Genesis 28: 10-22
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 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. 12 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. 13 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; 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 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.”
18 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. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 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, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 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.”
I’ve never been all that good at building things. Handyman kind of stuff, especially. You know, fix it projects and the like. It’s in my genes, I think. My dad and I have some epic tales of project failures together. Our idea of a tool box was the drawer in the china cabinet that kept our hammer and one flat head screwdriver. In high school, I had an old school truck – a classic, sort of. At least it was to me. It was a dual exhaust situation with a tail pipe sticking out the back on both sides of the truck. While the truck had been updated in a number of ways, those old rusty tailpipes sort of stuck out like two sore thumbs. Never to fear, dad and I were on the project. We found our way to the little automotive parts store in our little town and went on the hunt for a couple of shiny chrome exhaust pipe extensions. Found a couple and went back home. Of course, those chrome extensions were about twice as big around as the tail pipes themselves. Slight oversight on our part. Not to fear, we were resourceful. We went shopping again and found a sheet of fire-retardant material that would do the trick. We’d cut that material, wrap it around the tailpipe before putting on the chrome extensions that just fit snugly on there like a glove once wrapped. We stepped back to appreciate the toil of our labor and admire the shine before I jumped in the truck to go show it off around town. Down the driveway, quick right on Gantz Street before a second right on the Business Loop. I wasn’t but a quarter-mile down the road before I hear this loud “Zing!” and subsequent sound of those beautiful chrome tail-pipe extensions bouncing down the road behind me. Turns out flame-retardant doesn’t include the insulated heat produced by the tailpipes themselves. Did I say that I’m not so good at building things?
When we moved to our home in Tulsa, Dad and I spent the best part of two days trying to get the washing machine hooked up. The pipe didn’t match up with the wall connection and we made four or seven or twelve trips to Lowes to get this piece and that thing and, to stay on theme, some pipe extenders to connect the machine to the source on the wall. Surely this would work. The connectors looked like your pencil trail trying to find its way through a paper maze – upward and downward and sideways and the like trying to make it all work. Feeling defeated now that the washer had to sit a foot out from the wall to give space for this contraption we developed without ultimate success, I made a humble call to Dave Crandall who graciously came over and spent about five minutes solving our near 48-hour fix-it project. I’ve never been all that good at fix-it projects (and I’m thankful my wife has yet to shout Amen! this morning).
While building things in such a spirit isn’t my forte, we are going to spend this series building a few things together – an altar in the world as it were. The good news is that no matter our skill levels, our shape or size or color or background or faith level, we’ve got all we need within us to build these altars. As author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor, whose work An Altar in the World inspires this series says, “Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it [and build some altars of your life for the glory of God].” And then she drops this reassuring line for any of us who feel we don’t have what we need, what it takes, the depth to handle it, the worthiness to offer anything of meaning. She says And thanks be to God, I’m trusting that to be true.
There’s a mentor in my life who always has a way of stepping back from any current circumstance, struggle, reality, or even joy with some Jesus perspective. Even when he takes a deep breath – you believe him more than most… like he’s on to something of the holy without even saying a word. A group of us were circled up once sharing struggles and uncertainties and anxieties about the future. Soaking it all in, this mentor sat back in the quiet space and he breathed out the question, “What is saving your life right now?” We all just sat there for a bit, maybe even a little stunned by the question. It was simple enough but who has time to think about what’s saving us when we’re so busy fretting about the present or the future now that we’re dealing with all of these things that make us so anxious. “What do you mean?” someone asked. “Nothing’s saving my life. Everything’s falling apart.” Some more silence. Some more thought. And then one by one, everyone mustered an answer: “Well, my dog still loves me,” someone offered. “I noticed the stars for the first time in a long time the other night and they took my breath for a minute.” Another said, “A friend that I hadn’t heard from in a while sent me a text right in the middle of the muck of it all that simply said, “I miss you,” and that saved me in that very moment.” And the more we sat and the more we listened, we began to realize what Elizabeth Barrett Browning had whispered so emphatically years and years ago:
Perspective. Whatever anxiety you’re carrying this morning. Whatever struggle or heartache or uncertainty fills your soul, at the very same moment when we’re still enough, there’s something just waiting with all its beauty and courage and stability to hold the answer to the question, “What is saving your life right now?” This is why we’ve invited Jacob into the story of our lives this morning. He’s sort of between a rock and hard place – literally as he uses a stone as a pillow when he finally feels he’s far enough away from trouble that he can rest. He’s still a young man, running away from home because his whole family system had finally imploded. His dad was dying. His twin brother Esau was seen as competition to the father’s blessing, not an ally. Cultural custom meant Esau would receive the blessing. But Jacob’s ethics were sort of in the pot. He was living the downward spiral that Anne Lamott put this way: “By the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.” In all the scheming, Jacob got his mom to help him deceive his dad and brother. While mom was quick to say, “No collusion,” oh she was in it deep with Jacob. They schemed, and it worked. Jacob stole the blessing and there was more than a wedgie from his brother at stake for this dirty, selfish play for the blessing. Without time to even pack a toothbrush or his eye contact solution, Jacob is running for his life which leads us to this exhausted moment where a stone is the best option for a pillow and he doesn’t even care. He sleeps. And here come the dreams.
