BBC Radio 4, Morning Worship Service
Jacob’s a remarkable fellow if he can go to sleep with a rock for a pillow. He sleeps amazingly well for someone who’s just defrauded his brother. His dream in the middle of the night gives no hint of the wrong he’s done ” he gets assurance of the fullness of God’s favor “and that he’ll receive land, descendants, and blessing. Perhaps the incongruity of it all awakens him to something beyond himself. When he gets up in the morning, he does something remarkable with that rock “he pours oil on it and takes a vow that if he comes back he will build God’s house in that place, literally, “Bethel.”
There’s a reminder in the midst of that story that God can work good with anybody. It’s a reminder that our earthly judgments are often too short-sighted. When the 11th century soldiers of the old hill fort at Sarum barred the gates against the cathedral clergy, they were likely just working out the frustrations of long-standing irritation. But what they prompted was a new house of the Lord, in this place. This place, too, had its beginning in a night spent outside the camp, maybe with only a rock for a pillow.
The ancient sense that “God is in this place” transcends the move from Old Sarum to this site, and the centuries and thousands of miles that separate Jacob’s gate of heaven from this cathedral’s west door. Our journey as pilgrims leads us on to discover God’s presence in each place, and, indeed, in every place. Another reminder that as much as we want to define God’s bounds, the walls to God’s close, or the baileys of God’s castle, the divine remains beyond all limits and human definitions.
Jesus reminds his disciples that even the holiest house of God they know, the great temple in Jerusalem, will not endure. The time will come when even this great place will be destroyed. He may go there each day to teach, but part of his journey has to do with spending the nights sleeping rough, in a stony garden with only the ground for a bed.
Where and how do we practice that learning that God is always beyond a particular place, and beyond our earthly judgments? Certainly some of it is learned by recognizing our roots in that earthly bed “of dust we are created, and to the earth we return. Our groundedness may not include using rocks for pillows, but re-connecting with our humble origins in the earth is essential to this spiritual journey. It has something to do with practicing humility “knowing ourselves as creatures, made of humus (and that word is related to humility, and to the word, human).
That God would deign to come among us in that humble flesh gives us immense hope ““ hope that however lowly we may be or feel, God is still doing awesome things with this humble stuff.
The spire of this cathedral is the highest in England. It was added many decades after the initial building was complete. While it may be inspiring to look at, the word spire has a different root it means a stalk or shoot, like a plant springing up. And, like a plant, in order to stand tall it has to be well-rooted. One of the marvels of this place is that the foundations here are quite shallow only four feet deep and one of the happy accidents is that the whole of this place rests on a deep bed of gravel, a natural foundation of rocks. Like Jacob’s pillow and Jesus’ bed in the garden, God was here preparing a place before anyone thought to build here.
Paul talks about that gift as grace, though in his case, he is far more conscious and aware of grace at work. He notes that each of us is meant to build on the grace that God has given us in Jesus and that the temples we are can only grow up into their full stature and blessedness if we build on that strong and humble foundation.
Being human means knowing ourselves as creatures of the earth. And being truly and fully human means knowing that we are created to be temples of holy spirit. We’re going to pray in a few minutes for this cathedral church, named for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was human temple for God in a most particular and conscious way. Yet our journey is the same to welcome the divine into our own human tent, to become vessel of the divine, which any wanderer may recognize as sacrament and sign that God is in this place and God is in this relationship.