A Sermon Preached by The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
At St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
July 17, 2011
Proper 11, Year A
Just before Jude turned a year old, Erin took a mother-daughter trip over a weekend to Sedona. When she returned, as a way of showing her gratitude for my heroic solo parenting, she brought me a small stack of rocks. Ok, so I’m not doing it justice. Erin knows me to be a fan of hiking. And, what’s more she knows that when I do hike, I am prone to find a quiet overlook, some unspoiled vista, to sit and think, very Thoreau-like, and that while I sit, I will often stack rocks into a hiker’s cairn. You know, like the one’s you see in office spaces on those inspirational posters – perfectly rounded stones, one stacked on top of the other. While Erin was in Sedona, she found a small cairn, composed by a local artist, out of pebbles from the native red stone, for which Arizona is known. Sedona, known to be a place that attracts mystics and seekers of all kinds has, Erin tells me, many of these cairns stacked in and around the desert, to mark particular and significant places, spots that seem to tingle with a special energy or a sense of a divine presence – what the Celts might call thin spaces, and what Christians and Jews might call holy ground.
The cairn Erin gave me now sits on a shelf near enough to Jude’s crib to be seen when I tuck him in at night (but, far enough out of reach so as to not be a choking hazard). I can’t think of many other places in our house, or anywhere really, where I sense the presence of God most clearly as when I peer into is crib at night and watch him sleeping. It still seems like a miracle, even after two years, that he’s there, chest rising and falling, right in front of me. How could it be, this life, this being, this crazy bundle of energy and passion and curiosity? I stare into the crib, and each time I find myself thinking. Here! Here! God is here! There is no other way to explain this life, this gift, this miracle, than to acknowledge that God is here.
Perhaps not quite as dramatic as the experience of Jacob in this morning’s scripture lessons, but, I have to say I understand Jacob’s exuberant reaction when he realizes what his encounter means. And, I recognized my own reaction to that holy encounter in his shouts – “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it!” he cries out, and then, for good measure he adds, “How awesome is this place!”
How awesome is this place. How amazing that here, a place no less ordinary than there or there or just over there, but right here, I sensed the overwhelming and powerful presence of the living God!
And, I love what Jacob does next. At the end of the lesson he takes the stone, which had been his pillow the night before and sets it up as a pillar, a signpost and a marker to remind himself and others of the significance of this place.
It’s not an altogether unusual thing to do, to place a rock or a stack rocks to mark a point of significance. Jacob and I and probably you too fall right in line with people from across history who have set up stones, signs of imperishability and permanence, as a way to capture the import of an event or an accomplishment, to mark a significant battle, commemorate a person’s life, to remind passersby of an important decision. We set up stones for all manner of special moments and people.
You might even say that where we sit today, under this roof and in these pews, is just such a spot where stones have been stacked to mark something special. We don’t usually like to think of our houses of worship as more than a pile of rocks, but, in a manner of speaking that’s what they are – rocks piled and stacked and erected just so, to mark a special place and a significant event. You could say perhaps that churches are more elaborate piles of rocks than most. When I brought my three nephews by to see my new office, the 3 year old exclaimed at the first site of our steeple “Wow! Do you work in a castle?!”
At St. John’s I would be willing to guess that we think of this space as particularly important and significant. We might even be willing to say that here, yes, right here, we somehow sense and experience the presence of God as nearer and truer than other places in our lives, and so we not only come back to this pile of rocks week after week, and month after month, and year after year, but we take good care of the pile too, making sure that no rock gets too worn out or out of place. Which reminds me, you may have noticed the scaffolding as you came in, on the Kent Street side of our church, which means we are preparing to fix those stones that have worn out on our beautiful roof.
And, we take good care of these rocks and stones not only because we sense God most clearly and nearly here, but also because we are aware that God is ever and always appearing in our midst – that our path and God’s are forever crossing, and St. John’s reminds us of that. Yes, God has acted here, which means God can act out there too, anywhere, at any time. We set up stones not just because God was in this place but to remind us to watch for him in other places.
The Psalmist says this morning:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
God is always showing up in ordinary and unlikely places. Moses was minding his business tending his sheep when that bush burst into flame. The shepherds were trying to stay awake in that field when the heavenly hosts descended upon them declaring a savior had been born. The disciples were grieving their way down the road to Emmaus when that same savior appeared in their midst and talked with them. God shows up! That’s part of the story, but not the whole of it. The other part is that after God shows up, the world is never the same again.
We are never the same again!
Moses goes from his flock to lead his people to freedom. The shepherds are tasked with spreading the good news of the Messiah’s birth. And, the disciples, when Jesus disappears from their midst they look at one another and exclaim how their hearts, their very hearts, burned within them. Liberation. Proclamation. Burning hearts! When God shows up, we are never left the same as before.
Even Jacob, scoundrel that he was, having robbed his brother’s birthright and on the run for his life after his extraordinary encounter on a fairly ordinary hill, finds that his life is somehow caught up in God’s saving plan for the world, that through him, God’s promises will somehow come to fulfillment. God shows up, and plain old ordinary Jacob is set on a path to become a blessing to the whole world! You’d want to set up some rocks too.
I love that in the verses that directly follow the ones we heard this morning, in verse 20 and 21, Jacob makes a mighty big pledge and promises to be faithful to God. The boy on the run, the hoodlum on the lam encounters God, and is so shaken, so moved, that he gives his life over to God. Encounter and transformation.
And, so, we need to remind ourselves to keep an eye out for God, the one who promises to be with us wherever we go is forever crashing into our lives, and we are never the same. We stack rocks. We set up markers. We remember and we watch.
This morning you may have noticed a literal pile of rocks set up in the narthex as you entered. As you leave today, I invite you to take one, or a handful, and find some place this week where you have sensed the presence of God near at hand, where you have encountered the love of God in a gesture of kindness or a shared meal. Keep an eye out for where God already has or will show up in your life, and I invite you to leave your rock or stack of rocks there. Chances are it will be a fairly ordinary spot like your dining room or a city sidewalk or a friend’s back yard. Then, as you pass it by, just like when you drive down Summit and see St. John’s steeple rising above the trees, be reminded that God has acted in your life and you were never the same.