Monday, July 21, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2008

This is the text I wrote out before preaching it -- I don't preach from a manuscript or from notes, and the sermon was more fleshed out than it is here. The text for the sermon was the first reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Genesis 28:10 - 19.
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Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place – this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

I love visiting churches, when there is no service in progress, just to experience the architecture. One of my favorite churches is St. Bartholomew’s in New York. The main church is grand and majestic and truly awe-inspiring. It is especially nice to visit when the organist is practicing, to hear the space fill with glorious music. There is also a beautiful little stone chapel off the chancel containing the font and an altar with a stone carving of the Last Supper, in which I love to pray. For those who prefer a simpler setting, there is a long hallway off to the side, with clear windows, a simple altar, and chairs for meditation. Rounding out the chapels are a large chapel where most of the weekday services are held – they have a full round of Morning and Evening Prayer and Eucharist each day – and a downstairs crypt chapel with a columbarium containing ashes of departed parishioners.

Of course, one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit expressed in art is the Gothic cathedral. These soaring edifices, truly “sermons in stone”, are a testament to the transcendence, majesty, and glory of God. But there are also many simple country churches in which, when one walks in, one can almost tangibly feel the prayers that have been offered through the years.

We Independent Catholics don’t have the opportunity to build grand edifices, or in most cases, even to have a space to call our own, and so we meet in homes or rented spaces such as this. (Many of us establish chapels or prayer corners in our own homes, of course, and these are one of the great things about our movement.) But we meet, create our own sanctuaries, and worship as the church nonetheless, not being bound by the space or the lack of it.

In today’s first reading from Genesis, Jacob is on the run. He and his twin brother Esau never got along from the moment of their birth – in fact, Jacob was fighting with Esau to see who could get out of the womb first, and although Esau won that competition, Jacob had his heel in his hand when he came out. Esau was the favorite of his father Isaac, and Jacob of his mother Rebekah. Jacob bought Esau’s birthright as the firstborn with a bowl of lentil stew, and he and his mother conspired to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the better blessing by having Jacob pretend to be Esau. Esau threatened to kill Jacob after their father died, and their mother sent Jacob to stay with relatives for awhile to be safe (and find a suitable wife).

But as scared, and as demoralized as Jacob must have felt – and as rootless as he was, fleeing from the place he had lived his entire life to a place he had never been – it was at the place he camped out for the night on his journey that God chose to appear to him. God appeared in the dream, showing Jacob a ladder with angels ascending and descending from earth to heaven and back again. And his response was to say, “How awesome is this place – this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”. He took a stone and made a pillar to commemorate this profound encounter with God – the first time we are told in scripture that God talked to Jacob. He named the place “Bethel”, which means “House of God” in Hebrew.

Jacob schemed, from birth, to get the things he needed by tricking his brother – and he ended up on the run, alone and scared. It was only when he got to that place, where his own efforts had failed him and he had no other resources, that God appeared and promised him great blessings. It was in this place of loneliness and fear that God was able to establish the House of God – the Gate of Heaven.

And so it is with us. We scheme, we struggle, we strive – and our own efforts, which may get us material wealth, social prestige, intellectual achievement – or not – cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger. As Augustine said, in the Confessions, in his famous prayer, “God, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” But God comes to us, in our greatest hour of need, and puts down a ladder between our temporary sojourn, and heaven, and builds for us the House of God, and opens the Gate of Heaven. We may not even always be aware of the presence of the Lord – “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” But when we look back, we see the evidence of God’s presence.

So let us allow God to build within us the House of God, the Gate of Heaven, knowing that, as the hymn says, “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head, the cornerstone.”

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place – this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

Saturday, July 05, 2008