When I was in college I had a chaplain who was a Methodist minister who had grown up in south Georgia. He’d gone north for seminary and thought he’d stick around but around the time he graduated the Civil Rights movement was starting to heat up in the South. And so, he decided to go home and to try to be a part of the change.
It was not well-received.
And as people were filing out of the church after worship, going through the receiving line with the pastor, they let him know that. One man stopped and pointed at another man headed his way.
“You see that man?” he asked Sammy. “He’s the head of the local Ku Klux Klan, and he is not happy with you.”
You may wonder why I’m telling you this story when the Biblical story for today is about Jacob, a man who knew nothing of the Civil Rights era South. I’ll come back to Sammy’s story, but for now let’s consider Jacob.
Jacob was the favored son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. He had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and now that brother was angry enough that he wanted to kill Jacob. And so his mother sent Jacob away, telling him to go and find a wife. And it’s out there in the wilderness, far from home, with a brother that wants him gone, that Jacob finds himself trying to sleep, with a rock for a pillow.
I once had a professor who is an Episcopal priest and he would talk about spirituality. He introduced us to an idea many spiritual writers have had about what they called “thin places”. “Thin places” are those places where what separates us from God feels so thin that we easily feel God’s presence surrounding us. We all have different places where that happens. For me it can be walking on a beach and watching the waves, for others it can be on a mountaintop, for others it’s something else entirely. All that matters is that in those places you feel close to God.
But in the particular class where the professor was teaching this, a friend of mine raised her hand. She had lost her best friend a year or so before, suddenly and violently. And now she struggled to know where God was in all of this. Most days God felt so very far away. And so she asked the professor, “Is there such a thing as “thick places”? Is there such as thing as being in a place where, no matter who you do, God feels so far away?”
I think there is. And you may have been there too. Maybe you’ve been in a place where no matter what you do, God just doesn’t feel present. Maybe you’ve been out in the wilderness of life, or on rough waters, and you’ve wondered why you just couldn’t feel God. And maybe you’ve looked around and thought “God’s not here…how could God be in a place like this.”
I think that night, laying his head down on a rock, Jacob knew what it was like to be in that kind of thick place. But it’s there, with that rock for a pillow, that he dreams a dream that changes everything.
Jacob dreams that there is a ladder set on the earth and rising all the way up to heaven. And angels are going up and down that ladder, getting closer to God and farther away. And the voice of God calls out to Jacob and “not only are you going to be okay, but your children are going to be okay, and their children are going to be okay, and generation on down too.” And God tells Jacob, “I’m with you. I’m with you and I’ll take care of you wherever you go and bring you back here…and I will not leave you.”
And in that moment, that thick place became a very thin one. And Jacob says, “surely God is in this place…and I didn’t know it.”
At the beginning I was telling you the story of the pastor and the Klan leader who didn’t like him very much. One night, very late, the young preacher got a call at home. And it was the Klansman. And he asked the pastor to come out and meet him. And the place he told him to come was this rough roadside bar in the south Georgia countryside. And as the preacher drove out there in the middle of the night to meet a man he knew did not like him much, he thought to himself, “well, this is where it ends”.
But when he got there he found the man sitting at a table, looking not angry or vengeful, but instead broken. And he sat down and listened as the man told him he knew that he had to change, and he knew that his life had gone the wrong way. And then he said, “Pastor, would you pray for me?”
The young preacher said “of course” thinking he was saying, “just keep me in your prayers”. But then it became clear the man meant now. And he looked around at that bar, at the people drinking and fighting and passed out, and said, “Wait…you mean here?”
And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in God?”
For all the ways the man had been wrong in his life, he was right about one thing. And that is that God shows up in the most unexpected places. God was present in that roadside dive, ready to hear prayers for a broken man. And God was out there in the desert with Jacob. And God is in all the thick places of our lives.
God is here today in this church, but that’s probably easy to believe. The steeple, the surroundings, the music. We might be temped to believe God lives here. But God is also with you when you go back home. God is with even in the most unlikely places of your life, and God is giving you a promise of new life even in your lowest moments. And that has always been true. And sometimes it’s just a matter of having the eyes to see it.
So here’s my question for you: Where has God shown up where you have least expected it? When have you been in a thick place in your life, and yet God has somehow worked to turn it into something new. Something good and full of grace? I have those places, and I know that in the midst of them I wondered where God was. And yet, looking back I now see how God could use even the hardest of situations to create something new. Something better.
When Jacob woke from his dream knowing that God was there, he did something that may seem odd. He poured oil over the stone he had slept on and he consecrated it. He took the hard and painful thing and he blessed it. And he called it “the gate of heaven” and “Beth El” which means literally, “the House of God”.
Jacob was right about something and wrong about something.
That place, it was holy ground. Maybe it was even a gate of heaven. But it was not the only one. Because the gates of heaven are all around us every day. And the house of God is not just one spot in the wilderness. It’s every space where God can break through to us. And that means, the house of God is everywhere.
When Jacob left that place, you might think things went well from there on out. That he had this amazing encounter with God and God reassured him everything was going to be okay and from that point on his whole life was a thin place.
But that’s not the way it worked. Because after he left Jacob would, literally, wrestle with God. He would watch his sons feud. He would live in exile. It almost sounds like God was pulling Jacob’s leg when God said he would be blessed.
But if you think about that dream, I think God was telling Jacob that his life would be blessed, but that it wouldn’t always be easy. Because the angels in the dream weren’t just going up that ladder to God. They were also going down. They kept going back and forth. Some rabbis have even said that the ladder symbolizes the ups and downs of the life God knew Jacob would lead, and that God knew Jacob’s descendants would lead.
And yet, even knowing that truth, the promise remains. Or maybe because of that truth, the promise remains. Even when that thin place starts to feel thick. Even when uncertainty clouds what once seemed obvious. Even when you are led further into the wilderness, instead of out of it, it just may be that you are still standing at the gates of heaven.
Jacob never knew God was in that place. Until he did.
And that young preacher in south Georgia never knew God was in that roadhouse. Until he did.
And that man who had led such a broken life never knew God was in the people that he had hated for so long. Until one day, he did. And the truth drove him to his knees. And then it drove him to the light that only comes from the gates of heaven.
Surely God was in those places. And God is in this place too. And God is in all of us. And as we start this journey together, climbing higher to the thin places sometimes, slipping lower to the thick, God is opening those gates of heaven, and welcoming us home. Amen.