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Dancing Sarah’s Circle and Climbing Jacob’s Ladder:
Why We Need Them Both
Larry Reimer

Genesis 28:10-17; Genesis 18:1-2; 9-16; Matthew 20:20-27; 16

We start a new theme today, "The Wisdom of the Circle." The phrase comes from a statement by the poet Rilke, "There is nothing so wise as a circle." In Lent we will explore the wisdom of the circle and what it can mean to our spiritual journey.

This morning we sang, the classic hymn, "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder," and a variation on it, "We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle."

"Jacob’s Ladder" puts me back in summer high school church camp. It’s dusk, and we are sitting outdoors, on a grassy hillside for evening vespers. The New Jersey Conference of the Congregational Church rents Blair Academy for its summer church camp, a prep school that could easily be a movie set near the Delaware Water Gap area of the Pocono Mountains. The day of volleyball, bible study, and hormonal surges is now quieting as a mist rises around the edge of the meadow where we sit. God’s spirit, like that mist, seems to be closing in on me. I begin to feel that there may be a God who speaks to me and not just to my parents.

Down front a youth minister from one of our Congregational churches challenges us to go higher with our faith. A harmonica plays "Jacob’s Ladder", and we start singing, tentatively at first, with little more than a whisper, because after all we are high schoolers, and it would be quite embarrassing to sing out loud, alone.

The speaker challenges us to live our faith in a way that makes a difference. He’s talking to me. I do want to make a difference. The words of the song echo his challenge. "Sinner do you love my Jesus?" I do.

The next verse ups the ante, "If you love him why not serve him?" Right. Why not? What am I doing here on this earth? I hear God call me to serve by standing for peace, for racial justice, for forgiveness and healing. I will do that. The song swells. We’re all singing louder. It’s like we can’t help it.

"Rise, shine, give God glory." We get up and walk to the crest of a hill to let the song reverberate into the valley before we fall into a last minute of silence. In moments such as this I know - God makes a difference in my life.

Since then the UCC hymnal has gotten rid of the stuff about sinners. At camp we changed "Soldiers of the cross," to "Pilgrims of the cross" (Congregationalists were after all originally the pilgrims, and our youth group like the Lutheran’s Luther League, was called the Pilgrim Fellowship). Now our hymnal has changed the words again, to "Bearers of the cross." I have liked all the changes. The song has stayed with me. "Jacob’s Ladder" marks a chapter in my faith.

In the 1980’s, I add a new chapter. I am reading the work of a renegade Catholic Priest named Matthew Fox, who takes Jacob’s Ladder, chops it up, spreads the pieces around on the ground and re-shapes it into Sarah’s Circle. The ladder, he points out, is a masculine symbol. It takes us away from earth, traveling one behind another in a line. It is about moving up, toward perfection, climbing over anybody who gets in the way, stepping on the fingers of those left behind. It is part of the problematic quest for perfection. It portrays the essential problem of God up there, and us down here.

Fox says to look around at all the terrible images spawned by this mentality. High Mass is the best mass. Pulpits in classic Protestant churches are so high up you could get a nosebleed preaching up there. In the up down world of God above and us below, compassion splits away from justice.

I let go of Jacob’s Ladder as an image of faith. I like the image of dancing Sarah’s Circle. Sarah, who laughs when God tells her she will have a baby in her old age, is a good model for faith. When it turns out that God was right and she does have a baby, Sarah names him Isaac, which means laughing boy.

Dancing Sarah’s Circle is another kind of a born again experience for me. In fact it even inspires me to try again to learn how to dance. We dance those circles on retreat. We meet in circles of faith whenever we can. Moreover, the circle makes clear one of Jesus most difficult sayings. When the disciples are arguing about who will be right up there with Jesus when he reigns in heaven, Jesus says, "The first will be last and the last first." Matthew Fox says, the only way this works is in a circle. You lead by following, rule by serving, receive by giving. The circle makes sense out of Jesus’ paradoxes.

