The Promise of Presence
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 17, 2011
Texts: Psalm 139
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward 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—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;
This morning we are taking a break from the gardens and seeds of Matthew’s gospel to visit the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Many of us know this story well – the twins Jacob and Esau as the epic tale of sibling rivalry. Here we enter into the middle of the story.
We catch Jacob on the run, literally, having skillfully and maliciously maneuvered his older brother Esau out of the birthright and blessing that were rightfully his. Out of fear of Esau’s wrath, their mother Rebekah sends Jacob away to search out her brother Laban, to find a Canaanite wife and to wait out Esau’s fury.
Jacob sets out alone in every sense of the word – alone with his own betrayals and hopes, with his future unknown and foreign. He has been blessed by his father but he does not know yet what that blessing will come to, and whether or not his brother will find him first. He stops to make camp only because the sun has set and it is time to sleep. His body and mind are weary. He takes a stone and uses it for a pillow. He rests…
Last weekend I spent a few days at Holmes Camp, a Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center about one hour north of here. Many of you have heard of Holmes Camp – as it is the location of our annual women’s retreat as well as a few confirmation retreats each year. Perhaps you are aware that I serve on the board for the camp. Perhaps you were here last year when the Executive Director Peter Surgeoner preached and we sang a few of their mealtime graces during our Not for Children Only.
While we often visit the Holmes during the retreat season, Holmes is first and foremost a summer camp – and so it is during this time of year that Holmes is in full swing. The beds are filled and the staff is full, the grounds are teeming with kids mostly, and a few extra adults too. And in the midst of this busy season, Holmes hosts a handful of families for camping activities, together.
We do all the things that regular campers do. We hike to the “lemon squeeze” and have bonfires at night. We have time at the waterfront each day and have a campfire breakfast one morning. We go fishing and practice archery, we sing silly songs and eat more than we should; We schlep all over camp in the sweltering heat and fall asleep every night fast and hard.
This year we seemed to do a lot of walking. Up and down the trail to the waterfront, up and down the hiking trails. We had a night hike and listened to the chirping of crickets through the darkness. We walked a labyrinth in the woods. And even though we gathered for worship every night, I was struck by how the most precious moments were those ordinary times.
The times in-between one activity or another: When one child would stop on the trail to show another an insect or a flower. When someone would offer a drink of water or wait for another to tie a shoe. When one parent would distract another parent’s child for just a few moments – just enough to diffuse an almost melt-down. When we were waiting in line or relaxing after dinner. The moments were ordinary, unspecial, unsuspecting. Just moments. But they were moments when God’s presence was palpable and real.
“Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not even know it.”
I don’t know that any of those families are “on the run” quite like Jacob, but certainly each one was seeking something. Each family, like each of ours here, was shouldering their own story: some of divorces or financial struggles, some of transition or grief, some just enduring the everyday struggles of living together. Each parent comes hoping for quality time not found at home, rest, spiritual sustenance, laughter, connection; Each child just hoping to make friends, have fun.
For Jacob, he was perhaps still seeking his blessing when he laid down his head that night even after having already won one from his father. Who knew what was to become of Issac’s words? But in his dream, the God of Jacob’s ancestors confirmed Issac’s blessing upon Jacob, he was promised descendents that would fill the earth, land and sustenance. He is promised God’s presence.
“Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not even know it!” Jacob says when he awakes from his dream, and then when morning comes he marks the place with a pile of stones, pours oil over it. How would he have known, anyways? There was no marker, no temple. No sanctuary with stained glass, no manicured garden. How would he have known? How do we know?
We still have that tendency to imagine God’s presence at certain places or times in our lives: those times of extreme joy… weddings, births, celebrations and holidays, or those times of extreme sorrow… death and loss, grief and pain. Like Jacob we mark those places and times, coming back to them again and again, naming them as holy and blessed.
We mark the places of God throughout our world and lives, but like Jacob we forget that God’s presence is constant and continuous. The psalmist reminds us in that beautiful Psalm 139 that there is no place apart from God’s love and blessing of us, no place we can go to flee from God, no space or time that is not touched by God’s blessing.
“If I make my bed in Sheol, 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, your right hand shall hold me fast.”
As Jacob begins construction on his first temple, I wonder if he imagined the powerful presence of God could be contained in that one place as he placed those rocks together. Running from the wrath of his brother, Jacob found he could not hide from the God of his father, even in the vast expanse of the desert. The blessing spoken by God to Jacob must have been both reaffirming as well as a bit intimidating as well.
I imagine that dream felt a little frightening. When God is on the loose, there is no telling when or where she might show up.
In a recent article, theology professor Frederick Neidner shares about what he calls his “ministry to strays,” that has developed over the course of his life. It is that ministry he has with people who are unaffiliated or unconnected to a church community and often involving officiating at weddings or funerals.
Neidner recalls how before he went to seminary, he worked for several summers as a truck driver, before cell phones and wi-fi, when driving a truck across the country meant a long stretch of loneliness. In each truck stop, he joined others in their search for connection and community, and a break from the endless solitude.
Later in his travels, when strangers would find out that he was a minister – they would ask him to baptize them, right there on the road, in the diner, on the side of some highway. At first he resisted because of the theological view that we are baptized into a community. But then he began to give in to the ways in which God could make the ordinary something…more.
Because of old hymns and the ways we have been told the story of Jacob’s ladder, we sometimes imagine that we are to climb Jacob’s ladder to heaven. But in the story that isn’t the case at all. Instead the divine messengers are the ones using the ladder, coming down to Jacob in his confused and confusing state. Jacob reminds us that we don’t climb to heaven as much as heaven climbs down to us – breaking into our world wherever we are, even in the midst of chaotic, frightening lives and times, even when we have betrayed or manipulated our path, even when we don’t deserve the heaven that comes.
There is a deep truth that in one way or another we’re all wanderers and strays. Like Jacob, alone in our journeys, often frightened about what might be around the next bend. Like Jacob, trying to escape some betrayal or wrongdoing. Like Jacob, seeking and hoping for blessing amidst the vast unknowns of our lives.
But the promise that God gives is this: that the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jacob, the God of Mary and Joseph and Jesus is a God that wanders just as we do, always breaking in and bringing heaven down to us, reminding us that we are blessed.
In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.