July 23, 2023
The funny thing about Jacob’s ladder is that the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Did you catch it? Ascending and descending.
Going up and going down. Are you picking up what Jacob’s ladder is putting down?
We here in the western world tend to think of angels of these glowing winged beings with harps that live in heaven. They come in dreams. They have a message from God about virgin births or bestowing a prophetic word or winning lottery numbers. These angels start in heaven and go down to earth and then back up to heaven.
Yet Jacob’s ladder has the messengers start here on earth, head up to heaven for a message and then down to spread the message from God around. In the Jewish theological imagination, angel means messenger. It doesn’t need to have wings, although that’s an image used, too. The main image of angels comes from Jacob’s dream, right here in Genesis 28. Jacob is fleeing from Esau’s wrath after tricking his father Isaac into getting Esau’s birthright. While he’s on the run, he has this dream.
The angels are ascending and descending a ladder into heaven. They are going up and down. “Angel” in Hebrew just means messenger. There’s no need for wings. You don’t have to glow in the dark. You just need to be a messenger. Anyone can be a messenger. If you’re human and you’re looking for God and seeking God’s ways, you can ascend the ladder and come down with a message.
We Congregationalists believe this, too. While we like educated clergy, we also believe that God can still speak through and with shocking regularity with the lay people. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:27 “For God has chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak of the world to shame the mighty.”
I can be a messenger. You can be a messenger. We the congregation can be the messenger. That’s because we can ascend and descend. This doesn’t rule out dreams and visions of heavenly messengers. I have recounted before the birth of my daughter Eve. I was shaken up and anxious about becoming a father. My grandma appeared to me in a dream, and I have never doubted my calling to be a father since.
Genesis is a family drama akin to Dynasty or Parenthood or This is Us. Pick your generational family sitcom. It’s a story, and stories have multiple interpretations and insights. When God put on skin and moved into the neighborhood in Jesus our Christ, he taught us by telling stories. Parables. Things with multiple meanings. Jesus deals in both/and.
Others might accuse you of being squishy. Of having a vague faith. These are folks who want to deal in certainty. Yet after receiving the dream, Jacob exclaims, “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it!”
It is a humble response to an unexpected gift. A message from God. Why did he get this dream now? We don’t know. Does Jacob heed this advice? No. It takes awhile sometimes to lean into a teaching from God. God could be speaking through Esau, but Jacob isn’t ready to hear that just yet. The dream has the messengers start here and go up the ladder and then back down.
Any of us can be the voice of God. We are all children of God. You will never look into the eyes of someone whom God does not love. That does not mean all voices are equal. Often for me, those speaking the loudest on behalf of God are the ones who seem to get God all wrong. They speak with confidence and certainty about what God wants. Here’s who God hates. Here’s how to vote. Here’s the God approved music, movies, and books you’re allowed to listen to. Yet God never seems to make those distinctions. When questioned about approved sources, Jesus seems to dodge the question. Or hurl a parable that disrupts conventional thinking. It ruins the immaculate lists of what’s approved. Jesus is always hacking these lists.
Often these messengers are the last people we want them to be. Those without shelter, walking up and down North Court Street with their cardboard sign or pile of possessions in a shopping cart… that’s a messenger from God saying we need adequate housing. Or job training. Or more mental health services. A messenger showing us that not all of our neighbors are being served by the power structure we have set up. The message isn’t automatically “how do we assimilate these folk?” but also “how are things set up exactly? Is there favoritism at play? Do some have an easier go of things and quicker access to power?” It’s a both/and sort of thing. You can know and trust a message is from God if it’s a both/and.
I hope you’re picking up what I’m putting down. If not, let me hurl a few stories at you from our own Medina church family tree.
H.G. Blake was a messenger. He ascended the ladder, got word from God that slavery was an abomination, and he descended saying racism is wrong. He became a conductor on the underground railroad. He could have been jailed and persecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act. He went into politics and helped end the Ohio Black Laws, which were the Jim Crow laws of the north. He did this not because it was popular, easy, or convenient but because it wasn’t. That’s how you know it is from God.
Syd Benson got a word from God that the church members should visit other church members. She set up the Circle of Caring, now called the Connection Outreach Circle headed by Pastor Karen Brocco-Kish, Frank Kish, and Alice Metzloff. Syd got the word to visit and keeps encouraging us all to visit. The church is the people, and we move at the speed of trust. The best way to build trust is to spend time together. We do this not because it is easy or convenient, but because it isn’t. That’s how you know it is from God.
So many women got word from God to set up the Women’s Circles after the war and to connect. The ladies tea, the ladies Lenten luncheon, and the 50 Year Member luncheon are gifts still coming from the Women’s Circles. Another gift that grew out of the Women’s Circles is sending out the Pilgrim Messenger newsletter. Every Thursday, Marilyn Koehler and Darlene Bagley-Fazekas still come here to fold and mail out the Pilgrim Messenger. This is how news of our church has gone out each week for decades. They do this not because it is easy or convenient but because it isn’t. That’s how you know it is from God.
Our annual award for the servant leaders of our church, named for Tom Evans, highlights the backbone of our life together. These individuals, like Tom, embody what it means to welcome, love, and serve. The first Tom Evans award presentation when I got here was to Betty Lynham of Bethlehem, PA. She still watches the livestream, supports, and prays for us, her church. She led the last big organ renovation in the 1990s. She cut red fabric squares that are up behind the pipes and was here most days of that long renovation. She knew the mix of beauty and making a joyful noise to the Lord. She did that not because it was easy or convenient but because it isn’t. That’s how you know it was from God.
Our committees and teams and moderators start here on Earth, get a word from God on how to lead this church in their season of leadership, and bring it back down. My first trio was Andy Johnson, Nicci Avalon, and Ken Zuehlke. Blessings to our current moderators of Dan Daubner, Alyson Alber, and Scott Ockunzzi, and all our teams.
And to you who are listening, showing up is 90% of the job. If you don’t have a vision right now, just wait. As the prophet Habbukuk 2:3, “If the vision tarries, wait.” And know that Jesus never once issued a creed or a doctrinal check list. He taught by parable. And he stated in one of those parables that those who shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, visit the sick and prisoner, are doing so unto him. For what you do to the least of these, you do unto me. Thank you for doing this. You do this not because it is easy or convenient but because it isn’t. We do this because we know it is from God.
Jesus comes with both/and stories to teach us. Tells us to be humble. To serve. He wants us to question our clean distinctions and boundary lines because God is always with the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the hungry, naked, and oppressed. The angels are ascending and descending. They start here on earth, go up, and come down with a divine message. And the message will be one of Good News. Of challenge. Of concern and love for our neighbor.
So I leave you with this blessing that the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brill from Avon Lake UCC recently gave me.
The world now is too dangerous
and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed
that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run
to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened,
so set on fire, that your love,
your love, changes everything.
 Once again from my class notes with Rabbi Jack Pasckoff and my class back in 2008. In Judaism, angels (Hebrew: מַלְאָךְ mal’āḵ, plural: מַלְאָכִים mal’āḵīm, literally “messenger”)