Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Thin Distance between Earth and Heaven

Scripture appointed for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

So what’s with the stone pillow? The story of the patriarch Jacob’s epic journey draws us into it in any number of ways today. But using a stone for a pillow?

Good luck finding a commentary that lets you walk away saying, “Oh, so that’s why Jacob sleeps on a stone pillow.” No. All we get is that the sun had set, and in this prehistoric era before headlights and street lights, when the sun set the journey ended for the night, and it was time to improvise.

But wouldn’t you think that a fellow on an epic journey might have been clever enough to have stashed in his camel bag something soft to cradle his head? And if there was one thing Jacob was, he was clever.

But wait. Maybe we need to recognize a clever purpose in this odd detail. After a night of astonishing dreams (and who wouldn’t have astonishing dreams, sleeping on a rock?), Jacob “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar… and called that place Bethel.”

Ah. Now we can get it. The story tellers in the Book of Genesis all have the purpose of explaining how Israel came to be a great nation. One of the things going on in today’s story is that we’re hearing how the famous pilgrim shine at Bethel came to be. In later periods, before the grandeur of the great temple in Jerusalem, Bethel was holy ground, a favored destination for pilgrimage, renowned for its great stone pillars, standing stones not unlike the older sacred circles in the British Isles—the Stonehenge of the Middle East.

And don’t you suppose that one of them was known as Jacob’s stone? Gerhard von Rad, the granddaddy of Genesis scholars, writes, “If Jacob erected the stone… as a memorial column, then he must have had colossal strength, for such “massebahs”, known from the entire Orient, were often nearly seven feet high. There are other references to Jacob’s herculean strength… But above all, the purpose of the narrative becomes clear…: it intends to tell how Bethel, which was later so famous, came to be a cultic center and in what way the holiness of the place first became known.”

In Celtic spirituality, people speak of experiencing “thin places.” Do a search on that phrase, and you may find Eric Weiner’s March 9, 2012 “Cultured Traveler” piece in the New York Times, headlined “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” Catch his message.

“Travel, like life, is best understood backward but must be experienced forward, to paraphrase Kierkegaard. (For me) After decades of wandering, only now does a pattern emerge. I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.

“It is, admittedly, an odd term. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

“Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

Something happens to you in a thin place. You do not emerge quite the same as before. Jacob, whose cleverness set him at odds with his brother Esau; Jacob, who willfully deceived his own father on his deathbed so as to inherit the double share of his estate; Jacob leaves the thin place of Bethel confronted with, and humbled by, heaven. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Earlier this morning, we learned that Williamstown may be a thin place for two dozen young pilgrims, Israeli, Palestinian, and American. They are enrolled in a program at Buxton School, run by Artsbridge, a nonprofit whose executive director, Deborah Nathan, was our speaker at our 9:00 gathering. Artsbridge uses a combination of reflective dialogue, artistic expression, and expressive therapy to engage with youth and empower them to become change-makers and leaders in their own communities. This reflective model of dialogue teaches students how to truly listen to each other and to ask questions out of curiosity and interest. Through expressive therapy, Artsbridge works to provide healing for the trauma that all participants experience living in a region of conflict. The art component teaches participants how to work together, think creatively, and communicate constructively.

I wonder if these two dozen young men and women may return home having been jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.

Ancient Bethel was a thin place well before the founding of its city, 2000 years before Jesus. It was a place of springs, and people chose to be buried there. Before it was part of Israel, Bethel was owned by the Canaanites, natives of Palestine, and over the centuries (as wars were fought) Bethel changed hands across that border. Before Bethel was a shrine to Yahweh, the Hebrew God, Bethel was a shrine to the Canaanite god whose name was Bethel. Across its long history, Israelis and Palestinians have been buried there in Bethel. At Bethel, deceitful Jacob was renamed Israel after his nighttime wrestling match with the angel of God entitled him to be called Israel, which means “the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed” (the Genesis story we’ll hear on August 3rd).

In that word “prevailed”, the seeds of our present Middle East conflict are sown. Year after year, generation after generation, Israelis and Palestinians struggle to prevail, one over the other. In these same weeks that our young pilgrims are here, their homelands have erupted in fresh violence—fresh, but ever so repetitively familiar: Hamas inflicts an act of terrorism killing a number of Israelis, the Israelis retaliate not symbolically but strategically, surgically trying to rid Gaza, for example, of its known missile locations that are purposefully located in residential neighborhoods, just as Israeli military installations are said to be situated near population centers—resulting in large numbers of fatalities which further infuriate the Palestinians, ensuring endless rounds of this ritualized violence. Violence which has little respect for the wisdom of Jesus’s parable, that there is no uprooting the weeds without uprooting also the wheat. This is the world in which our young pilgrims have been raised and formed, and to which they will soon return: a world understood and described by St. Paul as caught in slavery and fear, subjected to futility, in bondage to decay, endlessly groaning in labor pains that do not yield birth. Yet.

But what if (Paul asks) the sufferings of this present time are the crucible from which the long-awaited revealing of the children of God will come? What if this is the generation that finally hears and believes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”? All.

Wars are fought over land and boundaries. Ancient stories justify Israel’s entitlement to land once owned by others. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring,” promises God to Jacob.

I suppose that ancient stories of exceptionalism have shaped the claims of countless nations, our own among them.

But blessing never comes without responsibility. And that too is clear in Jacob’s story, as God is remembered to have said to Israel, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

There, again, is that powerful word “all”. Israelis and Palestinians must learn and embrace the power of that word. It lies at the heart of a fresh new hymn sung for the first time anywhere here on June 22. You’ll find the text of “We Inherit the World” printed below.

St. John’s commissioned composer Alice Parker to create a hymn to mark the retirement of our organist and choir director, Barbara Kourajian. I found a meditation by the 17th century English metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, and Alice brought it into contemporary English, keeping Traherne’s use of the words, “This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven,” words by which Jacob recognized how thin was the distance between earth and heaven, there at Bethel, as it is in more places than we may know. Would you join me in reading aloud the words of this hymn?

“We Inherit the World”

We inherit the world when we are born:
the sun, the sky, the sea, the stars, the vast immensity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We give thanks for this world through all our days:
the outer glory, the inner space, the myriad mysteries.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We belong to this world in equal claim
with every soul, with all that live in God’s infinity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We inherit the world in life, in death:
in faith and hope for love and peace in God’s eternity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

Alice Parker, after Thomas Traherne

Gerhard von Rad’s commentary “Genesis” is published by The Westminster Press, 1972. His comments on this passage appear on page 285.