It is my belief that we can move through our days holding both of these claims as true. See if you agree. One claim says: God is everywhere in everything; God can go anywhere she pleases. The other claim says: Yes, sure, but the word holy means set apart. Not every place is holy. Sometimes we have to leave the messy everyday to meet up with the Divine in the sanctuary, or at the water’s edge, or on top of the mountain. You can hear the tension: God is everywhere. Okay. And God is set apart in heaven and it’s up to us to seek her presence.
You can hear this tension in a joke from the old TV show Frasier. What happens is, Niles and Daphne are planning to get married in a civil ceremony at City Hall. Suddenly Daphne’s mother tries to call the whole thing off because she expected her daughter to get married in a church. Frasier, Niles’ brother, tries to rescue the wedding by saying to Daphne’s mom: “Mrs. Moon, you have my personal guarantee that this will not be a Godless union. For if you truly believe in the omniscience and omnipresence of the Lord, then surely are we not always in His presence?”
Daphne’s mother replies: “No, He lives at the church.1”http://www.kacl780.net/frasier/transcripts/season_10/episode_1/the_ring_cycle.html
If you’ve ever come over to our church in the afternoon, you might have seen a Rock Island Police vehicle in the parking lot. Sometimes a few police vehicles park front to back so the officers can talk to each other. It has been observed that our church parking lot has become a police outpost for the neighborhood. We have a history of working with the police, and it’s one thing for officers to make use of our parking lot.
It would be something different if the Rock Island Police wanted to make our sanctuary into a command center, wouldn’t it? (Now they don’t! I’m not suggesting this.) But if the police wanted to come in here and set up an operation in the chancel, I would have something to say about that. This is a sanctuary! Surely the presence of the LORD is in this place. Surely, the people seeking the LORD come into this place, and what if their seeking —our seeking— makes this red, worn carpet holy ground…
You know we learn this from our ancestors of faith who knew what it meant to go up the hill or go off alone in order to be in the presence of God. “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” sings the Psalmist “for you, O God, are my refuge.” The mystics call these sites “thin places” because here the barrier between heaven and earth is so thin that one spills into the other so you can’t even tell which is which.
Our ancestors prove there is value in going off someplace to focus our attention on the divine, to recognize the reverence of a place designated as holy. Only thing is, what if God doesn’t stay in heaven, or in the cloud on top of the mountain, or in the sanctuary? What if God doesn’t stay in his designated holy zone…
All through the book of Exodus, the LORD our God and the people of Israel struggle to be in right relationship. The storytellers imagine God being fiercely protective of his privacy, as though this inaccessibility is part of what gives God his power. No, we cannot speak out loud the name of God! No, we cannot see God’s face! But this reserved, exclusive God chooses Moses to be the intermediary between heaven and earth. So again and again, Moses makes his way up the mountain to speak to the LORD; then Moses makes the trek back down the mountain to tell the people what God said.
Late in the story, God decides the Israelites must leave this land. Moses goes into the presence of the LORD to appeal to God, and Moses says, “You have to go with us!” And it works; God agrees. Some of Moses’ humanity gets into God. “Show me your glory,” pleads Moses. But God says, “You cannot see my face and live,” so the back of God is all Moses can see.
The next thing that happens is God tries again to make a covenant with the people. Once again Moses cuts the tablets of stone, and God writes the word, and Moses goes back down the mountain to the people. But this time, Moses’ face is shining like the sun. He has gone and gotten himself all covered with the glory of God (Exodus 33-34).
Now our scripture this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew, but something to know about Matthew is whoever wrote this book wanted the audience to hear about Jesus and think, “Hey, this guy seems familiar!” In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses. So all through this Gospel, Jesus keeps going up the mountain to find God.
As in Exodus, strange and mystical events occur on top of the mountain. Early on, the devil takes Jesus to the summit and promises to give him all the kingdoms of the world, so Jesus sends the devil away (Matthew 4:8). Later, it’s Jesus who takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain and Jesus becomes transfigured before them. His face shines like the sun; his clothes become dazzling white; the voice from the cloud says: “The is my son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5).
