A sermon on Genesis 28:10-19a preached at First Presbyterian Church; Oxford, MS, July 2017.
By the time of this morning’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is having a rough day. He and his mom have tricked dad Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright and blessing that would normally belong to the eldest son, Esau. In his anger Esau has threatened to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies. So at his mother’s insistence Jacob is on the run. Afraid for his life, he has given up the very inheritance of land that he so deviously acquired, all in an effort to simply survive.
I imagine it was getting dark. He’d been running for hours, maybe nervously glancing back over his shoulder every now and then. He was bone tired, hurting all the way through to his heart that was already missing home. He hadn’t thought it would come to this. To exile, away from the people and place he had always known. He was tired. So he stopped to rest.
Knowing he needs a break, he works with what he can find and rests his head on a stone. Then he has quite the dream. A ladder — or stairway, as some translations suggest — is reaching from earth to the heavens, and on it are angels bustling back and forth. God God’s self speaks to Jacob in no uncertain terms: “I am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.”
The promise of land follows, and God assures Jacob, “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 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.” These are quite the promises for a guy who is essentially a con artist. And maybe even Jacob recognizes that. He wakes up and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other that the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob marks the place as holy and names it Bethel which, in Hebrew, means “house of God.”
However ordinary an item rocks might be, this one turns into a rather extraordinary pillow. God appears through this most ordinary item at a time when Jacob is perhaps at his most vulnerable. Even though Jacob has deceived his father and hurt his brother, God still promises not only to be present but to make him prosper.
Jacob doesn’t waste any time showing his reverence for that place or that promise. My seminary preaching professor once told us, “your task is to have reverence for everything, and to take a risk in talking about it.” If we’re being honest, had I had Jacob’s dream, I probably would’ve woken up, thought to myself “woah, that was weird,” and moved along with my day. But here Jacob is, proclaiming the sureness of God’s presence and anointing his stone pillow to mark the place as holy.
One of my favorite things about the UKirk Building is that we use the same space for just about everything. One minute we’re sharing casserole and sweet tea, and in the next we’re studying Scripture and worshiping together. In between Tuesdays there’s laughing and leftovers and the occasional finals week cup stacking competition. And God is there for every bit of it.
Those of you who know the history of that space will know that 302 South 11th Street hasn’t always been a church. I wonder if the people working at the lumber company, or later the folks who stopped by for an adult beverage, would’ve guessed that one day the crumbs on the floor would be from Communion bread. I should probably mention that I promise we do vacuum, so those crumbs don’t stay there for long. But what does stay is the Communion table, right there in the middle of it all. What does stay are the faces of our community on the bulletin board and the cups of coffee to fuel studying and friend-making and all the things in between.
The presence of God surrounded Jacob’s unexpected rock pillow, just as the presence of God is seeped into the exciting, draining, intimidating and eye-opening thing that is college. Our task is to follow Jacob’s example and have reverence for everything. This requires being vulnerable — it requires keeping our eyes open even when we are scared or uncertain or just really really tired. Because even on one of Jacob’s worst days, and maybe in the last place he expected to find comfort, God was there in that place where the space was thin between heaven and earth.
It’s not logical, necessarily, that God would appear to Jacob of all people. But then again God doesn’t always play by the rules that we humans expect. Things that at first seem so far from what we imagine the presence of God to mean, turn out to just that.
It seems to be a bit of a recurring joke among my minister-type friends to acknowledge all the real-life things they did not teach us in seminary. Sure, we spent hours (and hours) pouring over Greek and Hebrew vocab, Old Testament timelines and the fascinating nuances of Presbyterian polity. And sure, we learned tips for talking in the pulpit and pointers for pastoral care. But then we graduated. Things they didn’t teach me in seminary: how to most efficiently cut printer paper into tiny pieces for fake snow, and how to make an Elsa crown out of pipe cleaners and a headband. Real life things I did while serving as camp pastor down the road at Hopewell last week? …Made paper into snow and crafted an Elsa crown out of pipe cleaners and a headband. Now I’m not saying that my camp lip sync battle was on par with Jacob’s encounter with God, but I will say that my week of worship planning, laughing, devotion leading, and glitter spreading was full of more glimpses of God than I can count. Camp is, for many people, a thin place — that space where it seems that the distance between heaven and earth is shorter than usual. Maybe it’s Hopewell or maybe it’s Montreat, or maybe, like for me, it’s both of those and then some. Maybe it’s camping out on the run with a rock for a pillow.
God’s promises to Jacob seem pretty extravagant. The promise of land, and God’s declaration that Jacob’s “offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,” spreading “abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south…” Offspring like dust. We spend a lot of time trying to get rid of dust, in our homes. But maybe there’s something to be said for its persistence.
Some of you know that in between college and seminary I spent two years as a Young Adult Volunteer, or YAV. In August, at the start of each year of service, the program gathers everyone for orientation at Stony Point, a Presbyterian conference center about an hour outside of New York City. And after each year of service, returning YAVs gather for a couple more days at Ghost Ranch, another denominational conference center a couple hours from Albuquerque. This transition retreat is built largely to help YAVs process their newly-finished years, through small group discussions, group sessions, worship and plenty of fellowship. The general format of the weekend was relatively similar to our orientation at Stony Point, but I remember being struck by the physical differences between the two conference centers and how they reminded me of the ragtag little family that is a group of YAVs just returning from a year of service.
The open spaces at Stony Point are blanketed with green grass and surrounded by shady trees that invite pleasant afternoons of get-to-know-you conversations (on the off chance they actually give you some free time). In August it might get a little hot during the day, but for the most part the weather is pleasant enough…unless you happen to run into a hurricane (which, coincidentally, we did, my second year).
On the other hand, the red rocks of Ghost Ranch are for the most part stripped of vegetation, bare except for a few spiky cacti and a good bit of prickly desert grass. The mid-day sun can be harsh, and in September there is a (relative) cold that sets in at night. But if you take a hike to the top of a mesa or step outside at night and look up, the view will take your breath away.
Over the course of that volunteer year all of us had been challenged. But through our experiences that year and through our conversations that weekend, we shed the green layers of presumption and expectation and bared at least part of our red rock souls to one another. Some were weary and broken, while others were as motivated and confident as ever. I’d venture a guess that years later we all still go back and forth. Either way, we had found solidarity in our shared wandering, and understanding in our shared love for others. The hike out of the valley to the top of the mesa might be longer for some than others, and some will be more out of breath when they reach the end of the trail. But that view at the top is worth it. At the end of that weekend I boarded a plane with desert dust still coating my sandals, and six years later even though the shoes are gone, some of that proverbial dust I just can’t shake. Even now I still learn new things about myself as I reflect on those formative years. As irksome as dust might be when it settles in the hard-to-reach corners of our homes, there’s something to be said for the stuff’s persistence.
“Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.” So it goes, too, for my college-aged congregation. This summer, some scattered just as far as down the road, but others are across state lines or for the occasional study abroad goer, some might venture across international borders. Not to mention that each Spring a quarter of our community is scattered out into the post-grad world as the wind of the Spirit sweeps new students toward our doors. But just as God promised Jacob, God will bring us back together, dusty sandals and all. In a matter of weeks we’ll re-gather on those couches across the parking lot. We’ll break bread, and venture into a new year together.
Even though all of us, like Jacob, are sinners, God promises to be with us as we wander, and to bring us back to each other and to God. Some places will feel thinner than others, some more unexpected than others. But in every case may we borrow Jacob’s words and his sense of awe, proclaiming “Surely the Lord is in this place!” Amen.