Jacob’s Dream: Story and Place

Patricia Matthews
Christ Church, Little Rock
July 17, 2011
Proper 11, Year A,
Gospel: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Old Testament: Genesis 28:10-19a

On one wall of the cave are four horse heads, their black jaws and graceful necks overlapping. Deeper into the darkness, a series of lions, ten of them painted almost on top of each other. Human handprints still linger on a rock face.

The Chauvet Cave in southern France, named after one of the explorers who uncovered it in 1994, had been closed off by a rockslide thousands of years earlier. The paintings, which were done almost 28,000 years ago, were perfectly preserved. And unlike the more famous caves at Lascaux, no visitors are allowed. Were it not for filmmaker Werner Herzog, none of us would ever get to see the fragile interior.

In his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog takes us inside this cave, as he follows a team of scientists who are hoping to unlock the mysteries this place.

There isn’t much to go on. From the lack of human bones and artifacts, they have determined that humans probably didn’t live in the cave. The skull of a cave bear placed precisely in the center of a waist-high, flat-top rock may or may not have been an altar. But one thing they can say for certain is that some of the overlapping images were actually painted 5000 years apart.

Generations of ancient humans returned to this cave to paint and repaint similar images that tell similar stories. Herzog wonders if this is what it is to be human – to make connections to a place, to use these landmarks to tell larger stories about ourselves.

Last week, Scott reminded us of this. He called us, as Christians, a “story-formed people”. He said, “We live our ordinary lives as part of a narrative that is still unfolding, and maybe we only begin to understand the Bible, and what it means to be Christian, in the act of the living out of this story.”

Today we heard another story about a particular place, a landmark. Jacob’s ladder is one of our essential stories that generations have returned to again and again.

Jacob is alone. He has fled his home after deceiving his father. His brother is threatening to kill him. He lies down for the night, in the darkness, far from home, and places a stone under his head. This is where the dream occurs.

In the dream, a ladder appears that connects heaven to earth. God breaks through and seeks out Jacob. And when he awakes, Jacob exclaims “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” So powerful is this dream that in the morning, Jacob anoints the stone with oil and calls the place Bethel. He takes a rock –the most mundane thing you can think of – and makes it into a sacred altar.

Isn’t that very human? To want to mark the moments in our lives where the sacred has suddenly broken through the mundane. To make connections to a place, to use these landmarks to tell larger stories about ourselves.

Jacob marks this moment, and a story begins. And from that point on, for generations, every time Israelites would walk past Bethel or hear the story of Bethel, they would remember that God wants them and seeks them out. That God was there, even when they didn’t know it. That was the Israelites larger story.

In fact, the Biblical narrative contains many stories like Jacob’s ladder, where God breaks through to humanity. It continues with Jesus, a man who is a further revelation of the fact that we are sought out and loved by God, even at places and times when we aren’t expecting God to show up.

So it is our story, too. With every retelling, we become part of this older narrative that unfolds through time, and it becomes a part of us.

We at Christ Church have our own stories. For generations, people have come together in this sacred place, here at the otherwise mundane corner of 5th and Scott. We retell our stories and live into new ones in order to remind each other of who we are as a people.

This week, Christ Church got a new bell, inscribed with the name Patsy Campbell Farrell, a former organist here. This church used to have many bells, symbols of remembering the sacred in the midst of the mundane. But the bells were destroyed in a fire more than seventy years ago.

Just as the ancient humans returned to the same cave to paint and repaint similar images, and just as the Israelites returned to Bethel and the story of Jacob, we now return to one of our stories. With this new bell, we will again play and hear similar tones as our predecessors.

But let’s not forget – the church does not have a monopoly on sacred stories. We each carry individual stories of times in our lives when the sacred has broken through the mundane. These individual stories, full of landmarks, are important to revisit, also.

As a people, we weave together the Biblical narrative, the Christ Church story, and our personal stories. And we notice how all of those stories overlap and inform us that we are God’s own forever.

Now why is this important to erect these markers and remember these stories?

Because it is comforting to know that others have been here before, and that, wherever we find ourselves, God is there.

That is what Jacob discovered. He thought he was alone, on the run, in the dark, but God was there. And so it is for us. When we are hurting and think we are alone, God is there. In the face of calamity, sickness, and sorrow, God is there. Even when we don’t know it; when we don’t expect it and can’t see it, God is there. And the generations that have come before us are there in some way too.

And we need to hear this again and again. These stories and these places help us to remember that we are not alone, that we are loved by God in every circumstance of our life. Without these stories, we are lost.

Lost – like the people Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel of the good seeds growing up together with the weeds. Admittedly, it is a hard Gospel. The gospel ends with harsh language – end of times, a call to repentance, evildoers being cast into fire.

We hear this with modern ears. But Jesus was speaking to the Jewish people – a people who had, for generations, told and retold stories like that of Jacob’s dream at Bethel, and they lived their lives in that same landscape. They would have heard Jesus’ teaching as part of s longer, much older narrative. There were dire warnings for a people gone astray, yes. But also, always, they carried the knowledge that they were God’s chosen people and that God sought to connect with them.

So maybe we can hear this Gospel with new ears.

We are bound to fall short. But we need never forgot that we are God’s own. God is here with us, even when we don’t know it. And we can choose, at any moment, to see the ladder that connects heaven and earth.

In the final scene of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, albino alligators float through the warm waters of a biosphere in southern France. Herzog imagines that these alligators may somehow, someday inhabit nearby Chauvet Cave. Will they, like us, look at the paintings, he wonders. And what will they make of them?

In his German accent, Herzog asks, “Are we like the alligators?” The alligators have no way to ever comprehend the full meaning of the cave paintings. Can we ever hope to fully understand these distant stories?

It is a good question. I think we must always be aware of the difficulty of looking back at stories from other times and other places.

But we can, with surety, do this: we can recognize the threads from these stories that show up in our own lives, and weave them into our section of this ongoing narrative.