“Sacred Stones”

Preached by Will Brown, July 5, 2015
Taken from Psalm 48

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Where are the places that are holy for you? Where have you experienced God?

Perhaps it was a slow sunset over the Grand Canyon; a labor-and-delivery room where you cradled a new life in your arms; the place where friends gathered to support you during a time of loss; maybe a music concert where the notes carried you someplace transcendent. Where are the places that are holy for you?

My mind travels back to a backpacking trip I took into the mountains west of Staunton when I was at UVA. After the campfire faded to glowing coals, I remember lying on my back and looking up at the stars. There was no moon in the sky, and I’ve never seen the Milky Way shining like it did on that cold night atop that mountain. I could see my breath and I could see so many stars that it was hard to find the constellations. The majesty of that sky has remained with me in the years since. There was something holy about that experience, about that place.

Where are the places that are holy for you?  Like Jacob and his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, perhaps you have had a moving spiritual experience, something so profound that it would forever change you, and forever mark a particular place as sacred. Or perhaps there have been smaller moments, less dramatic than that one, but equally profound, in which the ground beneath your feet suddenly felt holy. Life went on, but that place still carries a particular significance whenever your mind travels back there.

Our scripture reading today, Psalm 48, is a love song to one of those places, and I wonder if this psalmist’s response to a holy place might guide us as we consider how to respond to the holy places in our lives.  Psalm 48 begins: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion.” It’s a love song to Jerusalem, the city of God.  As the verses progress, we hear tales from the past: a battle with great kings assembled to attack the city, only to flee in despair, trembling in fear, defeated.  These words are part of the mystique of Jerusalem, this holy city.

But if you’re like me, perhaps these words seem nice, but distant: an ancient army being repelled… okay. Where this psalm gets real for me, though, is in verse 8: “As we have heard, so have we seen.”  Here, the psalm becomes more than a tradition, more than a tale from the past. Suddenly, the psalmist is saying, perhaps in disbelief, I’ve heard all those stories, but now I’ve seen it too. In this city, I too have seen that God is here.  Jerusalem, in a way, serves as one of these: (indicating the altar from the Children’s Sermon, recounting Jacob in Genesis 28). The city itself is a monument that recalls the greatness of God, experienced so tangibly in this place. Psalm 48 joins with the stones of Jerusalem to cry out: God is in this place. You’ve heard the stories; now see it with your own eyes. This place is holy. God is here.

Where have you experienced God? Where has the transcendent reached into your life and managed to catch your attention? Like Jacob dreaming of a ladder to heaven while he was simply trying to get some sleep, where has God sneaked up on you?

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, describes how these moments of divine encounter often happen unexpectedly. She writes, “As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did nothing to make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond.” (p. 15)

How will we respond? What will we do when the ordinary ground beneath our feet becomes holy ground? Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it.” (15)  How will we respond when the stones under our feet have become sacred?  That is the question the psalmist faced upon realizing, with amazement, that “as we have heard, so have we seen.” We’ve seen God in this place. How will we respond?

What comes next in the psalm? “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.”  I love that verb: ponder. It’s a slow verb. Pondering demands time; it can’t be rushed or forced. There are no shortcuts to an answer, and perhaps there is not even an answer to reach. The whole point is to ponder; to pause our busy lives and turn our attention for a few moments to “your steadfast love, O God.”

This psalm invites us to stop and marvel at the holy around us.  Indeed, as we keep reading, listen to the cascade of verbs we encounter: “Walk around Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels.” Even reading these words slows us down, as the repetition drives home its point: stop and look around. When we encounter God in our lives, take the time to notice. Pause, linger, and marvel at that brush with the divine.  That’s what the author of this psalm has done, taking time to walk around Jerusalem, pondering God’s steadfast love, experienced so powerfully in that place. Only then is there room to respond. Only then is there time to write a psalm, a love song to that place and the God encountered there.

I have recently been reading a memoir by Israeli author Amos Oz, who describes growing up in Jerusalem in the 40s and 50s. He recounts his grandfather writing “passionate verses in Russian about… the enchantments of Jerusalem, not the poverty-stricken, dusty, heat-stifled city of zealots but a Jerusalem whose streets are fragrant with myrrh and frankincense, where an angel of God floats over every one of its squares.” (A Tale of Love and Darkness, p. 87) Young Amos decides to confront his grandfather about this, pointing out to him what is actually in the streets and in the air, and asking, “Why don’t you write about the real Jerusalem?” The grandfather’s reply: “The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.” (88)

“The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.”  Yesterday was July 4th, a day of cookouts and fireworks and celebrations of the United States, a day when public figures make flowery speeches about the greatness of our nation. Some might go so far as to say that this nation is a holy place. Yet I wonder if some of us, like young Amos, have reservations about that chorus of praise: “what about the millions living in poverty?” we might say. What about the ongoing reality of systemic racism, and the individual acts of violence like the arson of black churches and the murder of those nine churchgoers in Charleston just a few weeks ago? With all the various headlines of the past few weeks, a person from anywhere on the political spectrum can find something disturbing for them, something going wrong in this country. Certainly, there is so much work to be done and so much for which we might ask forgiveness. And yet: fireworks, songs, TV specials.  “The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.” I wonder if the real America, the one being celebrated, is the one in ours. Not simply America as it is, but the country of our dreams, the one whose ideals we write about in our poetry.

African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote a powerful poem entitled, “Let America Be America Again,” in which he beautifully spells out the inspiring ideals undergirding our nation, before reminding us, uncomfortably, that for him and so many others, “America never was America to me.” He speaks honestly of the plight of so many in our history, and yet ultimately the poem is hopeful. “O, let America be America again—/The land that never has been yet—/And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”

Sometimes a place becomes significant for us because of what it stands for: the ideal America that Langston Hughes dreamed about; the Jerusalem Amos Oz’s grandfather could see behind the harsh reality of crowded streets and dusty stones; the same Jerusalem that the psalmist described as the joy of all the earth, where God has been encountered in the tales handed down and seen again with our own eyes.   It makes we wonder if perhaps all holy places are holy for what they represent to us.

Where are the places that are holy for you?  A nation? A plot of land where you spent a dreamy childhood summer? A Sunday School classroom? A rock in the desert?  Where were you when you stumbled upon God, or God crashed into you?

We sometimes hear about exceptionally holy places: cathedrals with brilliant stained-glass windows and imposing stone arches; cities like Jerusalem, with its worn stone walls and ancient streets; or sanctuaries like this one, where generations have worshipped, studied, and served together.  In the end, though, what makes a place holy is that God is there. And, like Jacob in the wilderness, sometimes God turns up in unexpected places, turning an ordinary rock sacred.

So keep an eye out this week, as you go about your daily life, for we never know where God might be found: in dramatic encounters or in small moments where we nevertheless sense that God is near.  When that happens, it is up to us to respond. Like the author of Psalm 48, we can stop and marvel at the presence of God, writing a poem in our hearts, maybe building an altar to remind us of what was true all along: God is here.

Even now, in this place, we gather because God is here, among us: in the smiles and handshakes, in our singing and our praying—God is here. In the choral music, Scripture readings, and children’s sermons—God is here. And at the table Christ has set for us—God is here. So, we come now to this table, where all are welcome, invited to eat and drink, and to encounter the God who is here.