Jacob was running away because his brother, Esau, had threatened to kill him. In running away, Jacob had abandoned his inheritance. He was heading back to Uncle Laban and the family clan, to the territory the family lived in before his Grandfather, Abraham, had some crazy dream from God calling him to a Promised Land. He was on the run, in the middle of nowhere, when night fell. The hard stone Jacob used for a pillow said it all: this was a tough and uncertain time. It was a season of deconstruction and transition. Jacob was tired and afraid. He longed for the oblivion of sleep, but he dreamed strange dreams instead.
In contrast to Jacob’s surface crisis, his dream conveyed God’s promise and filled him with awe and inspiration. In his dream Jacob saw a ladder resting solidly on the earth and reaching all the way to heaven. Angels were climbing up to heaven and returning with messages from God. Jacob woke to recognize that God was in this in-between place. Even though Jacob did not see God, this seemingly empty place was Beth-el, the house of God and the very gate of heaven. His fear was swallowed up by hope.
My Jacob’s flight took place at age sixteen, when I ran away from a Swiss boarding school. My Jacob’s despair was the assumption that I had failed in life, and that the only options were to start life over or to end it. Now, the place in which I used a stone for a pillow was the French Riviera. That sounds idyllic, but the glamour only made the contrast harsher. I wanted to sleep and avoid the pain, but God was faithfully present. The vision and promise of God arrived more slowly for me than for Jacob, but God’s promise at baptism still burns in my heart, and a flame of loving hope brightens this place today.
Many of you received a letter calling you to journey to Bethel with your vestry and me. All Saints’ has a hard pillow under our head right now, because we are going through a transition. Church leaders sometimes talk about a transition-in-place, as distinct from the transition when a congregation is searching for a new rector. We might call this season our Bethel moment. Our transition-in-place results from several staff changes over the past nine months, as well as the incorporation of seven new vestry members this year. This loss and significant change in combined leadership has resulted in a decline in attendance and income. We changed two full-time staff positions into part-time positions in order to live within our budget. Transitions can be scary.
Such a Bethel moment in the life of All Saints’ presents an excellent time to dream the dream of Jacob, and to listen to the message of the angels who climb to heaven and back again. Discernment also allows us to grow spiritually as individuals. Can we, like Jacob, see God’s presence with us as we flee from our own brokenness, and are far from the family estate of how we want our church to be? With a hard rock for a pillow, we enter discernment by permitting our sleep to be disturbed so that we can dream of ladders and angels. We participate in discernment as a congregation, so that we can willingly say, “Surely the community of All Saints’ is the house of God and our Life in Christ is the very gate of heaven.”
At first, Jacob was driven by the fear of his challenges, and saw only the wilderness. When he woke, Jacob realized that God was present all the time, and that God’s promise is like that unbroken ladder, planted solidly on the earth next to his feet, and reaching all the way to heaven. When Jacob woke, he named the place Beth-el, or House of God. Wondrously, the very place of fear and a stone pillow became the gate of heaven.
This is God’s promise to us. When we see only an ordinary place, when we find ourselves half way between the old home and a new one, when we are frightened by watching one nation invade another, God is present. God has not abandoned us, but repeats the promise given to our ancestors, “Lo, I will be with you always.” God fulfills the promise through Jesus, because Jesus is our ladder connecting heaven to earth, and earth to heaven. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus echoes Jacob’s vision by assuring his new disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Tomorrow morning I fly to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in order to drive my four-year-old grandson, Oliver, to his new home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Oliver is sad to leave his friends and abandon the only home he’s ever known in his young life. He is scared, but also very excited. We will follow behind his dad’s car and camp along the way. We’ll camp at some nowhere, in-between location that is neither his old home nor the new one, but God will journey with us. If we pay attention, we’ll discern God’s presence. When we sleep at night beneath the diamond sky, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll dream of angels and a ladder.
The Rev. Rick Matters preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel