Sunday, August 6, 2017

Finding Our Place Out of All the Places We Will Go

photo by bishl70/ flickr

I want to talk to you today about places. They’re pretty important—these places. Think about it. You sit on the same pew week after week. If you are like me when you pull into the garage you park in the same place day after day. You sit down to eat at the same spot every meal. You probably sleep on the same side of the bed. Little children take a sheet and cover the top of a table and get under the sheet—this is their place. Good places are safe places.

Place was enormously important in the Bible. Egypt—that hated place. The wilderness—that hard place. The Promised Land—the land of their dreams. But something happened. The Babylonians came in—and dragged most of them away from their place to Babylon. They never did feel at home. And then after 70 years they found they could return to the Promise land but it wasn’t what they expected. The Babylonians had destroyed just about everything when they invaded Judah years before. And the Israelites began to mutter: " This is what we prayed for all those years.” Isaiah and Jeremiah and many of the other prophets talk about place. Losing it. Living in a foreign land. Returning to what they did not expect. How hard it all was. 

The New Testament is no stranger to places. Bethlehem…Judea…Galilee…Samaria…Rome…Ephesus…Corinth…Jericho...Emmaus or there toward the end: the land that is fairer than day.  Specific places are dotted all over the Bible.

But I want us to think about a place find in Genesis. Or maybe I should say a non-place. You know the story of the brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the oldest and the oldest was to receive most of the inheritance. That’s the way it worked. But the Mama was afraid that if her other son was left out—it would be terrible for Jacob. So she cooked up this scheme. The Father—Isaac was old and could hardly see. Near-blind, someone had to lead him around. And it came time to bless his oldest, Esau and give him his inheritance. But the Mama sent Jacob into see the old father—dressing him up so the old Daddy thought he was Esau and, not knowing, he gave the blessing and the inheritance to Jacob. It was wrong at every point. And when Esau heard that Jacob had cheated him out of what was rightfully his—he exploded. “As soon as my old broken-down Daddy dies, I will kill my brother for what he has done.” And Jacob, chicken and scared for his life took off. Left his place trying to find some spot where he would be safe. As he ran away the enormity of what he had done hit him hard. He'd betrayed and lied and cheated his brother and his old father.  And there was no turning back. But all this is background.

And so we come to our Scripture. Genesis 28. Jacob wound up in the middle of nowhere.
photo by Tilman Haerdle / flickr
You couldn't even find it on a map. They called it Luz—ugly name. Luz. But there Jacob rested or tried to. And he lay down with a stone for a pillow and slept. He had the strangest dream. He saw this ladder—and it stretched all the way from where he was—sorta like Jack and the Beanstalk—all the way up, up to heaven. And on that ladder angels were ascending and descending. It was a beautiful dream. A wonderful dream. This is where the term Jacob’s ladder comes from. But that’s not my point. He woke and began to think about what he had dreamed. The ladder. The angels. Coming all the way down from heaven to where he was. And this cheater and liar found this amazing thing—God came all the way down from heaven to where he was. And as he thought about it—this is what he said: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.”

That place. Running away like a scared rabbit. Scared for his life. Carrying a heavy load of guilt for what he had done to his old father and his brother when he cheated them. And in that place with only a stone for a pillow, a hundred miles from home—in the desert with heat and scorpions and God knows what else. There Jacob said the weirdest thing: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew not not.”

And that’s the sermon. And we could go home now and eat fried chicken or grilled cheese sandwiches or whatever else you have for lunch. But no. We have got unpack this story. Hopefully we won’t go over. For I am getting a little hungry too. 

So our text is about a place. Surely, Jacob said, amazed and dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe it. Looking around with nothing familiar and everything strange, he said: “Surely the Lord is is in this place and I knew it not.” 

photo by Eric Lanning /flickr
So that’s the sermon in a nutshell. Look around you. Right now. Where you are. This church. Today. Driving home in a car you wish was a little better. Parking in your a garage with all this stuff you ought to get rid of but you don’t. And entering the house where the door squeaks and you wish somebody—somebody had dinner  on the table. This is your place. 

Maybe you did not choose the job—but you got stuck. Maybe they took a breast off and you worry every day. Maybe one of the kids or both have not written or called in three months. Maybe you look in the mirror and whisper: “Where did it all go?” One of my kids told me lately, “I’m thinking about moving to Canada. This country is such a mess—I don’t know if I can stand it here.” I think it is all talk—I hope. 

I have a confession to make. I don’t know how many times I have wished for another church. Where they appreciated me more. Or paid me more. Or maybe we could have bought a nicer house. Or the denomination would not have passed me over. Or I wish we had had more money or saved more for retirement. I don’t know how many times the grass just looks greener over there. 

