This, standing here in this pulpit and preaching to Katherine and a camera, is starting to feel normal. I know it is not. I know that this is still strange, and it may well still feel strange for many or most of you, but for me, simple repetition over the past four months is starting to make this feel normal.
Today is a bit different though. Today, for the first time, we will celebrate communion, the Lord’s Supper, one of two sacraments, though this camera and your screens. I do not know if you are watching this live with us, or you are watching the service later. I do not know if you are in your home, or on a porch, or even on the road. If you are on the road, I hope you are only listening.
I don’t know if you are sitting at a table covered in a white tablecloth and set with silver, like the table here in the church, or if you are on a couch with your elements sitting by your feet on the floor, or somewhere else entirely.
I know that it will feel strange in a few minutes when I adjust the camera, stop down from this pulpit, and move behind the table.
I know that however much you may have adjusted to hearing or watching a sermon, prayers, and music through this camera in front of me and your screens or phones may have started to feel normal, we will be reminded again of how strange this all is.
And, thankfully, today, the lectionary provides.
I had not looked at the lectionary texts for today when we decided to celebrate communion, but I do not know if I could have picked anything better.
In our text from Genesis today, we open with Jacob leaving Beer-sheba and heading towards Haran. If you know the story, or back up a bit, you can see why Jacob is on the move. You will see that Jacob is, in fact, on the run. We read last week about Jacob and Rebekah working together to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. In the text between last week’s story and today, Esau and Isaac discover the trickery.
Esau asks Isaac to give him another blessing, but Isaac, who takes his blessing very seriously, says that he cannot. Isaac’s blessing carries with it the promise of God, the promise given first to Abraham and then to Isaac, the promise that is still being carried through the line to only one son.
Esau is furious, and begins planning to attack Jacob, and so Rebekah warns Jacob and sends him away. She tells him to leave until his brother has cooled off, and, while he is at it, he should also go back to her home, which was also the home of Abraham, and find himself a wife from among his mother’s and grandfather’s people.
Unlike Abraham’s servant, who comes to find Isaac a wife bearing riches and gifts, Jacob must leave quickly, and so carries with him nothing. Not even bedding for the night.
Jacob is displaced, fleeing his own brother, the brother God promised Rebekah would serve Jacob. Jacob is fleeing a repetition of the story of Cain and Abel, because God has promised that, this time, the quiet, farmer, brother will survive and prevail over the strong hunter-herdsman brother.
Jacob will survive and prevail, but that does not mean everything will be easy, and so Jacob is on the run and when he must rest for the night, all he has for a pillow is a rock.
And this is the moment God appears to Jacob, the moment God speaks to Jacob, with Jacob.
God has spoken about Jacob, when God made the promise to Rebekah, but it is this moment, in a dream, in the midst of, what was, given the circumstances, not the most restful night’s rest Jacob had ever had.
In this dream, Jacob sees a ladder or a stairway connecting earth and heaven. He sees that heaven is not removed, is not isolated from the earth, but that there is a constant flow of angels up and down connecting the two.
Importantly, Jacob sees that God is not there. God is not removed in heaven, is not on the ladder.
God is with Jacob. The image of the ladder or stairway is powerful, it has inspired millennia of art, paintings, carvings, etchings, even a children’s toy and a Led Zeppelin song.
We need to remember that even as we may be amazed and inspired by the image, by the connection between heaven and earth, by the constant flow of angels up and down, that God is not on that ladder.
God is already with Jacob, standing beside Jacob.
And here, in this moment, God extends the promise to Abraham, the promise to Isaac, the promise to Rebekah, God extends that promise to Jacob. God tells Jacob, “‘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; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’”
God makes the promise to Jacob that inspired the psalmist to say:
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Jacob responds by taking the rock that had been his pillow and standing it on its end as a pillar to mark the spot where he had this special encounter with God.
We have marked this building, this room, as a place of special encounter with God. For more than 150 years, our community has gathered in this room to celebrate communion.
And there is nothing wrong with that, with our setting aside particular places where we have had special moments of connection with God, but as today’s text reminds us, as God told Jacob, God is with us everywhere: “Know that [God] is with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Know that as you receive the sacrament today, whether you are in your home or outside, at a table, on a couch, or standing in a field, God is with you there. Like Jacob, we mark special places where we have felt closer to God, but God does not. We have always celebrated communion in this room. I have only led communion in this room, and only once before, and so it may feel strange to receive it from somewhere else, in your home or on your porch, or in a field. It likely will feel strange because we are not used to thinking of God’s presence in those places in the same way we think of God’s presence here in this space where I stand. As God promised Jacob, as the psalmist promises us, God will not be contained. Wherever it is that you are, God is already there, was already there, and there God will continue to be.