Sunday, September 22, 2013

blessings to go--a sermon for 22 September 2013 (Narrative Lectionary 4-3)

Rev. Teri Peterson
blessings to go
Genesis 28.10-17 (Genesis 27.1-23, 30-35, 41 in the children's time)
22 September 2013, NL 4-3

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards 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.’

my personal favorite thin place
In the Celtic tradition, there is a thing called a Thin Place—a place where the distance between earth and heaven is just tissue thin. In Thin Places, the kingdom of God is palpable. Things happen in a Thin Place—people encounter God in amazing ways, are transformed by the Spirit, can sense the power of prayer. Many thin places have become pilgrimage sites, as people throughout the ages have recognized that it is a special place. Some of these places are set apart from normal life, like the Isle of Iona, which is small and remote, while others, like the birthplace of Jesus, have had cathedrals built on them to mark the spot. Whether it’s a place of great natural beauty, or requires a hard pilgrimage to get there, or whether it looks just like any other church or neighborhood park, these thin places are often drenched in the prayers of the cloud of witnesses. And sometimes we discover a Thin Place by accident, and find ourselves in the presence of God when we weren’t seeking much of anything.

The latter is what happened to Jacob. Though later a Temple was built on the site where he turned his stone pillow into a pillar, when he stopped there it was just a spot of ground that looked flat and soft enough to spend the night. As Jacob lays his head on the stone, he sees a connection between earth and heaven, and God’s messengers are coming and going…and suddenly it’s not just a messenger, but God standing there at Jacob’s side, saying the same words God had said to Abraham many years before: “I will be with you wherever you go, and this land will belong to you and your family, for you will be a great nation, and I will bless you so that the whole earth, every person in every family, will experience my blessing because of you.” This is a pretty serious promise—that even as Jacob leaves the promised land and returns to the place from which Abraham had originally come, God is going with him every step of the way, making sure that everyone in the whole earth knows the blessings of God’s grace because of Jacob.

Jacob’s response is exactly right: Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not even know it. This is the Lord’s house, the very gate of heaven.

It was a thin place. The separation between earth and heaven is so thin, we can see across, touch the kingdom, hear God’s voice.

What did Jacob hear in the Thin Place? A blessing. And not just any blessing, but a blessing even more powerful than the one he stole from his brother. You will be a blessing to others, and I will be with you every step of the way.

Now remember that Jacob and Esau were the ultimate sibling rivals. They’d been fighting each other before they were even born, and Jacob used all his skills—his cunning, his cooking, and his mother’s apron strings—to get his way. The reason Jacob is out here at the edge of the promised land, returning to the old country, is because his deceitfulness finally caught up with him and now his brother is mad enough to kill. So why is it that God comes down that ladder and stands next to him and utters this incredible blessing? Isn’t God’s blessing something we have to work for, something we ask for, something we earn with our goodness?


While we have twisted the love of God into something we can get for ourselves, the reality is that God’s grace and promise are a gift, and God is the one who gets to give it. So if God wants to bestow the promise on a completely unworthy lying rascal of a younger brother, God can do that.

Because a blessing is God’s prerogative, not ours. While both we and Jacob are accustomed to asking God to bless what we want—our plans, our nation, our desires—the reality of blessing is that God does it, and waits for us to catch up. So here we find Jacob, not only not turning to God and repenting of all his bad deeds, but running away from the consequences of his part in a dysfunctional system, and expecting his father’s god to go along with the plan. And into that life, a life filled with distrust, fear, and twisted values, God speaks: I will be with you, and because of you everyone in the world will know my blessing.

It doesn’t sound odd to us when God says “I will be with you.” But it was a strange idea—in these days, gods were very geographic. Leaving your land meant leaving your god behind and entering the land of a new god. When Jacob, on the threshold between the promised land and the old land with its old gods, hears these words: “I will be with you,” that’s a new thing. Still he sets up his pillar, and later people build a temple, using the words “this is the very gate of heaven.” But the thing about God going with you is that every place is a thin place. Every place is the very gate of heaven. If we’re looking, we can see the messengers of God coming and going wherever we are. That’s the promise, that is for you and for your children and all whom the Lord our God shall call: that God will be with us, and the whole world will experience God’s blessing through us.

So really, it’s kind of a blessing in a to-go container. It’s not a blessing for what we have already accomplished—Jacob has yet to accomplish anything beyond damaging relationships, hurting people, and running away. It’s not a blessing for what we want to have happen—I suspect Jacob would much rather be safe and comfy in his own tent rather than sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow, on his way to some place he’s never been to meet people he’s never seen. To leave one’s land is dangerous, after all. God’s blessing to go takes us out into the unknown. It takes us into God’s dream, what God imagines could be. It takes us into Thin Places, no matter where we’re standing. This is the grace of a thin place: that God dreams with us even when we have turned our eyes away from the kingdom. This is grace we know in a thin place: that God showers us with the promise even when we are busy insisting on our own way. This is the grace that makes a thin place: That God stands by our side and calls us to be light for the world, God’s blessing to every family of the earth.

May it be so. Amen.

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