Finding Bethel

A Sermon for Pentecost 7 Proper 11 Year A  from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Genesis 28: 10-19a & Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23



So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

Two passages this morning have become woven together in my head, and as a result , have been pondering thresholds—those in-between places of transition and transformation that can be filled with both anticipation and anxiety. Though we only read half of it today, Psalm 139 is one of my favorite psalms for threshold times; unique in its lyrical style, authenticity and vivid imagery. At the end of seminary, in a transitional point between school and ministry, I prayed the entire psalm every day during the General Ordination Exams. It reassured me of God’s presence and care, and helped me keep the ordeal in perspective. It helped to be reminded that four days of brutal testing are nothing when compared to the vastness of God’s creative and abiding love.

“You have searched me out and known me…”

This is why psalm 139 is often used as part of youth formation programs like Journey to Adulthood. Talk about a threshold time of life. While it is a time of exuberance, fun and adventure (some of which parents would rather never hear about…), it’s not the completely carefree time our selective memories would have us think. We elders have forgotten the pressures, the insecurities, and the emotional rollercoaster that teens deal with daily, compounded by the fact that they have yet to develop the coping mechanisms and sense of perspective that come with maturity. The teen years can be a joy, but face it; it can also be a jungle out there.

“…surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night…”

There is so much going on with young people that puts them at risk. The usual social, family and academic pressures are difficult enough. But consider also the kids dealing with major existential issues; LGBT youth, teens of color, kids living in poverty or dysfunctional family situations. Many teens deal with depression. Many resort to risky behaviors as a way of testing boundaries, finding acceptance with peers, and numbing the pain of overwhelming life pressures. Adolescence is a wilderness even in ideal circumstances, and traveling that road can be hard and lonely. 

“You know my sitting down and my rising up; you know my thoughts from afar…”

Genesis doesn’t tell us how old Jacob was in our story today—in last week’s episode the writer tells us that he and Esau had grown up, but that can mean anything in this context. Regardless, I’d argue that many young folks could identify with what Jacob is feeling in this story.

But first a little background, since the Lectionary has skipped over an important piece of the story. Why is Jacob on the road toward Haran? Because, as I hinted last week, when Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, Jacob and mother Rebekah had more trickery up their sleeves. They hatched a plan to fool Isaac into giving Jacob the all-important paternal blessing that should have gone to his older twin. Esau, heartbroken and furious, vowed revenge, and Rebekah arranged to have Jacob flee.

“Where then can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”

And so now Jacob is on the road. Imagine his mental and emotional turmoil. He is alone; without family or community. He is fearful for his life, his trickster ways having caught up with him. He has treated his brother and his father horribly. Regardless of the fact that Rebekah shares the blame, he can’t take back what he’s done. The past is the past, and now he has to live with the consequences of his actions. How many young people do we know who have had this realization? (Or how many experienced it ourselves?)

Night falls, and Jacob is exhausted. A pillow of stone is an appropriate bed for this troubled young man.

Surely the darkness will cover me…Search me out, O God…”

Jacob dreams of angels; a glorious dance in the sky above him, up and down a great celestial ladder linking heaven and earth. The Lord stands beside him and renews the promise made to Abraham; a promise of family, community, land, and a legacy. A promise of God’s abiding presence: “for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Notice that this is the first time God has ever spoken to Jacob. Neither he nor his brother is portrayed as having a close relationship to God; and yet here God is, at the lowest ebb of Jacob’s life, reassuring him that his future is bright and his legacy firm. This is a God of the unexpected. A God present in the darkest times.

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.”

A God of renewal. This threshold of Jacob’s life is about renewal on many levels: Renewal of God’s Promise. Renewal of God’s relationship with Jacob. Renewal of Jacob himself as he is invited into transformation; to quote a colleague, transformation from Trickster to Mensch; the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honor. At this threshold Jacob begins the long and difficult process of maturing in his relationship with God and with others. He will discover what it is to be a mensch. Eventually.

“Search me out, O God… Look well whether there be any wickedness in me…” 

Jacob, at his lowest moment, has found God present with him in the depths, and by the grace of God he grasps the significance of what has happened: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

This kind of reassurance of God’s presence, this kind of renewal of relationship and self-hood, this kind of promise of a brighter future; all of these are what both Jacob and the psalmist experienced. And it is what we desire for our children, on any day, yes, but especially on their worst days, when anxiety and insecurity threaten to overwhelm them. I worry sometimes that the world we have created for our children is not really the blessing that it should be. Many young people look around them at climate change, political strife, nuclear proliferation, and they would be right to accuse us of wasting their inheritance; of leaving them a world that threatens to be dirtier, meaner and more dangerous than we found it. Have we added to the pressure on the next generations by squandering our own inheritance and our children’s as well?

“Surely the darkness will cover me…” but  “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day…” 

Both the Genesis passage and the psalm, woven together, invite us to resist the temptation to despair. They invite us to envision a world that is hopeful, not bleak. We owe it to our young people, not only to try to get our own generations’ acts together, but to create a framework of hope—a holy place, a Beth-el– for the Jacobs of this world; the ones wandering in a wilderness of uncertainty and insecurity, who struggle with their own failures and seek their place in a world that can feel pretty inhospitable.

There’s an elephant in the room here. I’m standing in this pulpit talking about ministering to young people and there are very few present in this congregation. I understand that. As I have said before, there are many, many reasons for this, but those reasons are NOT that teens don’t care about being loved, being trusted and having someone to trust in, and being given credit for inquiring and discerning hearts and minds. If the kids won’t come to us, then we must, at every opportunity make holy space—Beth-el– for them where they are.

Each one of us can be a place of refuge for a young person in our lives. Each one of us can mirror the psalmist’s image of God by truly listening and being present to youth as they struggle and when they triumph. We can proclaim to them a God who sides with the lonely and the marginalized; a God who knows the secrets of the heart and forgives us so much faster than we forgive ourselves.

The journey of a mensch-in-training can be formidable, but worthwhile, and this is what we need to reflect for the youth in our families and community. In Jacob’s ladder of angels we can see a dance of hope that reflects the ups and downs of life, and the constant reassurance that God’s promise is firm and God’s presence irrevocable. God calls us to walk compassionately and courageously with those who journey in the wilderness of youth and adolescence, perhaps remembering our own cringe-worthy moments to keep us from judging too harshly. And remember, when the going gets tough you can always remind them not to make fun of you for having trouble with the computer. Because after all you taught them how to use a spoon.

Let us pray.

Loving God, you see your children growing up in an
unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways
give more life than the ways of the world, and that following
you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to
take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance
for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you,
and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.






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