Sacred Places

Genesis 28:10-19

How many of you remember the story of Jacob?

Sure, you probably remember him from such musicals as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was Joseph’s dad, in case you’re wondering.
All in all, Jacob is one of the patriarchs in the Hebrew Scriptures.
He’s remembered for his family and what they went on to do.
But Jacob himself is a troubling character if we really read his story well.

He didn’t start off too well. Jacob, even before he is born, grabs on to his older brother Esau’s heel. It was a race to see who would be born first! Obvious, then, why the name Jacob means usurper or schemer.

From the get go, Jacob was trying to steal his older brother Esau’s birthright.
You see, privileges came with being the first born son.
There was land, animals, prestige, dad’s Costco membership, season tickets to the now Lebron-led Cleveland Cavaliers, and of course, the keys to dad Isaac’s Mercedes.

Yeah…all of that stuff.

So Jacob was really focused on getting this status by any means necessary.
He knew that his brother Esau loved food. And especially Jacob’s special soup, apparently. The story goes that one day, after working really hard, Esau returns home and is very hungry. He sees Jacob eating his favorite stew and begs Jacob to share.

Sure, I’ll share. But give me your birthright and I’ll give you the soup.

Well Esau must have been REALLY hungry, because he made the deal.
Soup for a birthright.

But it wasn’t over. Isaac, the dad, still had to give the birthright blessing to his firstborn.
And Isaac had no knowledge of the soup deal.
So when Isaac was near death, he called Esau to his beside to give him the blessing.

Jacob was smart. He sent his brother Esau into the fields to hunt for deer—one of their father’s favorite foods. So Esau leaves, and Jacob schemes.
With the help of his mom Rebekah, Jacob had a goat dish in hand, Esau’s clothes on his back, and goat skins that were extra furry on his arms and neck.

You see, Esau was hairy and Jacob wasn’t. So the goat hairs just might work.

Well, old Isaac’s eyesight was no too good, and so the plan did work.
Isaac thought Jacob was Esau.
He gave Isaac the blessing meant for Esau.

And of course, as you can imagine, upon his return, Esau was not too happy about all this.
Esau planned to kill Jacob for this deception and so eventually Jacob fled the house.
He was on his way to his uncle Laban’s house, and this is where we meet him.
He’s on his way to Haran.
He stops in an unimportant place—just a pit stop because the sun went down.
It’s dark and Jacob needs to sleep.
So he lays his head on a rock pillow.

And he has a funky dream that has inspired a LOT of songs.

Jacob dreams about a ladder that rests on the ground here on this planet, but the top of it reaches to the heavens. Angels of God go up and down this ladder.

Here is Marc Chaggall’s painting that depicts the dream:


When Jacob wakes up, he’s surprised. You see, God speaks to Jacob and says:

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.

This is unexpected for Jacob, who is on the run from his ticked off brother, far from home, and uncertain about his future. God with him in this strange and unimportant place?
The Creator standing beside him in spite of his issues and mistakes?

This Creator makes a covenant with Jacob—a promise of relationship.
And this time, Jacob did not have to lie or grab someone’s heel or deceive his dad.

Eventually, Jacob gets a new name: Israel, which means: persevere with God.

Very appropriate, don’t you think?

I hope the themes in this story lead you somewhere challenging and fulfilling.
After all, there is a lot that you can learn from here.

Like Jacob, we as human beings often pursue status, power, wealth, etc., and we do just about anything to get it. We are more than capable of stealing, walking over others, lying, and scheming.

But we always feel empty. We are never satisfied.

And, like Jacob, we can become conditioned to think that the presence of God is limited to certain places and rituals.
We commemorate such places with signs, and plaques and steeples and crosses.
We adore our religious rituals and grab on tightly to them.

But we always feel empty. We are never satisfied.

And then, when those buildings are sold or lost, when the rituals become less important—we just might convince ourselves that our spiritual core is empty and God is absent.

Or you may be someone who abhors ritual and has no attachment to buildings, but you’ve grown so tired of religion with all its dogma and hate and violence.
And so, we find ourselves in an unknown, dark, seemingly unimportant and non-spiritual place somewhat like limbo.

And it’s in that in-between place that we find something real at last.

We find God in that place and we’re surprised.

We have an “aha moment” outside the sanctuary and we’re shocked.
We experience peace of mind and body in nature and say: How?
We hear promises of comfort and connection outside of religious books and dogma and we feel that we’re dreaming.

We need this kind of dream. We have got to stop limiting ourselves so much.
Don’t think of this ladder as something corporate that you’ve got to climb up as quickly as possible, jumping over anyone in your path. Don’t think of the ladder as some “project” to be more holy or religious.
And don’t every judge others by thinking they are below you.

As Rabbi Yossy Goldman puts it:

When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

And so my friends, it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder…of life. As long as you are moving in the right direction…

Friends, God is everywhere—surely in this place, and the other, and that one, and here, and there, and everywhere. The Creator is present in those limbo-like places, in between and when we’re uncertain and wandering.

Let us not seek things that leave us feeling empty.

Instead, walk and climb freely—knowing that you are not alone and that you will have daily opportunities to reconnect with your full humanity, and with the Spirit that gives you good work to do that is part of a greater picture.

The ladder of transformation and social impact and connection, you see, is not only accessible through a church.

The ladder is grounded on this earth everywhere you go.

Each moment, each day we have the opportunity to claim sacred places where we are.
And all this real-time dreaming can lead to making a real positive impact in the world.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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