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July 23, 2017

“Finding God in the Thinny”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 139.1-12, 23-34

Genesis 28.10-19a

July 23, 2017

            Have you ever been in a sacred place? Maybe it was a place you travelled to, or maybe it is here in this sanctuary. Maybe it was outside. What made it sacred? Was it the people who shared that space with you? Creation? What happened in that place?

            My favorite sci-fi show calls the place between our world and other worlds a “thinny.” I like to think of that word when I imagine sacred places – that the space between us and God is thin, and so we recognize it as a sacred place. 

            Jacob meets God for the first time in the passage we read in Genesis.[1] Last week we heard the beginning of Jacob’s story. He had a twin brother named Esau, and they struggled against each other from the very beginning. Jacob swapped some lentil soup in exchange for Esau’s birthright, tricked their father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright, and now we have moved into the future a bit, but it seems not much has changed for Jacob. He is running from his brother as the feud continues and he is heading toward Haran, his father’s and grandfather’s birthplace.

            After a long journey, Jacob stops to take a rest. It is here in this place of solitude and rejuvenation that Jacob finds a thinny. He places a rock underneath his head and falls asleep. The dream he has is described in such detail. We read about this stairway to heaven, with angels strolling up and down, showing the visible connection between the realm of God and earth. Our translation calls it a stairway, but the more accurate translation would be a ramp. As we have been discussing accessibility recently in our inclusivity luncheon, I found this to be rather interesting and timely. To imagine the access route from earth to God as a ramp shows the inclusivity of God, and who is welcome.

            God even appears in this dream and blesses this man who cheated others out of things. After all that he has done to trick others, God blesses him.[2]  What does this say about God? Perhaps it also speaks to God’s inclusivity. God is loving of all people, even those who make mistakes, who seem to be in business only for themselves. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t justice or judgment, but that God is not willing to condemn humanity for acting like humans.

            Thinking to this dream, have you ever had a dream that felt so real that when you woke up you could still feel someone’s presence? Or maybe it felt like it really happened and it took you a few minutes to adjust your eyes and figure out where you were in that moment. Maybe even you have had the experience of going somewhere for the very first time in your life and feeling “déjà vu” – that you recognize the place because you saw it in a dream. As Jacob’s story portrays, dreams are powerful. They help us work through troublesome issues that churn in our minds. I also think God speaks to us in some dreams, because it is the only time we are absolutely still and listening. Perhaps Jacob wasn’t ready to hear God while he was awake, and it was only when he slowed down that God could speak to him and he would truly listen.

            When Jacob wakes up he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!" He acknowledges that God was there all along. God is everywhere, not just one place, but we don’t always recognize it. God moves with us and travels. The Israelites realized that as they wandered the wilderness, and God went with them. In one commentary, one theologian noted, “One does not simply choose place and make it holy…sacredness must be discovered or disclosed, and then recognized.”[3] When Jacob has this revelation, he does not make it a holy place based on anything he has done – he sees that God is already there and merely memorializes the place as holy.

            Jacob places the stones in a manner that shows that something important – something holy happened here. It was common in those days to take rocks to honor a holy place, or to mark where something important happened.[4] We still do this today – we mark someone’s resting place with a headstone. Just outside the church we have a large stone commemorating McCormick Seminary’s beginning in our church.        

            While in Massachusetts, I came across some beautiful rocks. The picture on the front of your bulletin is of some rocks I stacked one morning in prayer. The sun woke me up early every morning, and this particular morning I prepared to go on a run. After walking to the first floor, I saw the sun peeking up over the harbor behind the hotel, so I decided to leave out the back and look at the sunrise first.

I walked toward the small vending area where a woman in bright colored clothing stood, staring at the ice machine through her brown sunglasses. I planned to squeeze in behind her and slip out the door on the other side. Before I could, she looked at me with absolute terror, jumped up and shouted. I apologized, explaining I didn’t mean to scare her. She was panting wildly, holding her chest. “You scared me. Why does everyone sneak up on me?” I apologized again. “I was just attacked,” she said. She pointed to a faded yellow bruise on her shin, and then pulled the collar of her shirt down just above her breast.

“I was beaten, kicked, punched – for twenty minutes.” She went on to describe the attack, but I can’t remember what she said because it was all too painful and too shocking for me to absorb in that moment. She paced back and forth as she told me.

 “I feel everything. I sense everything. But everyone keeps sneaking up on me.” She held the door for me, talking quickly about how she should have been dead. We made it to the beach, where she lit her cigarette. “This is the best sunrise in the world,” she said, pointing to the harbor. “Look at it.” I glanced over my shoulder. I had my back to the sunrise, because I couldn’t face something so beautiful in that moment. “And last night, I heard the moon was gorgeous. I missed it. But they’ll be another one in a month. The sun keeps rising. The moon does, too.” I asked her how long she lived in this area. I can’t remember how long she said, because she followed it with, “My husband died four months ago of stage four cancer. I don’t have a life anymore. I’m trying to find it. Being here is healing.”

After we parted I put my earbuds in and walked around the building. Tears now poured out of my face. I was completely shaken. When I finally reached the beach, I squatted at the water’s edge. Birds cawed as the salty water splashed upon the rocks in the sand. I wept bitterly. I walked until the sand ran out, then turned back around. I gripped a large, smooth stone in my hand. I gathered more rocks – a white stone, a large reddish orange rock. I stacked them, one on top of the other. A tower of prayers up to God. “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.” I thought of this passage as I said a prayer for this woman, for all women. The stones in our hearts stacked upon each other, creating a safe and holy space.

 

That afternoon I almost forgot about the encounter. I was buzzing from the excitement of the workshop and walked downtown to feed my coffee addiction. Across from the coffee shop I saw a store of feminist artwork. I meandered in. Then I found it in the window display. Seven rocks stacked on top of each other. Here in this shop made for women was the same symbol I created on the beach.

Fast forward to my last day on the beach. I ran into her again. We talked for a long time, and I told her about the rocks that I had placed on the beach and the prayer I said. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Just like Martha’s Vineyard! My daughter and I did that all the time.” In my encounter with this woman, I found a thinny. I recognized God in our conversation and in her strength.

            Jacob called the place “Bethel,” or “House of God.” He commemorated that place with a rock to show others that he met God there. The psalm reminds us that God knows us personally and that we cannot leave the presence of God. We might feel alone, but God is with us. The psalmist tells us that even if we go to the farthest limits of the sea, God is there with us.

            So, wherever you go this week, you will find God – you will meet God in a thinny and see God’s house. As you leave this place, I encourage you to take a stone – or three or four, and stack them in a place where you saw God. Be struck by God’s love and grace. Amen.

 

 

[1] Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis” in The Jewish Study Bible. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 58.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl. R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year, A. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 366.

[4] Roger S. Borass, “Pillars” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 799.