Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named

Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named

Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named

Weekly Prayer
O God of Jacob, you speak in the light of day and in the dark of night when our sleeping is filled with dreams of heaven and earth. May Jacob's vision remind us to be open and watchful, ready to discover your presence in our midst. Amen.

Weekly Reading
Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 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. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and 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." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place ó and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

All readings for the Week
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Focus Questions

1. Have you ever found yourself "in a limbo of [your] own making"?

2. When have you found God in "unexpected places"? How did that feel?

3. Do you ever make promises to God, in gratitude or perhaps for persuasion?

4. How do you think our scientific age deal with dreams and their spiritual meanings?

5. What dreams matter most to you, and to all of us?

Reflection by Kathryn Matthews Huey

Jacob is perhaps the most interesting of the patriarchs, if not the most admirable among them. Of course, every one of them is deeply flawed, and at one point or another in the story, their duplicity and even cowardice dismay us. Think, for example, of both Abraham and Isaac lying about the identity of their wives, Sarah and Rebekah, to protect their own skin (Genesis 20). But Jacob's lies are astonishing in their breezy self-interest and greed as he repeatedly reassures his poor, blind--and suspicious--father that he is not Isaac's younger son but his older, favorite son, Esau. What a shameful way to obtain a blessing!

In fact, Jacob strikes me less as "Father Jacob" and more like the charming "Big Brother, Second-Born Jacob," the rogue who repeatedly gets into trouble but still evokes love and devotion from at least one parent and many descendants, as well as lovers of good stories to this day. And that's a good thing for readers of these ancient family stories, for everyone who "struggles with God" (and their families!), and for all of us who are far from perfect ourselves.

Out there on his own, Jacob is on the run from his brother's threats after his mother sends him away for "a while." (Who knew it would turn out to be twenty years, and multiple wives and children before he returned?) His mother has invented an excuse to get him out of town, complaining about her foreign daughters-in-law, Esau's Hittite wives (she simply could not bear another one): Jacob was to travel almost four hundred miles to find a wife more acceptable to Mother Rebekah; Sidney Greidanus tell us that Jacob, at this point, has traveled only fifty miles or so.

All alone in the night, except for God and God's angels

Unless we're deep-woods wilderness campers, we've probably never experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out there, in the dark, on the road back to his father's homeland. Aloneness, and anxiety, too. Gene Tucker writes that Jacob "is at great risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him." But it's worse than that, according to Richard Pervo, who calls Jacob "an unperson in an unplaceÖ.an immoral and irreligious rogue. No religious seeker, he will have to be run to ground by God, who is not without experience in handling hard cases."

Several other scholars also describe Jacob as a somewhat secular figure, in spite of his auspicious lineage as the grandson of Abraham, who had first (and then repeatedly) heard from the God who promised a land, many descendants, and the vocation of being a blessing to all the families of the earth. Greidanus suggests that, whether Jacob realizes it or not, the very spot where he stops to sleep is the place where "his grandfather Abram, upon reaching the Promised Land, had built an altar to the Lord (12:8)." And Barbara Brown Taylor observes that Jacob "is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making."

God comes looking for us where we are

All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that "unplace." That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in "unexpected places" (the theme of the 2015 UCC General Synod, by the way), to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him. Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us. Taylor writes: "Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down--not where it should be but where he is."

There is the dream, and there is the interpretation of the dream. Many scholars connect Jacob's vision of heavenly beings, messengers perhaps, going up and down a ladder to heaven, with the Babylonian ziggurats that the biblical authors would have known well. Richard Pervo writes imaginatively of the "Babylonian temples, with a penthouse apartment for the god and a ground-level chamber for formal receptions," but--speaking of imagination--Greidanus invites us to picture the response of the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon and so far from home, when they heard these promises of God's unfailing presence to Jacob (and his descendants, surely), no matter where they go. After all, in a little while, Jacob's name will even be changed to "Israel," which surely must have touched the homesick exiles in their deepest hearts.

Do we really need the angels when God is near at hand?

The God of heaven and earth didn't actually need all those messengers going up and down the steps in order to deliver the promises once again to Jacob. God stands right there, at Jacob's side, and tells him once again what the future holds. No matter how many times we read or hear those elegant promises, they are utterly beautiful and fill us with a sure hope. (Nevertheless, just for our information, Sibley Towner does count this as "the eighth reiteration of the divine promise of the land to a patriarch and the seventh direct or indirect repetition of the promise of numerous progeny," and God "also makes the fifth and final statement of the overarching theme of blessing to the nations." In many translations, we miss something important, Holly Hearon writes: "Jacob's dream is punctuated at four points by the word behold (omitted in the English): 'behold, a ladder [more likely, staircase or ramp],' 'behold, angels of God,' 'behold, the Lord stood beside him,' 'behold, know that I am with you.'"

