Readings for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Sunday, 20 July, 2020: Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23, Genesis 28:10-19, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. Preached (via Zoom) at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto.
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! (Genesis 28.16)
Today’s first lesson from Genesis, in which Jacob has an unexpected encounter with God, invites us to think about those places and times where we find God in our own lives. Before the pandemic, that might have seemed an obvious question – the “house of God” was most likely our local church, where we could be take our place in the community of disciples and be nourished by word and sacrament. Beyond our familiar church or parish, we might have some particular place that seemed to be “the gate of heaven”, some site of pilgrimage where the divine seems to be particularly close. Even a brief visit to such a place can be restorative, renewing our faith, our vocation, and our willingness to go back out into the everyday world.
When we all have our vaccines and we can travel without masks or fear, is there a special place where you will go to be near God, some personal shrine or place of pilgrimage? Will it be one of the great cathedrals of Europe, some magical spot of old growth forest, or some church that played a special role in your past? Sometimes I find myself thinking fondly of my own such place, an Anglican monastery in Boston which is my favourite place to go on retreat. Once there in its quiet hallways, its chapel fragrant with incense, its excellent food and the quiet hospitality, it’s easy to think that you might, like Jacob, bump into an angel going about its business.
Sometimes when I think about going back to the monastery, if I’m honest, it’s from a desire to escape. I want to run to a special place, a sacred place where I’m sure God is waiting for me. I want to run from the fear, the stasis, the spiritual dryness of this time of waiting that we’re all stuck in, like so many ships waiting for spiritual wind to fill their sails. I want to chew fresh bread torn on the altar, taste wine, touch the silver chalice, smell incense, hear the brothers chanting, see light seeping through stained glass on polished stones. I crave this place like a refuge, just like a crave life before Covid 19.
It came as a bit of a shock to get the monastery newsletter and read that in this place of serenity, one of the monks that I’ve somewhat idealized as spiritual heroes was himself wrestling with this same sense of stasis and desire to escape. On Wednesday, Brother Geoffrey described seeing a British Airways plane taking off for London and feeling a deep desire to be on it. He wrote that the now familiar pandemic feeling of confinement can lead to deep spiritual distraction and unhappiness when we focus on the things we can’t have. Brother Geoffrey’s advice is to go “back to the ‘present moment’, which is where Christ is, and where we can see and celebrate in a new way, just how rich and blessed our lives are now, today”. Geoffrey’s point is that God may be where we least expect God to be, and much closer than we think.
With this insight, I think the situation of Jacob in our first reading is helpful to our present , because while Jacob is in motion in this story, he’s also trapped. You might recall from last week the story of how he cheated his brother Esau of his birthright. Since then, Jacob has cheated Esau a second time, and is now on the run from his vengeful sibling. A fugitive in a wasteland, the last thing Jacob expects is to find God here, but the vision of the angels ascending and descending from heaven suggests how profoundly God as Creator and protector of Israel is invested in Jacob’s story. However much Jacob is a scoundrel, God intends to keep the promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Isaac. While the story of Abraham’s descendants in Genesis is full of flawed people like Jacob, their flaws are not the point of the story. The story instead is about God finds a people, Israel, to bear his image and look after the world God has created, and that story is our story as Christians. We are, as Paul reminds us in our second reading, children of the same God of Abraham.
For we the church in this doldrum time, seemingly cut off from our familiar places of spiritual rest and refreshment, surely we have the same opportunity that God gave to Jacob. We can around with fresh eyes and see just how deeply God is invested in the world God created and loves. Those angels coming and going, are they really angels, or are they members of a prayer team, or a food ministry taking a hot meal and love to a group home? The God that we thought ourselves cut off from, was that same God not walking with us every step of the way, as God walked with Jacob? That spirit of God moving across a world groaning and waiting for healing, as Paul writes in Romans, was that spirit not already at work in a hundred ways, caring for seniors in nursing homes, hooking up ventilators, running yet another vaccine trial?
Our calling as Christians is be hopeful, to trust that God is not done with the world, even when God might seem silent or far away. In this strange pandemic time, the church can’t sing, it can’t gather, it can’t fully take the sacraments, but we can look around in wonder and gratitude, like Jacob, and say that the Lord has been with us, in this place, all along.