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Title: “Betwixt and Between”
Preacher: Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Date: Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 27.01.23 4.00pm
May I speak in the name of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. One God in three persons. Amen
It might be helpful, thinking about our first reading tonight, to provide a bit of context.
Immediately before the start of this passage, Jacob has tricked his father Isaac into blessing him – and not his older twin, Esau.
When Esau learns this, Jacob is in mortal danger. So their mother gets Jacob sent away. It is while making this journey of escape that our reading from Genesis takes place.
We might say that Jacob was betwixt and between. He’d left the life he had, because of what his deception had caused, but he hadn’t yet arrived at the next chapter of his story. We can only guess of what his state of mind must have been. Behind was hatred and danger; ahead was an unknown life and, perhaps, a fresh start.
In some ways it doesn’t feel at all surprising that Jacob, in this situation, has an unusual experience while sleeping under the stars.
I don’t know about you, but for me it’s often been when things seem least certain that our awareness of God becomes most vivid.
One of my favourite places in the world and a place a return to often if the Island of Iona which is off the coast of Mull. Many will know it at first hand, a place of retreat for many, and a Holy place which is home to the Iona Community. George Macleod, who led the work to rebuild the abbey on Iona and was responsible for the creation of this
religious community, described Iona as a ‘thin place’ where our sense of God, and of the spiritual realm, breaks through.
It seems that Jacob finds himself in a ‘thin place’. Between the turmoil of his leaving, and the uncertainty of his arriving, the veil between earth and heaven is parted for a moment. In this most unpromising place, with only a stone for a pillow, Jacob dreams of a ladder – a bridge – connecting heaven and earth. It is a connection busy with angels and, remarkably, Jacob finds God standing beside him. In this place of uncertainty – this thin place – God assures Jacob of a prosperous future. When he awakes Jacob knows he needs to honour the place and mark it as holy.
I think many of us know, from experience, that thin places aren’t always remote Scottish islands or abandoned places in the wilderness. Sometimes that sense of the veil parting, a momentary glimpse of God, happens towns and cities. We know it happens for many people who visit the Minster.
Maybe what matters most when it comes to this experience is our spirituality, not our physical location. It’s the ‘betwixt and between’, what some call the liminal, which opens our hearts and minds to the presence of God.
In our second reading today St Paul couldn’t have been in a more different place than Jacob. He’s in jail, ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus’, in the middle of a city, surrounded by people – probably even sharing a cell. An old man, not knowing what his immediate future would be. This is also a ‘thin place’, where Paul feels close to God and writes of love and freedom.
Jacob describes his experience as a gateway. Wherever we find our thin places, they become a door to a richer experience. It’s hard not to think of Philip Pullman’s ‘subtle knife’ that cuts a way between one world and another. Yet in a spiritual sense we rarely (if ever) control the moments when we encounter this opening of a door. Like Jacob, they come to us unbidden and may be startling and surprising.
Sometimes though – as with the Minster – there are places where that glimpse of God may be more frequent, and we may all have a particular place to go where that sense of connection between worlds is more common.
Connection is an interesting concept in this experience. Because, generally, I’ve been speaking about parting and opening – a pulling aside of the here and now to see something else. In his liminal state Jacob has this unexpected vision, but what he sees and hears also connects his past to the future. The God who stands beside him is the God of his ancestors – and also a God who vows to be there for his future, and for the future of his children’s children.
Writing about Celtic spirituality Esther de Waal talks about ‘a union of the sacred and the secular, material and spiritual, ‘the ability to hold things together’. It’s something we see in the intricacy of Celtic art and symbols – the fabulous designs in things such as the Book of Kells.
The season we are in now, Epiphany, fits well with this idea of thin places. Moments when any of us can sense God’s presence with an unexpected clarity, and feel that the veil between this world and the divine parts. But these fleeting glimpses can also be times of connection when, perhaps, we see a link between the past and the future in a way we never imagined.
It is good to put ourselves in the way of these experiences but also, like Jacob, to be open to the unexpected and the unlikely. To be alert for God wherever we find ourselves, and to know that God comes to us in the people and places we least expect.
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