How does adding this one word ("behold") change the way this story sounds to you? Dreams can wake us up with a powerful sense of having experienced something important: how would it feel if God were the one to explain our dream for us? Have we become too analytical, too distanced from our dreams to experience them as a deeper reality, perhaps even as a source of spiritual insight?

Part of something greater no matter who we are

Two issues of distance and nearness, and of connection between the two, provide material for reflection as we make our way through another text from Genesis. There is the question of family relationships, in the smaller and specific sense, but in the larger one as well, across time, across generations. Remembering how alone Jacob was out there on the road to Haran, we are heartened and inspired to read James Newsome's observation that the "solitary Jacob, a refugee from his own community," nevertheless becomes its great representative and connection between their long history and their deepest hopes for the future (as we noted, even sharing a name with his people: Israel). Jacob, no matter how alone he may have felt, belonged to something greater than himself. In fact, Newsome writes, the one "who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing!" Jacob's "ah-ha!" moment is a conversion experience as well, but it extends far beyond his own personal life to his family and indeed, to all humankind. We note that Jacob will continue his crafty ways in the future, but while he "was not an entirely new person," Newsome writes, "neither was he the same old Jacob." Can't the same thing be said of us, even after we feel that our lives have been tranformed by grace?

And then there is the question of place, of the distance between humanity and God, and the way God, in a sense, intrudes upon our lives, comes across the divide, and makes a home in our midst. Jacob senses this power of God, this reality of God dwelling among us, when he marks and re-names this holy place of his dream of heaven and earth, and the voice of God reaffirms the promise to his ancestors. He has sense enough to call this place what it is, "Beth-el," the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awesome place. We of course have more technical terms for such things, although in this case, a quite lovely one in Holly Hearon's "liminal space where earth and heaven meet." Or, as Celtic spirituality calls it, a "thin place."

Place is important but promise is better

And yet, we hear in God's promise something more, something new, for God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise. In those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time. It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised. Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land of promise, just as his grandfather heard them on his way in. In either case, and in our case as well, James Newsome reminds us that the "initiative lies with God, our faithfulnessÖbeing a response occasioned by God's compassionate intrusion into our sinful ways." Like us, Jacob only needs "to say yes to the living God."

It would, however, be helpful to read this text beyond the lectionary limit to verse 22, in order to hear all of Jacob's response to God, to hear that "yes to the living God." I sometimes wonder how these text limits get set, and I don't want to think it's because Jacob includes a tithe in his promise to God (in many churches, tithing seems to be a forbidden topic). It is interesting, I think, that this almost-irreligious character promises to give God a tenth of all God gives him. We may question Jacob's faith, as if he's making a deal with God: is this all too good to be true, and do I need to give God an incentive to keep these extravagant promises? Not so, Richard Pervo writes: "God is stuck with Jacob, and vice versa." Terence Fretheim also strikes a note of mutuality in his observation about where things will go from here: "There is a 'must' for God in this text, and a 'must' for Jacob as well."

What sacred places do you love?

There is a tension for people of faith in our love for our places of worship, our sacred spaces. While Holly Hearon claims that "God is not associated, ultimately, with place, but in relationship and promise," we embodied creatures do experience God in places that we can feel, places that we can cherish, places that evoke memories, places that we mourn when they are destroyed. I remember a scene in the movie "Romero," when the church is destroyed and the people are devastated, and the archbishop walks bravely back in to recover the Eucharist. That is an embodied and sacred experience. In a similar way, so is the sorrow of my friend, whose childhood church and place of her ordination is now closed and for sale.

Terence Fretheim writes beautifully about our need to create places of worship, "because human beings are shaped by place as well as time." Thinking back to Jacob and thousands of other ancestors who wandered, who were led, who were taken in exile, who went on pilgrimage, we find his words inspiring for us, too, their descendants in faith: "The rhythms of the ancestors include the rhythm of journeying and worship; their journeys are punctuated by moments of worship at specific places. Yet the place never becomes a final objective, where one settles in; it provides sustenance for the ongoing journey." One of my favorite images for the church is that of a "base camp," where we are fed and rested for the journey outside its walls, but I must acknowledge that we are prone at times to see ourselves always at work, or to be constantly reminding ourselves dutifully of the need to work, and we miss the encounters with God that may happen at any time, anywhere, in so many places of blessing. (Emily Heath has written a lovely reflection on "busyness" and rest at http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/busy-1.html.)

