Last week I came early to set up our worship space. It was quiet, completely still in this empty room. But in those early moments it became a place, our place, setting the table for you and for God.
Setting up and taking down are two of the rituals I love about this church, and I’m grateful when I get to participate in them, to invite the possibility of holy space.
We hear a lot about holy places in the Christian tradition. An archaeologist once told me that in Israel and Palestine, holy sites of from the Bible are like shells that gather more and more barnacles over time. An event occurs and others gather to mark the place, adding more and more things, leaving their mementos, pilgrims marking the place where God came down. Sometimes a town crops up, or a cathedral, or a marker. It grows and grows, all the while, at the center, keeping this kernel of holy happening.
Some holy places are like that. They stick around, are named and adored, visited and honored. Other holy places rise up and disappear. But they are all holy because God shows up, not always marked by history but by a people, by us. That’s what I love about this space. It’s holy because you make it holy, your singing and Communion, the bread crumbs on the floor, the tears and the anger, expected and unexpected goodbyes. Setting the space doesn’t make it holy. It becomes holy because God shows up here.
Sometimes we expect God to show up, inviting God’s presence. And other times we’re surprised, even afraid, because God doesn’t show up where think God should. The story we heard today is about an unexpected encounter with God. In Genesis 28 we hear that Jacob “came to a place.” That is a rather blasé translation. To get at what happens here, as Jacob moves between places, traveling on his way from Beer-Sheba towards Haran, is that Jacob collided with a place. He slammed into it. The rabbis say that he was caught off guard by the coming night, that God turned up the clock and caused the sun set early. It was a place that overtook him.
In rabbinic Hebrew, the words “place” and “God” are the same. And when the rabbis hear this story they determine that this reminds us that there is no place without God, that all places where God appears are holy places.
But that isn’t the only story in the Old Testament about places and holiness, the story of surprise, of God finding us unexpectedly. And the story of much of the church is the temptation to bring about and control holiness, to expect that we can call down holiness, or that places are marked by our naming them, because we are God’s chosen people. The aftermath is catastrophic.
We are sitting here today, here on the land of of the Sappony and Cherokee, the Lumbee and the Coharie, because of the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine is the spiritual and theological underpinning for the conquering of what we now calls the Americas. We find the logic of European conquering in papal bulls like “The Legal Battle and Spiritual War against the Native People,” published in 1493. In it Alexander VI writes, “Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
His administration goes on to describe how the lands on which we meet today are “empty lands,” lands without inhabitants. The indigenous peoples who live here are merely occupants of God’s lands. The native peoples have not cultivated and harnessed and exploited with the type of precision of the European elite. They haven’t taken advantage of God’s good gift.
As such, non-Christians had no rights to this land. Whatever lands were “discovered” by European explorers were their lands to conquer, lands ready to be taken by them. The cost, as we now know, were the lives of millions of native women, men, and children who were murdered and displaced, their cultures eradicated, generations of trauma that echo to the present. The next 500 years of policies that remove indigenous people from their lands, that gave legal advantage to settlers, begins here, with the Doctrine of Discovery.
And the theological claim undergirding all of this is that a holy people are called to lay claim to holy lands, lands marked and waiting for our arrival, waiting to be taken up by the blessed. The land itself is blessed, holds within it a holiness that is for us, God’s chosen.
The European colonists saw the Old Testament justifying this claim, from Abram to Isaac to Jacob to Joshua. God’s people, called out of nothingness for the purpose of taking hold of the land promised to them, a land where Canaanites dwelled, and there to establish themselves. God’s people, many of the stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua explain, would displace these peoples, erase them from history.
They want to possess holy space. It should come as no surprise. It’s a very human thing to do. We mark space to mark time. But we also want to secure space, to secure the spaces where God has made God’s self known.
Maybe if we do that, mark and claim holy space, maybe God will stay where God is. In the Genesis story Jacob’s reaction to meeting God here in the dark is fear. “He feared, and said, ‘how fearful is this place.’” Jacob comes to discover that we’re always exposed to God, that God could show up at any time, in any place – in the night, asleep, not in the place you are from or the place you are going, but here in the middle, here at your most vulnerable. God can find you here.
