Text: Genesis 28:10-19
Coming of Age Celebration
What do a baby doll, a Bible, a notebook, a water pitcher, a blanket, a red kick ball, and a communion cup have in common? This winter I’ve been a guest in each of our elementary school age Sunday school classes. Our Christian Education Commission asked me to talk with our young people about rituals in the church and why we do them. Those objects are some of the props I’ve been carting around.
Many of these rituals are ones we share in common with other Christians. In these classes we’ve started out by gathering in a circle around the red kick ball, which serves as our sun. We talk about the liturgical calendar. So far we’ve managed to circle through the seasons of the church year without breaking out in a spontaneous game of dodgeball, but there have been a couple close calls. After the full circle we talk about Communion and baptism and what they mean to us.
We also talk about the different rituals they will experience as they grow up in this particular congregation. We dedicate babies as a way of blessing families and committing to raising children as a community. We give Bibles to second graders and encourage them to be in lively conversation with Bible stories. Toward the beginning of high school we have a catechism class that gives a big overview of how Mennonites have understood Christian faith. At the end of high school, we wrap you in a blanket that will be yours to take with you wherever you’re headed next.
Toward the middle of that progression, usually in your twelfth year, is this Coming of Age celebration. It’s our way, as a congregation, of marking that major transition from childhood to adolescence. We like to make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal. Cultures around the world have found it vital, in their own way, to mark entry into this new stage of increased independence and responsibility.
I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own children Coming of Age, so it makes me wonder if I am now coming of age as a parent – entering parent tweenagehood.
So Eve, Mira, and Ivan – Hello. One of the ways you have helped design this service was by choosing the scripture. We looked at a couple different stories and the one that you chose was this one about Jacob in Genesis 28. Jacob has this strange dream about this stairway or ladder that goes between the earth and heaven. During the dream God tells him that God will always be with him. It’s such an important experience that Jacob marks the spot with a rock that he sets up as a pillar. He even anoints the rock with oil, which I believe was Ivan’s favorite part of the skit.
So what does this story, this dream, this stairway to heaven, this rock, have to do with you?
One of the first things to note about this story is that it is a story about leaving home. Jacob has lived with his mother Rebecca and father Isaac and his older twin Esau his whole life. This is the first we know of Jacob setting out on his own, all by himself. His plan is to go from Beer Sheba in the south, way up to Haran in the north, to meet with his uncle Laban and find a suitable wife for himself. So Jacob is getting a little ahead of us since I’m not aware any of you are planning on leaving home or finding a spouse anytime in the next few years.
But in this stage of life we call adolescence, we begin the process of leaving home. Even though you still have a number of years living with your parents, you’re already starting to peak out the front door and see what else is going on in the world. It isn’t a physical leaving home yet, but there’s something within you taking place where your world is opening up much wider than just your home, just your family, just the familiar and comfortable world that you have known your whole life.
You’re starting that process of moving out into the world, and this is a good thing. You’re welcoming relationships and experiences that you have apart from parents and home. And there’s this sense of boundless potential that you might feel, wide open possibility, and that gives all of us who know you great joy when we think about that.
So we meet up with Jacob when he is leaving home. And he’s in this in between place. Not home anymore, in Beer Sheba, and not yet at his destination, Haran. Maybe for you this is kind of like not being in childhood anymore, but not yet quite in adulthood. You’re officially in between. And in this in between land, Jacob comes to a certain place. It’s getting dark, so he stops traveling for the day. He looks around like any resourceful young person might do, and finds a good rock to use as a pillow, and camps out for the night.
This is a camping story. Maybe we learn some things when we camp that we can’t learn when we’re safe inside our house with our comfy mattress and soft pillow. Jacob is on a solo camping trip, but he soon finds out he is not alone.
It must have been a pretty cozy rock, because the next thing we know, Jacob is asleep and he’s having a dream. And this dream becomes a key experience for him.
Now I have on pretty good authority that each of you are big Harry Potter fans. And so, on the subject of dreams, you might recall that in the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry keeps having this recurring dream about this mysterious corridor and a room where he is looking for something. Harry’s mentor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, is concerned that the Dark Lord Voldemort might be influencing Harry through these dreams, getting into his mind when his guard is down, and so Harry is supposed to be doing some training and learning techniques for how to keep his guard up while he is sleeping.
Well in the Bible, it’s God who gets into people’s minds while they are sleeping. It’s in people’s dreams, when their guard is down, that God shows up and has a chance to show them a path, a place, a possibility, that they might otherwise not be aware of.
