A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Isaac Blessing Jacob,” 1639, by Govert Teunisz Flinck

Jacob is on the run.  Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional, Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing, a blessing meant for the elder son, Esau.  Esau is really angry and plans to kill Jacob, just as soon as their father, Isaac, dies.  Getting wind of this plan, Rebekah manipulates her husband into sending her beloved Jacob on a journey to find a wife.  Her hope is that this journey will send Jacob far away and that distance will be safety.  So, Jacob is on the run.

My colleague, Ruth Garwood, points out that in fleeing Esau, Jacob has run off in the “open country,” the very place where Esau likes to hang out.[1]  Jacob runs to safety from his brother by running to the environment where his brother is most at ease.  I like that insight.  It’s one of the subtleties of the story that make it so compelling.  No wonder Kathryn Matthews Huey calls Jacob “the rogue who repeatedly gets into trouble but still evokes love and devotion from at least one parent and many descendants, as well as lovers of good stories to this day.”[2]

In fact, Jacob isn’t just in the open country.  He’s at the edge of the promised land and will leave it the next day.  Whether he realizes it or not, he stops to sleep at the very spot where his grandfather Abraham built an altar to God as he entered the promised land.[3]  Barbara Brown Taylor, in one of her sermons on this text, observes that Jacob “is on no vision quest:  he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry.  He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”[4]

“All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that ‘unplace.’  That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in ‘unexpected places’ […] to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him.”[5]  To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, “Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down – not where it should be but where he is.”[6]

“Jacob’s Dream,” by Marc Chagall.

This place where Jacob spends the night in what the Celts would call a “thin place.”  “Liminal space” is another term used to describe these threshold places where heaven and earth seems to touch.  These are places of transition, of transformation.  Franciscan friar, author, and renowned mystic, Richard Rohr says that liminal space is a place “where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them.  It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are finally out of the way.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run.”[7]

Jacob is on the run, in this liminal space, and God reaches out to him.  He wakes from his dream and declares, “Surely Yahweh is in this place – and I didn’t know it.”[8]

On Wednesday, I put out an invitation on Facebook, inviting people to “share a story about being surprised by the presence of God.”[9]  I enjoyed the responses, and I’ll share a few with you.

A high school friend wrote, “I was tense and grouching to myself about having to go to a strange church while visiting friends.  Wanted to be in my own familiar church.  Suddenly heard the words:  ‘I’m here too, silly.’  I calmed right down and got a lot out of the service after all.  And I was being silly.”

A friend from college wrote about an experience in a hospital, of waking up from surgery and not feeling alone – in the recovery room nor in the hospital room – long before her husband was allowed to visit.

Another person wrote about a time when her pastor has violated the congregation’s trust.  Many people were angry and hurt, and maybe even afraid.  Then, during a guided meditation at a workshop she attended, she suddenly saw this pastor “cradled in the hands of God.”  “It really transformed my anger and hurt and started the healing process,” she wrote.

If I may read two more – they’re good.

This is what Carly wrote:  “Driving down I-71 from Columbus to Cincinnati after an Ohio Conference, United Church of Christ, Board Meeting, my car broke down.  It was winter and after dark.  I walked 2 miles to an outlet mall (this was in the pre-cell phone era), only to find all the stores closed and no pay phone.  I walked back and there was a truck pulled up behind my car.  The burly looking guy in the truck offered to look under the hood.  I sat in the car afraid of said guy.  He fiddled and puttered, walked to the driver’s window and told me to try to turn it over.  I turned the key.  The starter made a grinding noise, then turned over the engine.  He came back to the window and said I had a bad spark plug wire, he had taped it, but as soon as I got to where ever I was going, I needed a new set of plug wires.  I thanked him.  He walked back to his truck, started it, and followed me to the next exit.  Then he passed me and waved.  As he pulled into the beam of my headlights, I saw a familiar bumper sticker:  ‘To believe is to care. To care is to do. The United Church of Christ.’”[10]

