The Place I Choose to Lay My Head
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 27, 2014
Psalm 105: 1-11, 45 Genesis 28: 10-19a
I remember the first time I realized that I was paying attention to a sermon. I don’t recall how young I was, but I remember hearing my pastor, the Rev. Gordon Reif, tell a story about a wealthy man driving a Rolls Royce through Europe. As the story goes, the car breaks down as the result of a very small, but irreplaceable part, going bad. I think the point of the story was something about how every part is important, no matter the size or function, and I was supposed to realize that the same was true for every member in the body of Christ, each with our place and purpose to serve the whole. It was a pretty forced analogy, the kind of story preachers ought to be embarrassed by, but which are often told anyway; but what I remember thinking was, “I’ve heard this story before. He’s told this story before.” Somewhere, years earlier, while doodling on my worship bulletin or counting light bulbs in the sanctuary chandeliers, I had heard Rev. Reif tell the same story and part of me remembered it. This was not the first time I realized that there was something important happening during worship which I might want to understand, but it was the first time I remember thinking that my attention was an important part of worship.
Rev. Reif actually did a number of things to help our congregation pay attention. When I was in confirmation class I had to write summaries of his sermons each week, something that confirmation students in this church do today. Outlining not only the pastor’s words but my own reactions to them helped me as a young person, discover depths to Christian worship beyond the superficially obvious, as well as helped me become aware of how worship was shaping me and the way I saw the world.
Rev. Reif also garnered attention by asking questions of the congregation and then waiting for an answer. Most of these were questions that he would ask year after year, waiting for someone in the congregation to “get it” and remember the answer from prior years. What is so special about the third Sunday of August? What is an Ebenezer and why do we raise it? My favorite question he posed every year during Holy Week asking, “Why is the night of the Last Supper called “Maundy Thursday?” And every year, only about six of us could remember the answer. Or maybe it was only that six of us were brave enough to raise our hands.
So here’s my question to you, to see if you’ve been paying attention: can you remember the last time you heard a sermon on this text? [PAUSE] That’s right, it was last week! And while you heard Pastor Sarah preach on this text last week, I was visiting a church on Long Island to perform a wedding. At the entrance to sanctuary where the bridal party came in was a hand painted framed picture with the words.
“Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (Gen 28: 16)
Again the very words of Jacob from the story; which you have now heard two weeks in a row! When Jacob rises from his dream he looks around to see where he is. Last night this was ordinary desert, sand and rocks, nothing special. But Jacob sees more deeply now. This is the place where heaven touches earth and earth reaches toward heaven. This is the place where prayers ascend and angel-messengers descend, where the sordid record of Jacob’s life turns out to be the very subject under discussion in heaven. This ordinary place is the place where Jacob meets his God, and is changed.
But what impresses me about Jacob is that he does not mount his donkey after breakfast and quickly continue his flight from Esau. He lingers and marks the place as a special place. He names the place: Beth-El, the house of God. He erects an altar so that he can return another time. He pledges himself to God and takes his first tentative steps into the life God has set out for him. It is not just any place, though I suppose it could have been. But not now, not after his dream. Now it is in and through this particular place that Jacob finds his whole world transfigured. There will always be a part of Jacob’s heart that still lies with his head on the rock, dreaming of his ladder. But it is the new way he can see the world from that rock that will allow him to piece together his life, to pursue the hard work of reconciliation with his brother Esau, to bury his father, and to father his sons.
This story, and the speech of Jacob, has always seemed to me to be a challenge to know where I am, to look more deeply at the place I choose to lay my head, and it seems to me now to be an invitation to situate myself somewhere, to make a commitment to some place and some people through which I can know God in a way I could not know God anywhere else, and which can transfigure my world. A place I can turn to and return to in order to nurture my faith, to challenge it and be reminded that I have been called.
After our family vacation out West last year, I re-read parts of Kathleen Norris’ memoir Dakota, which she describes as a spiritual geography. There is a copy in the Library here at the church. The word ‘geography’ comes from the Greek words for earth (geo) and writing (grapho), and Norris tells us that writing about Dakota has been her means of understanding what is holy in this earth. This book, like Norris’s previous memoir A Cloister Walk, is the fruit of her twenty-year experience of seeking God in one particular place, on the plains of Southwest Dakota, through two particular communities, a small Benedictine monastery and a rural Presbyterian church. The story begins when Norris inherited her family’s ranch in the early 70’s: she and her husband moved to South Dakota, they thought, just long enough to settle affairs, sell the property, and move back to New York City. But they never left.
In the book, Norris explores the gifts of community and place with the eye of a poet and heart of someone who has discovered where to lay her head in order to dream of angels. When I first read her books, I, at least, was tempted to pick up and move to South Dakota. But Norris continually reminds the reader that one of the most distracting temptations in the spiritual life is the desire to be somewhere else than where one is. Norris recalls a story about two fourth-century monks who mocked this temptation by saying “After this winter, we will leave here.” And then each summer they would say “After the summer, we will go away from here.” And they spent their whole lives like that. Instead of living in what she learned to call “next-year country,” Norris learns from the Dakota plains that the basic principle of desert survival is also the first lesson of spirituality – Know where you are and learn to love what you find there. With words that echo in the empty plains of the western states, Norris recalls the words of St. Hilary, a fourth century bishop, who said “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.”
Committing ourselves to live and work with a particular community of faith, with particular people is one of the deepest challenges in our spiritual lives. Living together is difficult. It takes a cohesive community built on love, not conformity, if we are to exist without expelling everyone who doesn’t seem to fit our image of who belongs. But it is a particular kind of love. Norris tells a story about “two versions of heaven she once heard summed up by a Benedictine nun: in one, heaven is full of people you love, and in the other, heaven is where you love everyone who is there.”
Today let us consider what it means to make a commitment to common life and ministry, as well as our shared mission in the world. I believe that church membership follows a commitment to place and people. It means casting our lot with particular folks, to say, as I did at a wedding last weekend, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. For those of you who have not settled in for the hard work of living together and working together, for anyone who is still looking for better preaching, richer programs, or friendlier parishioners, I invite you to take another look at where you are. Don’t live in what Kathleen Norris called “next-year country.” Know where you are, dare to undertake the hard work of living together and working together, and I know that in the process you will learn to love what you find here.
God has given us to one another to love and care for, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye, and even when we try one another’s patience. When Jacob awoke from his dream, he awoke into a world where he had still stolen his father’s blessing and his elder brother’s birthright. He was still in the desert and still under threat. The rock upon which he laid his head the night before, was the same rock upon which he awoke. But it was the new way he could see the world from that rock that would allow him to begin to piece together his life, to pursue the hard work of reconciliation with his brother Esau, to bury his father, and to father his sons. This church is the rock upon which we lay our heads down, burdened, pursued, uncertain – daring to trust ourselves to God and one another in the vast, darkness of the night. This is the point at which God invites us to a level of vulnerability and compassion for one another whose exercise is as potent as angles ascending and descending. From this rock, this church, this community, we, like Jacob are invited to see the world anew, to begin to piece our lives back together with desert all around, even when the “facts on the ground” have not changed from when we laid our head down. We are invited not to keep going, seeking “next year country” as Kathleen Norris put it, but to dare to stay and to see the world through the eyes of shared community, forbearance, loving-kindness, and partners in seeking justice.
Here we lay our Ebenezer. Here, like Jacob, we look not only to the heavens but also to the world around us and the world even beyond the limit of the horizon we can see. God has given this place and this people, to us as a gift. May we have eyes to see the angels ascending and descending all around.