And I Did Not Know It: Jacob Goes To Mt. Rushmore
A rock, a ladder and a promise to a man who is running for his life.
That is what we get in our story from Genesis today.
Jacob is in a very bad situation. He stole not only his brother Esau’s birthright, but also his blessing, and Esau has finally had enough.
Esau resolves in Genesis 27 to set aside a decent time of mourning for his father Isaac, but once it is over, he will kill Jacob.
Rebekah finds out and tells Jacob he needs to get out of town, fast. So Jacob sets out.
There is very little that is admirable about Jacob.
Even his name means “cheater,” and he lives up to it every time.
We might even question why God keeps providing for him, why God continues to come through for him, why God chooses him to be the vessel through which the entire nation of Israel will be built.
We should actually take God’s choice of Jacob as great good news.
Why? Because it takes away the burden and the illusion of personal worthiness being necessary for us to serve God.
Jacob doesn’t learn much throughout his life. His life with his children is equally as troubled and poorly managed as his life with his brother and his parents, and he seems to gain little self-awareness throughout it.
But none of that matters.
Here, at his lowest moment, fleeing the righteous wrath of his brother, having racked up one terrible sin after another and not showing any repentance for them, God comes to him and promises him amazing things.
It is so easy for us to think that we’ll listen for the call of God to do something great once we’ve got our lives together.
We just need to organize a few more things, get rid of a few more bad habits, get through this difficult situation, get a new job or a new partner or a new house, and then we’ll be ready to answer God’s call.
This story reminds us that it is actually right in the midst of our sin and fear and brokenness that the call comes, and that far from initiating the process ourselves, God reaches out to us right in our darkest moment and promises the world to us.
We’ve all been where Jacob is on this night.
He is out in the wilderness, alone, afraid, wondering if his brother will come on him in the night and kill him.
Perhaps our personal circumstances have not been quite as extreme as Jacob’s, but imagine how he felt trying to get to sleep that night.
He had so few resources that he had to take a rock as a pillow.
How many times have you lain in bed at night, so full of worry and despair that your pillow feels like a rock?
You can’t get comfortable and relax no matter how you toss and turn, because the turmoil in your mind is tying your body in knots.
And the worst is when, like Jacob, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have created the circumstances that have driven us into such a lonely and frightening place.
But then comes the amazing dream.
What strange specificity, the ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending!
The image of the ladder has captured the imagination of artists throughout the centuries, and immortalized in music and folklore. The obvious implication of the ladder to heaven is that we are meant to climb it, to advance in spiritual wisdom and virtue toward the realm of God.
But God never asks Jacob or anyone else to climb the ladder.
The meaning is actually the opposite. “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it,” the text says.
But look at the very next verse: “And the LORD stood beside him,” beside Jacob.
Where is God?
At the top of the ladder, looking down and making proclamations, urging us to climb up?
God has come down the ladder to stand beside Jacob.
This is a profound theological moment in the Hebrew Scriptures that stands on its own, but we as Christians looking at it through our own lens can’t help but think of the Incarnation.
God descending from heaven, coming down to our level, standing right beside us to guide us and to promise to be with us—that is the very story of Jesus Christ being born as a human and dwelling with us.
And Jacob, a man whose spiritual senses have never been keen, understands the significance of what he is experiencing.
“Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!””
I had a similar experience while I was on vacation—not quite as dramatic as Jacob’s, but meaningful just the same.
I went to see the Crazy Horse carving and the presidential carving on Mount Rushmore.
I expected to have all the familiar feelings of awe and patriotism, but they wouldn’t come.
Instead, I was overcome with grief.
The Black Hills are lands that were sacred to the American Indian peoples who lived there.
Not satisfied with taking their land from them, white people then decided to carve the faces of their conquerors into the side of a sacred mountain in their most spiritually significant lands.
