Sermon, July 23

  • Another piece of the Jacob story in the lectionary today
  • Some of our kids have been learning all about Jacob this week at Drama Camp. I’d like to invite any of those kids who want to come up and sit in front and help me tell the story. 
  • I’ve been thinking about how Jacob’s story looks a little like some of the steps of coming to know God, throughout our lives. 
  • Let’s go through the story – and I’ll talk a little along the way about those steps…

First: Jacob is born! Is JUST Jacob born? …

Do the twins like the same things? … 

Do the twins get along? … 

Would you say Jacob was JEALOUS of Esau? Why? … 

What happened one day when Esau was hungry?… 

Then what happened when their father Isaac was very old, and wanted to give his favorite son Esau a special blessing? … 


  • The lesson for today happens while Jacob is running away, after stealing Esau’s blessing.
  • I really like how the lectionary, our calendar of readings, puts this part of the story with Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is one of my favorites; I love how it feels like the poet feels two different things at the same time – grateful that they can’t escape from God, and also frustrated that they can’t escape from God! 
  • Let’s turn back to Jacob.  Jacob has been raised in a faithful family; his parents are both in the habit of speaking to God and listening to God. But as far as we know at this point, Jacob doesn’t have his own relationship with God. It’s just something that’s part of his family life. 
  • Then, during a restless night of sleep while he’s running away from home so his brother won’t kill him, he has a vision of angels – God’s messengers, going up and down between earth and heaven.  A vision that shows him that God is involved in the world.  
  • And God speaks to Jacob, and tells him that God will be with him wherever he goes, and that his story is going to turn out OK. What a good thing to hear at a scary time! 
  • When Jacob wakes up, he says – God is here, right here! And I didn’t even know it! 
  • This is the first step I want to talk about. The moment when someone sees or feels God’s presence. Suddenly God isn’t just something other people talk about; instead Jacob has his own encounter with God. This is so important, and it’s something I hope for, for our young folks and for everyone who’s seeking. 
  • When I call these steps of faith, I don’t mean that they happen once and you move on. I 100% continue to have “God is here and I didn’t even know it!” moments. There was a lot of that in last week’s retreat, for me. I continue to have moments when I need to awaken to the truth that God is present, in a place or a situation or a season.
  • Our reading cuts off but this scene continues with Jacob trying to make a deal with God. Jacob makes a promise: “If God will be with me, and will protect me, and make sure I have food to eat and clothing to wear, and that I eventually am able to go home again, then God will be my God, and I’ll give you, God, one tenth of everything you give me.” 
  • Basically, he says: “If you take care of me, I’ll believe in you, and if things go well for me, I’ll pay you back for helping me.”
  • Do we think this is how God works? …  Can we make deals with God? Can we bribe God into helping us? … 
  • There is a lot that is mysterious about God… and about prayer… and about why good things happen, or bad things. 
    • But I think we can be pretty confident that we can’t make deals with God.
  • But I think this is Step 2 in faith because it’s very normal. Sometimes we forget – or we haven’t learned yet – that God isn’t just like another human being. We can’t bargain with God because we don’t have anything God wants … except to love God back, and you can’t make a bargain with that. 
  • And again, this isn’t a step we move through and leave behind. Let me tell you, as my first-born child prepares to leave home, I am tempted to try to make some bargains with God, for his safety and his joy. 
    • It’s very normal for our prayers sometimes to take this shape… and I know God understands! 
  • Okay.  Back to Jacob.  A bunch more stuff happens to him. He gets married – twice – we’ll share that story next week!
  • He gets a LOT of goats. [ Are Jacob’s goats plain or spotty? …
  • I love that part of the story but we don’t have time to explain it here – ask a kid later!  ]
  • Jacob’s wives have kind of a baby-having contest, and he ends up with a lot of sons. We didn’t cover that in Drama camp because honestly, it’s a little awkward!
  • Then Jacob decides it’s time to go home. He has a big family, he has a big flock of goats, and he needs to get away from his controlling father-in-law… and his brothers-in-law, who are getting cranky about how rich Jacob is getting. 
  • His wives Rachel and Leah are ready to go too.  They feel like their father doesn’t even treat them like family anymore.
  • So one night, in the dark, Jacob rounds up the family and the servants and the goats and other animals and goods, and they set out to head towards Jacob’s home. 
  • There are so many details in this story that I love! Here’s one: Jacob’s father in law Laban has a little household altar with some clay or metal figures of gods on it – the gods Laban worships. Jacob’s wife Rachel steals those god figures, when they leave. It’s not clear why; maybe she wants to have them with her, maybe she’s just mad at her dad. Anyway, Laban chases Jacob and the family, and when he catches up with them, he and Jacob have a big argument. Finally Laban says, Well, at least give me back my god figurines! Jacob says, I don’t have them! Search the camp, we didn’t take them! He doesn’t know that Rachel has them. 
    • So Laban searches the camp. But Rachel hides the gods in a camel saddle, and sits on it, and when her father comes in to search her tent, she says, “Daddy, sorry I’m not getting up, I’m on my period.” And he leaves her alone, and doesn’t find the gods. 
  • Then Jacob and the family continue on, and he sends a Messenger ahead to tell Esau that he’s coming. [What does the Messenger tell him when he returns? … (Esau is coming WITH 400 MEN!) ]
  • Jacob is TERRIFIED.  He sends a gift ahead to try and soften his brother’s heart.  
  • And he prays:  ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good”, I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”
  • Listen to how Jacob prays here: “I am not worthy.” “Save me, please, for I am afraid.” 
  • There’s no trickery and no bargaining. This is just an honest prayer from the heart, in fear and desperation. 
  • The spiritual writer Ann Lamott says there are three basic kinds of prayer: Help, Thanks, and Wow. This is a pure Help prayer. 
  • And I would call this a significant step for Jacob – Step 3. Because this is a real prayer.  A simple prayer, but an honest prayer. 
  • He knows he’s not bringing anything to the table. This situation is beyond his control. 
  • He just needs to call on somebody bigger and wiser and kinder.
  • This is an important step of faith – when we know or feel that we can just cry out from our hearts, from our fear or need, and ask God to help us. Save me, please. 
  • Let me just point forward really quickly to two more steps of faith that I think are here in Jacob’s story. This same night, something strange happens: a mysterious figure comes out of the darkness and wrestles with Jacob, all night long. 
  • The Biblical text hints that this stranger is somehow God.
  • I would say that wrestling with the mystery of God is a pretty significant step of faith. We can spend a lot of time there; many deeply faithful people have, and do. 
  • And then when Jacob and Esau finally meet – is Esau angry?… No, he just wants to give his brother a big hug, right?
  • And Jacob says to Esau: Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. 
    • I think that’s one more step of faith: the step where we start to be able to see God in other people. Still knowing that God is mysterious, and transcendent, and ineffable, and all those big words – that God is big and strange and very much not just another human being. 
  • But also, that God is present in this world, and in other people, because God made and loves us.  
  • And that we can seek God, and serve God, through other people. 
    • The place I was on retreat last week, Holy Wisdom, is a religious community based on the teachings of Saint Benedict. Benedictines worship with chairs here and chairs here – facing each other – so they can see each other, and see God present in one another, as they pray. We kind of do that too, on Zoom and in our summer church setup.  
  • So that’s an invitation into the last step of Jacob’s faith journey – being able to begin to see God reflected in other people, as ordinary and imperfect as we are. 

Thank you, kids, for helping tell the story! 

(Depending on time, ask them for their favorite part? Remind them that we’ll act out the wedding scene next week.) 

Thank all those who helped out, supported, prayed for our Drama Camp last week!…