Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

A Sense of Place

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Genesis 28:10-19

Let us remember an ancient story.  It is one of the incidents in the life of Jacob the patriarch.  Jacob is one of the Bible’s best characters.  His story is found in Genesis chapters 25-35.  He is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah.  He is a second-born son in a world where the first-born takes all the prizes.  He has been competing with his brother Esau his whole life, even from the womb.  As his father Isaac is dying, his mother helps Jacob trick him so that the blessing intended for Esau gets bestowed on Jacob instead.  Esau is so angry that he promises to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies.  That’s one way to get his inheritance back.  Rebekah comes to the rescue again and sends Jacob away to her brother Laban’s place in Haran to hide.

Let me pick up the story from there. I’m reading from Genesis 28:10-19:    Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He 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. And 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. And 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; 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.”      Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And 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.” So 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. He called that place Bethel;

Imagine what it would have been like for Jacob.  He is normally the homebody while Esau prefers the outdoors.  Now Jacob is on his own, running from his brother, the skilled hunter.  When the sun sets and it gets dark, it gets really dark.  If we were with him, we would notice the stars because there would be no light pollution.  But we might be unnerved by the lack of light – no headlights, no streetlights, not even any houses with lights in the windows.  The night is dark and might contain wild animals or other dangers. 

In the darkness, on the hard ground, Jacob falls asleep among the stones.  It is within his exhausted sleep that he has an encounter with God.  This is not a time or place when he would expect a religious experience.  He is in the middle of nowhere, not even a place whose name is known until the encounter.  When he wakes from his sleep, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” 

It was an ordinary place, an unknown place.  Because ancient people associated their God with their home lands, it is possible that Jacob might have described it as God-forsaken.  But Jacob declares “this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  As Walter Brueggemann says, “A non-place is transformed into a crucial place.” [1] 

He names this site Bethel, which means House of God.  The first church that I pastored was called Bethel Baptist Church.  Every once in a while I would remind us of what our name meant.  Places and their names become significant.  Sometimes we don’t know what names mean or we forget because we weren’t the ones who named them.  Like some of the places around here.  For example, Niskayuna is Mohawk for corn fields.  Cohoes is a Dutch corruption of the Mohawk word for a shipwrecked or falling canoe, probably in memory of an incident on the Cohoes Falls.  Schenectady means “the place beyond the pines” in Iroquois.  Schoharie refers to the driftwood that piles up in abundance along the creek.[2]

Jacob names this place “Beth-el, House of God.”  It becomes a sacred place for him, but also for all of Israel for many generations.  He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”  You and I also know sacred sites, places where we encountered the Divine, places where we had significant experiences.  For many of us, this sanctuary is sacred and so is Pathfinder Camp.  Perhaps your sacred space is your kitchen table or your garden or a grandparent’s farm.  All sorts of places can be sacred, but probably they won’t be sacred to us, if we don’t know them. Fifty years ago,  Baba Dioum, an activist from Senegal said “We won’t save a place we don’t love; we won’t love a place we don’t know, and we can’t know a place we haven’t learned.” 

I understand we can come to love specific places, and having places like that is a great gift, but I also want to remember that the Bible says the Earth is the Lord’s.  The Earth -- the parts we know and the parts we don’t -- the whole thing is sacred because it belongs to God.  So we could say about the whole world, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” 

Many of us have lost a sense of connection with the creation.  We do not draw water or gather firewood on a daily basis.  The average adult in America spends 87 percent of our time indoors and passes another six percent inside a vehicle.[3]  We relocate from state to state and do not have a sense of being grounded and at home in one location.  It takes intentional effort to connect with the human community and the created community around us.

Intentional effort means changing our habits.  The Bible calls it repentance.  Change is hard.  It often requires a sense of crisis to motivate us.  The earth is in crisis.   Glaciers are melting, coral reefs are dying.  On some level we know that, but we believe it is happening in places we don’t know or love and so maybe we can live in denial.  It is getting harder and harder to do that.   A year ago, we followed events at Standing Rock as water protectors fought the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The pipeline leaked 5 times in 2017.  Most of us are aware of the contaminated water in Flint, MI.  It has been 4 years since the issue was identified and it is not yet fixed.  Closer to home, there is unsafe drinking water in Hoosick Falls.  Hoosic is an Algonquian word meaning “the place of stones.”  Surely the Lord is in these places, whether we know it or not.

We need to regain a sense of place, an awareness that God is in this place and that one and that one, that the whole earth is holy.  We need to regain a sense of our place as caretakers of God’s good creation.  We bear God’s image and our place is to use the power entrusted to us to preserve and enhance, to tend and to serve the life of God’s delightful world.

Part of the problem is that many of us  have been taught not that creation is holy, but that creation is fallen.  We have been taught that the place of humans is as lords of creation, not to protect and serve, but to dominate and exploit.  We may not own those ideas personally, but they have informing Western Christian theology for hundreds of years. 

On the other hand, many of us have learned to work for justice.  With Jesus as our model, we have learned to listen to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed.  We know that people of color and the poor are disproportionately affected by the pollution also known as environmental racism, and they suffer most from the natural disasters associated with climate change.  And so we would do well to listen the earth, to hear the groaning of creation, and if our ears are not yet attuned, then to listen to the voices of those who speak with and for the earth. 

Some of those voices are found among indigenous people.  The Rev. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendant.  He is an ordained minister, author, teacher, theologian, poet and activist.  These are some of his words:

“When we speak of living with the land, the preposition with should be understood as paramount.  One can live on the land and still ignore or even abuse it. Yet living with the land implies a harmonious relationship, a partnership between human beings and everything else:  soil, rocks, water, trees, wildlife, bees, insects.” 

“In addition, we need to understand that humans are ‘walking earth.’  We also are the earth in which the Spirit dwells.  When we die our bodies make a beeline back to the dust.  The Creator has given native peoples the sensitivity to understand the simplicity of these things, and to value the land as a result.  Conversely, we believe that dualism found in much of Western theology is odious to the Creator and a breach of this sacred covenant.”[4]

For many of us, it is not that we don’t care.  It is that we do care, about many things.  Perhaps we have put a priority on people over animals, on improving human relationships first and cleaning up water and soil second.  But now we see that creation care is a justice issue, that tending and protecting the planet is a vital way to love our neighbors and also to demonstrate our love for God, by loving what God loves. 

Let me close with the thoughts of Sister Elaine Prevallet, a Catholic nun who has spent much of her adult life in contemplation.  She writes, “The prologue of John’s gospel states that all things came into being through God’s creative word and that “without him not one thing came into being.”  . . .God so loved his creation that same Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  And Jesus invites us to live in him and let him live in us – as deeply, integrally connected as a vine and its branches. Since our human lives cannot be lived apart from the rest of creation that sustains us, might it be that “living in Christ” will mean living in communion with that word that permeates the whole creation . . . and that therefore we not find God “in heaven,” but right here in all our earthy reality? Then the whole creation must be . . . held in sacred trust not just as God’s gift to us, but as holy in its own right.” [5]

Sisters and brothers, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Thanks be to God.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 242.

[2] https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Native-American-origins-of-Capital-Region-12188980.php

[3] National Human Activity Pattern Survey, (NHAPS)


[4] Randy Woodley “Just Land:  What are the Key Justice Issues for Native Peoples in the U.S.?”  in The Justice Project, Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashley Bunting Seeber, eds.  (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 2009), p110-11.

[5] Elaine M. Prevallet, “Where Is Your God?”, Weavings Journal