And if you set up a place, a permanent place, set down a rock, give it a name, a name like Bethel – if you do this then you’ll know where to find God, when you decide you want God to show up. And you’ll be free to spend the rest of your life free from God.
Jacob realizes God will not be controlled, that the sky can part and the curtain between the heavens and earth ripped in two. And he’s filled with fear. God can show up anywhere, when you least expect it, when you aren’t ready.
Are we ready for that? Ready for a God who shows up in all the spaces of our life? Do we trust this God to love us, provide for us, to be for us no matter how deeply we have wronged another, despite our apathy or our shame or our fear? Do we trust that God is showing up to be for us, for the world, to be good news?
That hasn’t been the case for those who settled the land where we worship today. As I think about what that means for us, for the ways of colonists have marked these lands as holy, I feel anxious bringing up a past we cannot alter. Guilt about the past has the power to make it impossible for us to move forward. We find ourselves paralyzed by shame.
But reckoning with our past, seeing how our Scriptures have been used for both devastation and for blessing – this can help us to live differently into the future, to help us embody practices, policies, and habits that rechannel our desires to control God. The Bible is always a story of humans making sense of God’s redemptive action in the world while at the same time wrestling with our desire to control God, to make God do our bidding, to make God into our image.
Friends, God is not a magic trick. God will not be conjured for our protection or our victory. Jacob learns this on the way, interrupted on his journey, in the in-between place. He learns that God shows up in the dark, at our most vulnerable, when least expected.
As time went by, the Hebrews grew more insistent upon God’s meditating place-based presence. This place, Bethel, the place Jacob names as the place where God meets him along the way – it becomes a place of security, a place of calling down God and reassuring God’s people of their chosenness. And, as people do, they utilize this chosenness not to be a blessing to all nations but instead for destruction, oppression, and fear.
Centuries later the words of the prophet Amos will ring out across the land:
Seek me and live;
but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beer-sheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nothing.
Over and over the prophet’s words burn: Seek the Lord. Seek good and not evil. The chosenness of Israel is the gift of a loving God, and the holy places of Gilgal and Bethel have instead become idols of assurance, a way to claim that God tolerates the rich preying on the poor. Amos’ words burn:
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
Places are holy because God shows up there. This place is holy because you are here, your lives an invitation for God to be present. We know God has met us here before. We set up these chairs, lay bread on the table, light the candles as an invitation. God has met us here before. Perhaps God will meet us here again.
On Thursday Craig, Kathy, and I packed a car with balloons, soda, shampoo bottles, coloring books, and a giant purple cake, many of those gifts provided by you over the past couple weeks. We drove two miles south to the women’s correctional facility where we hosted a party for twenty of the incarcerated women who had birthdays in July.
As we went around the room to introduce everyone, we asked each person about her favorite birthday memory. Many of the women couldn’t remember a celebration just for them, or recalled bittersweet memories of the birth of a child from whom they are now separated.
We went on to singing happy birthday, eating cake and chips, several rounds of Bingo. We laughed and talked, refilled cups, all under the watchful eye of two correction officers.
At the end, we formed a circle. “Would it be all right if we held hands?” one of the women asked. We gathered one another up. Around the circle we said our wish, remembering when we were little and we made a wish blowing out the candles of our cake.
“I want to celebrate my next birthday anywhere but here.” “I hope no one else in my family dies before I get out.” “I want to be a good mother, to go home to my children.” “I want to be able to be grandmother again.” “I want to be somewhere else.” “I wish to be brave here.”
Wishes likes a prayer, the sky opening up, our hands holding on to one another. And just like that God showed up in the hot, fly-ridden cafeteria of a women’s prison. We slammed into a holy place.
We marked the place not with a stone but with words. Looking into each woman’s eyes in turn I said one of our ancient blessings, a blessing often said when we discover a holy place: the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“Do not go to Bethel,” Amos says. Holiness marks the land, unexpectedly, without warning. The land is holy because God shows up, because the sky parts, for a moment a ladder connects earth and sky, land below and heaven above, because at any moment and in any place God finds us where we are, in times of desperation, in times of peace, here to bless us, to be good news for the entire world.