Monday, April 8, 2019

Sermon: "Rock of Ages: Our Commitment", Genesis 28:10-22/1 Kings 5:1-6, 13, 17-18 (April 7, 2019)

(This sermon is the fourth in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)


Let’s talk about home. You may have heard the phrase, “Home is where the heart is,” meaning that a person’s sense of home is tied to wherever they feel an emotional attachment. While a lovely sentiment, this can lead to some confusing conversations—just the other day, I was discussing vacation plans with my husband and I said, “So we’ll go home on Tuesday, spend a week with family in Rochester, and then we’ll come back home.” It took a full ten seconds of his confused expression for me to realize what I’d just said. Home, it seems, isn’t necessarily an easy thing to pin down.

I imagine that Jacob, in our reading from Genesis today, was experiencing some complicated feelings about home, too. In the previous chapter, he had stolen his father’s blessing from his brother, Esau, and was now fleeing Esau’s wrath. The place he’d grown up could no longer be “home” for him, at least for the time being. He was headed for Haran, where his uncle lived, but I’d bet his heart wasn’t there, either. Eventually, home or no home, he needed to stop from sheer exhaustion (betraying and then escaping from your older brother sure can take it out of you). For the moment, the only place he could even remotely call home was the place where he rested his head—a location chosen at random in the middle of the wilderness, with a stone for a pillow.

While Jacob was sleeping, God came down a staircase to him and introduced Godself: “I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” Notice that this introduction didn’t include “…and the God of Jacob.” That was still to be determined. God went on to offer Jacob the land on which he was lying, innumerable descendants, and protection. In other words, God was offering a sense of home to the displaced Jacob. Although he hadn’t yet committed himself to God, God was inviting Jacob to share God’s home.

Surely, as an uprooted wanderer, this offer must have sounded enticing to Jacob. “The Lord is definitely in this place,” he marveled, “this is none other than God’s own house.” Wisely, he chose to pause at God’s front porch and accept the offer. Jacob did two things to seal his decision: he made a commitment right then and there to accept YHWH as his God, and he took the very stone that had served as his pillow the night before—his “home away from home”—and turned it into a symbol of the promise that he had made. And in that decision, for a moment, he was home again.

See, if “home is where the heart is”, then that place, Beth-el, became Jacob’s home the instant that he made a commitment to God. In promising to embrace the Lord as not just his father’s and grandfather’s God, but as his own, Jacob was offering his very heart to YHWH. And so, Jacob the trickster, the man who had run away from everything important in his life, found a home in God, beginning a legacy of faith that would eventually become home to billions and billions of people throughout history.

A commitment can be all it takes to transform a place into a home. How much different does it feel to sign a year’s lease on an apartment than to take out a 30-year mortgage on a house you own? Or for that matter, to rent month-to-month versus signing an annual lease agreement? Likewise, how does a church transform from a building to a home when you make a commitment to it? I remember my confirmation as the day that church changed from a place that I go to a place that I belong. I stood in front of the congregation and made my faltering, imperfect commitment to God and to the community with nothing more to offer than a pre-teen’s life experience and understanding of the divine…and yet, it was enough. I was home.

Now, some days we’re better at this commitment thing than others. We ARE human, after all. Jacob’s response to God’s offer is a great example, because it can be interpreted two different ways. Some scholars read verses 20 through 22 as a condition: Jacob, ever one to hedge his bets, says, “Okay, God, IF you protect me and provide for me, THEN I’ll agree to worship you.” Sometimes, this is what our commitment to God looks like, too. IF you help me get through this week, IF I get the promotion, IF I find worship entertaining enough, IF you tell me what I want to hear…THEN, Lord, I will call you my God. THEN my commitment to you will be worth it. This sort of transactional commitment isn’t necessarily something to aspire to…but then again, I think it’s something that many of us can relate to.

The other way to interpret Jacob’s commitment is a bit more generous: “If God has promised to do these things for me, then surely YHWH is the God for me—because I know that God will keep God’s promises.” After all, Jacob would have known the family stories of his father’s miraculous birth and God’s hand in his parents’ meeting; he knew, even at this early point in the history of God’s people, that YHWH was a faithful God. Sometimes, our commitment to God looks more like this—we’re able to trust in God’s promises without evidence and without proof, because we know that God is good. At our best, our relationship with God is sacred to us even if we don’t get exactly what we want.

The thing is…it doesn’t really matter how or why we commit to God. It doesn’t matter whether we come to God with the intention of bargaining our way through the relationship or if we offer ourselves to God unconditionally from the very beginning. Either way, God still invites us home. You see, our commitment, whatever form it takes, is always in response to God’s, which necessarily comes first. And at the end of the day, even though our commitment to God is imperfect and mercurial, God’s commitment to US is always perfect, and so the end result is the same—YHWH will be our faithful and loyal God if we promise to be God’s people. So as long as we’re able to make a commitment, any commitment, to God, then it’s enough to transform wherever we are—even a place with dirt for a bed and a stone for a pillow—into a home where God eagerly welcomes us in.

Now, finding a home in God may not require commitment that’s perfect…but it does need to be ongoing. In order for our commitment to mean something, we need to keep it up every day, renewing it over and over again. And that…that’s where we tend to falter. I think this is why King Solomon, like his father David before him, was so fixated on building a temple to God. Time and time again, the Israelites had fallen away from God, forgetting all that the Lord had done for them. In building a temple, Solomon wasn’t just building a “home” for God. Stone by stone, he was building a reminder for the people—an impressive, impossible-to-miss monument to their relationship with God and the commitment that they had made to it. God’s temple “home” was a visible reminder of where God’s heart was and where theirs should be, too.

This was the same inclination that drove Jacob to transform his stone pillow into a makeshift monument to God. And yet, that sacred pillar wasn’t the thing that made Beth-el home for Jacob. Heck, by the next verse he had already left to continue on his journey. He doesn’t return to Beth-el again until chapter 35; by then, he’s married two wives, made up with Esau, and become a father many times over. In other words, he’s lived a lot of life away from the place that he found home. But his commitment—imperfect as it was—persisted through all of it. And when he finally returned to Beth-el, he built different pillars as new reminders to help him live up to the promises that he had made so many years ago.

Jacob knew that while the structures he’d built were important to help him remember his commitment, they weren’t the thing that made a place “home”. Our buildings, our rituals, our paraments, our books…all of these things are vital to our faith, but not in and of themselves. They’re important because every time we enter this space, every time we perform an act of worship, every time we change the paraments, every time we pick up a hymnal, we’re reminded of why we’re here. We’re here because not only has God made a promise to us…but we’ve made a promise to God. We’ve committed to be God’s people together, and THAT is what makes this our home.

Whether our reminders are enormous stone temples like Solomon’s or humble stone pillars like Jacob’s…or a modest stone cairn in the narthex, or a small stone bathed in baptismal water…it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we pay attention to these reminders, and that we keep committing ourselves to our relationship with God day after day. It can be difficult at times—after all, our commitment will never match God’s—but it’s the only way that we can truly call this place “home.”

So friends…look around. See the reminders that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Remember the commitment that YOU’VE made, or perhaps a new one that God is calling you to make right now. Remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be. God’s heart is here, and God is inviting you to offer yours, too. Welcome home. Amen.

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