Sermon: Where in the World is God?
Texts: Genesis 28:1-17; Exodus 25:8; Psalm 19:1-4; 1 Corinthians 6:19
Date: June 16, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
1. Where in the world is God? That’s the question we’re going to be exploring during these summer months. I have the pleasure of trying to set the stage for our series with some of my experiences and some pictures we have taken over the years. A grand and perfectly lovely view like this one (at a lake in B.C.) reminds us that the God who leads us beside still waters and fills our hearts to overflowing with wonder and love is everywhere in the universe, all at once. Yet we aren’t always conscious of God’s presence, God’s nearness.
2. Our consciousness of the nearness of God, the “whereness” of God is intermittent for most of us ordinary mortals. God often feels hidden from view in our cloudy consciousness, socked in by our everyday concerns like getting to work, managing our health, bringing up the kids, forming the agenda, doing the laundry. We might go for hours or days at time without giving the Creator a thought, so clouded are we by the mechanics of daily life. I drove up to Mount Baker on a summer’s day hoping to see that grand mountain but didn’t get a glimpse—it was totally socked in. I got this peekaboo view of another mountain nearby, reminding me how God- consciousness rises up intermittently as our cloudy thoughts give way to insight and inspiration from time to time.
3. There are those moments, though, when God gets our attention through a spectacular sight or revelation. For instance, seeing a whale in the wild plunges even the most cynical person into awe and wonder. Those of us with spiritual mindsets are apt to sing praises and give thanks to our wonderful Creator at such elevated moments.
4. It doesn’t have to be a grand, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It might be just a moment of extraordinary focus, grateful attention on an everyday wonder—something like the exquisite coloration of a butterfly—that clears the clouds from consciousness and moves us to offer God our thanks and praise.
5. I chose the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder stretching up to heaven filled with angels ascending and descending as a text this morning because of what he says when he wakes from his dream: Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” [Genesis 28:16-17]. I tagged this as the focus text for the whole series, since it expresses that moment of awe, that awakening to God’s presence, so beautifully. As the story continues, we learn that Jacob set up an altar to mark the place on the land where he had this extraordinary vision. Maybe his stone cairn looked something like this one on the Norwegian tundra.
6. Humans like to leave markers on the earth to testify to their understanding that
they are in the house of God, the place where earth and heaven meet, so to speak. If you have eyes to see as you travel, you notice that many landscapes are sprinkled with signs and symbols of spirituality marking special places. Some of the markers are meant to be long-lasting, like this celtic cross in Ireland.
7. Other markers are short-lived, like this carpet laid down for a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. The Christians there spend hour upon hour designing “carpets” over which faithful folk carrying statues of Jesus or Mary will pass in solemn processions, destroying the artwork in the process. This act of devotion speaks to me of trying to mirror God’s creativity and attention to beauty, color, design, meticulousness—all while acknowledging that things pass away. Although there was no lasting evidence of the people’s piety in the streets after the street-sweepers pass, the tradition and the memory leave a mark.
7. Some markers are meant to remind ourselves to pay attention to God’s presence every day, amongst our everyday things–like this little Marian shrine in Europe, whose makers, methinks, must have been fisherfolk.
8. Other markers we humans leave on the landscape are places for the faithful to gather for prayer and worship. This amazing stone chapel in Ireland is over 1000 years old and is so masterfully crafted that it is watertight after all these years, without any mortar. A place like this that has sheltered faithful folk for many generations inspires me—surely God is in this place!
9. This stone cathedral in Italy is masterfully crafted as well, on a different scale. Varieties of marble adorn this cathedral inside and out; it’s an awesome collaboration of the artistry of Creator and creatures. The floor inside is covered with mosaics depicting Bible stories and the history of the people who built the cathedral. Exodus 25:8 recalls Yahweh telling the Israelites to “build me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.” We can’t “house” God exactly, but we can symbolize our intention to dwell with God and invite God to dwell with us (and within us) with the very best materials and talents we have to offer.
10. Our family has visited gozillion churches and temples in our travels, at my request/insistence. Here I am going into a stave church in Norway. I can’t say I have a “religious” experience in every house of worship, but I am always curious about how faith and culture come together in worship spaces around the world. Imagining the communion of saints—living and dead—that gather in such places heartens me. In the houses of worship where congregations still meet, there is much to learn from snooping around bulletin boards and newsletters about how faith communities are meeting needs in their towns.
11. At their finest, a house of worship—whether plain or fancy—reminds us that God is gazing at us with love, and the structure draws the eyes of our hearts up to gaze back at God, lost in wonder, love and praise. I like the way the dome of this church looks like an eye. The paintings are of Bible stories and stories of the saints, visual storybooks prompting our reflections on how we are all part of God’s story.
