Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 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. 12 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. 13 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; 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 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.”
18 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. 19 He called that place Bethel.
It’s good to be back this morning after being away for the last two Sundays. You may know that I spent most of my time away in Cleveland, at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. Every two years our denomination has a national meeting where thousands of people gather together, discuss the direction of the church, and speak out as a body about the most pressing issues of our day.
We also spend a lot of time worshipping together. And each Synod picks a Scriptural text and a theme in advance. And this year’s came from this story that we just read.
In it Jacob, the son of Isaac, has been sent out to another city by his father. He is told by his father to go there and find a wife. And he is on this journey, crossing through these places he knows nothing about.
That night he finds himself out in the wilderness, out in the middle of nowhere, and the sun is going down. And so he takes a rock, the only pillow he can find, and he puts it under his head. And he falls asleep like that, in a place he never wanted to be.
And this is when Jacob has a dream. He dreams about a really big ladder. A ladder so big that it rises from the earth up into the heavens. And all up and down the ladder, angels are rising and descending. And God calls to Jacob and tells him this land, this place, will be your new home. And you will have so many children, and they will have so many children, and you will be blessings to the world. And wherever you go, I will be with you, and I will bring you back safely here.
When Jacob wakes up he takes the stone that had been his pillow, and he places it on the ground and renames the place “Bethel”, which literally means “house of God”, and says that it is the gate of heaven. And Jacob says something else: “Surely God is in this place…and I did not know it.”
It was that last line that we used as our theme in Cleveland: “surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” And the theme of Synod was “unexpected places”; that God is sometimes encountered not where we expect God the most, but in the most unexpected of circumstances.
That’s a powerful reminder. We all have places in our life where we feel most at home. We all have comfort zones. And for many of us, those are the places we expect to find God the most. But the story of Jacob reminds us that sometimes, even when we are sure we are in a lonely wilderness, even when we are away from what we know or what feels right, God is closer than we think.
And so that was the theme of Synod: look for God in unexpected places. Because God is closer than you think. Because, like Jacob, you could find yourself saying, “surely God is in this place, and we did not know it.”
I was thinking about that story one morning at Synod when I went to the breakfast buffet at our hotel. Heidi was there with me first, and we were at a table that sat two. A few minutes later a few more clergy colleagues came downstairs, including Abby Henderson (who gave me permission to tell this story to you).
Next to us was a group of tables with a “reserved” sign on top. We asked the waiter if we could possibly pull one of them over so our friends could join us. He said he thought the party that was coming would have enough space, so that was fine.
So for the next half-hour or so we ate breakfast, and talked about Synod, and caught up with one another. We were having such a good conversation that we barely noticed the small group that came and sat next to us at the reserved table. It wasn’t until after they left that the waiter came up to us and said, “do you know who that was?”
We all said “no”.
He said, “It was Aretha Franklin. She stays here all the time and loves the breakfast here.” We all laughed because we were sure he was joking. But he kept on and told us “no, really…that was her, along with her security team. She always stops by here on her way back to Detroit.”
“Seriously”, we all asked? “Seriously,” he said. And we all laughed at ourselves and said, “Surely Aretha was in this place and we did not know it!”
I tell you that story because I think it tells me something about God. Not that Aretha Franklin is God or anything; that’s not the point. But, it does tell me about my ability to see God in unexpected places. Because, I like to think I’m perceptive, but, seriously, I sat next to Aretha Franklin without knowing it.
So, if I can miss Aretha Franklin, in the flesh, coming and sitting next to me at breakfast, if I can sit with a group of other perceptive people who don’t notice either, maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to say that I might miss God’s presence in my daily life.
Even Jacob, one of the patriarchs, missed God. Of course it’s challenging for most of us to know that God is in our midst, working and transforming the world.
The challenge for those of us who would try to know God is present, and who would try to follow Jesus and be led by the Holy Spirit, is learning how to really open ourselves up to God’s presence in all of our lives. Because God is not just present with us one hour a week on Sunday mornings. God is always with us. And God is always working in our midst. And, I truly believe that sometimes God is waiting for us to take notice, and to get to work alongside God.
This is one reason why this Natural Church Development work we are doing around spirituality is so important. Because I think a huge part of spirituality is all about learning to experience God’s presence in our daily life. It’s learning to find that God is indeed in this place, and in every other place to which we go. And then it’s about going a step further.
Because after we come to understand that God is with us everywhere, after we know that God is with us in our joys and in our sorrows, in our familiar places and in our wildernesses, and in both the exciting and the mundane, something incredible happens: we stop being afraid of doing the things that terrify us, and we start looking towards all the amazing things that God is calling us towards.
My guess is that Jacob loved his home. He probably did not want to leave what was comfortable and safe. And yet, if he wanted the blessings that had been prepared for him, he had to. He had to go out into the wilderness. He had to take risks. And he had to dare to move towards a future that was unclear.
What Jacob learned out in the wilderness is that he did have to do these things; but he did not have to do them alone. God was still with him, even in the most unexpected of places. He just had to open himself up enough to know it.
And so those are the questions. First, how will you open yourself up to God, even in unexpected places? How will you open your senses up to God’s presence all around you, and how will you allow yourselves to grow spiritually in order to do so? That’s a lot of what we are going to be doing this fall in the church around passionate spirituality, so how will you open yourself up to being a part of that?
And second, once you know that God will be with you, even in those unexpected places, what will you do next? Because when you know that you are not alone, not even in the messy places, not even in the risky places, and not even in the wilderness, a whole new world is opened up to you. And, more importantly, what will it mean for all of us together, as this church?
And that’s where I want to close today, because everything I said about us as individuals is true of churches too. We all have our own individual spiritual journeys, but together we have our larger journey too. And through the history of this church, we have made some amazing spiritual stands, often long before others, and often when we may as well have been walking alone into the wilderness.
In the 1600’s the founders of this church left Massachusetts for a place where they could espouse their own, grace-filed understanding of Christian faith. In the 1700’s the people of this church took a stand for independence. In the 1800’s they stood boldly against slavery. In the 1960’s they stood up for Civil Rights. In the 1990’s they became Open and Affirming. And in the 2000’s, they became an Eco-Covenant church.
That’s a pretty big legacy that you and I inherit. Those were some pretty significant acts of faith taken by people who were willing to risk walking out into the wilderness to claim the blessing of God, even if it means we encounter a little holy trouble along the way. The fact that we are here, 377 years later, is a testament to the power of the bold kind of faith that seeks God out even in the unexpected places, and follows God wherever God leads.
And all those things lead us to one big truth: Surely God is in this place, and surely God will be in all the places where God is already leading us all. Amen?