SACRED PLACES, SPACES AND PRACTICES
VISION: Waking Up to the Presence of God click here for audio
Genesis 28:10-22, Exodus 3:1-6
Pastor Donna Buell
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
Vision: The Practice of Waking Up to God
My best friend when I was growing up was a twin. Debbie and her sister, Diane, were one of at least 7 sets of twins in my grade. So over the years I had many opportunities to spend time with twins. And one of the things I observed was that the older of any given set of twins usually wanted others to know they were the older one, and they could always tell you just exactly how many minutes passed before their “younger” brother or sister was born.
There’s a great story in the book of Genesis about a set of twins named Esau and Jacob. And this birth order business was important to them as well. In fact, according to the story, these twins wrestled in their mother Rebekah’s womb throughout her pregnancy, and Esau was born with Jacob hanging on to the heel of his foot. This rivalry between the brothers continued throughout their lives, and it was exacerbated by the fact that their parents each had a favorite son. Isaac loved Esau whereas Rebekah loved Jacob.
Unlike Debbie and Diane, Jacob and Esau were not identical twins. Esau grew to be larger, stronger, and hairier. He was an outdoorsman and a skillful hunter. Jacob, on the other hand, was lean, quiet, smooth-skinned, and more of a homebody, though he was no pushover.
As Isaac was nearing death he wanted to bestow his blessing upon his oldest son, Esau, as was the custom. Rebekah (who had been told by God before the boys were born that the older would serve the younger) conspired with her younger son and they tricked Isaac into bestowing that blessing upon Jacob. When Esau realized what had happened he was out for blood, so Isaac sent Jacob away to live with Rebekah’s extended family. And it was while Jacob was making that journey that he stopped for the night, chose a stone for a pillow, and had the dream which Ed read for us from the book of Genesis.
We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder
I suspect that many of us cannot hear this dream without thinking of the song “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” And as I thought about that song this week, I realized that it gives a false impression of Jacob’s dream. I think this song, with its lines “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” – “every round goes higher, higher” – “if you love him, why not serve him” – “we are climbing higher, higher” gives the impression that this story is meant to inspire us to strive after God, climbing higher and higher upon a ladder of faithfulness in order to draw near to God in heaven, sort of like Jack climbing the beanstalk in order to reach the giant’s castle. But that isn’t what happens in the dream.
In the dream it isn’t Jacob’s ladder at all. The ladder is filled with angels who are scurrying up and down as they go about their work as God’s messengers. In the dream Jacob doesn’t climb up to God in heaven, but rather God appears beside him. God speaks to him, promising to bless him and to be with him wherever he goes. And God promises to bring him back to the land of his people, so that God’s covenantal promises to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac and their descendants might be fulfilled. The dream is not about what Jacob will do, but about what God and God’s messengers are doing all the time.
After the dream, Jacob wakes up to the presence of God, saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven.” What Jacob originally saw as merely a place to stop and rest for the night, on his long and lonesome journey away from his home and his people, he began to recognize as a holy place. So out of a need to do something to mark this holy encounter, Jacob takes the stone which he had used for a pillow during the night and he sets it up on end and he pours oil over it, claiming it for a sacred purpose. He names the place Beth-el, which means house of God, and then he continues on his journey to his mother’s people with a new sense of God’s presence with him.
The Practice of Waking Up to God
The story of Jacob’s dream provides the title for today’s chapter from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith” – Vision: The Practice of Waking Up to God. At the beginning of the chapter Taylor describes standing at the edge of the sea on the big island of Hawaii watching volcanic lava “form the newest earth on the face of the earth,” and wondering how she had forgotten “that everywhere is [Beth-el] the House of God.” Like Taylor, many of us have bought into the notion that God is found only in so-called “godly” places and “godly” things and “godly” people – in the bible, in the church, in the things we do and say when we come together as worshiping communities. Too many in our churches have bought into the notion that putting a cross or a fish symbol or the name Christian on something makes it so, whether it be a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, a song, an organization, a business, or a politician. But one of the things that Taylor believes has been saving her is waking up to the reality that anywhere can be a place where God may be encountered – that everywhere is the house of God.
