Yesterday (Sunday) was a big day for us. It was the last Sunday we will be together until I am able to return from the stem cell transplant. We are hoping that we will be back together on Reign of Christ Sunday (November 21) or the first Sunday of Advent (November 28). It is only eighteen weeks or so but that is a long time for a pastor and congregation to be apart, especially when it involves re-booting the pastor's immune system. But it was also a big Sunday yesterday because two infants were baptised into the community and an adult entered the congregation through the renewal of her baptismal vows. Any time that the community welcomes new disciples of Jesus into its life is a big day for the church. We could tell that it was a big day by the turn out. When we have to use all the chairs and when we run out of bulletins we know it is a big day. That is especially true when it happens on a Sunday in the middle of July when things are usually quiet and people are usually away. Because it was a big day we had planned to make a video of the service so that those who could not be with us could share something of the experience with us. And all went well - except for one thing. The battery on the video camera failed at exactly the point when the sermon began and we did not discover the problem until the moment when the sermon ended. I expect it is a message from God. Something about not being able to hoard manna in a video camera. The Word of God is meant for the moment, not for collecting. At least, that's what I take from this technical glitch. So, in place of the sermon in video or print form here are some scribbled sermon notes that take off from where I left off yesterday ...
"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.’ 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. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’" (Genesis 28:10-22)
Jacob comes to a certain place. It is no place. He is running for his life. Esau plans to kill him. He is vulnerable, alone, unprotected, in trouble, at risk. He is in a place between places. It is night. He enters undefended sleep in a lonely place. It is a liminal place, a place between. It is not one of the holy places. It is not the Temple. It is not a carefully constructed liturgy. It not a sacred space - literally, a place set aside for God. Not, at least, according to our expectations. Jacob comes to the place where everything is unsettled, in chaos, endangered. We recognize this place. It is the uncertain place that we are entering today. It is the parallel journey that we are about to take apart from one another. I am going off alone, with my immune system at risk of infection, on a journey to a risky, vulnerable place. And you - as a congregation - are traveling into an unknown time, with an as yet unnamed pastor, of ministry while I am away. We recognize the place where Jacob lies down to sleep. We are there, too.
Then Jacob dreams. He dreams of a ladder that connects earth with heaven. In spite of the words of the old spiritual, Jacob does not climb the ladder. That is what we expect of a religion. We expect that it will tell us how to get out of the messiness of earth and into wonder of the spiritual realms. But this is a different story. In this story the ladder is not a way for creatures to leave the creation. In this story the ladder is there so that God's messengers can travel to the earth and back. This is the portal where God enters the world. What a dream - heaven and earth connected.
And then more. Now the LORD standing beside Jacob, speaking directly to him, making promises. Promising that this landless refugee will be landed one day, that he will no longer be homeless but at home. Promising a future of countless descendants, as future that blesses all the families of the earth. All this with the assurance that "I am with you and will keep you ... and will bring you back ... for I will not leave you."
It is a dream. It offers an alternate view of reality. What is the truth of Jacob's life? Is he nowhere or is he somewhere? Is his future fated to be a failure or is he destined to be a blessing, in spite of himself? Jacob wakes up and trusts the dream to be true: "Surely the LORD is in this place - and I did not know it ... This none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven." This place of trouble and danger and risk turns out to be the place where God is found. This is the dream that we recount and live within whenever we gather to worship together. We worship at the foot of a cross - that certain place of loss - and enter the dream world in which this place is the gate of heaven. In this place the so-called "real world" looks altogether unreal. In this place God is to be found communicating with broken, vulnerable, homeless souls who are often found hidden behind facades of the put-together, secure and successful. Whenever we gather we dream that we have entered the kingdom of heaven where the last are first and the least have an honoured place at the feast. And when we leave this place, when we awake from the dream tomorrow, like Jacob we will have to decide about the dream. Is it just a fanciful daydream? Or is it a communication from heaven, a message from God?
Ever since the doctors told me that I am living with multiple myeloma we have been dreaming together. For these past seven Sundays we have been opening text after text and hearing a surprising, living Word of hope at the very place where we are most vulnerable. Along with the words "incurable cancer" have come the words "I am with you and will keep you". To our surprise - well, to my surprise, at least - this place on the other side of a cancer diagnosis is the place where God has been waiting for us. "Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it." We keep imagining that God is to be seen most clearly in the golden sunset, in the thriving church, in the caring neighbour. Yet God waits to be revealed in the broken, lonely, vulnerable place and soul and church. This is the only explanation that I have for my experience over these past seven Sundays. Each time I open up the scripture and wonder what to preach the text leaps off of the page with power. It is as if the connection to heaven is suddenly clear and direct. It is as if the voice of God is no longer muffled or distant but is now close, whispered in my ear. I have decided to trust the dream. I am claiming it as reality. I believe that the presence of God in the most broken places of our lives and world is much more real than a reality in which there is nothing more than the broken place.
But, to be fair, I have no proof. There is no evidence that can be marshaled to answer the question once and for all. There is just the dream. And there only the words, the promise of God. It is some kind of a miracle that people - people like you and like me - believe the dream and trust the words. That people exist who believe the dream and trust the words is, in itself, powerful evidence of the truth of this story. Juries are eager to hear from witnesses whose testimony is compelling in its honesty and its integrity. Your neighbours, your families, your colleagues may be bewildered by the dream that you trust with your life but they are also - I expect - intrigued. Some are even longing to share your trust in the dream that God is to be found in the broken, risky, lonely place. Jacob names this place, that is otherwise no place, Bethel. It means "house of God". How extraordinary. The house of God found as far from the holy place as can be imagined. The holy of holies located far from the Temple ... even in a manger and on a cross.