Holy Ground: A Small Place at the Center of Everything

Holy Ground: A Small Place at the Center of Everything July 21, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “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;14and 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. 15Know 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.”

16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.” 18So 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. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

(Listen to audio sermon)

A few times in our life, we are blessed to come upon a place of undeniable holiness. A span of natural, outdoor beauty; a grandmother’s kitchen, where we spent countless hours feeling safe and loved;  a beautiful worship space where we feel connected to God and community; or maybe just the presence of certain friends. And whenever we are around them—even if we haven’t seen them in years—we know we’ve come home.

The thing is, we find these places by providence. Or else they are gifted to us. Truly holy ground is not something we can just build or buy. And yet—even knowing how rare and wonderful these places are, we find ourselves spending much of our free time trying to create sacred space. Isn’t that what we’re doing when we spend hours cruising the aisles of Home Depot? Or scouring Pinterest and wondering how people have SO MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS?  Maybe even going to workshops or conferences or reading books about ‘how to make your worship space SUPER EXTRA holy.’ At the heart of all this effort, we are dreaming of the perfect living room/yard/work area/sanctuary. But it seems like sometimes, in the human striving, the holy thing might just lose its edge.

Wendell Berry reminds us… But wait, it’s been brought to my attention that Wendell Berry might not be well-known among Kansans.  He is, among other things—a farmer, a professor, a poet, an environmental activist, and the patron Saint of Kentucky. He’s kind of like the Ghandi of Appalachia. We’ll hear more about him another time, but for today, I’m thinking especially of these words of his:  “There are no un-sacred spaces; there are only sacred spaces and desecrated spaces.”

This week, the whole world has felt like a pretty desecrated place. A scroll through the newsfeed or a brief glance at the television feels like an apocalyptic action movie. We know there’s suffering in the world. But sometimes it all feels overwhelming, impossible. Like humans have managed to destroy every good thing that God ever put in motion, and there’s no way we can dial it back. No way to find ourselves on sacred ground again.

Let’s visit with Jacob for a minute and remember that holy ground is not ours to invent or create. Humans have always been addicted to our own powers of doing, and we think that every wheel is one we have to reinvent. But the thing is, there has been nothing but holiness beneath our feet ever since the dawn of creation. Human ‘desecration’ has been hard at work nearly as long… But the ground on which we stand —it is blessed and good.

Jacob is not exactly an inspiring character. He is on the run. He has deceived his father, and stolen his brother’s inheritance. He has perhaps taken advantage of a mother’s love, in order to take what he wanted. No wonder he wanted to get out of town…  Night falls, and Jacob stops to sleep for the night. And there he has a dream… like his son Joseph, he’s prone to these nocturnal imaginings. Sometimes, when people get so deeply attached to their own movement, sleep is the only time they are STILL enough to see or hear anything important, God knows…  So in this dream, a ladder appears; it is meant to evoke the image of a ziggurat, a prominent image in Mesopotamian culture and lore, which means ‘gate of the Gods.’ A stairway to heaven would appear, in ancient legend—typically to royalty, or priests. A bridge connecting heaven and earth, inviting some person of great worthiness or importance into the presence of the divine. But here, instead of an especially wise or worthy ruler the ladder comes down for… Jacob.

And then God says… “the land on which you lie, I will give to you.”

Luckily, the goodness of God does not depend on the goodness of people. The transformative power of the Holy does not wait around for the perfect person to come along. If it did… well, if it did, the Bible would be a really short book. But in fact, it is a long, sweeping narrative; and the good news of the long story is this:  throughout all of history, God works through individuals to shape the broader scope of humanity. Yes, God gives Jacob a tremendous gift. One that seems utterly disproportionate to Jacob’s recent felonious activity… But it’s not really about Jacob.

Because what God said next was this: “I will give you this land, And all the families of the earth will be blessed by you and your offspring.”

It’s possible that Jacob didn’t hear that last part. It’s possible that, at the mention of ‘land,’ the cartoon dollar signs appeared in his eyes. Or little bags of gold, as it were. After all, this is the guy who jostled his way out of the womb to beat his brother to lunch. The guy who disguised himself with wool to trick his aging father out of the familial blessing. It’s possible that the whole ‘I’m giving you this SO THAT YOU CAN BLESS OTHERS’ was lost on him.

It might seem incongruous that this ladder—this bridge between heaven and earth— would appear to Jacob, sneak and schemer that he is. But the implication of ‘climbing,’ might be just the right angle. Because Jacob is a guy who’s always after something. Always trying to ‘make it,’ to be somebody, to arrive.

The irony is this: even as this astounding, heavenly ladder appears, climbing all the way up to the sky…God is on the ground. God is not up there, in the heaven that Jacob can almost glimpse. God is right there next to him. Right there, giving him everything that he could ever ask for… And telling him that the purpose of this land—this powerfully blessed spot—is to bless the whole of creation.

Did Jacob immediately started wondering how to own that land, manage it, and grow it into something profitable? Like every other person who’s ever been gifted with a good thing?  That would not be surprising.

But the good news is… It’s not just about Jacob.

This gift of Holy Ground, handed over to one who’s been anything but generous and humble, tells us an important, fundamental truth about God, that makes up the heart of all of Genesis–God is not micro. God is macro.  

