July 19, 2020 -- "Night Vision"

19 July 2020 – Night Vision: Genesis 28:10-19a


            I went to seminary the year after my dad died, with high hopes of finding more liberal, open minded, justice seeking people. And, while there was a small group of people devoted to studying liberation, black and feminist theologies, the president of the seminary wrote an article in a journal calling those flirtations with real theology, namely, the reformed tradition.

            I was disillusioned, grieving, questioning any sense of calling I once had. I felt I’d chosen the wrong seminary and by my senior year, I was ready to pack up my stuff and go home. But I had to go back to Princeton in order to get that stuff. And so began my wilderness journey. My mother, in her early 60’s, came along for the ride as we set out in my Volkswagon fastback. She didn’t drive. We kept bandanas in the car to wipe down the inside of the windows when it rained, and wore sandals as the windshield wasn’t sealed properly and our toes would get wet in inclement weather.

            Things went along swimmingly, no pun intended, until we hit Massey, Ontario. My Canadian friend later described it as the armpit of Canada. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t all that great. The car broke down a couple of miles out of town. I limped it in on that Friday afternoon to the only garage on main street. The diagnosis was not good. It needed a wheel bearing and they wouldn’t even order the part until Monday.

            My mother, bless her heart, took all of this in stride. She waited in the car while I called around to find a place for us to stay. We got the last tiny motel room on the other edge of town. She didn’t show the slightest bit of upset as she brought her suitcase into the room and settled in. She left it to me to walk back to the little grocery store for supplies. She read her book while I took the car to the shop, considered following a lead on a part from a guy who collected VWs, met the son of the grocery store owner who drove me 40 miles to a car shop where we picked up the wheel bearing, only to find out it was the wrong one when we got back to the garage. It was one problem after another, my nerves were frayed, I wasn’t sure where I could get money changed from my US bills to Canadian currency, although the people were helpful, I felt like a fish out of water.

            So I went towards the water. There was a river behind the motel, crystal clear water flowing, lined by mature trees and wild flowers. I’d never had found it if we hadn’t been stranded there with that broken down car. I felt momentarily refreshed. We were on the road the next day, where we ended up lost in Toronto. We broke down there, again relying on the kindness of strangers to get us through another complicated car repair. Days later, we made it to Niagara Falls, then finally, to New Jersey.

             I honestly don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to drive mom to Philadelphia the next day so she could see the liberty bell. We made it there all right, and broke down on the interstate on the way back. I called AAA; mom opened up the picnic lunch she had packed for us and we shared a meal while waiting for the tow truck.

            My take on this, years later, was that God seemed to really have wanted me to stay in seminary and get my degree. And God offered one opportunity after another for me to learn to trust and believe and eventually grow into my calling.

            It is not always easy to see the blessings in our wilderness wanderings. The foggy windshield was kind of funny, the broken wheel bearing, the water in the gas line, the engine going out on the interstate were disasters. Or so I thought at the time.

            Jacob is out in the wilderness at the time we meet him today. He is fleeing the murderous rage of his twin brother Esau, after Esau learned he was tricked out of his father’s blessing by Jacob and their mother. The blessing Isaac passed down to his less favorite son was the very blessing that God had given to Abraham and Sarah. The blessing and promise of a son in their old, old age, the promise of descendants so plentiful that the very idea seemed ludicrous. To illustrate the point, God had taken Abraham out into the wilderness, late at night, to show him the stars. That is how many descendants you’ll have Abraham. As many as there are stars in the sky.

            Jacob stole that blessing right out from underneath his brother, and, finds himself broken down on the side of the road. Whether he left in haste or didn’t plan well, he has no shelter, no bed roll, no place on which to lay down his head. It reminds me of Jesus, who, when he was sending his own disciples out on their practice ministries, reminded them that “foxes have dens, and birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place on which to lay his head (Mt 8:20.) Well, the son of Isaac had no place on which to lay his head, so he chose a stone for his pillow and lay down for a restless night.

            As the darkness grew and the while animals around him rustled in the brush, Jacob had a dream. Or, more aptly put, God gave Jacob a vision. This time it was not stars in the sky, but a staircase going from earth to heaven, with angelic beings ascending and descending.

            God, you see, had heard the unspoken cry of Jacob. God provided him with a bed made of something it never would have occurred to him to use – a stone. God gave him a vision, in the dark of the night, of the angels who are always there and then, a vision of God themselves. And out of that vision, came the blessing, the God of Abraham and Isaac, was the God of Jacob. As his father and grandfather were promised descendants so many they would be like the stars in the sky, Jacob was promised descendants so great they would be like the dust of the earth.

            Jacob’s journey to that blessing took him to the wilderness, to dark places, to fear and uncertainty, trickery and deceit. He did not get the miracle he was praying for. I did not have a magical trip across Canada with my mother; we have not been experiencing the time of our lives in this wilderness time in our country, our world.

            You could take these things that come our way, the darkness without and within, as evidence that God is ignoring you or punching you or, worse yet, that God is not there. You could compare yourself with others who seem to have it so much better, you may start complaining, you may feel defeated and hole up, sick of it all.

            If you are willing, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, to look at everything that comes to you as a gift from God, everything, there will be no end to miracles. You break down, your safety and status feel challenged, your family member is acting out, the economy is threatened, you have to spend another Sunday morning in your living room in front of a screen and not in a pew. What is this anyway? It is a gift from God. We may not recognize it, like the Israelites felt when they first saw the flakes of manna on the ground in the morning. But if we can see that whatever comes into our lives is, indeed, a gift from God, the wilderness wanderings may transform into sacred blessings. We just have to figure out how to eat the stuff when God leaves it; we have to figure out how to open the package.

            Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a palliative care doctor who was at a retreat with other physicians. He told them about a young man he had worked with who was dying of AIDS. He did what he could to offer comfort and support but the patient’s family was bitter and hostile and closed off to his care. So he pulled back a bit and offered the best technical care he could.

            He got a call one night at 3 am that the man had died; would he come in to sign the death certificate? He threw on some clothes over his pajamas and began to drive to the hospital. As he drove down the darkened streets, he suddenly looked up and saw the night sky as if for the first time. Rachel says “the darkness seemed a silent and holy emptiness without beginning or end. In this vastness, stars hung as countless pure points of radiance. He had never seen the night in this way and was filled with awe and a profound feeling of peace and gratitude” (p. 321, KTW). His thinking mind tried to interrupt and get him back in the car so he could finish up at the hospital. His heart, though, urged him to stay. He got out of the car and stood there, lost in wonder, until after about 15 minutes, the feeling receded. He told the other doctors about this experience, trying to understand what had happened and why it had been so moving. Someone suggested that perhaps, in his passing, his young patient had sent him an apology and a gift, a vision of his present perception and experience of wholeness and beauty.

            The broken are healed, the light permeates the darkness, the sinner repents and is redeemed, and the angels are still around us doing the work of the Holy. Amen.

  August 2021  
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