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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”
In This Place
Genesis 28: 10-19a
I am not the greatest dancer. But I can, at least, do the basic two-step. Try it with me ...
a step to the right. A step to the left. A step up. A step back. You do not have to think about it,
just a simple one-two, one-two. There is no harm if all I do song in and song out is slide to right,
shimmy to left, take it to top and prance it back, right? A simple motion of one foot forward and
one foot backward ....
Our lives are kind of like a dance. There are periods in life when everything’s going well
- one step forward. Yet a sudden crisis can send us into a downward spiral - one step backward.
Suddenly, though, things are on the up-swing again - one step up. Then, just as quickly, things
take a turn for the worse - one step back. We think our faith will carry us through at any given
stage, whether we’re moving forward or backward. But then, an unexplained tragedy fractures it,
as we quickly slide backwards.
Life truly is a two-step journey - one step forward, one step backward. No dance lessons
required. We just do it. Our lives are in a constant state of transition. Although this can be
unsettling, it provides us with plenty of lessons on how to develop new coping skills and how to
be resilient in the face of one struggle after another.
When we meet Jacob in the scripture reading this morning, his life was definitely on a
downward spiral. His father had basically kicked him out of the house. Jacob had gotten into one
too many fights with his brother, disobeyed and disrespected his father one too many times. And
so he was homeless, with no real prospects for the future. Jacob was between a place where he
was no longer welcome and a place where he had never been. He was guilty, defenseless and
scared. He didn’t have a friend in the world. And so he found himself out on a long, country
road, with no shelter and nothing to eat, except whatever he could find along the way. He was
destitute, cut-off from everyone and everything, in a place of exclusion and exile. No tent, no
sleeping bag, not even a blanket! ... just a small rock to lay his head on at night. Worn-out and
strung-out, he laid down under the night sky after an exhausting day.
Up to this point, Jacob had never really interacted with God in any way. He never
worshiped, prayed, or even acknowledged God’s presence. This seems like the most unlikely
person for God to reach out to. And yet, that is exactly what happened! In the middle of the
night, God appeared and stood right beside Jacob as he laid on the ground, promising to be with
him wherever he goes. In this story, God speaks not from “up there,” but God stands right beside
Jacob and says, “know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go”.
Have you ever experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out there, on a dark,
dusty path going no-where in particular? Literally or figuratively? Think back to that time and
place. Where were you? What were you doing? What was going on in your life? Maybe you had
just had a fight with a loved one. Maybe you’d just hit rock bottom, struggling with an addiction.
Maybe you didn’t know how you were going to pay all your bills, and the pressure was really
getting to you. Maybe you’d just been evicted and didn’t know where you would eat your next
meal or sleep that night. What are the chances that God would choose that moment to intrude in
on your life, come right up next to you and strike up a conversation?! Hardly seems likely. And
yet, it really isn’t all that uncommon!
I remember an encounter like this in my life, years ago. When I first came out as a
lesbian, I really struggled because all of the religious messages around me were telling me that it
was not okay to come out and be open about my sexual orientation. Surely, I was a sinner who
was going to hell, just because I had discovered this new part of who I was! That was a painful
time for me. I was really hurting. But I will never forget that day that God spoke to me, just like
it happened to Jacob. I was in college, walking to class. It was about a 10-minute walk from my
apartment to my 10am class. I was in the middle of the crosswalk, just past the Music Building,
coming up on the Student Center. And it hit me! “God has always loved me. God loves me
today. And God will always love me – no matter who I am or what I do. God’s grace is forever!”
God spoke to me in the middle of that crosswalk and a huge sense of peace came over me, taking
away so much anxiety! God speaks to each of us, in some of the most unexpected places,
reassuring us that God will go with us every step of life’s journey, promising never to leave us.
When Jacob heard God’s voice, he said “Truly God is in this place!” And he took the
stone he was sleeping on, set it upright as a marker, and poured oil on it. He was using the oil
not as a gift to God, but simply to mark the stone so it could be found more easily at a later time.
You see Jacob recognized God’s presence, but even then he did not worship God. He didn’t
build altar there. He didn’t provide an offering in thanks to God. He didn’t offer up any sacrifice
of any kind. He simply received God’s message. Jacob didn’t make any promises to God. He
simply noted the occasion by putting a mark on a big rock. That’s it! And then he moved on.
Baby steps. He was taking “baby steps” to becoming a person of faith.
That’s ok! “Baby steps” are just fine. The important thing to remember is that it’s not
always what we do that’s important, but rather, it’s what God does that matters more. This story
doesn’t focus on Jacob’s commitment. It’s all about God’s commitment. God was committed
even to a trickster like Jacob. Before Jacob took any steps toward God, God took a step toward
him. God promised to be faithful to Jacob, no matter what. And God kept that promise.
Did you notice that God didn’t mutter one word of judgment regarding Jacob’s sketchy
past? But instead, God only provided one unconditional promise after the other. In this grace-
filled encounter, we see how God can transform an ordinary stone, an ordinary place, an ordinary
human being, into something special. God does amazing work in our lives!
Sometimes unexpected moments and experiences expand our horizons and open up our
eyes to see how God is working in the world. And sometimes, this happens in strange places and
at strange times and in strange ways. For Jacob, it was in a place that held little significance to
him, at a time when he wasn’t looking for it and in a way that emphasized to him God was with
him, even though the world viewed him as destitute and alone.
This scripture passage reminds us that our God is not a God that abandons or ignores, but
instead, our God is a God who is always present. Even in the dark times of our lives, even when
we mess up so much that everyone around us rejects us, God is still there, right beside us!
This reminds me of the “Footprints: poem. Many of you probably know it. It goes like
One night I had a dream
as I was walking along the beach with God.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me and one to God.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked God about it.
"God, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
God whispered, "My precious child, I love you and I will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and tribulations.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."
Our lives are often filled with moments of loneliness, fear and despair that can be
transformed by the presence of God standing beside us. Just like Jacob experienced. And
sometimes, it is only after we emerge on the other side of the trouble that we see where God was
at work. When we take stock and take a look back, we see that “God was present in that place,
and we didn’t even know it!”
Remember, though, just because we may encounter God along life’s journey, our lives
are not guaranteed to be filled with only happy experiences and good times, from that moment
on. For twenty years after Jacob met God in that dream, Jacob was forced to stay hundreds of
miles away from his immediate family. For twenty years, he had to struggle to get along with his
uncle, who was even more deceitful that Jacob! Entering into a relationship with God does not
guarantee that life will be easy. But it does assure of the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal
life, and the presence of God, as a loyal companion in our everyday lives. This is God’s promise
to us – today and for the rest of our lives! Amen.