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God Is Near (Jacob's Dream) -- Genesis 28:10-19 (Seventh Sunday After Pentecost)




So, have you been having vivid dreams lately? I ask that because evidently that’s a thing. During these days of pandemic and sheltering – more and more – people are having and remembering more dreams – vivid dreams. The first hint of this was in April when there was a spike in the Google search, “Is anyone else having vivid dreams?”[1] Apparently the answer is yes. I know I’ve been dreaming more, and I’ve heard some of you say the same. In one dream I remember from a few weeks ago, I’m standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Hillary Clinton is there with me, and we are talking about how important the simple, ordinary things in life have been to her since she lost the election.


Deirdre Barrett -- psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School – has begun to research what she calls this “pandemic dreaming” – to interview folks – and she’s started to collect what seems to be a wave of vivid dreams.[2]


As she is beginning to work with the dream data she’s collecting, Dr. Barrett explains that a number of factors seem to have come together to make more dreaming, more likely. For those on the hospital front lines, there is trauma that is generating trauma dreams. For the rest of us, we’re experiencing what’s the equivalent of a major life change – a major disruption. And as we shelter and stay closer to home, folks are getting more sleep – not necessarily all of it restful sleep. But with more sleep, there’s more chance that we’ll enter into the REM sleep where dreaming happens.


It’s amazing how Dr. Barrett describes it – as we sleep, different parts of our brain rest, while other parts go into action. The verbal areas slow down, while the visual areas get more active. What’s going on when we dream is often a continuation of our day, but we are processing all this in this other state of consciousness. So, Dr. Barrett says it’s not surprising that there seems to be a correlation between being anxious by day and having anxiety dreams by night.


And, these days, our waking life itself is more dreamlike – more surreal – as some folks deal with daily vivid trauma, and as we all collectively move through a world with both the sometimes-acute fear of pandemic and the foggy haze of sheltering. Another psychologist, Rubin Naiman, explains – “when our life is more vivid, so are our dreams.”[3]


In this morning’s Scripture, Jacob has a vivid dream. I found a great commentary on this Scripture by our own Jana Childers, and she says Jacob has “one of the great dreams in the history of dreaming.”[4]


Now at the outset, it’s important to say that folks in the Biblical world would have understood dreams and dreaming differently than we do. Everything I’ve just said presupposes and flows out of the modern disciplines of psychology, psychiatry, and brain science. In the Biblical world, and as we see in this Scripture, dreams were understood as one way to experience an actual appearance of God – a “theophany.”[5] We have Biblical stories of angels coming with a message during waking hours. This is a night-time version of that.


What is more similar to us perhaps: Like us, Jacob is certainly living an anxious life in an anxious time. Jacob is on the run. He’s got himself in a mess. In a world where the second son doesn’t have much of a chance, Jacob has – with his mother’s help – managed to finagle his elder brother’s birthright and his elder brother’s blessing. He’s taken Esau’s inheritance and covenant blessing – and not surprisingly, Esau is enraged, and out for blood. Their mother sees this clearly – and before one son kills the other – she manages to get Jacob out of town – sending him back to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife. Jacob will be gone and on the run for 10 years.


And here Jacob is – maybe with a birthright and a blessing tucked away in his knapsack – but effectively exiled from his home, from his family, from everyone and everything he knows. And he journeys out into the wilderness to Haran. He goes as far as he can – and as night falls – on a barren scrap of land – Jacob searches around for a place to lie down – finds a rock that will do in a pinch as a pillow – and he lays his head on that rock – and he sleeps – and he dreams.


In his restless, anxious, fearful sleep, Jacob dreams of a ladder – maybe it’s more like a staircase or a ramp twisting and ascending – but a ladder rooted on the ground, and ascending to the heavens – with angels traveling up and down – shuttling back and forth between the earth and the heavens. And then God is there, right beside Jacob.

