What makes a place holy? And once designated, will it always remain touched by the Divine, if not considered a “house of God”?
A few years ago the Roman Catholic diocese of Orange County, California (representing some 1.2 million Catholics), bought the bankrupt Crystal Cathedral to transform it eventually into Christ Cathedral. Apparently the $50+ million purchase price combined with more than $100 million renovation costs represented a bargain compared to starting a major building project from scratch. What was left of Evangelist Robert Schuller’s congregation (you may remember him from his TV show “Hour of Power”) moved out to another, much smaller location. That move was punctuated by numerous Schuller family leadership struggles (the founder and his wife have since died, leaving a daughter as pastor; son Robert Schuller Jr. pastors his own church in Southern California). That story makes for an intriguing tale on its own, but that’s not my purpose here.
The departed congregation is affiliated with the conservative Protestant denomination, the Reformed Church in America, although a visitor to their Web site would be rather hard-pressed to discover that information). In any event, the Dutch Reformed denomination is certainly a long stretch from Roman Catholicism. Anyway, this leads us to today’s operative question: Does the act of building a church sanctuary or converting an existing one automatically mean that, in the words of Jacob in this week’s Genesis lectionary passage, “God is in this place”?
One of the reasons I love the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, if you prefer) is that it’s filled with less-than-perfect people interacting with God–almost always at God’s initiative. More than a few are actively running away, for one reason or another. Jacob certainly fits that characterization.
First of all, he’s a third-generation member of his family to experience a relationship with Yahweh. Typically, the child of the child of someone who’s had his or her life changed by an encounter with Divinity either drifts away from the family’s faith community or somehow develops a new and personal relationship. Grandma’s testimony (or Grandpa, for that matter) doesn’t travel well over generations.
But, of course, what Jacob is really well-known for is that he was a sneak, a liar, and a cheat. And did I mention a “momma’s boy”? Now, there’s nothing wrong with that last one, except in Jacob’s case, his mother, Rebekah, was a sneak, a liar, and a cheat, as well. By the time of this story in Genesis 28, Bible readers have already learned how Jacob had grasped his twin brother Esau’s heal coming out of the womb. And although Jacob failed in being born first (and all that meant in regard to inheritance), he and his mother connived to both steal Esau’s birthright inheritance for a bowl of food and garner father Isaac’s blessing to his “first-born son.”
None of that went down well in the rest of the family, unsurprisingly, so Rebekah cooked up an excuse for Jacob to run away, ostensibly to find a wife (or wives?) among her kinfolk hundreds of miles away. Keep in mind that Esau was not only much bigger and stronger, he was also a hunter. In any event, that’s where the story picks up.
Jacob ran as fast and as far as his feet would take him, until one night he lay down in the dust to get a good night’s sleep. He must have been exhausted because the writer of Genesis tells us Jacob used a big rock for a pillow. Although I’ve never actually used a rock as a pillow, I have on occasion slept on the ground while camping. So I can’t imagine he got much of a good night’s rest. We do know he had quite a dream: angels descending and ascending a ladder (more likely a ramp of some sort), connecting heaven and earth.
He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” –Genesis 28:11-15
The same promises given to his grandfather and father, which would find fulfillment in their eventual offspring, were given to Jacob, not just by an angel but by God! Up until this point in his life Jacob was not much of what we’d call a religious person, but even he recognized this was a pretty big deal.
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.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. –vv. 16-19
If this account were anyplace other than in the Hebrew Bible we’d might expect to find the story concluded with something like “And Jacob lived happily ever after as a holy man of God.” That, of course, is definitely not what happened. True, Jacob was a changed man, but he was still far from perfect. For some reason the Revised Common Lectionary does not include the final verses from chapter 28, but they’re certainly worth mentioning, though:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.” –vv. 20-22
Jacob didn’t make that spot holy. He hadn’t even been looking for God, but God was looking for him–and that’s what mattered most of all. In his own way Jacob was a living embodiment of the crop Matthew has Jesus talking about in this week’s parable: wheat mixed with weeds. Wait until harvest to try to separate the two, which any gardener or farmer will tell you is probably not the best advice. (I learned the hard way years ago that if weeds have the upper hand by mid-July, they’ll most likely win in the end. So pull those weeds early when they’re small, preferably right after a rain when they’ll be easier to remove from the ground.) But Jesus (and Matthew) aren’t offering a reliable guidebook for gardeners; they’re describing the “harvest” from God’s perspective.
Who’s to say which is the “good plant” and which is the “bad weed”? We Christians, sadly, have a long record of judging others. On the evidence in front of us it might well appear that Jacob was something of a “bad weed” himself. His long list of character flaws and deceit obviously put him in that category. Yet God pursued him. As Jacob put it, “Surely the Lord is in this place–and I didn’t know it! How awesome is this place?”
How awesome is it to find oneself in a holy place, especially after being pursued by God? All the church sanctuaries and cathedrals cannot begin to compare with being in a place where God shows up unexpectedly, unannounced, maybe even in disguise.
How awesome indeed!
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.</