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Here I Raise My Ebenezer

(For a Homecoming Service)


Old Testament Reading: Genesis 28:10-22

New Testament Reading: Mark 9:2-5

What is it that made Bethel sacred? Jacob says it was the axis mundi connecting heaven and earth. But why did he infer this? Simply that God appeared there--but what is another way of saying this? Jacob experienced God there. There is a subtle difference there, and I want to explore it in a moment.

To whom was this place sacred? Only Jacob? To all Israel, surely, or we wouldn't have this story in the Bible. How do you suppose anyone else ever heard it? It became the site of one of the major temples of the Northern Temples (1 Kings 12:16-29). And before then it had been a renowned center of pilgrimage. And of course it is not impossible that the Jacob story was a later explanation for the sacredness of the place, or one of several; cf. Genesis 12:8.

Protestants, as Weber said, have largely disenchanted the world. Catholic Medievalism had populated the world with angels, saints, and devils. Every day was holy, being the feast of some saintlet or other. Every occupation had a patron saint.  Every crossroads had a shrine.

Protestants rejected all this in the name of a growing rationalism. We felt that all space must be equally holy because God is omnipresent. He is no place more than another. And to think otherwise had patently bred superstitions of the most extravagant kind. Thus the Puritans would not celebrate Christmas, rejecting it as a concession to popish superstition. You didn't even get the day off in Puritan Massachusetts!

There is a tension here, since the very same Protestants wanted to be as Biblical as they could be, and the Bible as we have seen, surely assumes the reality of certain especially sacred places.

I do not think we can move from the insight that God is equally present to every inch of ground. Yet I do not think we can deny that certain places are especially sacred to us. How can we explain their peculiar holiness?

I think the answer must be psychological in nature. It must be that certain places are sacred because of the many layers of memory that linger there, memories of religious experiences. They need not even be our own experiences! All we need to know is that many have had their eyes opened to the ever present shadow of the Almighty as they stood here.

We hope, perhaps, to experience what they did when we go to a shrine, a cathedral, whatever. It opens us up to the divine. The divine is always there. But at certain places where others have been attuned to it the veil wears thin and we, too, put up the antenna. This is why many of us are attached to this building. It has been the locus for many spiritual challenges. I want to ask you to help me unlock some of those precious memories. I want to ask you to help enter into what I call a spirituality of memory. I

believe that if we revisit those experiences in memory, we will be attuning ourselves to receive more of the same.

In fact I can't help but think of that verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews where the writer says that in our spiritual struggle we are surrounded by an invisible cloud of witnesses, cheering us on. Who are those witnesses? For my purposes this morning, they are precisely the ghosts of our own spiritual experiences as members of this church family, whether past or present. As dwellers in this House of the Lord.

Some of you have not been here for some time, yet I cannot but believe that when you were here, there were revelations, appearances of the divine, that were connected with this place, with the religious life of this place.

It is not as if we could not relocate to another place and have the same experiences. To say otherwise would be mere sentimentalism, even superstition. But as part of this church family you have no doubt had spiritual moments you cherish, that continue to mean something to you.

I can remember particular moments of challenge, or victory, of the warmth of fellowship going back more than a dozen years. Farther than you might think, since for some years I was a member of a congregation that rented space here.

I can think of places, individual spots in this room, where I could in my mind raise up a monument as Samuel did, christened Eben-Ezer, the Stone of Help, inscribed "Hitherto hath the Lord Helped Us."                                           

Can you summon from hallowed memory any occasions like that? I ask you to do so right now. Will you share them with us now? Stand where you are or come up to the pulpit. If you will, then between us, I believe we can summon up the holy past, the shadows of Bethel, and the invisible God will stand revealed.




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