And God says, “Jacob, I’m God – I’m your God – the God of your parents – the God of your people. And I’ve promised you land and a family. You will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Know that I am with you. I will go where you go. I won’t leave you. I will do what I promise.”


And Jacob wakes and says, “Surely God is in this place.” This is the house of God and the gateway to the heavens. And he takes that stone pillow, and he blesses it. This is the house of God


Whatever we think about dreams, what we see here with Jacob – what we experience here with Jacob – is the nearness of God. In those first moments of ten years of exile, when Jacob feels most alone – separated, isolated from everything he knows – what he sees and experiences is the nearness of God. Jacob sees this vision of a ladder connecting the earth to the heavens – no separation between the two – angels going up and down – this constant commerce between heaven and earth. And then God speaks – not from the heavens – not from the ladder – but right there beside him. “Jacob, I am your God. I’m with you wherever you go. I won’t leave you.” And waking, Jacob declares, “This is the house of God. God is here. God is near.”


Now, notice where Jacob is. I won’t say he’s in the middle of nowhere. Because Jacob is somewhere – Scripture says he came to “a certain place.” But it’s unexpected. What Jacob names as the house of God is a bare scrap of wilderness, where he could find nothing more than a rock for a pillow.


We sometimes go to great lengths searching for a holy place – for an encounter with God. We go to the ocean and stand on the shore to hear the waves crash in. We hike a mountain trail to get a glimpse of the vastness of what God has made. We go to cathedrals. And to church. Looking for holy ground.


Jana Childers writes, “Sometimes we find the holy place. Sometimes the place finds us. Sometimes we don’t recognize a place as holy. Jacob, after all, fell asleep on his.”[6] In his dream and when he work, Jacob found God near – someplace, somewhere, in an ordinary moment, in a tumultuous and anxious life. Jacob found God near there, in that certain place, with a promise that God would be near in the next place too, and then in the next. John Wesley said of this text: “God is there where we did not think they had been, found where we did not ask.” In an anxious and fearful world, Jacob finds God near. Everywhere, all the time.


Notice also that Jacob’s experience – the nearness of God – is inclusive. Neither the nearness of God nor Jacob’s dream is for Jacob alone. God says, remember all the promises I’ve made to your people; I’m here with you too. And you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This moment – this nearness of God – it’s not just for Jacob – or for his particular people – it’s for the whole world.


We often think of moments like this as deeply personal – epiphanies – moments when we experience something so much bigger than us. They are personal. And. The nearness of God – when we experience it – it is for the whole world. The nearness of God – in any given moment – is not for us alone. Our dreams are not for us alone. The nearness of God is for the whole world – here, there, everywhere – as true for you as it is for me, as it is for everyone in the whole wide world.


And that transforms how we experience those moments.

o God is just as near to you as God is to me.

o God is just as near to others who are worshipping right now in other spaces.

o God is just as near to those who are not worshipping.

o God is just as near to folks who are living and sleeping outside every night.

o God is just as near to children who lay down their heads to sleep in detention camps at the border.

o God is just as near to George Floyd in those last moments of his life.

o God is just as near in the hospital ICU rooms where nurses and doctors care for folks, hope against hope.


If we name that, and begin to see that – God near everywhere, with every one – it has to transform the way that we see every situation – the way we see other people – God just as present with them as with us – God just as concerned with their struggle as ours – God at work in the midst of the suffering of the whole wide world – near to particular people in particular pain – everyone, everywhere. We begin to see ourselves connected – connected to others by the nearness of God – by the abiding love of God. As we name that, and see that – this nearness of God, it calls us to be near there too. To stand where God stands. To help God do what God does.


I want to give us a project for this week, and it is to notice the nearness of God in every moment – or, if that feels like a stretch, to name it before we see it – “God is near!” -- and then to wait to see how it appears.