Now I’m back here today, in a year filled with circles, three of them just in the date, two triple zip. The theme for Lent is "The Wisdom of the Circle." The theme for the retreat is, "Living the Sacred Circle."

I go back to these two powerful symbols in my faith journey. The circle is clearly a feminine symbol. The ladder is masculine. Today I realize that I need them both, equally.

I think of Jacob’s Ladder and Sarah’s Circle for myself and for us in this church. As a teenager, the image of Jacob’s Ladder challenged my life. As an adult, Sarah’s Circle helped me reach out and dance. Even though we will do a lot with circles in this season and this theme, let’s remember both symbols.

Here are two ways I think they can be helpful. Jacob’s Ladder is primarily a masculine symbol. I realize how easily men can get trapped in the hierarchy of the ladder. But if men need to open ourselves to the feminine, Jacob’s ladder may be a good masculine symbol for women to remember as well as men.

Today I see Jacob’s Ladder as one way God helps us climb out of the holes into which we all fall. There are times we need to see the people in our lives as angels, going up and down from heaven and earth. And there are times we need to become part of that train of angels that goes from earth to heaven and back. I think this may be a good place for women as well as men to pay attention to a primarily masculine symbol. We all need to look up, see that we’re connected to heaven by a ladder full of angels, and then realize that God is most often in the place we least expected.

Sarah’s Circle is a feminine symbol. And it’s a good one for men to pay attention to. I know that all I have to do, whether in a worship service or a retreat gathering, is ask everyone to join hands and form a circle for a dance. Immediately a lot of us men start firing our eyeballs right and then left as we plan our exit.

There’s a gift in the circle for us men and women here, in getting off the ladder of success and appearances. There a gift for us as men and women in stopping for a moment and walking the circle that takes us to our past and our roots as well as our future and our hopes. There’s a beauty in the rhythm of the dance which we can unlock if we’ll just dance it.

Today, in this chapter of my journey of faith, I realize I need both symbols. I realize that as a man I need to embrace the power of feminine symbols, and I think that women need do the same with masculine symbols. That’s how we grow.

One of the great symbols of Christianity is the Celtic cross a union of the masculine intersecting lines and the feminine holistic circle. The vertical and horizontal intersection of the cross reminds me to reach up to God and reach out to others. The circle in the cross reminds me of the all that connects and joins me with God, earth, and each other.

Let me close with one more story. Like you, I’m waiting really, for a miracle here at Easter. And both the ladder and the circle may help us to be ready for it.

Remember the old question of whether a tree falling in the wilderness with no one to hear it makes a sound? I found a very specific answer to a question very much like this in traditional religious piety. In classic religion, if a miracle happens and no one notices, it did not happen. A miracle requires at least one person to experience it.

The Midrash is a body of stories told by Rabbis that goes along with Hebrew scriptures. There’s a story in the Midrash of two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon who were part of the grandest of all God’s miracles, the parting of the Red Sea but nevertheless missed it. Apparently however, even though the water had drawn back from the sea, the bottom was still muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into this mud and sneered, "What is this muck?"

Shimon scowled, "There’s mud all over the place!"

"This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!" replied Reuven.

"What’s the difference?" complained Shimon. "Mud here, mud there. It’s all the same."

Because they never once looked up, they never understood why those who had gone ahead of them were singing and dancing on the opposite shore. For Reuven and Shimon, the miracle of the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea never happened.

In today’s chapter of my spiritual journey, I realize that if I’m going to experience the miracle of Easter, I have to be on the lookout for it. I’m going to look for it in circles, the circles of Taize worship on Wednesday nights in lent, Labyrinth, and Communion on the all-church retreat. And I’m also going to be on the look out for Easter ladders of prayer, challenge, worship, and commitment that make me look up and take note of the miracles I so easily miss. Those ladders I hope will keep me from being like Reuven and Shimon walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea but seeing only mud in this season of Lent.

I invite you to this chapter too, of circles and ladders. A miracle only happens if somebody witnesses it. Let’s be open to strange news and awake to God’s presence in places we thought were deserted and abandoned of hope.