At Crazy Horse, all I could think was that it was carved by white people into Indian sacred land, supposedly to honor Indian people but with the net result of making money for one white family, selling Indian history and culture in a Disneyland atmosphere.
I actually started crying in the Crazy Horse gift shop.
The hardest part about it is that there is no way to fix it.
There are a number of things we can do here and now to be aware of and work toward ending the profound economic depression and high levels of unemployment, poor health care and low education outcomes on American Indian reservations.
The building movement to change the name of the NFL Washington Redskins franchise, a sports team whose name is an open ethnic slur, is an important step.
But no matter what we do now, nothing can erase the painful past, the history of genocide followed by the final insult and humiliation of white people carving up a sacred mountain with the faces of white people.
It would be like if someone came into our church, tore down the altar, and used the wood to build an outhouse.
And so I found myself, in the midst of what was supposed to be a carefree vacation seeing the great sights of the American West, having an acutely painful crisis of conscience and grief.
While it continues to pain me greatly, as we drove through the countryside in Utah and Colorado and South Dakota, I realized how much bigger the land was than these small, prideful monuments.
How puffed up and arrogant we human beings are, thinking to create lasting edifices to our greatness carved in stone, when they are a drop in the bucket compared to the greatness of God painted across the landscape in great splashes of beauty and glory.
It was very comforting to me to see and understand that no small, self-important monument holds a candle to the magnificence of God’s artistry in the land, and the land’s holiness could never really be damaged by human actions.
Long after Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are worn away by wind and water and time, the glory of the Lord will be revealed every morning in the dawn over the mountains.
And so I said with Jacob, in the midst of my pain, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
But it wasn’t only the majesty of the mountains and the lakes and forests of the Black Hills that made me take Jacob’s words for my own.
One of the very last stops we made was at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
This was the site of a massacre of Lakota people by U.S. troops in 1890. At least 150 men, women and children were gunned down, and over fifty wounded, some of whom later died from their injuries. Some estimates of the death toll were as high as 300.
The U.S. government awarded 25 medals of honor to the soldiers who murdered these men, women and children in the freezing December snow.
When we got to Wounded Knee, I was astonished to find no plaque, no marker, no memorial, no visitors’ center, nothing from the U.S. government acknowledging what happened here.
I’m not sure why—it could be because the government would rather forget the incident, or it could be because it is on reservation land and the Lakota people have requested that the government stay out.
At any rate, all that is there is a broken down, overgrown cemetery attended by a couple of Lakota teenagers who panhandle tourists for money.
It made me sad at first, but then I noticed the life that was present.
All around the graves, tied to the iron fence surrounding the column commemorating the massacre victims, were tied prayer cloths in every color imaginable.
Red, blue, green, yellow, prints and solids and stripes, looking almost alive themselves as they flapped bravely in the wind.
Rather than a perfectly manicured lawn like we’re used to seeing in cemeteries, the grass and the flowers grew wild around the graves.
This was a place of death, but it was also a place of life and of love.
And so I said again with Jacob, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
And so on my vacation, I found some peace to go alongside my pain, and I heard the promise of God to redeem all things in the fullness of time.
As I lay in bed at night thinking about what I’d seen that day, sometimes the exploitation would make my heart hurt so much it made my pillow feel like a rock.
But I was reminded that God is always surrounding the sin and destruction that we humans bring everywhere we go, with beauty and love and the promise of healing.
The American Indian people have received the revelation of God in a different way than I have, but I heard God’s promise to all the people of the earth in a way that gave me hope that the sin and death of this American history will one day be redeemed: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
That is a promise not just to Jacob and not just to us, but to all the peoples of the earth who have been driven from their homes and cast out as refugees, including our brothers and sisters in war-torn countries around the world today.
Jacob took the rock that was the hard and unyielding pillow for his head in a desolate place, and declared it a holy monument.
Perhaps we too will one day learn to quit carving stones to our own imagined greatness, but consecrate the stones of our lonely and broken places, knowing they are the surest route to God.
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