By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 28:1-22 (see also Genesis 31:1-18; and Genesis 35:1-15)
The early years of the Christian Church were a time of determining what did and didn’t fit theologically. Although today we tend to think of the Church as easily establishing an identity not “of the world,” it wrestled greatly with the culture around it. For example, while the day of Jesus’ resurrection was celebrated from the start, the dating and celebration of Christmas had a great deal to do with pagan religious ceremonies. Worship of the sun – with a “u” – and “sun god” played a role in ancient cultures from the Egyptians through the Celts. Celebration of the winter solstice was quite a pagan party. And Christians wished not to be outdone, especially in their worship of the Son of God who was deemed the Light of the World.
One of the Church’s earliest threats was a heresy known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism saw little value in the physical world; but rather saw the corporeal as an impediment to spiritual enlightenment. Now, if you think the Church struck down this heresy with ease, think again. Even today, many self-identified Christians believe that the after-life is a purely spiritual concept and have little to no familiarity with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of bodily resurrection. Yet scripture – from the Genesis creation accounts to John’s revelation of a New Jerusalem coming down out of the heavens – all affirm the value of the physical realm. In the gospel of John, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we read his affirmation that those who worship the Father must worship in Spirit and truth. Yet we must also keep in mind that those very words were spoken by the Word made flesh. Jesus, one and the same with God the Father, who took on flesh and came down to reveal God in the physical world.
So, while Christians are clearly NOT to be concerned with acquiring wealth or putting things above people; we are also not to shun encountering God in the physical substance of God’s created world.
This morning’s scripture is a story about worship; it is a story about sacred space; it is a story about the meeting of heaven and earth; it is a story about divine encounter and how that encounter shapes our life’s journey and purpose.
Last Sunday’s scripture was a story about Abraham, the ancestral father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God enters into a sacred covenant with Abraham and his wife Sarah. Though they are an elderly, childless couple, God promises to gift them with a son and proclaims that through Abraham and his descendents all of the nations of the earth will be blessed. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham; so he is an inheritor of that promise. But he is far from perfect. He is a twin and, though he exits the birth canal in second place, he plots with his mother to steal his twin’s position and inheritance. So angered is Esau, his brother, at Jacob’s duplicitous behavior that he threatens to kill him. So Jacob must go on the run. His mother, seeking her son’s safety, counsels him to return to her hometown where he can live with his uncle, her brother.
And that brings us to this morning’s story. Along the journey, Jacob stops to sleep for the night and has this remarkable encounter with God Almighty. Jacob’s divine encounter takes place in a city named Luz. But, when he awakens from his dream, recognizing the sacredness of this place, Jacob renames the city Beth-El, house of God. It is a surprise to him that this is a sacred place. He confesses, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”[i] This re-named city, Beth-El, house of God, will become a sort of spiritual “home” for Jacob. His time with his Uncle Laban is a mixed bag. He prospers there at his uncle’s expense (an uncle who shares Jacob’s shyster tendencies). Yet God continues to work within the life of Jacob and, eventually, calls him to his birthplace. Chapter 31 of Genesis presents an interesting dialogue between Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah. Jacob informs them that he has had another dream; a dream in which God has called him to return to his hometown by reminding him of his encounter with God in that first nocturnal visitation at Beth-El. According to Jacob, God spoke in this most recent dream, saying, “I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now leave this place at once and return to the land of your birth.” And so it seems that God Almighty himself chooses to appeal to the sacredness of this place, Beth-El, and the critical role it plays in the journey of Jacob’s life as he fulfills his part in God’s eternal and universal plan for salvation. That dream was the moment and Beth-El was the place where God first choose to make himself and his purposes known to Jacob and the unique encounter in that time and place will render it forever sacred space. In fact, once Jacob returns home (making peace with his brother Esau), God instructs Jacob to settle in the city of Beth-El. He is to build an altar there to commemorate that moment when God first appeared to him; when God first spoke the promise over his life; when God first laid claim to him. When Jacob returns to Beth-el, once again he sets up a stone pillar, he lays out an offering on it, he anoints it with oil, and he worships God. So the long journey of Jacob is book-ended by times of worship, moments of divine encounter, at this sacred place Beth-El, this earthly house of God.
