Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Jacob’s story today is a claim of sacred geography. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of
Jacob's Ladder, carved into Bath Abbey
people of Haran, not followers of the God of Abraham and Isaac. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?
Yet God is present. Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old Spirituals. What guitar student doesn’t learn Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. Jacob’s pedestrian connection between heaven and earth has regular cameos on TV and film. Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?
We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, at some times, the veil is thin. “Thin places” the Irish call them.
But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, it is an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. He wakes up, and the grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing, belongs to Jacob.
Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect.
Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.
You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.
I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient volunteer groups. El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months. To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.
I said as much in an email home to Dean Scott Richardson of the Cathedral in San Diego, the priest who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. The dean’s response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did. And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.
Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.
Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.
I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. This year, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God in a Sufi muslim mosque. Because of St. John’s connections with the Washington Interfaith Network, I prayed on Thursday night with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians for healing and justice in the District of Columbia. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.
If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhist, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine, which I find a exciting.
My hope for us at St. John’s, as I begin my full-time ministry with you here is that together we are surprised by God’s presence, by the divine showing up where we least expect. Surely God is in this place.