When she was in high school, my daughter, Maddie, was a ballroom dancer. She still dances from time to time, but not so competitively. But I remember watching an exhibition some years ago. Maddie danced the rumba with her instructor, Charles. Charles was rather tall, and Maddie was ... not. I remember when she first started there, Charles told her to look over his shoulder while they were dancing. She could hardly see his shoulder, let alone look over it. But they managed.
More than managed; they were great. If I do say so myself. She was graceful and confident and accomplished. I was blown away, to say the least. She and her mother stayed to watch more of the dancers while I ran home to get to work on Sunday’s sermon, still beaming at her performance.
They danced to “I Will Follow Him,” which was recorded by Little Peggy March in 1963, and then made popular again by the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act back in 1992. In that movie, the song was turned into a quasi-religious anthem sung by the nuns at St. Katherine’s Convent in San Francisco. I didn’t realize it was a rumba. But then, since I’m still not clear what a rumba is, I’ll just go with it. I can follow too.
It was an appropriate song for the dance. Maddie just followed Charles, and sometimes, I think Charles was following Maddie. And sometimes, I wasn’t sure who was following whom. But then I didn’t have to know. I just watched them dance. And I was suitably impressed. We had noticed that some of the other women had some trouble with the floor that the ballroom had laid for this event. It must have been slick in places, or uneven. There were stumbles and bobbles aplenty. Except for Maddie. Ahem. Sorry had to toss that in. She was as sure footed as a gazelle, across the uneven and treacherous ground.
That’s the same kind of ground that Jacob was dancing across in our passage for this week. Wait, you are thinking quickly after such a clumsy segue. Jacob? Dancing? Dreaming perhaps, but not dancing, surely. Well, maybe not literally, but still ... go with me here.
What you need to know, or to remember, is that Jacob isn’t out for a little stroll one day. He is running for his life. He cheated his brother, conspired with his mother against his father, and now is on his way to hide out with some distant relatives, who he hopes haven’t been reading his brother Esau’s Facebook posts.
So, he runs as far as his legs will take him and then he drops in exhaustion. And given that he wasn’t really prepared for this journey, he grabs a stone for a pillow and falls asleep. And while he sleeps, he dreams. Understandable really, must be that crick in the neck he is getting from sleeping on a rock. Anyway, the dream is quite a production. One of those you don’t want to wake up from. And if you do open your eyes to the reality you are living in, you shut them quickly and hope to drift back to the landscape you were just dreaming instead of the one out your window. That’s the kind of dream it was.
A ladder, or staircase or ramp - the Hebrew here is a bit fuzzy. And we aren’t clear whether God stands with Jacob at the top of the ladder or at the bottom. But the words come through loud and clear. “You are blessed, Jacob.” And more than that, “you are not alone.”
What a message to hear when you are running for your life. What a note to receive when you are sleeping with a stone for your pillow. You would think, and I’ll bet he expected to hear the voice say, “Shame on you, Jacob, for being such a trickster, for being a self-centered mama’s boy. You are in big trouble now.” And maybe that’s what he should have heard. But he didn’t. He heard a different message. He heard an invitation. He heard a reminder of family, of connection.
The rabbis pointed out that before he went to sleep, Jacob took stones, plural. Our translation says one of the stones, but that’s to help it make sense to us. It really says he took stones for a pillow. So, he was sleeping on a pile of rocks. But after the dream, there is one stone under his head. So, they taught, it is the sign of the Spirit that what was many has been bound into one. The scattered pieces of Jacob’s soul have been stitched into a whole again, because of the presence and the protection of the Spirit of God. The broken dreams of a troubled man are given new hope and new life because of that visitation at night while he slept what must have been a troubled sleep.
I would like to say that everything went better for Jacob from that night on, that his act of worship transformed him into a new man. But it wouldn’t be true to the story. He still had a lot to learn; he still tried to dance his way through life and relationships, and he frequently found himself on uneven and stony ground.
But he was never alone. The promise was that he would have a dancing partner, no matter what. No matter how uneven the floor, no matter how stony the path. That’s our promise too. A dancing partner across the stony ground of our lives. What better news could there be?
Now, maybe we should try a rumba.
I will follow him, wherever he may go. There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away. I must follow him, ever since he touched my hand I knew. That near him I must always be. And nothing can keep him from me. He is my destiny. I will follow him.
(Songwriters: Paul Mauriat / Franck Marius Louis Pourcel / Jacques Plante / Raymond Levebfre; I Will Follow Him lyrics © Les Ed. Jacques Plante).
