Where God lives – July 23, 2017
Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139 Where does God live? Do you have a place where you most reliably feel God’s presence? Perhaps you have a special holiday place… a cabin or cottage or condo. Maybe it’s your favourite coffee shop close to home or your favourite chair at home. It could be out in the wilderness away from so-called civilization or right here in church, perhaps through the experience of receiving holy communion. God can, of course, come to us in unexpected ways, in unexpected places or through unexpected people or experiences… if we’re open to receiving such a divine encounter. But most of us also have times or places where we know we are most likely to feel God’s presence. Where do you most reliably encounter God?
In our Old Testament readings today we hear two different experiences of the presence of God. First, in the Book of Genesis, we hear a story of an unexpected divine encounter. Our ancestor Jacob is in the middle of a journey. Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing from his brother Esau, making Esau so angry he was planning to kill him. At the urging of his mother, Jacob flees, and it is during his travels that he has the sacred experience we hear about today. He dreams about a ladder set up between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. In his ancient cosmology, the distance between earth and a literal heaven “up there,” is bridged such that God’s messengers freely move between. But unlike other stories, this time the messengers of God don’t bring God’s message. Instead, the Lord himself stands right beside Jacob to deliver a message of promise. Through this dream, Jacob experiences the divine presence so strongly that it lingers when he awakes, and he remarks: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” The Lord stood on the earth next to Jacob, and so the earth was hallowed: “How awesome is this place!” Jacob exclaims, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” And when dawn broke, Jacob marked the sacredness of the place by creating an altar.
The presence of God is experienced rather differently in our second Old Testament reading today from Psalm 139. Instead of being surprised and humbled by God’s presence “in this place” like Jacob, the psalmist instead describes the all-encompassing presence of God. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” Here God knows the psalmist so well; at God’s initiative, God is so closely connected to the psalmist, that escaping God’s presence is impossible: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” The distance between heaven and earth that Jacob saw bridged by a ladder is no obstacle to an encounter with God for the psalmist. God is present “up above” in heaven and “down below” in Sheol. God is everywhere, even “the farthest limits of the sea”. God’s presence is all-encompassing. There is no dream in this experience of God and it lacks the specificity of the story of Jacob. No altar is built… indeed, no altar could be built, for God exists everywhere, in every place, and so there is no altar, no marker of sacred space. God is as close as our very bodies and as expansive as the universe. The whole world IS the altar marking God’s presence.
In the history of the church, we have not always understood God to be so present and active in people or places beyond the confines of the ecclesial or spiritual realms. One of the landmark theological works of the mid-20th century that shifted the conversation in this regard was Harvey Cox’s book The Secular City. Originally published in 1965, it created a sensation and controversy around our understanding of church and world. In a new introduction written 50 years later, Cox reflected on why the book gained such attention, believing that the first reason was the theme, writing: “My premise was that we meet God not just in religion or in church history, but in all of life, including its political and cultural aspects.” (XII) In another introduction twenty-five years earlier, he reflected on the implications of this basic thesis, suggesting “that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. But second, it also means that not all religion is good for the human spirit…” (XLIII)
These ideas hardly strike me as revolutionary but they caused a stir in the mid-60’s. 50 years later his work continues to have something to say to church people in finding and experiencing God in “the allegedly godless contemporary world.” There was a time when “the mission of God” meant bringing light and truth to godless heathens, including the unchurched younger generations in our own society. In some parts of the church in particular, there has continued to be much fear and rejection of contemporary secular culture. And yet along with that, over the past half-century, starting with work like that of Harvey Cox, our understanding of mission has also been slowly transforming so we begin by looking for God in places and people new to us and different from us. If we begin with an assumption that God is already at work, already present, wherever we might go, then our first task is to wonder where or how God is already working in this place or that? How is God already present in this person or that? It is only then that we can begin to work out how we might participate, with God, in the redemption of the world. How can we participate in God’s mission, already begun… and God’s spirit already active and present… in the world?
The processes of secularization and urbanization that Cox wrote about have continued to progress such that his thesis that God can be found, alive and working, in the secular city, could now almost be turned on its head. The challenge for many churches is that the gulf between church culture and the secular culture of which we are a part has grown exponentially. 50 years later, many people wonder not if God can be found in the world but if God can be found in so-called “organized religion.” Such experience is expressed in the saying, now cliche, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” If we want our church, and the Gospel we proclaim, to have any impact in our world, it is up to us to engage in and with the world with honesty, humility, and courage. It is up to us to confess and repent of the ways that religion, our religion, has not been good for human spirits. It is up to us to become more “secular” in the sense that we attend to this world and this time as much as we attend to the world beyond.
The good news today is that no matter what we do or don’t do, our God… the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… comes to us in all manner of ways and in all manner of places. The stories and poems of our ancient ancestors today describe the thin-ness, the permeability, of any boundary between earth and heaven. God comes to us in our dreams. God encounters us in the midst of our journey. God knows us as intimately as our breath and bones. God exists in the wilderness, in the church and in the secular city. Some places we easily and immediately recognize as sacred and some are sacred and we just don’t know it yet.
Wherever we go, God is already there. Whoever we meet, God is already present in them. May we encounter God in familiar and unusual places this week and as we do, may we too hear God’s promise and know God’s love.