An Altar in the World – Caroline Dean (5/29/16)

“An Altar in the World”

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

May 29th, 2016


Reader 1:  A reading from Genesis Chapter 28

Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped there for the night since the sun had set.

Reader 2:  He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

Reader 1:  Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.  I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very land.”

Reader 2: Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “Surely, God is in this place. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible.  This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”

Reader 1: Jacob was up first thing in the morning.  He took the stone he had used for his pillow and he stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Beth El (which means God’s House).

Reader 2:  Jacob set up the stone as a witness and he made a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives. And everything you give me, oh God, I’ll return a tenth to you.”


Let us pray:  God of Jacob, you are with us when we are on the run, when we are lost and in between, help us to know your presence, to see your vision, and to trust that you show up even in the ordinary place, by the power of your Spirit and in the name of your Son, we pray, Amen.

Recently I listened to a RadioLab podcast about the power of “things.”  Robert Krulwich (one of the hosts of the radio show) and his wife have an ongoing debate about the power and importance of “things” to transport us into the past.  For Robert there are certain mementos in life that are important to hang on to for sentimental reasons, there is something sacred about them.  And for Robert’s wife, nothing is sacred, no “thing” holds that much power for her.  And on moving day or spring cleaning day this debate can feel all too familiar for some of us.

Now, I am not as much of a “thing” person, as I am a “place” person.   I can close my eyes and recreate my grandma’s house, the house of my childhood, partly because things never really changed that much over the years, but mostly because it is such a special place for me and my family.  I relish any chance to walk around the college campuses that marked my early adulthood.  I am often moved by the quiet, peace that washes over me in a worship space, in pretty much in any church building because these spaces are symbols of the place where I was baptized, raised, called, married & the place where I fell in love with this crazy thing that I do.  Even, believe it or not, I sometimes feel sentimental about Barnwell Hall, (coffee stains and all).  It makes me smile when I think of all of the sacred church gatherings that it has housed over the years.  And this weekend, especially for those of us who have served our country, or lost someone in service of our nation, we celebrate the gifts and the blessings of this country that we live in.  Now, none of these places are perfect, even if they are lodged in our memory in nostalgic ways, but they do have their unique charms and they have certainly helped form who I am this day.

Some places root us & others give us wings.  Last summer Brantley and I had the opportunity to spend some time on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.   And on the Isle of Skye, we went on this hike to “Old Man Storr.”    On the day that we were hiking it was a typical misty, rainy Scotland morning.  Visibility was very bad.  As we hiked the fog & rain was relentless, you could only see a few hundred yards in front of you.  Brantley and I plowed forward decked out head to toe, in rain gear, bearing the harsh wind & rain.  When we almost reached the top, one minute the mountains were covered in fog and the next, almost miraculously, the fog parted and revealed this amazing, gigantic rock formation reaching to the sky.  And when we turned to see how far we had come, the clouds had parted just enough to give us an amazing view of the island and the surrounding bay.  And as the fog draped over the mountain hills, other rock formations appeared nearby.  It was breathtaking.  You could see how the Vikings and ancient peoples claimed this as a holy site.

But here is the twist.  Jacob’s resting place, were he fell asleep that night, it is not one of those places that would take your breath away (at least as we begin our story).  It wasn’t a place with an amazing vista, or a sacred family gathering spot.  It wasn’t a place that you walk by & think to yourself, “Wow! This place is holy.”  Jacob’s resting place just happened to be where he landed at the end of a rough day.  When the sun came down, Jacob chose a spot and he hunkered down for the night.

And this was an adventure for Jacob because you see, he wasn’t quite the “outdoorsy” type.  Esau, Jacob’s older brother & twin was born for this kind of adventure.  He could hunt & navigate from point A to point B.  Esau knew the dangers & the beauties of the natural world, he was a regular “ancient boy scout.”  Jacob, may have been savvy, but this night he was learning these survival skills on the fly, because he preferred life indoors among the tents with his mom.  Jacob certainly could not ask for Esau’s help on his wilderness walk, because you see earlier that day, Jacob with the help of his conniving mother Rebekah, he stole his brother’s birthright, the blessing which would give Jacob twice as much inheritance as his brother.  To make a long story short, Esau came home one day from a hunt famished and ready for dinner.  Jacob promised Esau his favorite bowl of stew, in exchange for his birthright.  Esau, clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed, says “ok.”  Perhaps Esau is banking on the hope that his father would never willingly do such a thing, since Esau was his father’s favorite son.  No matter Esau’s logic, (or lack thereof) things went downhill for him at this point.  A few days later Jacob put on an elaborate ruse to trick his blind elderly father, Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing (which included a quick change of clothes so that he smelled like Esau, and wearing some goatskin so he could simulate Esau’s hairy arms).  After Jacob’s successful trickery, Rebekah fears Esau’s wrath and so she sends Jacob off into the wilderness on a quest to find sanctuary and eventually a wife among Rebekah’s family.