Celtic spirituality – a spirituality that emerged in Ireland and Scotland – has this sense of the nearness of God in all things as one of its hallmarks– what John Philip Newell calls “the heartbeat of God in all creation.”[7] Celtic spirituality sees God present, near and in all things – and in that, a sense of deep connection – our connection to God – our connection to all creation – our connection to each other – deep connection in all the parts of life – no separation between our work and our prayer – one whole life.[8] Esther de Waal describes it like this: “God here and now, with me, close at hand, God present in life and in work, immediate and accessible.”[9] She calls it a “down-to-earth spirituality” in which God breaks in on the ordinary so that any moment, any object, any job of work can become the time and place for an encounter with God.”[10]


One of the ways that is named in Celtic prayer is in prayers of blessing – blessing the ordinary and the everyday.[11] It works like this. We approach every moment in life recognizing that it is a gift from God with the potential for good. We then ask God to bless whatever is in that moment – in us – to create more good in the world. And so Celtic prayers go like this: “Bless the earth beneath my foot in every step, may it lead me in a good and healthy path.” Or, “Bless my hands this morning, may they make something that is of use to the world.” Or, “Bless this mask I’m making, may it keep someone safe.”


Our project this week is to try that type of blessing in our day-to-day moments. Bless this new morning, that I might live this day to do good in the world. Bless this meal I’m preparing, may it nourish my family. Bless this news cast I’m listening to, that I might figure out something to do.


We name the nearness of God to the world – in the ground beneath our feet – in our hands – in the work that we do – in the life that we live.


That dream I had where I was washing dishes -- well, back in the 1600s, a monk named Brother Lawrence wrote about the spirituality of everyday tasks – particularly washing dishes. He would even pray during his work in the monastery kitchen to “the Lord of the pots and pans.” Where I stand in my kitchen to wash dishes, right behind me there are several photographs – including one of me with Hillary Clinton when I met her at a campaign event back in 1992. And, washing dishes – well, that’s pretty much what I do every day. I Zoom, and I write, and I take a walk, and I make meals, and I wash dishes, and I sleep, and the next day, I do all that again.


All that – Brother Lawrence, the photo of Hillary Clinton, washing dishes – it’s all rattling around up here (in my head). That dream just gave me a glimpse of what I see every day – and helped me make some meaning out of it.


We are created to create. We are meaning makers making meaning out of and into a fractured and confusing world. Every moment of every day – God is near – with us – blessing our hands that they might reach out in compassion – blessing our shoulders that we might be strong in the work of dismantling injustice – blessing our eyes that we might see the beauty of creation – our ears that we might listen to each other. God is near.


As we speak of these days as days of distancing, and as we also name the nearness of God, we may find, in these days, that we are more connected than we ever knew. As we bless the ordinary moments of these ordinary days, we may find that God is nearer than we ever imagined – or better yet – God is nearer than we have yet to imagine.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/style/why-weird-dreams-coronavirus.html [2] Dr. Barrett’s work has been widely covered in the press. Here are the main articles that served as sources for the description in this sermon: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/05/harvard-researcher-says-dreams-indicative-of-virus-fears/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/style/why-weird-dreams-coronavirus.html ; and https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2020-04-07/coronavirus-quarantine-dreams Dr. Barrett has also released a book with her initial impressions from the data she is gathering, Pandemic Dreams (available on Amazon). [3] https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2020-04-07/coronavirus-quarantine-dreams [4] Jana Childers, Commentary, Connections, Year A, vol. 3 (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY: 2020), pp.160-61. [5] Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Connections, Year A, vol. 3 (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY: 2020), pp.158-60. [6] Childers, p.161. [7] See Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, New York; 1997) [8] See id. and Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of Religious Imagination (Image Books/Doubleday, New York: 1997). [9] de Waal, p.69. [10] Esther de Waal, Every Earthly Blessing, (Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA: 1992), p, xv [11] See de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, pp.69-93, not only for her description of this genre of Celtic prayer, but even more so for the abundant examples of prayers she has collected during the course of her research.


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