As Jacob’s dream of the ladder reveals, this is a place where heaven and earth meet. The “ladder” is likely an ancient ziggurat, like the Egyptian pyramids. In the ancient world, holy people would climb the stairs of these ziggurats in order to reach the heavens and to commune with the gods. These ziggurats were considered connecting points between heaven and earth. So this city of Beth-El becomes a sacred place where the connection between heaven and earth, God and humanity, has been revealed in this image of the ladder coming down out of the heavens. As bible scholar Walter Bruggemann writes, “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”[ii] There is such a thing as sacred space; places where we are reminded, through the acts of divine encounter and worship, that earth and heaven have everything to do with one another.
Brothers and sisters, Trinity is such a sacred place. Last Sunday, we celebrated our heritage. Tommy Kleckner, Director of Indiana Landmarks Western Regional Office, spoke with us during our Celebration Luncheon about the value of our church building. Historically, it is a priceless piece of architecture. But it is also priceless because it is sacred space. Since 1869, our ancestors in the faith have been gathering in this awesome place to worship the God who laid claim over their lives; the God who promised them that theirs was not merely an aimless wandering through life, but that God had a plan and purpose for them that would bring blessing not only to them but to others… including us. As Jacob gave an offering and poured out oil to consecrate the sacred pillar, we have been giving our offerings and engaging in rituals to keep us mindful of God’s faithfulness to us and his presence among us. Each time we celebrate a baptism, all of us reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to the Christian Church and to this church, Trinity United Methodist. From time to time, when we gather in this place, God reveals himself to us in ways we may not have previously understood or known and we too, like Jacob, must confess “Surely the Lord is in this place…” We encounter God here and begin to understand, through God’s interruption of our lives, that it is God who defines who we are and how we are called to live. Finally, the roles we fill outside this place do not name and define us – teacher, businessperson, healthcare worker, factory worker, student. We are named and claimed and defined by our identity as children of God, inheritors of the divine promise given to us through Abraham and, ultimately, through Jesus.
Today we live in a world that sees very little value to corporate weekly worship. Worship attendance in North America is at an all-time low and many factors influence those statistics. In some ways, it is an economic issue, a vocational issue, a scheduling issue. Yet, perhaps it is also – to some degree – that old heresy of Gnosticism rearing its ugly head; whispering into our ears that there is no sacred space or time; that “embodiment” is meaningless; that the physical and ritual are worthless. Yet we confess faith in a God who took on flesh; who chose to enter into time and space. We confess faith in a God who instructed Jacob to establish a monument to give witness to his encounter with God. In this morning’s scripture, over the course of nine verses, the word “place” is used six times. Friends, place does matter. Matter matters. We are not disembodied souls. We live out God’s call over our lives in time and space. Along our life’s journey, we return to this space space on a regular basis to worship, to remember, and to renew our covenant with God. Otherwise, we risk drifting aimlessly; we risk a state of spiritual amnesia in which we no longer know who we are and whose we are, what day it is or where we are going; we no longer remember the purpose of our lives or the relationships that define us. Knowing who and whose we are, knowing how we have been called to live as inheritors of God’s covenant and promises, changes how we live. And even when we stumble, even when we act in selfish or reckless ways as Jacob did, God calls us to return to the place where, in our baptisms, God first spoke to us saying, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you… Know that I am with you…”[iii]
Friends, over these next several weeks, we will discuss stewardship here at Trinity. Stewardship reveals the way in which we exercise care over that which we value, that which has been entrusted to us. This building, this sanctuary, is a sacred and awesome place, a place of divine encounter. Our ancestors exercised stewardship over this place because it was of value to them in their sacred journey. And the baton has now been passed to us. When we give to the church, even when our money is used to pay something as mundane as the gas bill, it is not ultimately about a utility bill. Ultimately, we are acting as stewards over this sacred place; a place of divine encounter; a place to which God calls us to return week after week, month after month, year after year to pour out our offerings, to offer up our worship, to remember and renew our commitments, and to hear again God’s call upon our lives so that, through us, all the people of the earth might be blessed.
[i] Genesis 28:16
[ii] New Interpreter’s Bible: a Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Abingdon Press. 1994. Vol. 1, p. 541.
[iii] Genesis 28:15
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