Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17
We end this story on a high note – with Jacob’s lovely vision of angels ascending and descending this ladder from heaven and the voice of God telling Jacob that his family will cover the earth and that God will protect them and bring him back to the land on which he now stands. It’s a beautiful dream and it sets up Jacob to be one of our ancestors of faith. Like so many of the stories in the Bible, this one is meant to give us a sense that we are following God’s plan – that we can trace our lineage to leadership that has been ordained by God so that we can faithfully believe that we are doing God’s work.
But it’s all based on a lie. Isn’t it? Jacob reaches this special place and he hears this special promise because he’s fleeing his angry brother, because he’s taken something that wasn’t meant for him, because he lied to their father, going so far as to wear goatskins to complete the deception.
Why would the descendants of Jacob ever tell this story? Humans often use stories and myths to explain their place in the world. Usually, the tales are told in a way that show them in the best light – smart, strong, and successful. Jacob’s tale, however, may describe him as cunning but all I find myself focusing on is the theft and trickery.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that the story is told this way. Maybe it’s best that Jacob is not painted as a perfect hero. There’s a hint of confession in this text, we see Jacob with all his warts and scars, so it’s harder for us to believe ourselves perfect. Maybe that’s even why we’re told that Jacob was sleeping on a rock when he had this beautiful dream. Maybe this revelation was meant to be uncomfortable. So often, the truth is difficult to hear.
In his book “Between the World and Me,” African-American journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates tells a story about being interviewed on TV by a white journalist. “…the host wanted to know,” he writes, “why I felt that white America’s progress…was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is in the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.”
The history that we’ve written for ourselves as Americans has some similarities as Jacob’s. American history tells the story of American exceptionalism. The tales of our past are shaped to show why we deserve the best, why we deserve the land on which we live and the power to influence nations or destroy the world as we please.
Our story claims that the American Dream is available to all who choose to work hard enough. Everyone is entitled to own their own home, to work a stable career, to make enough money to raise a family.
It’s a dream we believe was given to us by God.
But it was a dream that was stolen from others – the land stolen from the indigenous people, then cultivated on the backs of stolen humans.
Of course, our story has hints of confession sprinkled throughout. We admit, sort of, that the land is stolen. We admit, sort of, that slavery was a real thing and that we probably shouldn’t have done that. The story of the American Dream tells us that we’ve overcome that violence and oppression, that it’s not who we are anymore.
The American Dream tells us that when we say everyone can work hard to achieve that home and that family, we mean everyone.
But if we look at our history with clear eyes, we must see the uncomfortable truths that lie within.
Ta-Nehesi Coates said he felt a sadness when the reporter asked her question because “she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream.”
Statistics tells us that the American dream does not apply to everyone in the country. People of Color are not exposed to the same quality of school systems, not given the same opportunities to attend higher education, they face racism in the hiring process, are put in jail disproportionately – tearing apart family structures and painting a picture that looks more like a nightmare than a dream.
Jacob stole his birthright from Esau; who have we stolen ours from?
Why would this story be in the Bible? If the authors are trying to create a story of beginnings, to show that God is on their side, to list the gifts given to them by God, wouldn’t they have told the story differently?
We’ve done a better job at crafting our stories. Yes, America admits to her faults – but only to a certain level. We confess to slavery but gloss over its horrors. And we convince ourselves that slavery existed in the distant past not that it still exists on our farms, in our yards, in fast food kitchens. We extol the virtues of equal housing laws and affirmative action policies but we turn a blind eye to the ways in which systematic racism continues to keep the colors separated. We condemn the men in white hoods and swastikas but we don’t question violence that is perpetrated by those in police uniforms. We still believe in a manifest destiny given to us by God that the world is ours to conquer.
Waking up to see that the American dream is a myth is even more uncomfortable than placing our head under a rock to sleep.
After Jacob wakes from his dream, he took the rock that was his pillow and “set it to become a pillar,” a way to mark a holy place of God. We need to awaken from our false dream of what America is and who America is for. The work that we do can become a new foundation for a truly holy place.
Perhaps the story of Jacob’s lies and theft remain in our holy text to remind us that we, too, are flawed. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, to recognize that things are not as perfect as we hoped. We have a lot of work to do. But I believe our souls long for God like a deer thirsts for water. I believe that we hear the call of God’s justice in every fiber of our being.
God’s Spirit is calling us to the work. We are being called to open our hearts and close our mouths, to look honestly at the path we’ve taken to get to this point, to confess to our sins of racism and white supremacy.
The Spirit that created the world flows through us even now. The One who communicated to our ancestors of faith and to prophets still speaks to us today. The Word of God which became flesh call us to look with new eyes to a new path, one guided by God and led be people of all colors and ethnicities, creating an American Dream that is true and real and better than we could ever imagine. An American Dream that is truly available to everyone.
The God of tomorrow cries out to us in the stories of yesterday, telling us to break the schemes of our distant and not-so-distant past so that we can create a world where we bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, and proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
This revelation is uncomfortable. This work is not easy. But God is with us – all of us. And working with God, we can make the dream of a just world for all a reality.
God of gentleness and justice, let your spirit flow through us so that we may do your work. Through the words of our past, let us imagine a better future. Open our eyes to our failures so that we can make them right. Give us strength and courage to endure the discomfort. Help us transform our world to reflect your dream. Through Jesus Christ, Amen.