And so we find Jacob alone in the wilderness, estranged from his family, most likely hungry and lost.  Jacob, perhaps distracted by his loss & perhaps his regret, isn’t paying much attention & the sun sinks low quickly.  And so Jacob exhausted and lonely, snuggles up with a stone as a pillow and falls asleep.

There is a Jewish tradition, or midrash which imagines Jacob making a pile of stones around him on all sides, to protect him from the wild beasts.  This “stone sleeping bag,” is a humorous and apt illustration of Jacob’s vulnerability in the wilderness that night.  And this is when things get interesting.  God appears to Jacob in a dream.  There is a stone stairway connecting heaven and earth with angels ascending & descending on it.  God says to Jacob, “I am the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac.”  Now if Jacob has any lucid thought during this dream it might be something like “this is terrifying!”  Because besides the whole revelation of angels and divine stairwells, Jacob most certainly would be afraid that God has certainly come to deliver the wrath of Esau, the good and righteous son.  God has come to punish Jacob for his schemes.

But instead God says something different.  God says, “I will give you this land.  I will give you a lot of descendants and I will bless all of the people of the earth through your lineage.  On top of that, God says, “I will stay with you, I will watch over you and bring you back to this land.”

When Jacob wakes from his dream the scriptures say that he is afraid, he is in awe.  Jacob says “Wow, surely God is in this place & I did not know it!  This is the house of God, the gate of heaven.”  So Jacob takes his stone pillow and he sets it upright, as an altar.  He makes a vow & anoints the stone with oil as a witness of God’s promises to him and his promise to God.  He then turns the stone upright to mark the spot where heaven touched earth.

So like Jacob, sometimes we find ourselves in a tough spot, on the run, lost in the dark, “in between,” estranged from loved ones, or completely out of our element.  Yes, sometimes we make mistakes and we have to live with the consequences.  We need God during these times of trial and yet sometimes it feels like God is far away.  It feels like it’s hard to locate God or to find God’s direction in our lives.  And in those moments at times, I am jealous of Jacob & people like him who experience divine revelations that are so clear, so vivid, & undeniable.  Other times I struggle & I want more from God than God’s presence or God’s promise.  I want healing & transformation.  I want a miracle, now.  I want God to intervene in the way that I see fit.

And yet isn’t this the great moment of faith?  To hope & trust that God’s presence is enough, no matter what?  That God is enough even great trial & pain?  Isn’t it a great act of faith to trust that God is enough even when we face great, staggering loss?  That God is enough even when we face death?

And what if there are clear & vivid signs of God in our lives that we are too busy or too comfortable to see.  What if we take for granted the signs of God in our everyday life.  It’s easy to slip into the mindset that God’s revelations have to be big, or loud.  That God’s revelations must be singularly life-altering.

Brene’ Brown, qualitative researcher, author and speaker, of whom I am a big fan, writes in her book “Daring Greatly” about the holy ordinary moment.  She writes:

“We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Scarcity culture may keep us afraid of living small, ordinary lives.  But when you talk to people who have survived great losses it is clear that the most profound joy we experience is in those small moments that are so easy to overlook…When I asked people who had survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted—celebrate it. Don’t apologize for your healthy parents or your great relationship. Be grateful and share your gratitude with others.”

