Sunday, July 19, 2020
“Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!” Jacob exclaims. He is running away from his brother Esau to his uncle Laban in Haran, the homeland of his mother Rebekah and his grandfather Abraham, when he comes to a certain place, which happens to be the same place where God first speaks to Abraham and promises him land and descendants. Jacob somehow manages to get to sleep with a rock for his pillow, and has a vision of heaven. And likely without realizing it, he names the place Bethel, which means “House of God,” which is the same name that his grandfather Abraham had given that particular place many years before. This is a sacred place, clearly, an oasis of encouragement and rest for Jacob on what must have been a fearful journey into the unknown.
There is an old Celtic saying that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” In cultures around the world, there is a similar idea to the Celtic notion of “thin places,” which are spots where people feel closer to heaven and to God than “ordinary” places. The island of Iona in Scotland is one such place where thousands of pilgrims go for spiritual retreats and to feel closer to God. In my own travels, I can think of “thin places” I have visited. In a seminary class trip to the Holy Land, I visited the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, a city itself which all three Abrahamic faiths recognize as one of the holiest sites on earth. In college, I traveled to Bodh Gaya, sitting under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha was enlightened in India, and dipped in the Ganges river in Varanasi, a holy site for Hindus. Other thin places we might think of include the cathedral of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Patrick’s or St. John the Divine here in New York, or other beautiful houses of worship around the world. And “thin places” don’t have to be famous pilgrimage sites either. They can be your favorite vacation spot on a beach or on a mountain or even this very church building. During these months of quarantine, a “thin place” could be your living room or your kitchen table or your backyard garden. Celtic spirituality recognized that “thin places” could seem “thick” for some – the place is sacred for the individual who finds it so, and some might find the very same place pretty ordinary and uninspiring. But the reverse is also true…all places can be “thin” depending on the movement of God’s Spirit and our ability to recognize God’s presence in a place.
We see in today’s first lesson how Jacob practically stumbles upon his grandfather Abraham’s ancient altar at Bethel and recognizes it as a “thin place” for him to worship God. He gets a glimpse of heaven. He is reassured that God is with him and that God will give him all he needs. Strengthened by this vision, he is able to continue on his journey. If you read the entire chapter to the end, you will see that this moment is the beginning of regular worship of God at an altar for Jacob and his descendants, the people of Israel. Jacob promises to give one tenth of what God has blessed him with back to God…the beginning of the spiritual practice of tithing an offering to God. We have seen, and we will continue to see that Jacob is certainly not a perfect person, but in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac, he worships God and recognizes that all he has is a gift from God. He will pass on these rituals so that generation after generation up to today will continue to worship and give back to God what God first gives us. What a powerful, transformative dream!
As we were forced to worship apart from our homes for months with these church doors closed, I think Jacob’s story today gives us some space to think about how God may have surprised us by coming close to us in what we used to consider ordinary, mundane places. When and where have we said, like Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it?” Never before have I had the need to worship God from my living room couch on a TV screen, for example, and yet we have experienced that as a “thin place,” gathered around our piano singing hymns and praying together as a family. Re-entering this church after such a long time away, it feels like an extra special sacred space. As some of us resume more familiar routines of weekend travel, trips to our second homes or rental homes, we also have this reminder from Jacob that more important than where we worship God is simply that we worship God, wherever we are, and try to recognize that God is with us wherever we go. A beautiful church building, even if we see it on a computer screen, can help us feel closer to the sacred, but we do not need to be in a church building to worship God. It seems that for Jacob, worship consisted of setting up a rock altar that also served as his pillow under the open sky. That was the tradition of worship for many generations, until Solomon’s temple was built hundreds of years later.
Nebraska has a large population of South Sudanese immigrants, and Rich and I were blessed to work with several Lutheran Sudanese congregations in our synodical work. Our Sudanese pastors would talk about how in South Sudan, new churches started not with a building, but with an evangelist pastor gathering people for worship under a tree. They had the advantage of warm weather year-round to make this more possible, but the church building came years after a new church start. This practice is similar to our own congregation’s story here at Faith Lutheran, where the pastor gathered people together to meet in a house, and a basement and in a movie theater when they needed more space for special occasions, before building this beautiful sanctuary several years after the congregation had been meeting weekly for worship and other activities.
We can worship God where we are, wherever we are, and God’s Spirit nudges us to recognize that God is closer to us than we realize. Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. May we like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, continue to worship God faithfully and feel his presence with us daily, always graciously providing everything we need. And may God give us glimpses of heaven wherever we are. Amen.