Sermon ( with a special music file)
July 14, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He 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. And 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. And 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; and 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. Know 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.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And 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.” So 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. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

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Having just returned from a vacation camping, I have sympathy for our friend Jacob. It’s rough enough for me to be in the shelter of my LL Bean Tent with my hide-a-bed high density foam mattress supporting my shoulders and hips and my soft hypo allergenic pillow cushioning my head. But Jacob has no tent, he lies under the stars on the cold ground, and for his pillow he has a stone. But what he lacks in comfort he makes up for in dreams – for it seems that God often offers us the best spiritual comfort when our material comfort and security are most lacking.

What a dream Jacob has…How many times he told the tale of this dream we do not know, but we know it has been retold countless times in story and song and referenced in the names of places, trails, flowers, knots, string games, electrical components, and quilt patterns.

His vision of the ladder with its feet on the ground and its top in the heavens and the angels ascending and descending has been understood as a foretelling of the fate of the people of Israel, as a sign of God’s eternal providence, as a prophecy of Christ, and as a symbol of all human struggle both spiritual and political.

Perhaps this last understanding of the dream is the most familiar, largely due to the spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” If you go into the New Milford Public Library you can find a compact disk with a recording of many spirituals sung by Paul Robeson in the shadow of the Peace Arch on the American/Canadian border near Blaine, Washington.

The arch is a 60 foot high monument commemorating the long standing peace between the United States and Canada, and Robeson sang there four times in the early 1950s, a time when he was effectively banned from performing in the United States or abroad because of his political views. He had always fought against racism, even in his days at Rutgers University, where he was an All American football player - only the second black man given this honor.

His pro-Soviet views before, during, and after World War II made him a target of Senator Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. Anyone who gave him a contract was harassed, people who showed up at his concerts were attacked, and he went from being one of America’s best known actor’s and singers to a man with a very uncertain future.

It certainly would have been in his best interest to stay away from further controversy and confrontation, but when he was invited by the Mine, Mill and Smelters Union of British Columbia to sing at their annual convention, he accepted. No American had ever needed a passport to enter Canada, so no one expected trouble. They were wrong.

When Robeson arrived at the border, he discovered there was a special order from the State Department forbidding him to leave the country. To violate this order meant five years in prison. Robeson turned back, as did the Canadian delegation gathered to meet him on the other side of the border.

The union held their convention without Robeson, but voted unanimously to protest this action and invite Robeson to sing at the Peace Arch on the border. Many other Canadian and American unions joined in the effort, and it was decided to set up a flat bed truck with a sound system one foot inside the American side of the border and make accommodations for the audience on the Canadian side.

The turnout surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations. It was like Woodstock, circa 1952. People abandoned their cars on the highways five miles out and walked into the concert site. The show was set to begin at 2:30 but had to be delayed because the crowds kept pouring in; the border had to be closed for an hour because of the flood of humanity. The concert was reported the next day in headlines around the world - everywhere except in the United States - for being on McCarthy’s blacklist meant that newspapers were not supposed to report about you.

One of the songs Robeson chose to sing was “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” As he had done with “Old Man River” on Broadway, Robeson altered the lyrics to fit the occasion. Instead of concluding the refrain with “soldiers of the cross” he sang “soldiers in this fight.” Let’s listen for a minute to a man singing of personal and social struggle to wrench the world away from prejudice and fear and free the soul to live in liberty and peace.

Song (track 16) -
Jacobs Ladder
You'll need the free Real JukeBox to play this file

That was sort of a long way around to illustrating one understanding of Jacob’s Ladder, a symbol of the painful, laborious, difficult struggle which men and women face in their personal, family, political, and even spiritual life. Faith is a great help in reaching one’s potential, in fulfilling one’s destiny. The ladder may have twelve steps or twelve times twelve, but as long as you can keep singing and feel that every rung leads higher, higher, there is hope. That is ascending dimension of Jacob’s Ladder.

