Genesis 28:10-19a “May Be Compared To…”
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 23 July 2017
It is difficult to grasp in the short story of Jacob’s dream the magnitude of what happened. There is such a dense playing with time, place and people within this part of the arc of Jacob’s larger narrative. It helps to sit with a moment for a while.
Our story begins with turmoil. Jacob could have left home for any number of reasons. We get the idea that He is an important character, and that God is involved, but this trip begins under much more dubious circumstances.
Jacob was not leaving for better opportunities, or for an adventure. That would have been a dangerous idea itself. Being caught alone in the land of other chieftains, land not unlike but outside that of his father’s, Isaak, could be deadly. People stayed in extended family units not only for support, but as a form of protection from other families and groups.
Within this system, a bet av was the most basic family unit . The idea for this family literally meant to build a house. It was about creating a place of security from which to go out and scratch a living from the land.
But for Jacob, staying in the bet av of his birth was even more dangerous, because Jacob had cheated his brother out of the first-born birthright. Jacob had tricked Isaac, his father, who was losing is vision, and Isaac had bless Jacob instead of his older brother Esau.
That alone is a testament to the power of spoken words. Isaak said them, and even though he didn’t mean to, it was too late. There was no going back.
As you might guess, Esau is furious with Jacob. So Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, who helped orchestrate the deception with her son Jacob, says that Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill Jacob. Of course Jacob never faces a challenge head on or face to face. He is always looking for an angle to play, scheming a trick.
So instead of confronting Esau, he runs away to the bet av of the family of his mother. From one former place of safety, running from his brother, to another place in hopes to build a house for protection.
But in the meantime, when our reading jumps in today, Jacob is no place. He is an outsider. Even the place he sleeps has no name. It is literally no place. And there … at that moment … after all that had transpired … running for his life … terrified … with no place to lay his head except for a rock … he sleeps in this non-place.
The concept of being out-of-place is similar to a non-place. This idea was first proposed by the anthropologist Marc Augéin int his book, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. And you’re right, it is that fascinating. Augéin said: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”
Jacob was out-of-place. He was in a non-place. Unfortunately, even in our connected world and bustling communities, we are not immune from this being out-of-place. It has everything to do with our relationships to where we are and the ways in which the people around us participate as if this space we occupy matters.
Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets and authors. He is a farmer, and speaks of place in terms identity through relationships, both with the land and each other, and the loss of identity when the connections are lost. He has a poem that is particularly poignant.
“A POEM ON HOPE”– WENDELL BERRY
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth.
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work. Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.
Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
We shouldn’t miss what Jacob does when he wakes to realize that God was right there on the rock with him. He names it Bethel, which means holy place. This non-place, when it becomes clear that God is even in this place of all places, becomes the center of the early Hebrew relationship with God. Just by the forming of relationship in a dream no less.
Even when we least expect it, when we are on the run at the end of our rope, when we are empty of all that follows us and pulls us this way and that, terrifying us, pursuing us ceaselessly. God is there. In fact, as it often appears, that is the place God seems to want to be.
God seems to be right in the middle of those moments when our old ways of doing things come hard up against the reality that we somehow missed the real thing, the real meaning that was right under our feet. When we thought we could create a better way, we come to find the way was already there and we missed it.
God was supposed to be in so many places, with the people who God was supposed to be with. Surely God is in that place, not here. Surely God is in this place, not there. Isaac, I am sure, believed God was among his bet av. Surely God would be with Esau, the first-born and rightful heir. Surely God is in this place, the places we build with such care for just such a thing.
Even Jacob thought he knew where God was, and was supposed to be, or he wouldn’t have thought he could steal it. But to everyone’s surprise, dismay, or disbelief, God was out in the wilderness, exposed. God was with those running for their lives. God was with the one who only had a rock to rest his head on. God is with the one who has cheated and stolen their way too far this time, and now they are cast away.
The thing about the biblical witness, especially in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is that God seems to disrupt all the rules that we assume are God’s rules.
For instance. Who designated that the first-born should inherit anything special? I mean, who doesn’t know that the first-born is the heir, right? Apparently God. Jacob was not the first-born, and his father Isaac wasn’t either. Isaac should have seen this whole episode coming!
In Genesis 21, Sarah, the mother of Isaac, tells Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael, you know, Sarah’s servant who was forced to conceive and give birth to the first-born son for Abraham. The one from whom Sarah took her child immediately as her own. Ishmael should have been the one, just like Esau should have been the one.
God was supposed to be with another. God should have been with the one we all expected. Maybe we think God is with us, because we are doing all the right things, and besides aren’t there rules for these things? Didn’t God say to do it this way? Aren’t we sure?
Maybe God is out there with the one on the run, with their head laying on the curb, fleeing from one place to the next trying to avoid all the rules that say they shouldn’t be here, and they shouldn’t be there. Wearing that hoody in this neighborhood, well that isn’t how its done, son.
We refuse to look at all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. We miss the cries in the wilderness calling for rest. But God does not ignore the cries.
But then again, this story is not about us. It’s not even about Jacob. It’s about who God is and what God is promising to do. It is the surprise of God waiting to appear until all had been lost, until all the comforting safe boundaries are long gone, until Jacob had given up trying to connive his way out and finally fell asleep.
It is God showing up to the supposed wrong person because the way that was expected by all the reasonable people could not handle God’s disruptive work of remaking the world. A work to liberate creation to something that had been overlooked for too long.
It happens at the edges of our comfort, beyond the limits we image confine, among the marginalized among us that supposedly have nothing we could ever want.
It also happens within and among the parts of ourselves that we hide away in fear that someone might notice. That piece of you may very well may be exactly where the presence and work of God is the most likely to be found.
In the raw unfiltered pain and shame we carry with us, when we jolt awake in a cold sweat at the end of our ropes and declare as sure as the racing pulse in our heads, that God has been here.
Surely, God is here. Surely we just didn’t notice. The question we might ask is: What will we do once we begin notice the presence of God in all the places we expect, and in all the places we don’t?
We wake into a dream and declare this place and every place we refuse to go to be holy ground, and we just didn’t know it. Amen