Jacob is one of the early dreamers in the Bible, and then his son Joseph turns out to be quite a dreamer, and interpreter of dreams. Daniel has dreams about God and also interprets the dreams of the king of Babylon. Many of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, have dreams, or visions – dreams during the day – where God gives them a picture or words to speak to their people. And then in the New Testament there’s Joseph the Dreamer part II, this guy who gets a series of dreams telling him what to do about this situation with this woman named Mary he’s supposed to be marrying who is already pregnant and whose baby, who they’re going to name Jesus, is threatened by the somewhat Lord Voldemort-ish King Herod. Throughout the Bible dreams are an important way that God speaks to people.
And so instead of learning how to keep your guard up during dreams, your mentors and teachers and parents and pastors will be encouraging you to let your guard down, to let these mysterious messengers of God speak to you.
Pay attention to these things you sense deep within you about what is wrong with the world, or what is wonderful about the world, places where you see beauty and joy and love, these pictures that you have in your mind. Dreams at night or during the day. This is part of the way that God speaks to you.
Jacob is in a vulnerable and even scary situation. He’s not at home anymore and not yet at his destination. He’s in this in between land, camping out by himself. He drifts off to sleep.
And when he dreams, he sees this stairway connecting earth and heaven. The point of this stairway, it turns out, isn’t so Jacob can walk up and take a peek around the heavens and see what things are like. The point is for Jacob to see that these two worlds that we can so often separate in our minds, the world of people and places and things, and the world of the heavens, the spiritual world of God, to see they are connected. This stairway has angels going up and down. And the word for angels means messengers. There are messengers going between, so Jacob sees that the lines of communication are wide open here. Even though he’s camping on his own in the middle of nowhere, God is with him.
This stairway is a symbol of that connection. It fills in the gap. Like in your house where the stairway helps you get up and down between the different floors, so you’re not stuck on one or the other. You can be in the whole house.
One of the people who has done a lot of thinking and writing about the relationship between human development, different stages of life, and faith development is a professor by the name of James Fowler. He says that one of the things that begins to happen for you right about now is the process of synthesis – of drawing together different parts, different thoughts, different experiences and perspectives. Parts that may not feel all that related right now, but parts that you will begin asking how they might hold together. How do this and that fit together? How can this and that both be true?
A big part of this has to do with personal identity. We have this new consciousness in our early teen years where we start asking who we are. We start paying more attention to who others say we are. We have different groups of people in your life, and some of them don’t overlap very much. You have your life at home. You have the relationships in your extended family. You have this group of folks at church. You have your life at school with teachers and friends and people who you’re trying to figure out if they’re actually your friend. You have all these parts, all these different yous – and you start to wonder: Well…which me am I? Am I who my parents say I am? Who my friends say I am? Who the people I don’t get along with very well say I am? Who church says I am? Who’s right?
A big part of your life for the next number of years will be working on how all these parts fit together.
Jacob’s stairway is a message that there is a connection. All these parts that feel separate and disjointed and almost like different worlds, do fit together. And, most importantly, God is in each one of those places. It’s like different rooms and levels all inside the same house, and you’re free to move around and explore.
God shows up alongside Jacob and tells Jacob that no matter where he goes, God will be with him. God tells Jacob that he will be blessed, and that others will be blessed through him. And that’s exactly what Jacob needs to know for this journey. He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, but he goes with a blessing. Even though he’s in this in between place, God is with him, Love with a capital L is with him, and all of these different parts somehow will fit together some day.
So that’s the dream. Jacob wakes up. This is a dream he’s going to remember the rest of this life. He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” This place is like the house of God.
It’s such an important experience that he decides he has to mark the spot. This has to be more than just a memory in his head. He needs something physical as a reminder, so whenever he sees that thing he can remember the experience. And so, being the resourceful young person that he is, he decides that this rock which has been his pillow is going to be a multipurpose rock. He sets it up as a pillar, puts some oil on it, perhaps in the same way he would have put oil on his own head each morning as a lotion. He treats the rock, the visible reminder of those messengers connecting earth and heaven, like he would treat his own face. It’s now a part of him. It fits into the person he’s becoming.
In the next part of our service we’ll be giving you a physical reminder of this day. You’ll each receive a notebook that contains blessings and personal words from your church family. Just like God sent Jacob with a blessing, we want to give you our blessing for the journey ahead.