If you’re ever looking for a good soap opera, read the book of Genesis. It has everything. True love, betrayal, brother against brother, wild escapes, seduction, murder, cheating, redemption, the voice of God—it’s all there.
Let us pray.
Jacob has burned his bridges. You may recall that his twin brother Esau—older by a few minutes—should have inherited everything as his birthright. But Jacob tricked him into giving up that birthright. Most recently, at their mother Rebekah’s instigation, Jacob pretended to be Esau and received their blind father’s blessing. Esau is furious but consoles himself with a plot to kill Jacob. Rebekah gets wind of this and sends Jacob packing until Esau can forget (as if this is possible) what Jacob has done to him. Young Jacob is not really an honorable dude.
So Jacob leaves behind everything he has ever known, and he is walking, alone, hundreds of miles to his Uncle Laban’s house in Haran to find himself a wife from among his cousins. One day, when Jacob has walked about 60-80 miles from home, he reaches the end of the day and needs a place to sleep. We are not told any description of the land where he stops. It is not described as anything special. The only thing we know about it is that there are rocks, because that is what Jacob takes as a pillow. We don’t hear “He lies down under a bush,” or “by a beautiful river” or “under a tree.” There is no sense that this is some Eden or paradise. He doesn’t stop because the beauty of the location is so striking; he stops because it’s sunset and he can’t keep walking in the dark. My impression is that he lies down out in the open on the stony ground. So he can be forgiven for not immediately thinking that God is in this place. It’s just a place, and he’s been walking all day and needs to sleep.
And then he has this amazing dream. You may notice on your tour through Genesis—or through the whole Bible, for that matter—that a lot of divine revelation happens in dreams. So here is this ladder or stairway or ramp (depending on how you translate it) with angels coming and going up and down. This is a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth can be drawn aside. And God repeats to Jacob the promise that God made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and again to his father Isaac: that you will have this land and more descendants than the sand of the beach or the stars in the sky or the dust of the ground. Your family will not only survive but thrive. You will be a blessing to all families on Earth. And God will be with you the whole way.
Jacob is on a long journey alone and doesn’t even know where his next meal will come from or where he will sleep each night, let alone whether he will survive the journey to take a wife and create a family. This dream vision is a profound affirmation. God is saying, your brother Esau will not succeed in stamping out your line. You will have children. You will have land on which to provide for them. I’m paying attention to your journey. I’m with you. It’s going to be okay.
As we heard in today’s reading,
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is in this place—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.
Jacob sanctifies the space, sets up the rock as a pillar (I get the impression the rock has somehow grown much bigger) and anoints it, which is what one does to set a person aside as sacred. “Christ” and “Messiah” both mean “anointed one.” Here Jacob is anointing the rock, the land, as sacred space. And he calls it Bethel—beth meaning “house” and El meaning “God.” He says, “This is none other than the house of God (beth-el), and this is the gate of heaven.”
I find in this text an invitation to recognize the sacredness of all land. What is sacred land for you? Is there a place where you think, “Surely God is in this place. This is the house of God and the gate of heaven”? Some find that sense of connection at this time of year when we think of camping, sleeping outside under the stars. The rain lets up, the air is warm. In years past some of us have driven over to Scenic Beach on Hood Canal and roughed it for a few days. At such a time we notice things that ordinarily might escape our attention. How the stars move through the night sky. What phase the moon is in. How the birds start chirping a little while before dawn. How the layers and layers of fir needles create a soft duff that gives a little when you walk on it. How the sunlight makes the leaves of ferns, nettles, and maple trees radiant green. The smallest things can hold our attention. A chipmunk on a picnic bench. Lichen on a tree branch. The geometric swirl of petals on a fir cone.
Last year I got to visit the Isle of Iona in Scotland, which many through the centuries have described as a thin space, where God seems more readily present. When I came home, I told you that there was one morning on that trip when I rose before dawn and climbed to the highest point on the island to watch the sunrise. It was indeed a sacred moment in a sacred space. But I also realized that I could have that same sacred type of experience at home.
Summer can be a good time to slow down, to notice, to reconnect. And maybe then the thought comes, “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it! I had been asleep to it, but now I wake up and see.” You may be at the ocean, or on a favorite hike, or watching a waterfall. Jacob was apparently camped out on a bed of rocks. Even there, God was in that place.
Or we might flip the frame and realize it’s not that God is in that place but that we are in God. All of creation is in God. So of course God is present wherever we go. As God said to Jacob, God knows us and affirms us and never leaves us. Psalm 139 says,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven [maybe on this stairway], you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol [or on rocks], you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
Jacob is not settling at the farthest limits of the sea, but he is traveling alone farther from home than he’s ever gone. His brother wants to kill him. There is no going back anytime soon. And even in that loneliness, in that unfamiliar space, God is there.
The other sacred space in this scene is Jacob’s own body. Perhaps you have heard people say that we are spirits having a bodily experience. This body, this spirit—they are part of God’s sacred creation, too. Surely God is in this space. We get to take things in through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin; try to understand them with our hearts and minds; try to process them with our lungs and immune system and digestive system. What a miracle the human body is!
Our visual theme today is “summer fun.” A number of people sent me wonderful photos. So we saw a river rafting trip. You can imagine the rubber raft bobbing and spinning through the rapids, everyone paddling hard to avoid the boulders and the spots that will just suck you under. You are getting sprayed with cold river water, shrieking and laughing. You don’t have time for existential meditation; you’re just trying to get down the rapids in one piece. Cora says that photo was taken just seconds before one of the people got bounced into the water.
We also saw a photo of a birthday cake decorated to look like a hamburger. How cool is that? Do you think Calvin will remember the year his mom made him a burger-cake? That’s part of the embodied experience, too. Soo sweet!
We saw someone hiking along a bare ridge on what looks like a hot summer day, probably sweaty and tired but thinking, “Maybe we’re almost to the top.” We saw a strawberry still on the plant. That strawberry is not going to make it into the house. It’s going to burst with sweetness in your mouth. We saw a dog decked out in a red, white, and blue lei for the 4th of July. She was a very good sport for this family reunion. We saw a young child playing in one of those plastic red and yellow kids’ cars. Just playing, pretending to drive, having a good time, totally in the moment. We will see more of kids playing, also mountains, lakes, canoeing, tubing, a waterfall, rowboats on a glassy lagoon at dusk. In each of these photos, I invite you to fall into it, to take in the summer fun, the energy, the delight, the adrenaline, the quiet, the noise, the places. The sacredness of each space.
We are embodied. What we do in these bodies and with these bodies helps form who we are and how we understand creation and life. How we perceive the sacred space around and within us helps us connect with the Divine and with each other with reverence. Do you think our world could use a little more time to pause for reverence? I do. Reverence matters. Sacredness matters.
So go out and have some summer fun. Become aware of the sacredness in the places around you and also within you. Consider what it means to treat the space around you as sacred. Consider what it means to be sacred yourself. How do you treat your sacred body? How do you interact with other sacred bodies?
Surely God is in this place, and in this summertime we can step back to recognize God’s presence. What a blessing it is to be in this sacred space with you sacred people on this sacred day. May reverence guide you. And may the joy of summer fun show you the delight of embodiment every day. Amen.