As the story is told, this ladder appears stretching from the ground to the heavens with angels going up and down. (And Huey Lewis and the News playing the background: “Step by step, one by one, higher and higher. Step by step, rung by rung, climbing Jacob’s ladder.”) And in a moment, God is there at Jacob’s side saying, “Remember I am with you. I won’t leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” How’s that for reassurance when your life feels like you’re constantly out of breath and the treadmill just keeps going faster? And you know how awful it feels when you can’t keep up with the treadmill of your life. Comedian Jim Gaffigan said, “Watching a 90-year-old on an elliptical really inspires me to die in my 70’s.” It can be so exhausting trying to keep up with life’s demands. No matter our age, when we’re weary and defeated, couldn’t we all use the word from God that Jacob received that night? “Remember I am with you. I won’t leave you until I have done what I have promised.” And as Jacob awakens, just a fallen and exhausted soul trying to get through another night, he realizes something was happening in his very presence. “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place and I didn’t even have a clue.” And at this point, he’s jumped up and he’s just sort of all giddy. He keeps talking to himself – “That. was. awesome!” And how could he explain it? How do we explain it when we’ve been changed? We don’t know exactly how. We can’t say exactly why. But there’s not a single one of us, I’m guessing, that can’t recall some moment in time when we could say, “Everything changed. That was the turning point. That was the moment I saw things for what they really were… and what they really could be.” Whether Jacob rubbed his eyes in hopes of seeing that ladder standing in front of him or the hopes to discover an angel print or two in the sand, he couldn’t deny that God knows what happened even if he couldn’t explain it. Jacob knew he had to mark that moment somehow, some way. He didn’t go to sleep seeking a spiritual encounter or a conversion of his spirit but once he recognized it, he couldn’t help but change the direction of his reflection.
Too often, the direction of our reflection is our disappointments. But if you start with your disappointments, you tend to end with your disappointments. If you start with God, you end with gratitude. This is the shift for Jacob and he marks that space by building an altar to God with that stone pillow that held his head through the night. Now he knows there is more to this life than his troubles, than his past, than his disappointments and failures. From here on out, he would look at the world with a different gaze. Where is your gaze this morning? Is it on your disappointments? Your fears? Your frustrations? Or is it on that whisper of God that says to you and me, “Hey, I got you. I won’t leave you until I have done what I’ve promised.” Now I know this is easy to say. And we may get pumped about that promise for a minute but the minute we walk back to our cars, we can start to feel that same old gnawing inside – we long for more. “Where’s God’s promise in this?” we ask. We lose sight of what’s saving our lives right now and see instead the ailment, the separation, the hurt, the confusion, the emptiness.
But what we cannot forget is that God can drop a ladder anywhere, any time with no regard for any of our controlling expectations. All the sudden, even the parking lot becomes holy ground, altar worthy if you will. I sat in my car one morning this week. It has been a bit of a week you could say. I pulled into that little parking space out of the south entrance of the building as I have for years now. We’re not that kind of church that has pastor’s parking spaces or anything. But there’s a space or two that I have mostly landed in over time. I’ve often sat in that space after my drive from home or from wherever I’ve been and listened to the last few minutes of a podcast that wasn’t quite over. Sometimes I’ll allow a song to play out before I dare turn the key to end the glory of that moment. Nobody cuts Jodeci or Neil Diamond off until they’re through. I’ve sat in that space, staring through that windshield to the brick wall and stained glass of our sanctuary as I finished a phone call from one of you, or my mom, or a colleague … where countless times I’ve prayed, or we’ve prayed, and times where there have been tears of joy or concern or any number of other emotions in between. I’ve spent a lot of time in that parking spot. And this particular morning, as I pulled in, breathing deep sighs as prayers in the place of words… pondering the new realities of our upcoming move, I saw that space differently, and the brick wall, and the stained glass… and it was holy. And I built an altar right there in my soul. I didn’t want to miss the moment. Surely God was there… and had been all those previous times in that very space … I just did not know it. And my how things change when you know it… when you know the presence of God is closer than your very breath. I snapped this picture, having placed a chalice on my dash that one of our youth had crafted out of a gum wrapper. Not sure who but in honor of that young person’s acknowledgement of the holy in something as simple as a gum wrapper, I tapped into that spirit and said, “God, for the gift of this sacred parking space – where you have saved my life again and again – thank you. Never let me take for granted the gift of your presence.”
