Genesis 28:10-19a Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24
As we hear the story of Jacob this week, and consider his journey, his stopping at the place enroute to Haran. Some would call him a sly and clever guy whose actions had him on the run. We might recognize him today as greedy, self-interested—deeply flawed. Hopefully behind him is an angry brother set on revenge. Before him, a journey of 500 miles / the great Trunk road and a month’s travel or more to Haran – a path unknown.
He is in an in-between time on the short end of a long journey, perhaps weary before he even begins. With just a rock to put beneath his head for a pillow. I wonder if some of us feel that way? We are a few months in on a strange new pathway, disconnected from our usual lives. Social distancing has become the new normal and causing isolation for some and too much together time for others. Unrest in the streets may be encouraging or startling, a campaign season is taking new shape….
Jacob is fleeing distress, weary from travelling, He was a couple days out upon his journey at that early place where he was looking at the long road ahead. He stops for the night, perhaps more acutely aware of his vulnerability.
He stops for the night and settles down to sleep In that in-between kind of place. And, he has a dream so powerful that it shifts his reality.
“When [we are] far from home, [we may be more] alert to [our humanity]
This place where he stopped – the most notable thing about it was an almond tree (grove) – but before morning, it carries a vision of divinity – Holy messengers, God – God-self – and a hope in the promise(s) of blessings made before.
This is a place – place, a word mentioned over and over in the passage, is a place of honey scented almond flowers, of deep sleep and affirmation. This place could be a room, a home, an open space; we don’t know for sure. It is a place to stand or may even be a condition of his body and his mind.
Some translations describe Jacob as terrified; but Jacob is astonished and awed, for this is where he meets God. And so he names it Beth-El. House of God. For he knows a present reality of God among us.
He sets up a stone where he had rested. Marking the place like a shrine.
Katherine Matthews, a UCC pastor and bible scholar tells us that “In those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land,” (SS) In fact, in a visit to Israel and Jordan, at a place called Petra we learned that ancients believed Gods existed in the rocks themselves and were carved out from the stone walls of that place. Can you imagine God in-dwelling that stone? What would it mean if God was limited to that small space? Or was God’s power focused there?
We mark sacred spaces, too. How do we know them? Do we put human boundaries on holiness and think of God as limited to them? Where do we belong in relation to them?
Jacob encountered God more than once, both coming and going. It suggests that “God is present with him [throughout] his journey”
“There are no unsacred places.”
Jacob named this one place, but God was with him on the whole route.
“this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob [as well, This God is] not… limited to one place or time.”
Can you imagine a prayer from Jacob that sounds like our Psalm? A song of trust and a belief of being known by God in a way that is not a problem or invasion, but a comfort – God with us everywhere – even and especially in the pits and depths.
Jacob calls this place Beth-el, house of God, gate of heaven, an awesome place” – promises given are promises remembered. God’s blessing is wide, through the generations.
We are standing at that spot in Beth-el where we can “practice [a] way of life that makes all life holy.” Jacob’s moment extends to us. So let us ground ourselves in this thought from the “father of modern theology,” Frederich Schleiermacher –
“awareness of God is a universal and invariable ingredient in every person’s consciousness” It is available to each of us, no matter who we are, where we’ve come from or where we are going. It is around us at any location.
“The Wise One is also kind. [they] will not let you suffer and do without solely for the sake of others.” (Schle. Quoted by Gerrish p 66)
“world saturated with divine activity.” (Robert Lyde – Gerrish p68) that shows forth -
God’s steadfast love for humanity, God’s passion for justice, God’s ability to forgive and hope and sustain.
Jacob was no saint – he was more a rogue, deceitful and immoral – yet God meets him in this unexpected place and renews the promises. Surely if God is with him in this place, that divine presence is among us too, in our Boredom our Curiosity, (CC 7-15-20 p.39) in troubles or in our quiet times, in places of work and play, in our transitions and transforming.
Jacob marked the place where holiness entered his awareness from a powerful dream and he was awakened to the glory around him. He put his hands on an ordinary thing, recognized holiness in it, said a blessing over it. We can do the same in the midst of our agitation our sorrow, impatience. What places will you find yourself in today? (or what place are you in today?) a lonely place with just an almond tree? In the midst of an estranged family? In the midst of anger with unmasked strangers? Uncertainty for provision, in hope or fear.
In this place in his journey Jacob marks the place not for his own presence, but for the presence of God. How will you mark your moments with the divine?. That something of God’s nature is there with you? By Planting a flowery bush? Reflecting on photos? Lighting a candle? Maybe standing in protest? Or writing a letter?
Mark a place with intention or with peace, with your voice or in tranquility. Bring your creative impulse and attention – Bring your whole self to these places. They can be places of acceptance, of refuge, rest and wakefulness. Beyond us and around us, in a present moment, is a “strength on which to build our lives.” In this place— power and healing and promise.