And later it is on top of a mountain when Jesus warns the disciples about the coming apocalypse (Matthew 24:7). All through Matthew, the top of the mountain is the place where God’s heaven reaches down to earth.
But something else happens on the mountains in Matthew: the people go up them. After banishing the devil but before too much else, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount to the crowds who have made the climb (Matthew 5-6). In the scripture Sue just read, it is on top of the mountain that Jesus meets people with disabilities, and he cures them, and if that sounds troubling to you, that’s because it is. There’s the implication that it is not all right to be a person with a disability, and we can hear that implication and reject it. The Bible says the people were brought to Jesus, and I want to know who’s idea that was, whether these people even wanted to be cured. What we know is that it happens on the mountain; here he does not come down to them.
It is on the mountaintop where the disciples figure out how to feed the crowds with a few loaves and fishes. And it’s on the mountain where Jesus meets up with his disciples after he was killed the cross, after he was resurrected from the dead. He sends them into the world to make disciples of all nations and he promises to go with them (Matthew 28:19).
In the Gospel, the mountaintop is the place people can go commune with the Holy Spirit; and the mountain can hold a crowd with all our human needs and struggle. See earth and heaven spill into each other so you can’t even tell which is which. And what if it’s not just that people can go up the mountain to be with God, but God can come down —making every place a thin place, making every person holy. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.”
See there is grace in the sweat of the struggle, there is sky in the soil, and we are standing on holy ground. What if we’ve always been standing on holy ground…
About ten years ago, I came upon something called the Found project started by Davy Rothbart who first published magazines, then a few books. The whole project is simply a collection of things people found. It’s mostly pieces of paper that had become litter. So there are crumpled grocery lists, love letters, school papers that had been tossed on the ground… One of my favorites is a handwritten note left on the door of a store which states: “Today is my grandmother’s one hundredth birthday. And there is a raccoon in my bathroom. Will open at three pm. Thanks.” 2Rothbart, Davy. Found II. More of the Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. page 71.
If you page through the books, there is no shortage of profanity. There are mean notes and offensive cartoons. I mean this is the detritus of humanity; it’s what you’d expect. But what keeps surprising me is how the holy grace of God gets into the trash. There are not just mean notes left by strangers on parked cars. There are thank you notes, and apology notes, a sign advertising a found bunny with a drawing of the bunny.
One woman found a note in the bushes of a Chicago church. It was written in Polish so she took the note to a park where Polish immigrants hang out. An older man read the note and began to cry, but he did not speak English and couldn’t tell her what it said. Over time, more notes appeared! Altogether this woman found forty notes around the church. When she finally got someone to translate, she learned they were prayer requests written by a woman with breast cancer. Based on her writing, it seems she is young and scared.3Rothbart, Davy. Found. The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. page 23. Note found by Anne Mette, Chicago, IL.
You never know what happens when you leave a note asking for prayer, and that note gets found, and translated, and published in a book. You never know what happens when you leave a rock with a word of kindness on the ground.4the children of Church of Peace are participating in the Kindness Rocks Project Sometimes you can go up a mountain to find God, and sometimes the right rock finds you. Sometimes God comes and finds us, and this changes how we look at the world. Grace changes the world.
So maybe it wouldn’t desecrate our sanctuary if the police from the parking lot came into this room to work. But it could be that the glory of the presence of the LORD gets all over their operation. It’s the risk we all take by coming into this holy place so charged with compassion. It makes us go back into the world with eyes that see heaven, with hearts that turn toward forgiving, with less fear and more tenderness, with a word of love to leave for a stranger to find and the grace from the mountain all over our hands. May it be so.
Footnotes [ + ]
|2.||↑||Rothbart, Davy. Found II. More of the Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. page 71.|
|3.||↑||Rothbart, Davy. Found. The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. page 23. Note found by Anne Mette, Chicago, IL.|
|4.||↑||the children of Church of Peace are participating in the Kindness Rocks Project|