July 17, 2011
Heppner United Methodist Church, Heppner, OR
John 4: 20-24
Genesis 28: 10-19a
It’s always interesting when Scripture give us two seemingly-contradictory messages. There are people who are really bothered by these sorts of things – I’m not. There are others who, on the other hand, pretend like things like this never happen, that they cannot happen – I don’t.
A lot of that has to do with how we, as 21st Century Americans, tend to read scripture. Becoming aware of this and some other approaches will make it a lot easier to talk about and understand the progression, the glacially-slow shift in the ideas of God and place between the world of Jacob, the world of Jesus, and the world we live in today.
The world in which everyone in this sanctuary lives is defined by several things, one of which is the fact that we are all Americans. As such, we believe in certain things, and have common approaches to certain things. We revere our history, particularly our Constitution. We all learned the same things about it in school: it is the supreme law of our land, it is our plan for government, there are checks and balances, and it provides the means to address legal conflicts, specifically our courts. If we have a constitutional conflict, it is the courts, often the U.S. Supreme Court, that give us a solution.
Flawed as we know it is, we still believe deeply in this arrangement. This belief – and a wider faith in the rule of law – helps define us as Americans. And, because we can’t really turn off being an American with a light switch, we apply this approach to other things. Many American Christians treat the Bible like the Constitution. This seems to make at least some sense: we have the Torah, which is the Law. Part of this is the Ten Commandments, a list of prohibitions. In the New Testament, Jesus instructs His disciples and the people, on things to do and not to do. This is easy for us to understand. We get this.
This legal approach runs into difficulty, however, when we consider two passages, separated by several centuries, that – let’s face it – say two contradictory things. The legalist, the literalist would protest this. “God does not change!” the legalist would likely say.
And the legalist would be right: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What is left unconsidered, though, is that God’s people do change. The Bronze Age clan-based society of Jacob looks nothing like the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time, which is different still from the constitutional democracy of today. We are different, and because we are different, what God is doing with us – how God is working in the world – is different.
This realization impacts what Scripture means. First, it is relational. It exists for our benefit, not God’s, and it is about the relationship between God and God’s people. Because the second party in that relationship changes, the relationship itself changes. Scripture reflects that; therefore it is also historical. It preserves what was in order to illuminate what is and what could be.
With that in mind, we can piece together how the idea of place has been treated in the 2,500 or so years since Jacob beheld the ladder.
God had promised to make a nation of Jacob, as God had with his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. In fact, Jacob’s name would one day be changed to Israel. God further promised to bring that nation back to the land in which Jacob was lying and dreaming. Jacob awoke and proclaimed the place holy, calling it Beth El, the House of God. It was what modern folk familiar with Celtic spirituality might call a “thin place,” where the barrier between earth and heaven is, well, thin. More on that later.
In a world of tribal societies, territory was important. Having the tribal deity live in a particular tribe’s land – be they Hebrews, Hittites, or Aztecs – underscored that importance. From the Hebrew’s Beth El to the Israelites tent of meeting and Mt. Sinai to the Jews’ Temples in Jerusalem, place remained important to God’s chosen people.
This last development of their culture, though, started to cause problems. When the northern kingdom of Israel split from Judah, Israel’s King Jeroboam set up two high places so that his people would not feel the need to go to Jerusalem in Judah. Place is now, in modern parlance, a political football. As both kingdoms sank into iniquity, high places proliferated, as did idolatry. Prophets saw this, and began to decry both the worship of false gods in these high places as well as the making into a false god of these places, even the temple. The more apocalyptic of the prophets foretold of their destruction, even the temple.
The Samaritan woman, a woman of this northern kingdom, brought up this problem in her conversation with Jesus to steer it away from the uncomfortable subject of her many husbands. However, Jesus uses it to state that place in worship will be done away with in favor of worship done in spirit and truth. The real temple is in the spirit, the heart of the worshiper.
He wasn’t very ambiguous about this. He used simple words and relatively short declarative sentences. It should have been pretty clear. Nevertheless, after a few hundred years, those calling themselves followers of Christ were making places important again. A good deal of it was for political reasons not unlike those of Jeroboam: control of a place deemed holy meant power, and all human organizations seek power. Much of it, though, was a more innocent way to set apart places from a world that was seen as evil. These were monasteries and convents, which we still have today, along with retreat houses and church camps.
As this point I must declare that nobody loves Wallowa Lake Camp more than I do. I would live there if I could. But as beautiful as God’s creation is there and at Suttle Lake or Magruder or Camp Elkanah, it is not the place that brings one closer to God. It is not the place that is thin.
The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, and Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a retreat center in Texas. He wrote the following:
“If you want to use the thin place metaphor, then you might want to say that the purpose of thin places is to help us realize that all places can be thin. Or, better yet, perhaps the purpose of a thin place is to train us to make the other places in our lives thinner. Moreover, when we realize that the Spirit of God dwells within us, we will come to believe that we are called to be thin places, as God makes his presence known through us.”
The idea of “thin places” implies that there are other places – let’s call them “thick” – in which God’s presence is not evident. They are less attractive than Wallowa Lake. They might be factories, insurance agents’ offices, or the cab of a combine. They might be schools, rail yards, or saw mills. Mundane places. Or disturbing places like battlefields, refugee camps, or places where illegal activities take place.
It is in those places where God seems to be absent that we are called to make God evident. It is in those places where the least of our brothers and sisters are made the smallest that we are called to lift them up. It is in those flavorless, dark places that we are called to be salt and light. It is in those thick places that we are called to be thin.