Monday, July 21, 2008

The View from Jacob's Ladder

This was originally posted Sunday the 20th at 4:13 PM, but given today's high traffic, I've bumped it up to the top of the page. Scroll down for more recent posts about muffin discernment in Idaho and Bishop Gene Robinson at Lambeth.

Before I write my own reflection, I would like to note that each new video at Bishop Gene Robinson's Lambeth Gene Pool begins with Bruce Springsteen’s cover of the children’s song Jacob Ladder. Thus, while my musings today have nothing to do with Bishop Robinson, I would like to offer up Bruce Springsteen as a sort of processional hymn. Or perhaps you can play it in the background as you read. I saw him sing it live in Boston a couple years back - my, that was fun. (Cautionary note: The Boss just dithers around for the first 1:30 or so. Then the fun really begins.)



Today’s Revised Common Lectionary presents us with two options ripe for the preaching. The Gospel is Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43, Jesus’ parable of the weeds, in which He tells the disciples that evildoers will be collected and burned at the end of the age. The Old Testament is a bit lighter, and for us mainline Protestants, easier, territory: Genesis 28:10-19a, that old familiar Sunday School jaunt about Jacob’s ladder.

The priest at the DC church I attended this morning said that, when given a good Gospel lesson and an interesting Hebrew story, she takes the Hebrew story every time, and preached on Jacob’s Ladder. I’ve seen some blog posts on that latter ladder as well, but not too many on the Gospel. I’m even about to write such a reflection myself, but I do have to wonder, are we writing about Jacob’s Ladder because it is the more compelling passage, or because we are afraid of today's Gospel? The passage from Matthew talks of punishment, and implies – perhaps even flat out says – that God will cast some of His children aside. While I do think that the conservative church is a bit harsh and overwrought in its teachings on salvation, today’s Gospel is pretty blunt, and if we pass up the chance to tackle it in our sermons and reflections, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why.

But that being said, the Genesis passage did get me thinking, turning my thoughts to my Native American Studies major and the sacredness that is found all around us, in everything we do and everywhere we go. It was not the first, famous part about the ladder that grabbed my attention, but Jacob’s thoughts upon waking up:

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

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; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.


Jacob’s words remind me of the Western Apache understanding of land. I am no anthropologist and I have never worked or lived in Indian Country, so I claim no special understanding – or really, any understanding at all – of American Indian cultures or religions. What I know is the law as it regards to sovereignty. That being said, I absolutely love the book “Wisdom Sits in Places” by Keith Basso. Basso, a white guy like me, has spent considerable time living and working among the Western Apache, and this book is about the Apaches’ understanding of what wisdom is and how that relates to "places" - to land. One of the interesting things about the book is that Apaches do not name land after random famous people, but after events and topographical features. Washington State, for instance, wouldn’t be named after a dead President who never made it that far west, but might be called Land of Rainy Mountains by the Sea Borders Big Desert, or Wagons Arrived Here. One form of name describes an area so that you can see it without being there and perhaps easily find it; the other ties the land to an event that happened there once upon a time so that we can always remember the wisdom of our ancestors. (This works better with specific creek bends or fields than it does whole states.) If we think of our ancestors and reflect anew on the lessons they passed on every time we see a specific land formation or another place that resembles it, we keep those ancestors alive and burn their wisdom into our hearts. Their lives and thoughts are continuously shared in a powerful and relevant way. I promise you, you’ll get a lot more out of that on your next family roadtrip than you will if you say, for the thirty seventh time to two kids Gamy Boying it up in the backseat, “Wow, boys, look at that fault line! Isn’t that something??” (I love you, dad! And yes, they really were cool fault lines!)

So what does this have to do with Jacob? Jacob had a stirring dream that revealed to him God’s will and plans. Had Jacob come along 4000 years later and had his story chronicled not by J, E, or P but rather St. Luke, we would no doubt have us a story about the Holy Spirit. The ladder is beautiful imagery. It shows us we are connected to the angels, and that we have our own direct path to God. God’s words reveal to us once again not only His power, but His love and grace. We are reminded that He has wonderful things in store for us, and that He always keeps His promises.

But for all the power of Jacob’s dream, he is not the only person to encounter the Holy Spirit. The obvious example that springs to mind, since this is the Pentecost season, is the Pentecost story in Acts 2. There are also the visions John had in Revelations and the prophetic tradition of Isaiah and Daniel. Of course, the Holy Spirit isn’t relegated to the Bible. Anyone who has ever felt touched by a child’s smile or felt God’s presence atop a mountain trail or in a communal worship service has had a miniature version of Jacob’s dream. Some people even claim to have had such dreams themselves, and who are we to question them?

My point is this. The vision and discernment Jacob experienced at Bethel was special, and as a result, he declared the land where it had happened to be holy and blessed. If the land at Bethel is holy because there a man was filled with the Holy Spirit, or because a man there discerned the will of God, isn’t the land anywhere else these things happens also holy? Wherever a person discerns and comes to feel that God wants them to get married, or move, or start a new job, or become clergy; wherever they have seen the Spirit’s light descending or are filled with a rapturous joy, this land is their own Bethel. And since so many millions of God’s children have been touched by His Spirit, or have been guided through discernment, it is obvious that these holy places are everywhere.

Jacob’s ladder shows us not just what is above us or where the ladder reaches, but also shows us what is all around us, in this beautiful earth that God was kind enough to create. Anywhere God has touched one of His children, a ladder stands. The Apaches, in their belief that all land is sacred to the Spirit and interconnected with the past and with our hearts, have it right. Every story has a place, and every place has a story. Maybe this is why the angels on Jacob’s ladder weren’t just ascending to Heaven, but also climbing down to earth.

6 comments:

Jase said...

I'm linnking to this post, if you don't mind. Excellent!

James said...

There it is again. That Jase guy is James from TTLS

Nathan Empsall said...

Haha. Well, thank you, James, I'm honored. :)

Fran O'Gorman said...

I followed the link from James' site (actually I think it started on Fr. Scott's) and am glad I came over to read it. It's awsome.

Nathan Empsall said...

Why thank you, Fran! My theological reflections don't always get such compliments, and I'm not sure they should as I certainly don't need the ego boost! :)

Fran O'Gorman said...

Actually not only was the sermon awsome but for me, it was also very synergistic.. this Sunday I left early to travel to visit my sister (haven't seen in a yr) and would therefore miss the readings for this Sunday and reading your reflection got me to read it anyway- but more amazingly it echoed our experience when we visited. We both could feel the presence of our mom and other sister (with God now) in so many of the shared stories and memories.. and my sister has so many pictures and artifacts from family members that passed long before that it was very much like that Apache feeling of a sacred place.. reading your piece made it all come together for me. I definitely felt we were given the vision of our angels descending down and visiting with us.