But one day I was in Princeton, New Jersey for this conference. And somebody said: “Did
photo by Nick Diakopoulos / flickr
you know that Albert Einstein lived over there on Mercer Street—I think it is the third house down on the left. Little white house with green shutters. Hmm. I walked down there and found the house number. No. 12 Mercer Street.  And the place where Einstein had lived and it was for sale. And the doors were open and I decided to look inside. The painters were painting the place but they must have gone to lunch. The house was empty. And I went in. Looking around I thought: “This isn't where one of the most famous men of the twentieth century lived? ”Here?” Three or four rooms down stairs. Not too big. Little staircase with two or three rooms upstairs. Tiny kitchen. Old cabinets. Einstein’s house. Why my house was bigger. My yard was bigger. I had a whole lot more flowers than this house. And I walked away thinking. Maybe it doesn’t matter where your place is—maybe the size is not so important. Maybe not even location, location. Maybe good, good things just might happen everywhere. And weeks later when I got home I looked around and said: “Well, maybe this place and this church and my crazy family are not so bad after all.”

I used to  do calligraphy. And I ran across this quote which I calligraphed over and over trying to get it right. “There are palaces everywhere.” And after all that scratching I did on paper—I have tried to remember over and over: Well—maybe there just might be palaces everywhere. Even here. Especially here. Looking around—I wondered. Still do sometimes. 

And so back to our text: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” Also folks that’s our sermon today. It’s like Moses that time in the wilderness.. Trying to herd those stupid sheep. Wishing it was not so hot. Wishing he had not been so touchy with his wife that morning. In the most ordinary of places God spoke. And this is what God said: “Take off your shoes—the place where you stand is holy ground.”

photo by Ken Lund / flickr
photo by rjv541 / flickr
Carl Sandburg tells that two and a half miles from Hodgenville , Kentucky on a dusty dirt road February 12, 1809 —which was a Sunday—the granny woman came to a cabin.  This is the way Carl Sandburg puts it., “And she and Tom Lincoln and the moaning Nancy Hanks welcomed into the world of battle and blood, or whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new  child, a boy.” Later that morning the proud Papa walked two miles up the road to neighbor’s house. When they opened the door Tom said, “Nancy’s got a boy baby.” Dennis Hanks lived in the house and was nine year old. He walked down the road until he came to Tom’s house and went into the bed room where Nancy held the new baby. Dennis asked her, ‘What you goin’ to name him, Nancy.” And she said, “I’m gonna name him Abraham after his grandfather.” Who in the world would have thought what a wondrous day that was for the whole wide world. Abraham Lincoln. And when you go to Washington and you stand there quiet before his great statue—it is hard to hold back the tears. Do you get the point? The place where we all stand is holy ground. 

Do you think I am just preaching to the choir sitting out here in your robes? Nah. I am talking-to myself as well as to everybody here.I need to remember the Jacob story and the ladder and the angels and what Jacob said when  he woke up and rubbed his eyes. I am trying to remember those words: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” You look around you at some of these empty pews and someone thinks: Why can’t we be more like Newspring? Or maybe a little like Joel Osteen’s outfit in Texas. And we put our musings down beside the book which says: “It happens right here. Right chere. If it happens at all.”

Let me end with a story. You may not know the name of Brewster Higley. He lived in the 1800’s and was a Doctor. He married Maria and a year later they had a little boy who died when  he was just a few days old. The next year an epidemic swept through their town and his wife, Maria died. A year later the Doctor married Eleanor Page who bore a son they called, Brewster Highly, 7th. But Eleanor died soon after the baby was born. But Highley married a third time to Catherine Livingston. And they had two children a girl and a boy. But his wife met with an injury that took her life and he was left with the children. He needed someone to help him raise the children so he married a widow, Mercy McPherson. But it was a stormy marriage and in desperation he left his children with relatives and secretly fled one night and struck out for Kansas. A month later he married Sarah Clemens and they moved to a cabin 14 miles from Smith County in 1871. He loved it there. After marriages and grief piled on top of grief moving, always moving from place to place, he finally at long last found his home. And it was good! And one day he sat down and expressed his feelings with these words: 

“Oh, give me a home,
Where the buffalo roam, 
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where never is heard a discouraging word, 
And the sky is not clouded all day.”

Brewster Highly finally found his place. And his words are known everywhere. Franklin Roosevelt said :”Home on the Range” was his favorite song.

But it expresses the hope and dream of us all. We all look for such a place. But what Jacob learned and Moses learned and so many others have discovered.. It doesn’t matter where you are. “Surely the Lord is in this place and we knew it not.” So let’s leave here with our eyes wide open for what God has to say to all of us right where we are.

The place where we stand is holy ground. Somebody said that the grass is greener where you water it. So folks, let's get out our hoses.

photo by E. makpaob / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the Pendleton Presbyterian Church, Pendleton, SC August 6, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /

No comments:

Post a Comment