Have you ever thought about where you intentionally go to meet God? Can you remember the times or places where your spirit awakened to the presence of God perhaps more than any other time or place? Perhaps without even knowing that you were going to have an encounter with the Holy One?
We are entering a sermon series on a book written by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled: An Altar in the World. In the book, Taylor, an Episcopal Priest and College Professor, outlines simple practices to discover and heighten our awareness of the presence of God in our lives and in our world. To see altars everywhere we go, in everything we do, and to awaken to the Holy presence of God around us, above us, below us, within us. Last week we started with the Practice of Carrying Water – finding God in the connection of work & worship. Today we enter into the Practice of Waking up to God.
Beth-el: this was the name Jacob gave to the place where he encountered God in a dream with a stone for a pillow. Beth-el literally means House of God. Jacob did not have a plan to intentionally meet God that night. In fact, Jacob was running away. Running away from home because he lied and connived to steal the family blessing and inheritance from his blind and dying father, effectively taking it away from his twin brother Esau. When we catch up with Jacob in this morning’s Bible story, Jacob is on the run from Esau, who is heart-broken that Jacob stole his blessing and out for revenge. Alone & afraid, Jacob flees into the desert. He isn’t looking for God. He certainly doesn’t expect God to start looking for him. And still, God comes.
This is the story where the familiar repetitive hymn we learned in Sunday School comes from – We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder – But the ladder isn’t the point of this story. The important part of the story is that God shows up, and Jacob awakens to God’s presence.
After running all day, Jacob was exhausted. Alone and afraid, Jacob decides to go to sleep and finds a stone to use as a pillow. A vivid dream unfolds: a ladder stretching to heaven with the Angels of God ascending and descending. And then God’s voice. Remember, I am with you; I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.
The God he’s never paid any attention to breaks into his dreams. And speaks: I’ll stay with you always. When Jacob leaves his dream state, not only does he awaken from sleep; he wakes up to God. He doesn’t feel quite as alone. Same desert wilderness, but something was different. And he shouts: ”Surely the Lord is in this place,—and I didn’t even know it! How awesome is this place! This is the gate of heaven.”
Having woken up to God, Jacob knew he had to mark the spot. BBT says: “When God encounters us in our ordinary lives, then we have a choice: we can keep on going and ignore what has happened, or we can set down an altar. We can mark – even just within ourselves – that moment, that spot, as holy.”
And that’s what Jacob did – he took the stone from under his head and tilted it heaven-ward. He anointed it with oil, marking the place as an altar and named it Beth-el. The House of God. The place where he experienced Divine Presence, the Really Real, the More, the Luminous Web that holds everything in place, by whatever name you call it.
Taylor writes… If there is a switch to flip, I have never found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did not make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away… I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is… … I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on.
From the bulletin cover – Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
What places in the world have been particularly holy for you? Where are your altars, and how do you acknowledge them? God is constantly breaking into our world, trying to get our attention. Across the millennia, Jacob shouts out to us, God is in this place – truly!