“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,’ 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.’”
Some years ago, for some sin I must have committed, I was an associate dean of a divinity school. My dean, being an Anglican priest, Joseph Kikagawa, who did not like to raise funds, so I was sent out with a tin cup. It is relatively, but only relatively, easy to raise funds for divinity, insofar as it means the preparation of men and women for lay and clerical ministries, the practical doing of God’s work in the world.
It is relatively hard, sometimes almost absolutely hard, to raise funds for the graduate study of religion. And once I asked a colleague, “On what moral grounds could I approach people about that?” He said, “Marty, remember religion is a lot like sex. If you get it a little bit wrong, it is very dangerous.”
Our dangerous word for today is “awe.” Awe: an emotion of mingled reverence, dread and wonder, inspired by something majestic or sublime.
Dangerous, wasn’t it, to hear the awesome words in the first reading that you are a chosen race, God’s own elect people? Dangerous, because people have often used that to pick up the sword, or to show hate to those they think are un-elect or not God’s people.
Dangerous, isn’t it, to get the use of the Temple wrong? To exclude anyone from the House of Prayer for All People, to forget that it’s God’s house for praise, to make an idol out of a beautiful temple. Dangerous.
And what could be more dangerous than awe, which can be used to put people down, to try to overpower them, to let human authority stand in the way of God’s grace and love. But if there’s danger in all these, there is beauty in the proper understanding and use of each. In this case of awe, because that which can put people down, can also lift them up, give them dignity, send them forth.
Jacob, son of Rebecca, grandson of Sarah, going into exile, finds a rock for a pillow in a place that one commentary says was “emphatically coincidental” in that it happens that Bethel where he was happened to be a sacred shrine Beth-El, House of God. And now it’s endowed with new meaning in the Book of Genesis. “How awesome is this place,” said the man who slept on the pillow on the way to exile and who awoke from his strange dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Mistranslation, we all have to have Jacob’s ladder, but it really says “a heap of stones,” a stairway. What would artists have done, had they not had that ladder with the little angels to go up and down? It’s a heap of stones, like a cathedral. The words of Jacob, “How awesome is this place!”
You know, how strange it is, that we, thousands of years after the story was written can join in hundreds of thousands of congregating places. On Cathedral Day, on every Lord’s Day, on any of the 2,000 times a year this place is used for the praise of God, to say, “How awesome is this place!”
Jacob, says the writer,went to a certain place that’s set aside, a designated place, random looking in the desert, a certain place, a rock, Beth-El. He stays there for the night; the sun had set. The pile of stones was there, and angels ascended and descended, and God revealed God’s self again as to Abraham, as to Isaac, now to Jacob (later named Israel), that all the nations of the earth–all the nations of the earth–will be blessed in him. And we who gather in the Christian gospel, see ourselves as grafted on, grafted into this lineage, Jacob, Israel, our older brother and sister. And we carry this sense of awe into the heart of the continuing story.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” “Were you there when he rose up from the tomb?” “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.”
The shepherds tremble because angels needing no ladder sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” upon Jesus’ birth.
Mark’s Gospel ends so suddenly that people think a page must have been torn off, but I think the writer is stressing awe. The women at the tomb, empty, hearing he is risen, fled, for they were afraid. Creatively afraid the shepherds were, the women were. In all these cases–a shepherd’s field, a garden near Jerusalem, wherever in the Scriptures there are messengers of God, where God reveals something fresh and new–we picture people falling in prostration, terrified, the Hebrew word says of Jacob, in dread, in agony, “How awesome is this place!”
This is one of the very places in America where you don’t have to say that. The stones cry out in praise. We are here to have awe induced. But how arrogant it would be if we thought this was the only awe place. We’re not at Bethel. And Jacob worshiped at other places. This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.
Some years ago I read Thomas Merton saying, “America doesn’t know it, but its soul is in our little Monastery of Gethesame in Kentucky.” America goes about its business soullessly. It would fall apart, it would disintegrate, if it weren’t for this place. How arrogant, then I read on, “but there are many Gethesamanes”. Wherever people gather in this praise and prayer and dedication to the love of God and the service of others, how awesome. This is none other than the gouse of God. This is the gate of heaven.
We Martys go to and fro in the world a good deal. Interview Harriet, and she might say with me that maybe we never felt awe as we did in the Beth-El of a township of South Africa before the change came, in a church too poor for people to have hymnals, for God was in that place. Many of you when you felt it most, and many of you who are young may feel it now at a camp fire at a retreat in a summer place. Some of you may have felt it in an emergency baptism in a delivery room where the miracle of new life has come forth. And in the awe and terror and beauty of the baptism and the new life. Anyone who does ministry in the sick room where the family gathers for the last prayer has known awe, dread, terror. In the little home parish from which we are in exile today, the same praise goes on. This is none other than the house of God.
But today, we are celebrating this place and the people for a century who have dedicated themselves to saying something of it.
I have often thought, as has everyone who is responsible for this place, what Anglo chutzpa it took to call the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul “Washington National Cathedral.” Who asked us in Illinois? Who asked us Lutherans? It gets easier if we’re sneaking up on each other! How marvelous that at the highest point in this emblem of the focus of world power, people makes sacrifices to say this word also counts. Let this word reach out into the worlds commerce and industry, government and politics, the arts and celebration. This is the house of God.
Throughout the Scriptures we have known that, but I said at the beginning, if you get it a little bit wrong, it’s very dangerous. I’m sure the slave owners liked to preach awe, that God was on the side of the owner to make them subject. They had the same powerful spirituals to counter it. In the early years of the women’s movement when it became important to hear voices that had been suppressed, to talk of awe was dangerous because it could be used once more. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, patriarchs, patriarchically, to put people in their place. Children have had awe preached at them, sometimes by loving, parental authority, sometimes by subjective, selfish, tyrannous authority. The poor, we overwhelm them with our new cathedrals of skyscrapers of glass and steel and power, and let them know that in their tenements and hovels and low high rises, they should be obedient to the suppression of our dreams. Imperial powers have always used the symbols of awe. You and I live in a world where we’re tempted to that.
This mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread and wonder, in the presence of majesty and sublimity. Why has the church worked to set up circumstances for awe?
The other side of awe is what happens when you get up from it. Priests, in some traditions, ordained, prostrate themselves. They don’t stay lying there on that hard pillow of the chancel floor. They are to get up and serve.
Jacob goes off again into exile. Scientists awed by the hundreds of billions of stars in the hundreds of billions galaxies pursue more learning. We, in human relations, awed by love shown us, rise from it. The purpose of awe in worship, how awesome is this place, are awareness that we are in a house of God and a gate of heaven, is not to deprive us of dignity but to give us a new kind. Not to deprive us of esteem but to remove self-esteem and to get the greater esteem that we are children of God. Awe that makes it possible for us in our confession of our faults, to say goodbye. We baptize Christians at the altar in the reception of the really present Christ, to say goodbye to our old selves, our irreverent, disdainful, in-your-face, grungy, casual selves and start seeing God in the face of the other, the poor, the person next to us at the communion table, the members of our family, the children, yes the children, and see them with a new dignity in the light of a God who condescended to reach from the heavens in the dream of Jacob, in the cross and the empty tomb of the risen Lord, in the presence of each other here and hundreds of thousands other such places on the Lord’s Day and, now soon, yes, in the Lord’s table.
How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. Go from it taking awe and new dignity and new resolve from it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.