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Camp Local 4: Imago Dei

And the thing is, when we recognize that each and every person is made in the image of God, that means that each and every person carries a piece of the divine with them and reflects it back to us — if only we’d have eyes to see it.
Camp Local 4: Imago Dei
Photo by Marco Bianchetti / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
July 31, 2022
Scripture: Genesis 28:10–19a

It’s the fourth and final week of Camp Local. In case you’ve missed it to this point or need a refresher — because a lot happens during the week, and I forget a bunch of things — Camp Local is our annual summer series all about experiencing, reclaiming, and leaning into beauty, wonder, Sabbath, and reconnection — reconnection with God, with neighbor, and with self. It’s our response to Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel according to Matthew that we’ve heard for a few weeks now to “get away with him so that we might recover our lives, to learn the unforced rhythms of grace, and to take a real rest.”

And I joked about this last year when we debuted this series — that I’d never been to summer camp, so with Camp Local, 1) I’m just making it all up based on what I imagine camp is probably like, and 2) this is also my attempt to give myself the camp experience that I never had. Trying to create an alternate reality for myself — a do-over of formative childhood experiences. Disclaimer for my parents participating at home this morning: I had a wonderful childhood. I was not deprived in any way. Summer just wasn’t a part of our rhythm.

And it’s not like I didn’t go to camp. I just didn’t go to summer camp the way many kids do. I went to a week-long Baseball Camp as a kid. I got to go to Space Camp when I was in middle school, which was just an incredible week. In high school, I went to my share of summer band camps, too. Spending the week meeting friends and awkwardly crushing on girls, making memories and music and rituals and inside jokes — and getting a taste of having a roommate for the first time. It was everything camp should be.

Camp is a formative thing. It allows us to get away. To get out of ourselves for a little while. To disrupt our regular rhythms and routines to get some much-needed perspective. It’s the sort of thing where you might want to stay forever. Because the experience has been that good. The people you’ve met were that wonderful. The memories you’ve made that unforgettable.

I know that I’m romanticizing it somewhat, and I’m sure this hasn’t been everyone’s experience, but at least for me, when I think back to the camps I went to as a kid, the memories are pretty good.

But then… You’ve got to go back home. Maybe you’re like me, and you put off thinking about it until you can’t avoid it any longer. But you have to leave camp. Back to your chores and your siblings — or your job and your parents. You have to get back to where you were before this week that changed your life — or the four weeks in our care here at Camp Local.

But as we wrap up another season of Camp Local this week, instead of going back, I wonder what it might look like to go forward. To not let it all stay here but let this experience recalibrate us as we leave the mountaintop. It’s not unlike when you make a wrong turn using Google Maps, and the whole system recalibrates. What if instead of an experience we leave here, what if Camp Local comes with us? What might that look like?

As I’ve been thinking about this question, this story from Genesis — the very first book of the Bible — has come to mind again and again.

In this story that Jane read, we encounter Jacob — one of two sons of Isaac. Esau’s the other. They’re twins. And they’re both the grandsons of Abraham, the OG patriarch of the Israelite people. Abraham, if you remember, is the one God told to “count the stars” in our first week of Camp Local. And if you missed that week, Space Week, you can catch up on our podcast feed.

But Jacob is on the run because, long story short, Jacob tricked his father into blessing him with the birthright, which should have gone to Esau as the firstborn, but was given to Jacob instead when Jacob deceived his blind father, Isaac, while Isaac was on his death bed. Birthright means power and prestige and inheritance. So it’s a big deal. So, as you might imagine, Esau isn’t thrilled with this turn of events — because he didn’t get what he was owed. And this sends Jacob fleeing at his mother, Rebekah’s, insistence.

And that’s where we find Jacob today — on the run with a questionable past and an uncertain future.

Jacob is exhausted. The world has run him ragged. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders — his past mistakes, his shame, the things he wishes he could do over. All that he’s done and left undone. He has been running and running and running.

Maybe you know something about that, too. Maybe you’re not necessarily a fugitive, but perhaps there are things you wish you’d done differently. Maybe there are heavy things you carry. Things in your past. Grief about the world. The uncertainty of your future. Maybe with all that you juggle daily, you know the feeling of being weighed down — while still trying to run. Away from all this mess. While also still trying to keep all the balls in the air. Until you just can’t anymore.

If you know this bone-tired, flat-out exhausted in body, mind, and spirit sort of feeling, then you can relate to Jacob.

This is how he arrives. And he can’t run anymore. The sun has set, and he’s ready to sleep. So he lays down, grabs a nearby stone, places it under his head to use as a pillow, and falls asleep.

And as he’s asleep, he begins to dream. He dreams there’s a stairway from heaven to earth. Angels — messengers — of God are going up and down, ascending and descending. And in this dream, Jacob finds the Lord, Yahweh, standing beside him, and Yahweh says something pretty remarkable. Pretty breathtaking, to be honest. Pretty unexpected considering all that Jacob’s been through.

The Lord says, “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… 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.”

A few things to note here. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jacob doesn’t travel up the staircase to meet God. God comes down. It’s a pattern we see in scripture repeatedly— especially in the person of Jesus: God coming to our level, coming alongside us. Condescending to us. God with us. But also notice that there’s no shame in what Yahweh says. There’s no chastising. It’s simply blessing all the way down.

It’s a blessing in which God reiterates promises made to Jacob’s ancestors but then expands on the promise to include Jacob and his descendants. And what’s more, God promises to be with Jacob as he goes — which is all the more amazing considering that Jacob is still on the run. Jacob can’t return to where he’s been. Jacob’s future is wildly uncertain. And yet, God promises to go with him.