Watch your step there. Everybody dance.
And while we dance and dream, let’s take a moment to commend the lectionary preparers for putting this story of Jacob alongside the parable of the weeds and wheat. What a wonderful juxtaposition. Because most of us have trouble being fully supportive of Jacob’s actions and on board with the blessing that God gives him here in this story. He is something of a rogue, as we all know. We would be likely to uproot him from the story, knowing what we know of his character or lack thereof. But Jesus gives us pause. Jesus tells us to wait and reminds us that we are not equipped to see the depths of anyone’s heart.
“Let them both grow together,” he says, weeds and wheat - or weeds and flowers - or weeds and whatever else you might be growing in that garden of yours. Don’t worry about the weed patch, just let it grow. It is a free and easy kind of living, right? It is a “remove the boundaries, just let it be” kind of approach to life. It’s just the kind of thing all sorts of folks are advocating these days. So, is Jesus a “new age” thinker after all?
Well, there are a couple of things we have to take note of in this passage—important things that might change our behavior and our attitudes. First of all, this parable does not argue that there is no such thing as sin anymore. It doesn’t argue that there is no right and no wrong. The householder, when told about what has happened, when told that there are weeds in his field, says “an enemy has done this.” Jesus doesn’t claim that sin has disappeared. He acknowledges evil still at work in the world and in the minds and hearts of each of us and all of us. It is there, and its effects on us can be devastating. And we are in the business of trying to root it out.
That brings us to the second point of this parable: We don’t always know what we are looking at. One of the problems I had when I was sent out to weed the garden as a reluctant kid was that I wasn’t always sure which was weed and which was plant. I remember one time pulling out most of a row of carrots because they looked very much like the weeds I was sent to pull out. I couldn’t always tell.
The truth is, we all have our blind spots. Remember the story about the speck and the plank in the eye? The point there was that we often think sins we don’t have are worse than the ones we do. We are more ready to correct someone else’s bad behavior than to pay much attention to our own. And in fact, at times, what we want to correct in someone else might be a difference in perspective and not sinful after all. We Christians don’t have a perfect record throughout history on that one. We were sure that women weren’t as valued in God’s kingdom as men. We were sure that white skin was a better guarantee of entrance into heaven than black or brown or yellow or red. We were convinced that what Jesus wanted was to make everyone like citizens of the USA, or the West, or the developed world, and that cultural expressions of faith had to be uniform no matter where you lived.
Now we are embarrassed to have held these views. We couldn’t always tell what was a weed and what was wheat. And the parable also tells us that even when we do know, pulling out the weed can do more damage than leaving it alone. It tells us that if hospitality is at the top of our to-do list, if loving neighbors with the same energy with which we love God is our M.O.; then our approach to sin has to be different from pointing fingers and tossing folks out.
The other clear message of this parable is that ultimate judgment is God’s job and not ours. We don’t know enough, we can’t love enough, we won’t care enough to judge rightly. It might also be argued that trying to take over God’s job here is the ultimate in lack of faith. We don’t think God will deal with sin in the way we would like God to do. So, we’ll step in and handle it. That is arrogance that reeks of pride and self-centeredness. Instead, Jesus calls us to trust that God is still in charge. He calls us to trust that even though it appears that goodness and righteousness and living a life of love is simply a recipe for being taken advantage of in this dog-eat-dog world, God’s way is still a better way to be. God’s way is a more whole, more sustaining, more satisfying way to live.
That is the answer to the question, “What do we do about sin?” We live a life of righteousness in a public way so that those who have not yet found their way to God can see in us the power of Christ, the water of life welling up in springs. No, we don’t just turn our backs on sin; we overpower it; we counteract it with love, not judgment. We transform, even as we are being transformed, through hospitality and grace, not hatred and exclusion. We heal, even as we are being healed, through acceptance and hope, not condemnation and exile. We tend, even as we are tended.
And here’s the amazing part of the story. There will come a time when we will celebrate our hospitality, where we will embrace the grace that has been poured into us and then came forth from us. Like Jacob, we will stand before that ladder, or stairway, and see God face to face, and then we will shine like the sun. Compounding the joy will be the surprise of seeing who else is shining with us. Some of whom we might have pulled up and tossed out just might be further along in the journey than we are, and they might smile at us and say, “You know, I once thought you were a weed in God’s Garden and wanted to pull you out. Thanks be to God, I didn’t.”