And so the first myth about sacred places is that God only shows up in certain holy spots.  If you were to take a random poll and ask something like, “What places do you associate with God or the divine, even if you don’t believe in God?”  Most people would probably say a “church,” a “synagogue” or perhaps “in nature.”  Some would name other sacred sites that are personally meaningful to them.  But there is this clear sense that God is in certain holy spaces but not really in the ordinary, everyday, even boring space.  (Don’t get me wrong this would be super convenient and it would make my job a lot easier –if we could guarantee that all you have to do show up to this sacred place called Christ Church or even the holy “coffee stained” Barnwell Hall, every Sunday and you would be bowled over with a divine revelation of truth).  But in Jacob’s story we find out that God shows up in the ordinary places.  It really has more to do with Jacob’s inner landscape than some spot on the map.  Wherever Jacob happened to fall asleep that night that would be the holy spot.  So let us remember that God is in our ordinary everyday life.  The sleepy baby, the doing of the dishes, the spring flower, the sharing of a meal, a good laugh.

The second myth of a sacred place is that somehow sacred people make places more holy.  Or perhaps God only shows up in more regularity to really religious people.  Again, if you were to ask strangers on the street to make a snap judgment and answer this question, “Who do you think that God shows up more often to?”  They would probably go with the “good person” stereotype or the idea that God’s favors those who are following God, praying a lot, practicing some faith practice.  This is why clergy always get asked to pray over dinner.  Religious leaders are thought to have for better or worse, some sort of special access to God.

But Jacob’s story gives us a different perspective.  God shows up to Jacob even when he has screwed up majorly.  He is not the “good guy” in this story, he is a schemer.  He betrays his brother and his father.  In fact God shows up when Jacob is at his most vulnerable.  God manifests in grace & blessing beyond imagination, when all Jacob could expect is punishment & wrath.  Not to say that practices like repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are not important – Jacob will indeed face these challenges as the story continues.  But God’s love, God’s presence it is not dependent upon Jacob’s “holiness factor” or some religious credential.  What if God is with all of us?  The most ordinary, motley crew.  What if God is ever present and we are simply more aware of God when we are vulnerable, when our comfort zone isn’t cushioning us?  What if God is near the sinner & the saint in equal measure?  Because aren’t we all sinner & saint?

The last myth of sacred places is that sometimes we assume that God is far away.  That God is over there and we over here are in need of some sort of stone stairway – or mediator – to connect us.  And the truth is that life can feel this way, we can fell isolated and spiritually lost.

And this is another great moment of faith.  To remember that God is with us in the promises of Jacob and in the person of Jesus.  Jesus comes to be “God with us.”  To show us how to live, & how to serve.  To be with us in our ordinary humanity.  To heal us & die for us.  To come back to life for us.  Jesus did this so that we would know that God is not far away.  So that we could trust that God knows us.  That God really means it when God says, “I am with you.”

So what are our practices to help us remember God’s presence in our everyday life when it can be so hard to remember to do this?  Perhaps for you it is a simple act of gratitude, saying grace at a meal or a prayer of examine at the end of the day naming our joys and our concerns to God.  Perhaps for others, you pray on your dog walks or when you wash the dishes.  Let us anoint the ordinary things in our lives – let us turn them towards heaven and come back to them from time to time – to remind us that “God is with us.”

This summer we have exciting opportunity to share the moments when we find God in the ordinary.  When you are home this summer or when you are away with family or friends.  Take stock of where you see God in your life.  When you remember, snap a picture of a sacred ordinary moment, a time when you see God in your life.  And then put up that picture on your social media with the hashtag #altarintheworld & #christchurchsummit.  When we gather for worship in July, August & even in early September, we will share these photos in slideshows during worship to help us all remember and celebrate God in our daily lives.   So this last slide is a nice hike that my parents, Brantley and I took yesterday, to a small ordinary waterfall, a little altar, a rock set up, pointing us to God’s presence in nature.  And this slide is also pay back to my preacher dad, for all of those times when we, your kids served you up some great last minute sermon illustrations.

And so beloved as you go, imagine those first explorers who arrived on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland.   Perhaps, it was a typical foggy day.  Perhaps they set out into the rolling hills to get above the clouds.  An ordinary day, an ordinary hike.  As the fog cleared they stumbled upon the sacred rock formations at “Old Man Storr” for the first time.  It must have been breathtaking!

Sometimes it can be hard to find God in our lives, we feel like there is a fog, something lingering between us.  So Beloved, keep walking, keep your eyes peeled, especially when it feels extra foggy, because sometimes God shows up, and takes our breath away in the most ordinary of sacred places.  Amen.


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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.