This is no small thing.

I want you to notice what happens when Jacob finally takes a minute to breathe — to stop running — finally allows himself to exhale. What happens? God shows up. Our hope each week is that this space offers that same opportunity for you—the chance to take a collective deep breath. Our lives and calendars are so full. There’s so much. The urgent overtakes the important, and a life with God might become the furthest thing from your mind. But as I’ve said each week, this is, in particular, what Camp Local has been about — creating that much-needed vital space for renewal and reconnection and beauty.

And what Jacob realizes when he opens his eyes is that God has been there the whole time. Here’s what he says:

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!

Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it. When he rises the following day, the stone that had been Jacob’s pillow becomes a pillar — a monument. He pours oil on it as a form of blessing and renames the place Bethel, or the House of the Lord.

Here’s the thing: In an instant, this ordinary place became extraordinary. Transformed. The same is true for Jacob, who awakens anew to this reality that has been there the whole time. He’s transformed. And as a result of this transformation, Jacob can’t go back home. But he can move forward — taking with him the promise that God will not leave him and that God’s presence goes with him, too.

This moment is a much-needed recalibration as Jacob prepares to move forward into an unknown future. And it’s also one that we need.

Each week as part of this Camp Local series, we’ve had a theme. I mentioned Space Week earlier. Two weeks ago was Unplugged Week. Last Sunday was Earth Week. And today is imago Dei week. Imago Dei is Latin for “image of God.” It also has its origins in the book of Genesis, describing how God creates human beings in God’s image. In other words, each and every human being is an image bearer. Each and every person is made in the imago Dei. And if we hold this to be true, it means that each and every person is brimming with sacred worth. It means that each and every person in the whole entire world has the divine fingerprints all over them.

Dr. King, as quoted by Episcopal bishop Michael Curry, put it like this:

The human being is of infinite worth and dignity not by vote of parliament or congress, not by edict of prince, potentate, prime minister, or president, but by the divine decree of God.

I love this. It implies that there is giftedness in another human being just by the mere fact that they exist. And when you’re at camp and have a mountaintop moment, and your hearts are full, of course everyone is made in the image of God! We know this.

But let’s get it out there. Let’s be honest. We, too, may assent to this on Sundays and believe with our whole hearts that this is true. But when the rubber meets the road during the week, it can be really tough to remember, right?

Maybe it’s the friend who blows you off or the politician who makes your blood boil. Maybe it’s the petty ex, a colleague who’s hard to work with, or a classmate who makes you feel small. There’s someone who’s come to mind for you. And for me. I get it.

But I think a lot about the Jewish rabbi Martin Buber’s I/It and I/Thou work. Have you heard about this? It’s game-changing. He held these up as two potential ways that we interact with the world. In other words, do we relate to another person as an “it” or as a “thou”?

Here’s what he means. As an object, as an it, with ourselves in the center, the other is easily stereotyped. Easily ignored. Easily written off. Or worse — dehumanized to the point of significant harm. But alternatively, if we relate to another as a “you” — a human being worthy of love, there’s the potential for relationship, commonality, giftedness, and transformation. There’s beauty and particularly and diversity, breath, and life, and possibility. An I/It orientation dehumanizes, but an I/Thou orientation acknowledges the image of God in the other.

And maybe you’re wondering — even them? I often come back to a verse in Ephesians in which Paul writes, “for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

In other words, our issue isn’t with other human beings. They’re made in God’s image. Just as you are. Instead, this verse allows us to separate the individual from their actions. It creates space for compassion. Our struggle is with that which holds them — and all of us — captive. Those forces at work in the world that whisper lies, fog our memories, magnify our inner critic, and catch us up in cycles of retribution and violence — whether physical or otherwise. Those forces that isolate and divide us from one another — that cause us to dehumanize and shroud the image of God in another. That’s what our struggle is against. Not the other person.

I feel it, too. The struggle is real. This is an incredibly inconvenient truth — that some people are really challenging to love for any number of reasons, and yet, they are made in God’s image. And just when we want to write them off, Jesus comes and kills our vibe and asks us to love. I would want someone to do the same for me.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you have to be deferential or submissive — a doormat to be walked on. It doesn’t mean you have to loosen your boundaries and open yourself up to harm. That’s not at all what I’m saying. But instead, it’s an invitation to be open to the possibility that God is still in this place — even this place and even this person — and we did not know it. That’s the scandal of love. The scandal of imago Dei.

And the thing is, when we recognize that each person is made in the image of God, that means that each person carries a piece of the divine with them and reflects it back to us — if only we’d have eyes to see it. And then we start to realize that each pair of eyes staring back at us has something to teach us about the nature and being and character of God. Something to teach us about God’s love. About God’s beauty. About God’s hospitality. About God’s justice. About God’s heart and desire and activity.

This is why this matters — perhaps now more than ever- because this can change our relationships, outlook, workplaces, schools, and world. What if this was our default posture?

That’s what makes following Jesus so hard, but it’s what makes this time together each week so vital. Because, by God’s grace, this is where we learn to do just that — to settle in for a little and close our eyes and let God come to us. This is where we’re recalibrated. This is where we get to practice the countercultural way of love — even and especially when we’re least expecting it.

Mom and Dad are coming soon to pick us up. We can’t stay here forever. The memories from camp may linger for a bit and then fade — especially as we settle in anew to the daily grind. Our patience will be tried. We’ll lose our cool. Like Jacob, we’ll run and run and run.

But we can’t go back. We can only go forward. And the question for you, for me, for each of us to carry: Could God be present even in this place, even in this person — and we did not know it?