and heaven have met in Jesus Christ. We need never be alone and lost again, no matter where we are.


[1] Genesis 26:3, 26:4, Isaiah 41:10, 43:5, Jeremiah 1:8, 1:19, 15:20, 30:11, 42:11, 46:28, Haggai 2:4, Matthew 28:20, John 13:33.

[2] Romans, by Paul Achtemeier, John Knox Press, 1985, p.102.

[3] The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello, S.J., Gujarat Sahitya Parakash, Avand, India, 1982.