Yes, God interacts with individuals, speaks to and calls out singular people…saves people in need and works to restore human relationships. However, God’s activity for ONE, always bears implications for ALL. Think about that for a minute. Everything that God says or does in scripture, ESPECially in Genesis, is generational and global in scale.  For all of humanity. There are no isolated incidents of grace. God’s words and actions—even when meeting the needs of an individual– are always intended to carry God’s creative purpose into the future. Well beyond the scope of one individual story line.

Could it be then, that everything God does in each one of us — every gift that we are given– is meant to be part of a MUCH bigger story? That nothing we have is really ‘ours?’ And that nothing we say or do exists in a vacuum apart from the created order?

That might sound like a rhetorical question; a truth that we know, and don’t need to say out loud. But man… for people who know the depth of God’s mercy, and the global nature of divine activity, we sure do spend a lot of our lives…. well, climbing. Trying to get, achieve, and protect ourselves from some future suffering; trying to arrive somewhere, or define ourselves; trying to leverage what we have for an even bigger piece of land.

But for all that climbing…for all that effort to somehow contrive a piece of holiness that we can hold and own– God’s on the ground. God’s on the ground, right now. Which makes THIS—the present moment, our time and place—holy ground. It’s not out there, later; or way up there, eventually. It’s right now. And everything that we have— every gift, every grace, every blessing of life and love and LAND… is meant for greater purpose than our own particular story.

It’s amazing, how simply knowing that—simply acknowledging that simple truth—can transform the world.

Because when we acknowledge our small part in a much larger narrative, we might find ourselves more eager to practice compassion; to share what we have. Knowing that there’s not a single thing in creation that was intended JUST FOR US—walking through the world with that awareness is HOLY GROUND. It may seem like a paltry response against the scope of all that’s broken in the world. But we see what happens when people fail to recognize the global nature of God’s work in progress.

We see what happens when people get so certain that God has blessed THEM, above all others. That God has secured for them a place, a purpose, a heaven, that they have somehow earned or created by their own goodness or cunning.

-We see devastating Welfare cuts…

-We see the Church squander millions of dollars on political causes—not for the work of feeding the poor, but for the privilege of defining what is, and is not an acceptable expression of family.

-we witness horrific conflict over land and resources. Innocent lives lost and blood spilled on ground that has been claimed as ‘sacred.’

-We see people screaming at busloads of refugee children, and waving guns in threats of violence. At CHILDREN, who have come seeking sanctuary.

Innocents, looking for a small corner of holy ground.

These are folks who fail to see ‘God on the ground;’ fail to see their own individual fortune as a gift intended for all… They impose crass, human boundaries on all that God has created and bestowed. And this is how sacred ground becomes a battlefield.

Surely the Lord was in this place… And we did not know it.

We can’t create holy ground. We can’t earn or deserve it. We can either live into the holiness of what IS, or we can contribute to the desecration of God’s sacred territory. And listen… It is ALL God’s. Sacred. Territory.

God is on the ground with us, in every time and place. And any blessing/comfort that we might receive in this life can be turned outward for the work of mercy in the world.

And—mercy, but the world could use it.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when the world appears to be disintegrating around us. Fire and ash and death literally falling from the sky. …

It’s easy to feel hopeless and helpless. Knowing that we can’t construct or contrive the sacred territory that God mapped for the world. We can’t, all by ourselves, right an unjust economy, or bring warring nations to peace. In the face of all that’s broken,  we feel so very micro… like our singular, linear story lines are unravelling in this thread of human narrative. It makes us want to go inside; to cling even more fiercely to the relative comfort and safety of home and health and family…

But God is macro.  And God gifts US with all the pieces we need, to take part in the sweeping narrative of restoration.

We see what happens, when people forget that they are a small part of a sacred story…  when people forget what the earth is for. But we also catch glimpses of what it looks like when people live simply, love deeply, and get on the groundwith God….

While the town of Murrieta CA works itself into an angry, frothing mob, raging at frightened children… The folks down the road in Fontana, CA, quietly welcome 40 immigrants to St Joseph’s Catholic church. They meet these children with food, clothing, shelter and toys. God is on the ground, in that place.

For every story of ignorance and hate, there is another narrative of kindness and mercy. For every broken human promise, there is a community seeking to live faithfully into God’s covenant of grace and generosity. For every place where we wander, and stumble, and forget who we are… there’s a place where God calls us back again; to our small but holy place, at the center of this great human story.

God’s on the ground. So are we.




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  • Marty Miller

    Erin, thank you for this. My heart breaks over all of the things going on in the world because some person or group thinks they are special, better, more holy or feel their life is more valuable than someone else’s. We forget that all land is God’s and therefore sacred unless we desecrate it by claiming it and fighting over it. And, all life is sacred and there is nothing we can do that will make it any less so. We are all children of he same heavenly Father, brothers and sisters expected to be engaged with God (by whatever name we know Him by) in redeeming the world. May God help us

    • Ernie Williams

      Just so spot on Erin! I discovered your blog about a year ago and I’ve read the entire archive of your posts. I would do back flips (I’m a 66 year old man) if I could find a local pastor with your keen Insight,intellect and wit.
      There is a book in you waiting to be written! Please Don’t ever stop writing.

  • Jenny M

    Erin, this is without a doubt the most powerful sermon I’ve “heard” preached in a very, very long time. It touched my heart deeply. I pray that it will be shared far and wide, and that others will also be inspired to step up and recover their vision of the world as a sacred place, where they can take action to redeem and heal all that is broken.