12. One house of worship that was a place where heaven and earth met for me was the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, Spain—La Sagrada Familia. I had read about how many years it took to construct all the grand cathedrals we had visited in Europe, but I had not been in one that was still being built before, with its completion not anticipated for decades. The finished parts are breathtaking in their artistry, bringing a contemporary flair to old, old stories being depicted. Gorgeous. But it was something about the open ceiling that set my heart really singing that day. I can’t say exactly why—many spiritual experiences are hard to wrap words around. It was something about how religious life builds structures in our imaginations and in the ways we spend our time and energies, but the purpose is to open ourselves to the infinite Light of the World God shines into our existence. Surely God was in this place!
13. We don’t need human-constructed houses of worship at all, of course, to meet God where God dwells. Specifically religious spaces might remind us of God’s presence, or we might see through them to catch a glimpse of the Creator. But houses of worship, shrines and human markers are far from the only places we draw near to God as we roam around the earth.
14. There are those beautiful vistas or sounds or aromas or tastes that tumble us into awe without warning. Mountains often do it for me! As Psalm 19:1-4 says, “God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren’t heard,
their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” [The Message]
15. Unspoken truth: perfection in every loving detail of the web of life. Time out for Hafiz (Sufi) poetry:
How / Did the rose /Ever open its heart / And give to this world /All its /Beauty? / It felt the encouragement of light / Against its /Being, /Otherwise, /We all remain /Too /Frightened.
16. We bring faith, our stories to the places we visit, and on occasion the stories we carry and the places we inhabit come together. We see a place through the lens of a story or a memory, and it’s like looking into another dimension. That happened for me, memorably, at Giant Springs, a huge fresh water spring that feeds the Missouri River near Great Falls, Montana. It’s a beautiful sight regardless of what you bring to it.
17. One time I went there and the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well and teaching her about Living Water flooded my soul. There are emerald green plants growing in the spring that bubbles and flows endlessly. While I looked at this marvelous place, the promise Jesus made in John 4—“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”—came true for me. I felt Living Water springing up in my soul. It was such a blessing. Surely God was in this place!
18. Surely God is in the heartbreaking and ugly places in the world as well. Mother Theresa was said to pray daily, “O God, I pray that you break my heart so wide open that the whole world falls in.” Another way we can share our stories about where in the world we have found God is in those places that our hearts have broken open and compassion has grown—like this wall of separation outside Bethlehem. It’s an ugly wall, a symbol of distrust and alienation. You can see that people are adding their artwork, graffiti and political commentary to the wall, which stretches for miles.
19. The man in the black jacket pictured here with his granddaughter is named Sami. He lives in Occupied Territory next door to an Israeli settlement. He grows fruit and olives on his farm, which has been in his family for generations. My travel group was there to hear his story and plant some new trees. Neighbors who live in the illegal Israeli settlement abutting his property want him to clear out; some ruffians came over the fence under cover of darkness and poisoned a bunch of his trees. The government won’t give him a permit to repair or add onto his house so his children and grandchildren can join him on the farm. If he works on the small house without a permit, a bulldozer will come and knock the house down altogether. Sami’s story (and others) broke my heart open for the Palestinians living in oppressive circumstances.
20. We meet God in our fellow humans, who are “temples of the Holy Spirit,” as 1 Corinthians puts it. Whether the people we meet are in the middle of a joyful story or a tragic one, we often meet God looking into the face of another person. This is especially true where people are kind to us, as this unknown angel was, cheerfully posing for pictures outside a cathedral. Speaking of angels, there are important stories in our Scriptures about entertaining angels when hospitality is shown to strangers we meet. There’s nothing like generosity to erase barriers between people, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of a generous act. Where generosity prevails, the human temples of the Holy Spirit light up.
21. “How awesome is this place!” Jacob said as he was given a vision of the house of God, the gate of heaven. How awesome is THIS place?! This is just up the road from my home during last winter’s epic snow. The glow down the street drew me into musing about journeying toward the light wherever we find ourselves. You don’t have to leave home to find an awesome place, because God is here on the street where you live.
22. God said to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” [Genesis 28:15a] That’s a promise for all of us. Our charge, our invitation, is to open the eyes of our hearts and notice. And to give thanks. This picture comes from a springtime game I was playing in a botanical garden last year, where I picked up some camellia petals and laid heart shapes on various backdrops. My little game helped me see again how signs of our Creator’s great love are scattered all around this blessed world. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
23. And—in the immortal words of Dorothy Gale—there’s no place like home. Surely God is in this place! Amen.