Maybe that space is there for you too. Could you look for it this week? Could you, like Jacob, realize that it may be that the whole world is an altar and the divine could erupt anywhere. God shows up in whirlwinds and starry skies, in burning bushes, parking spaces and perfect strangers named Barry or Jamison or Analise. And when people wanted to know more about God, Jesus told them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.
As we approach Independence Day, we sing some of the songs that remind us of where we live and certainly our longing for God’s presence to be among us in this land that is our home but what makes it Holy Ground is not any personal blessing we fight for individually but the way we treat the ground upon which we live and the people with whom we share the land. Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” When we stop looking for God’s presence in the lives of those held in detention centers, or when we consider matters of healthcare, or when we don’t count the cost of war… we miss the call of God to see. We miss the heart of Christ that says, “See all of that through my eyes before you speak into that issue, that need, that concern, that person’s life. See it as I see and then respond as I would respond.” And whenever I run that sentence past my own heart, I grieve my selfish desires that surely don’t align with that of Jesus as often as I’d like. But staying in that idle state of heart or mind doesn’t do me or anyone else any good; certainly not the case of Christ. Such is a place of perpetual angst and that only leads to bitterness. It’s like what Sara Buckley said, whose twitter handle is @nottheworstmom. She said, “I never buy chips because then I’ll eat them, so instead I look in my pantry every day and am disappointed that I don’t have any chips.” We have to shake this sense that there’s not heaven crammed all around us for it’s there and once we begin to recognize it, so much can change for the better.
This doesn’t mean the hardness of life goes away. It’s there and you don’t need me to remind you of that. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Wisdom atrophies if it is not walked on a regular basis.” Wisdom isn’t about information. It’s what grows on us when we walk through the hard stuff. Taylor adds, “You need a body that gets hungry, feels pain, thrills to pleasure, craves rest.” This is how we feel and learn and sense the presence of God. In this way, we can understand the Talmud wisdom that says No matter your current circumstance, may you hear that voice of God whispering into your life, “Grow, grow.” And we do have some choice in that, you know. Like Jacob, most visions we’ll have in this life happen while we’re busy doing something else. It happens to us like a thunderstorm or catching a cold or like that moment you realize you’re falling in love. We may not control when those moments find you … BUT… our part is to decide how we respond. Much of the time, in those holy ground moments, we talk ourselves out of it. It wasn’t really a thing – it’s just the caffeine talking, or we can say, “Those God-moments aren’t real,” or “I’m too busy to give this any more pause.” We’re all good at talking ourselves out of waking up to the presence of God.
The better option perhaps? Taylor says, “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 set a stone or say a blessing before I move on to wherever I’m due next.” Jacob’s family had imploded, his brother was out to kill him, and he had really been up to no good from day one but God showed up – right where he was to show him something he didn’t know. Something he needed to learn. Something that needed to ground his life moving forward. None of this was Jacob’s doing. The only thing Jacob really did right was to see where he was… a holy space… and say so. He turned up his pillow as an altar to say, “Yeah… in light of everything happening in my life, my weariness, my anxiety over change, my greatest fears holding me back from pressing forward… God is here… always has been… always will be and I will praise that God who came to me where I was.”
I’ve never been that good at building things. But I’m going to build some altars this season. I’m finding heaven crammed all around me… often in the common spaces I mostly took for granted. My altars may be a little wonky… a little fragile at times… and may require a phone call to Dave Crandall to say, “I think I may need your help with this altar,” but I’ll do so with gratitude for it’s worth it. I’ve never built an altar that wasn’t worth the effort. It’s worth every investment of time and relationship, every gain and every loss and all that we’ve ever shared together… for it’s all an altar to the glory of God and it’s built with love. Will you build some with me? The good news is… we’ve got everything we need to begin.
 An Altar in the World. Barbara Brown Taylor. Harper One Publishing. 2009. Any quotes from Taylor come from this work and each sermon in this series is inspired by different chapters of the book. Her influence is scattered throughout this message and I am grateful for her insight and the vivid imagery of her writing.