Sunday 19th July 2020
Gen 28:10-19a, Matt 13:24-30,36-43
May I speak this morning in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When lockdown first began I was on sabbatical but, sadly, I was still in the country and still plugged into the Anglican internet via Facebook and Twitter.
Whilst no one that I saw objected to the principle of churches being closed for public worship, after all virtually everything was closed to the public, there was a great deal of consternation and even dispute amongst clergy that we were being banned from going into churches privately to pray.
The debate raged on many levels from the legal right of bishops to order us out of the churches in our care, to the theology of worshipping in church at all. And it is that latter point on which I wish to touch this morning. I am certainly not going to dwell on the facile statement that the church is the people not the building which was often cited as if conclusive to the argument, when it was actually so obvious as to be meaningless.
In support of the we can pray anywhere / anytime position there were two main arguments put forward: firstly, that God created everywhere and called it good, therefore the divide between secular spaces and sacred spaces is irrelevant. Secondly, they pointed to Matthew 6 when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in and told them to go into their rooms privately and then gave them the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
These are both utterly valid arguments and they certainly point us towards the reality that our worship and our prayer life should not be constrained by being in a church building. I frequently pray in the great outdoors, during the month of May I prayed a Rosary everyday whilst walking Luna, I made a few YouTube videos about praying the psalms walking through the apple orchards, and I am very up for the joy and the challenge of having some outdoor worship for us as a congregation. I am not scared of worshipping God in the midst of his creation, indeed it can be a joy and a blessing.
Similarly, yes, Jesus taught us that our prayer life should not be done simply to be seen by other people but should primarily be a matter between us and God. That presents me with a bit of a conundrum because, for the last two months I have been praying twice a day in front of a camera and live-streamed to the whole internet. Was Jesus saying that his followers can never pray in public or was he actually challenging hypocritical pray-ers who only prayed to be seen by other people and not out of any relationship with God? Whilst that challenge could apply as equally to us as it did to the Pharisees I would suggest that if our hearts are pointing in the right direction, then Jesus was not saying that it is wrong per se to pray with other people.
Further, if you take the Matthew 6 argument to its logical conclusion as being normative for all prayer, then that would seem to be an argument against praying outdoors – you can’t have it both ways.
In case you haven’t already guessed, and despite my willingness to pray anywhere and at anytime, I am very much in the camp that our church buildings are special, sacred, spaces and that although we are the church wherever we are spread in the world we are also called to gather together and pray and worship in particular places, that the church is incarnated and physical, not simply spiritual and disincarnated or virtual.
The reason I was prompted to think about that this week is not simply the process of re-opening St Mary’s, which forces one to think harder about what we are doing and why, but also by today’s first reading from Genesis 28.
It is the story of Jacob’s Ladder – when Jacob had a dream of a ladder set between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending between the two. It is a wonderful vision which has inspired some amazing art, not least by William Blake. In this vision God speaks to Jacob and says: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
So, yes, on the one hand God confirms that he is not constrained by space and is with Jacob and us in all places and at all times. On the other hand the core of this reading is all about the choseness of a particular place, and his promise to give that place to his chosen people.
I was really struck by the sheer number of time that the particularity of place was mentioned in this reading:
“10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11 He came to a certain placeand 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. 12 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. 13 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; 14 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. 15 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.’ 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17 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.’
18 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. 19 He called that place Bethel;”
Bethel, or Beth-El, means ‘house of God’.
You may recall a few weeks ago we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah and, often where Abraham stopped he would build an altar to the Lord, to mark the specialness of the place and to consecrate it to God. Much of the narrative thrust of the Hebrew Scriptures is that of exile and return to the land that was promised to them by God and, of course, at the spiritual centre of that promised land was Jerusalem and in the middle of Jerusalem was the Temple built around the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets of Moses. So much of biblical Judaism is built around the theology of place and the physicality of objects connected with God.
I have already mentioned Matthew 6 and, of course, when Jesus was crucified the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, signifying that the barrier between God and humans was no longer in place but I think that it is an over-simplification to suggest that Jesus or Christianity is implicitly anti-Temple or anti-Sacred Space. Jesus himself was presented in the Temple as a baby, his family returned there on pilgrimage and once he was left there as a boy and was found teaching the rabbis. Later he drove out the money-changers from the same Temple and said in no uncertain terms that his Father’s house was a house of prayer.
St Paul wrote to the early church communities who gathered together to worship in particular places and were overseen by episcopi, in the Book of Revelation letters were written to geographically gathered churches and there is plenty of archaeological evidence that wherever Christian communities have grown up they have created sacred spaces in which to worship. Even St Francis, that great saint of nature, was called to rebuild physical churches, which he did by hand, as part of a greater call to rebuild the church.
In the Eucharist I am reminded of Jacobs’ Ladder – a window is opened into heaven, the heavenly life is called down to Earth and our Earthly life is lifted up to heaven, we celebrate the song of heaven with the Angels and Archangels who ascend and descend around us and the ladder which joins the two realms is Jesus himself, giving us access to the Holy of Holies by his broken body and shed blood.
The place where that takes place is a Holy Place, it is a Beth-El, it is a House of God. That meeting point between heaven and earth takes place in us wherever we receive communion and, yes, we are Temples of the Holy Spirit and Living Stones of the Church, but how much more it takes place when those living temples and living stones are gathered together in a particular place consecrated and dedicated to that purpose and used as such for centuries.
I am not ashamed of holiness – a holiness of person which should be the goal of all who follow Jesus and seek union with God – but also a holiness of place. I look forward with anticipation and joy to us being gathered again in St Mary’s: the living church in a sacred church, together a meeting place of heaven and earth.