Giving all glory and honour to God.
Our reading this morning is from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Long story short, twin brothers Jacob and Esau have a big falling out, and Jacob runs away, and he sleeps with a stone under his head, which sounds very uncomfortable. And Jacob dreams that he sees a ladder, or stairway, or ramp, reaching to heaven, and angels going up and down on it.
We ‘re going to sing the old spiritual “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” later. I’ve sung it before in ministry, and the older folks tend to get nostalgic for their days at camp. My generation would get nostalgic thinking of another song, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, which was always the last song at dances in high school.
There’s lots to think and talk about in this story, but one thing that stands out for me is that Jacob is on the run. His brother wants to kill him. The story takes place when there isn’t really any government or legal system, just families enforcing their own codes of honour, but Jacob is an outlaw.
Now, we have kind of a conflicted relationship with outlaws. When my mother was growing up in Aylmer, Quebec, the entertainment for teenagers was going to the movies, and for a dime or whatever it was 70 years ago you got a newsreel, a cartoon, a Western, and the movie. My mother saw all the Westerns. And in that era of Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, the outlaws were the bad guys. They wore the black hats, so you could tell who they were. The white hat guys might be falsely accused and be outlaws for a while, but they always came back to the side of law and order.
But by the time I was a kid the movies had changed. I just bought a set of spaghetti westerns on DVD, on sale for $5, Westerns that were made in the 1960s and 70s. And in this era, Clint Eastwood and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, the movies were about the outlaws.
After all, the outlaws tend to be the most interesting characters, and not just in Westerns. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are about the pirates, not about the Navy enforcing the law. We love these colourful eighteenth-century pirates, but not the 21st century ones who are capturing ships off Somalia.
I just watched a movie about Jesse James and his gang, called American Outlaws, and the viewer is intended to root for the James boys against the army and the railroad. The movie glosses over unpleasant aspects like their support for slavery in the Civil War. If you watched The Brady Bunch, you may remember the episode where the parents are very concerned that Bobby has written a school essay about his hero, and he has chosen Jesse James. So they let him stay up late and watch a movie about Jesse James, hoping that he will see his hero robbing banks and murdering people and get turned off. But the movie is edited so that Bobby sees none of this. Our outlaw stories can be like that too. We like the bad boys and the bad girls, at least in fiction, but they’re romantic and thrilling only if they’re not too bad.
Jesse James is certainly far from a perfect character, but at least a part of us still roots for him, especially when he’s played by Colin Farrell or Brad Pitt. In this story we root for Jacob, the outlaw. And he is far from perfect, too. He may not murder anyone – although later his sons kill everyone in a city - but Jacob is on the run in the first place because he fooled his father into giving him the blessing that was the right of his brother Esau. He’s a tricky guy, and his mother eggs him on.
Yet even though Jacob is a trickster and lies to his father, even though he’s an outlaw on the run, God speaks to him in this dream of the stairway to heaven, and makes a promise to protect him. And later Jacob gets a new name – Israel. And in turn the new nation of God’s people is named Israel after Jacob, for the tribes of Israel are descended from Jacob’s children. God is known in the Bible as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Pretty good for an outlaw.
Look at the characters of the Bible. There are more than a couple of bad boys and girls in there. Moses killed a man in Egypt and was an outlaw in the desert. Rahab was a prostitute who helps the Israelites. David was an outlaw fleeing the king. Elijah fled another king and hid out. Jesus himself, although he never did anything wrong, had to escape from angry rulers and live on the run, saying 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' He was put to death as a criminal. And he predicted that his followers would be dragged before rulers and courts, and they were frequently on the run too, run out of town.
I think the point here for us is what Jacob says when he wakes up from his dream, and looks around at the desolate, rocky place where he had been sleeping in his escape. He remembers how in the dream God has promised to stick by him, and he says, “Surely God is here in this place, and I didn’t know it.” God is in this place, even among outlaws. God knows that none of us is perfect. God promises to stick with us no matter what, even in our wanderings, even when we are outside the acceptable boundaries of society.
And God’s people aren’t necessarily respectable, well behaved people. The Bible tells us over and over that to follow God, as God is shown to us in Jesus, means that we have to do what Jesus did and break the rules of society from time to time. Proclaiming the good news of Jesus in our lives results in us offending comfortable people. We have to love people whom society doesn’t want us to love. We have to work for love and justice and peace at times when society prefers fear and injustice and violence. God’s people in every time and place have found that there are times when the law violates God’s justice and our faith requires us to disobey the law. And so Christians in the southern United States in the 1960s broke the laws that discriminated against black people. They were outlaws. That American Outlaws movie said sometimes the wrong side of the law is the right place to be, and that's true.
It’s not something we do lightly, it’s not something we do without a lot of prayer and questioning, but sometimes we must be outlaws too, whether pushing against the boundaries of society or going beyond them and breaking an unjust law. We won’t all agree on when God is calling us to be an outlaw. There are consequences for disobeying the law. And that’s scary.
But God is in this place and all places, even if we don’t know it. And we have God’s Spirit for guidance and strength, and we have Jesus, who knew what it was like to live on the run, and is different in one crucial way from all the outlaws of movies and books – he would rather die for us all than draw a gun on any one of us. Thanks be to God.