Of course, the dream has its descending dimension as well. The ladder which links heaven and earth has also been understood as God coming down from heaven to earth to use people and nations, political and natural events for the divine redemptive purpose. Sometimes God’s designs are quite different from human desires, and in those cases, God’s presence might seem more of an obstacle than an aid - God’s actions interpreted as God’s absence as what we think of as our potential is passed by and what we think of as our destiny is left in the dust.

Certainly God’s interest in helping Jacob was not because Jacob was such a fine fellow with wonderful, noble, and selfless goals for his life. Perhaps it’s worth remembering how Jacob came to be sleeping on this cold ground without shelter on his rock pillow far from home - he was running from the wrath of his brother after tricking his father into giving him the family farm.

Well, actually they didn’t have a farm, but whatever they did have, Jacob snatched by stealth and deceit from his twin brother Esau. And Easu was coming after him. No Jacob was not in this wilderness seeking God – he was fleeing for his life; but God sought out Jacob

Those who step down Jacob’s ladder are not looking to their own needs and aspirations, but are being used in service for the common good, for the sake of love, for some higher purpose - If the ascending aspect of the ladder speaks to personal fulfillment, every step higher and higher, the descending aspect speaks to sacrifice, the giving up of self in the service of God’s greater good. If going up the ladder step by step we are strengthened by a song of hope, going down the ladder we find courage in a hymn of humility as we empty the self and surrender to the needs of another.

Doing this doesn’t mean we’re any better than anyone else - we may be closer to Jacob than to Paul Robeson - it doesn’t even mean we give our action any religious significance or that we do it willingly - in fact we may struggle against it or even regard it as failure.

Think of George Bailey in the movie classic It’s A Wonderful Life - All his life he dreams of escaping his small town and the family business, traveling the world and finding his destiny in far off places. But his dreams are constantly being put on hold as one crisis after another causes him to stay in his hometown and tend to family business. He has no sense of how his life serves others until a crisis arises when Uncle Willie unwittingly gives a bank deposit to mean Mr. Potter and George is driven to take his own life because his only material asset is a life insurance policy.

I don’t want to suggest that the director Frank Capra is borrowing from the Bible, but it’s interesting that it is only through the descent of an angel - by the name of Clarence - that George receives the revelation of the true accomplishments of his life and the blessing of a great outpouring of love

Capra created a lighthearted fiction scenario, but in truth this kind of sacrifice is often quite painful. Rabbi Harold Kusher wroten several books reflecting on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of caring for his son who was born with a condition that destined him to a short and physically difficult existence. He entitled his first book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” In a later article he wrote about the grand “miracles” of the Bible like the parting of the Red Sea and the fall of the wall of Jericho, saying that these are great and wonderful stories, but more like special effects than true miracles. He goes on to say that the family who might have been somewhat self centered and focused on fun and pleasure and taking life for granted who are suddenly confronted with serious illness or disability and who, in great love, turn their lives around and give their lives in service and care for another – on these occasions, he says, we witness the true miracles of life.

I have heard it said that God never gives you more than you can handle – but I do not think this is a true statement. We come closer to the truth if we say God will always be with you in the things you cannot handle alone, and that the final encouragement of the dream of Jacob is that God is with us in these moments of struggle where we are being emptied out for the sake of another – God is with us and God has gone before us.

In our faith we believe God does not ask anything of us that God has not already given in grace. And so the decisive and definitive act of God’s descent and sacrifice occurs in the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ. In this understanding Jacob’s dream is a foretelling of the gospel of Christ: the bottom of the ladder being Christ’s human nature, the top his divinity; the foot in the earth being his humiliation on the cross, the head in the heavens being his exaltation. Jesus himself makes oblique reference to this image in his call of Nathaniel to be a disciple: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

The ladder is the symbol of the presence of God whether we feel life leading us higher and higher or dragging us lower and lower. Not because we’re good, not because we’re special, not because we deserve grace or punishment – simply out of the abundance of God’s love. It may mean we get what we fervently desire; it may mean we learn to desire something different from what we always thought. But God is with us and God is for us and God comes down to earth to find us and God gives us a vision of the heavens to inspire us.

Jacob may not have had the LL Bean tent or the soft pillow, but he sure had a grand and wonderful dream – and perhaps we will learn that was the best gift of all.

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