Part of waking up to God is practicing a little humility when it comes to deciding where God is to be found. When we allow ourselves to “see” God only in those places that we have labeled as “godly” places, then we greatly limit our experience of God. That isn’t to discount what happens when people come together in worshiping communities to do the things we do together as people of faith. But there is always more to God. So it is good for us to take off the blinders and allow ourselves to see where we have not seen, for God can be encountered anywhere and anytime.
Often God’s presence is easier to see in hindsight. I suspect that many of us can look back upon our lives to a difficult time and realize that God was present with us in ways that we did not or could not see or recognize at the time. In a sense, the practice of waking up to God is about training ourselves to narrow the gap between those encounters with God and our recognition of them as divine encounters.
Years ago I led a group through the 32-week Companions in Christ program, which is a richly rewarding group experience in spiritual formation published by Upper Room Ministries. Each week as we began our group reflections I would ask the question, “Where have you experienced God’s presence this past week?” At first the question brought an uncomfortable silence, followed by a few stilted responses. But as the weeks passed the practice of seeing God in the midst of our lives began to take root among us. Through our daily readings and journaling exercises and our weekly experiences together, we all began to be more attentive to God’s presence during the week and came to our weekly sessions prepared to respond in ways we never would have before we began meeting. We had begun to wake up in new ways to the presence of God in our lives. We began to see where we had not seen.
Earth’s crammed with heaven
Several generations after Jacob, Moses had his own encounter with God in the wilderness. He had fled from the Egyptian court after killing a soldier who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He married and was tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep when one day he saw something odd, a bush which was burning and yet did not appear to be consumed, and so he turned aside to get a closer look. “And when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush saying, ‘Moses, Moses!’ and Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ And God said to him, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’”
The other night Marty and I were driving home from having dinner with a friend who had performed a recital at the U of M that evening. It was by chance that I had noticed he would be performing and it was wonderful to see him, to hear his recital, and to celebrate with him the news that he and his wife are expecting identical twin baby girls this spring. On the way home I noticed the huge harvest moon hovering just above the horizon, and I watched as it moved in and out of sight and from one side to the other as we drove along 35E and 36. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have missed it altogether. And it was quite a sight.
We do miss so much, either because we are too busy, or because we aren’t paying attention, or because we are distracted by trying to do too many things at once, or because we are functioning on automatic pilot – going through the motions – sleepwalking our way through the day. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Moses hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings. He might not have seen that bush at all. And if he hadn’t been curious enough to turn aside for a closer look, he might not have experienced God, or heard the call to be a part of God’s saving plan for the Hebrew people.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck berries.”
I’ve always loved these words from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I wonder if Barbara Brown Taylor had them in mind as she wrote these words toward the end of the chapter:
If there is a switch to flip, I have never found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened when I was busy doing something else. I did nothing to make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away, namely, 1) I can figure that I have had too much caffeine again; 2) I can remind myself that visions are not true in the same way that taxes and the evening news are true; or 3) I can return my attention to everything I need to get done today. These are only a few of the things I can do to talk myself out of living in the House of God.
Or I can set up a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is. I can flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where the traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not. I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.
Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
Waking up to God can save us. And it takes practice. But surely it is worth it.
Let us pray:
God of surprises, when we think you are not present in our lives,
you reveal yourself to us in the love of friends and family, and nurture us in your never-ending affection,
when we think you are not present in our community,
you labor to make us of one heart, and cause us to share gladly and generously,
when people think you are not present in our world,
you bring hope out of despair and create growth out of difficulty.
God of surprises, you are ever with us.
When the days go by and our vision fades, keep on surprising us.
When our hope dims and our patience wears thin, keep on coming to us.
Wake us up to you, Lord, in all the ordinary moments of our everyday lives
that with the ears of our ears awake and the eyes of our eyes open we may experience your presence with us
and know that wherever our journey takes us we are dwelling in the House of God. Amen.