Where have you found God?

And so we experience God in more places than church buildings, no matter how beautiful or inspiring they are. We may have a place in nature, or a quiet spot in our home, or maybe we have unexpectedly stumbled upon sacred ground in the most unexpected places, like hospital waiting rooms, or the operating room, or the doctor's office during a diagnosis. (I imagine hospice chaplains having many stories like these.) In good news or bad, in joy and sorrow, we hold fast to the sure knowledge that God is with us always, just as God promised, no matter where we go. Richard Pervo observes, "The claim of continuing presence in verse 15 resonates with Matthew's theme of Emmanuel (1:23; 28:20)," and Sidney Greidanus reminds us that Jesus is talking about this story about Jacob's dream when he says in John 1:51, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man"; Christians see, in this vision, that "Jesus himself is the ladder. He is the link between heaven and earth."

On the question of sacred space (or anything related to this passage), you're welcome to share your reflections on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds?ref=hl&ref_type=bookmark. I'm intrigued by the July 11, 2011 devotional provided by a UCC congregation, the Cathedral of Hope: Dr. Gary G. Kindley, a pastoral counselor, provides a thoughtful meditation on the way we see the site of the World Trade Center since 9/11. Because of the tragedy and heroism that occurred there, and because of the ashes that will always remain, we experience it as holy ground, and I agree. Dr. Kindley compares this to Jacob, who "had a profound experience that changed his perception of the place," and he "consecrated the site, renaming it." I read Dr. Kindley's reflection, about a "changed perspective where the ordinary can become extraordinary," so that "in unexpected and creative ways" we can consecrate work or living spaces, and set "aside holy space," in light of these words from Gene Tucker: "One does not simply choose a place and make it holy, for example, by building a sanctuary or an altar. Its sacredness must be either discovered or disclosed, and then recognized." How do you respond to the tension between our choosing to consecrate a space, and a sense of sacredness that is "discovered or disclosed"? (This week's Stillspeaking Weekly is also about sanctuary, by the way: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/stillspeaking-weekly/preparing-to-be-a-sanctuary.html.)

Still dreaming after all these years

In her lovely sermon on this text (in "Gospel Medicine"), Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that we are dreamers, but, raised in a scientific age, we "have also lost confidence in...our dreamÖ.of a healed earth full of holy people, where we see no longer in a mirror dimly but face-to-face at lastÖ.a dream of reunion, of divine communion...." I am reminded of her excellent book, An Altar in the World, which leads us on the path of learning the practice of doing less and being more open to those experiences of the sacred which await us here and now, in the most unexpected places of blessing. (While I haven't yet read her book, "Learning to Walk in the Dark," I have a feeling it would be an excellent companion piece for reflection on Jacob's long night alone with God and his dreams.) In any case, Taylor reminds us of our own connection to this larger story: "We are the dreamers of the promise, set apart to bless all the families of the earthÖ.It comes when all our conniving has blown up in our faces and our luck has run out." This is "where the dream touches down, reminding us that we sleep at the gate of heaven, where it has pleased God to be with usÖ.where the bright rungs of God's ladder touch down on our own ordinary pieces of the earth." Didn't I say that it was beautiful? Amen!

A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-20-2014.html.

For further reflection

Rachel Naomi Remen, 21st century
"Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing."

Pico Iyer, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of The World, 21st century
"Finding a sanctuary, a place apart from time, is not so different from finding a faith."

J.D. Stroube, 21st century
"As I turned to leave, I looked down. Beside my foot, a sprout of greenery was clawing its way through the pristine nothingness to begin anew. It was later that I realized my haven had sent me a message, and it had shown me that nothing is ever completely lost, unless you cease searching."  

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"My parents, and librarians along the way, taught me about the space between words; about the margins, where so many juicy moments of life and spirit and friendship could be found. In a library, you could find miracles and truth and you might find something that would make you laugh so hard that you get shushed, in the friendliest way. There was sanctuary in a library, there is sanctuary now, from the war, from the storms of our family and our own anxious minds. Libraries are like the mountain, or the meadows behind the goat ladyís house: sacred space."

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Contact Info

Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org