This is what Joane wrote:  “When I was in Germany I bought two identical prayer cards with the image of Mary.  I sent one to my grandmother and kept one.  Fast forward about seven years.  I’m flying standby to Chicago (from SFO), so my husband is in a different part of the plane and I’m in the middle seat.  Earlier that day I had been packing when I looked for a good luck charm for the flight.  I walked by my bureau drawer and the prayer card fell down.  I took it as a sign that I should bring it along, and I put it in the outer pocket of my carry on.  So, I’m sitting in the middle seat next to a woman in the window seat who, while clutching the cross around her neck, tells me as soon as I sit down, ‘I had a bad flying experience a couple months ago, so I’m going to be really nervous during this flight.’  It was a stormy night and the turbulence was constant.  I ended up holding her hand the entire flight and guiding her through visualizations that we were in a long bus on a road full of potholes.  At one point, I pulled out the prayer card and put it on her tray. […] Finally, we landed.  She thanked me for all my help, and tried to hand me the card back.  I knew she had another leg of her trip to go.  So I said, ‘I think you need this more than I do.’  Two weeks later, my Dad brings me a large envelope.  My grandmother had died years earlier when I was living in Germany, and my Dad had collected all my letters to her in this envelope and promptly misplaced it.  He found it, as I said, years later, and gave it to me.  The first letter I opened, the first thing I pull out, was the prayer card.”[11]

Our stories echo Jacob’s story.  “Surely Yahweh is in this place – and I didn’t know it.”

And being surprised by the presence of God is not the only way our stories echo Jacob’s.

During his dream, Jacob hears God make a promise.  God reiterates the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah:  a land, many descendants, and the vocation of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.  And then we hear something more, something new.  God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise.

Kathryn Matthews Huey points out that “in those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time.  It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised.  Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land of promise, just as his grandfather heard them on his way in.  In either case, and in our case as well, James Newsome reminds us that the ‘initiative lies with God, our faithfulness … being a response occasioned by God’s compassionate intrusion into our sinful ways.’  Like us, Jacob only needs ‘to say yes to the living God’”[12]

There is an interesting “both/and” in this story.  Jacob erects a monument because there, in that “thin place,” he experienced the presence of God.  It is holy ground for him.  It is “Beth-el,” the house of God, the gate of heaven.  God is a God of holy places.  And, God is a God of relationships and promise, not tied to place.

This is important news as we prepare to leave this holy ground, this sanctuary, this thin place.  We trust that our new sanctuary will also be holy ground, that God is going there before us, consecrating that place, preparing it for us, making it a thin place for us.  We trust the not yet, that it will become.  And, at the same time, we trust that place really doesn’t matter ultimately.  What ultimately matters is our relationship with God and the promises – the promises God has made with us, the promises we have made with God, and the promise that we are for God’s creation.

God uses this rogue Jacob for a purpose.  That’s good news for us.  “Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us.”[13]

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is with us, and God won’t leave us until God has fulfilled all that God has promised us – which, given our wonderful ability to mess things up, means God will never leave us.


[1] Ruth Garwood, in a comment posted on the Sermon Seeds (United Church of Christ) Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds, posted and accessed on 19 July 2014).

[2] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-20-2014.html (accessed on 19 July 2014).

[3] Sidney Greidanus in The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts, cited and quoted by Huey, op. cit.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Dreaming the Truth,” Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 102.

[5] Huey, op. cit.

[6] Taylor, op. cit.

[7] Richard Rohr, quoted on http://inaliminalspace.com/about/what (accessed 19 July 2014).

[8] Genesis 28:16.

[9] My Facebook page is www.facebook.com/RevJSS.

[10] Carly Stucklen Sather, slightly edited for typos and clarity.

[11] Joane Luesse

[12] Huey, op. cit.; quoting James Newsome from Texts for Preaching Year A.

[13] Huey, op. cit.