I am the kind of person who likes to underline and make notes in books. Some people don’t like to do that, especially in the Bible, but I do. I like that I can flip through my Bible and see things that I’ve underlined in the past. Except that sometimes I’ll come across a verse that has been underlined and think to myself, “Why in the world did I underline that? What was I thinking?” Anyone else have this experience?
The reason this happens is because our sacred text is new every time we come to it. In traditional Christian language, we say that the text is inspired, which is verified by the fact that it inspires us. Americans say that our Constitution is a living document because we are always reinterpreting it. The Bible is even more so because it is always reinterpreting us. We are never the same when we read it, we bring to it our thoughts and feelings and experiences of this day and find in it what we need for that day. It speaks to each of us individually.
But it also speaks to us communally. Because as much as Protestant Christians value individual study of the scriptures, that’s a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Think about it. For most of human history, most people were illiterate, and it wasn’t until about 500 years ago that we had the technology to produce typewritten books, making exact replicas of the same text multiple times. What this tells us is that the Bible was designed to be read in community. The Bible was designed to be read and interpreted in community. Each week I invite you to the sermon discussion call and even though I’ll happily share the stuff that didn’t make it into my sermon, the most insightful comments in that call usually come from someone besides me. My interpretation is not the right one or even the most important one in this community. This may sound radical, but I suggest to you that we don’t really know what this text means until we hear from each other.
Let me give you an example. The story we are going to read this morning comes from Genesis chapter 28. It’s about Jacob, one of the three patriarchs, or fathers, of the ancient Hebrew people. Jacob, son of Isaac, who you heard about from Jon Powers last week. Jacob, grandson of Abraham, the archetype for the life of faith, who followed when God said “Go and then I’ll show you where you are going.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ones who laid the foundation of faith for the people who would come after them.
In this story, Jacob is on the run because he has tricked his twin brother Esau and stolen Esau’s inheritance. So their mother Rebekah sends Jacob away to keep him safe and to help him find a wife from among her relatives. This journey is going to take a while and we pick the story up one night when Jacob is tired of traveling and ready to rest for the night.
This is Genesis chapter 28, verses 10-22.
Jacob went out from Be’er-Sheva and traveled toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed the night there, because the sun had set. He took a stone from the place, put it under his head and lay down there to sleep. He dreamt that there before him was a ladder resting on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of Yahweh the Lord were going up and down on it. Then suddenly Yahweh the Lord was standing there next to him; and he said, “I am Yahweh the Lord, the God of Abraham your [grand]father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth. You will expand to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. By you and your descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed. Look, I am with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back into this land, because I won’t leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, Yahweh the Lord is in this place, and I — I did not know!” Then he became afraid and said, “This place is fearsome! This has to be the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” Jacob got up early in the morning, took the stone he had put under his head, set it up as a standing-stone, poured olive oil on its top and named the place Beth-El [which means house of God]; but the town had originally been called Luz.
Jacob took this vow: “If God will be with me and will guard me on this road that I am traveling, giving me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I return to my father’s house in peace, then Yahweh the Lord will be my God; and this stone, which I have set up as a standing-stone, will be God’s house; and of everything you give me, I will faithfully return one-tenth to you.”Genesis 28:10-22
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This week I read (most of) a book called, “God was in this place, and I – I did not know,” which as you just heard is what Jacob says when he awakens from his dream. This book contains seven entirely different interpretations of what that one verse might mean, from seven different authors who lived hundreds of years apart. Is is about awareness or egotism or the problem of evil or self-reflection or history? The answer is yes.
When the sermon discussion group meets tonight, what Mike Newcomb hears in this verse may be different than what Mary hears, than what Sue hears, than what Jan hears, than what Russ hears, than what Julie hears, than what Scott hears. And by the time we’ve discussed it, this verse will mean more to all of us because we’ve heard from each other.
And this is why one of the commitments of membership here at Zion is faithfully attending services of worship. Even though we don’t all speak up during the worship service, we still receive the spiritual benefit of being together. There’s an energy and a vitality when we are together that just isn’t there when we are alone. Which we know because we’ve spent a lot of time alone in these last 18 months. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a pastor was to bring my full energy to worship when it was just me alone in my living room. And I know, because you have told me, that many of you really struggled spiritually when we were all quarantined. Being together matters.
Now, not everyone is able to be here in person all the time and that’s why we continue to stream our services on Facebook. Even there your interaction matters. It matters that you check in, and share joys and concerns, and comment during the sermon. In a way, you are still together. But then we have people who can watch on Facebook but are not able to interact and that’s OK. (Hi Rose Ann! We love you!) But you know what? Every one of those people that I have talked to would rather be here in person. They would rather be worshipping together if they could.
Friends, in an age where we are overwhelmed with content and everything is available online to watch whenever it’s convenient for you, the reason I encourage you to faithfully attend services of worship is because it’s not just about you. Worship is not just about you. Your presence, your energy, your spirit, your online comments now in the moment, they matter for other people. Praying out loud together matters. Singing together matters. You may not enjoy everything we sing. That’s OK. Maybe you’re singing that song today because the person next to you needs to hear it. Worshipping together matters. In fact, worship is one of our four core ministries here at Zion. We do outreach & missions, Christian education, member care, and worship.
This morning as you arrived, you received a stewardship packet. For those of you worshipping online, you can find the link at the top of the page zionucc.org/worship. If you like to read ahead, then you may have already seen in that stewardship packet that 49% of our total spending is on things that directly support our weekly worship gatherings. That’s a lot. And we don’t apologize for that. Because this is where it all starts.
Christians do something in worship that isn’t being done anywhere else in the world. Nobody else is regularly telling God’s story as revealed to us in Jesus. Nowhere else are we being encouraged to join the Jesus revolution of loving our enemies. Nowhere else are we relentlessly reminded that God’s grace to each of us and all of us that compels us to cherish each other and not try to change each other. Nobody else is saying that as much of a dumpster fire as we’ve made of things, God has an unstoppable plan to heal the world and we are blessedly invited to participate in it.
If we are going to go out and join the Jesus revolution, this is where it all starts. We come to worship to be inspired, equipped, and empowered to participate in God’s plan to heal the world. Our Sunday morning gatherings are the core of our community. That’s why Brian and Bertie and the set-up team and the broadcast team and the singers and the greeters and the ushers and the offering counters, that’s why we all work so hard to make this a deeply meaningful experience. We think hard about what we proclaim and what we pray and what we sing. This is where it all starts. Now it better not end here, this better not be all we do as Christians, but this is where it starts. If this is your church, the first commitment you make is to faithfully attend services of worship, to make these community gatherings a priority in your life. Not just because it’s good for you, but because your presence is good for other people. That’s what it means to be in community. That is one of the ways we are generoUS.
Generosity isn’t just about money. We aren’t afraid to talk about money, and we will over the next several weeks. But we could have all the money we need and frankly it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t have any people. We can spend all the money we want on worship, but it doesn’t matter if nobody shows up. One of the most important ways to be generous in this church is to be generous with your presence.
Is this a guilt trip? No. I’m not trying to shame anyone into showing up. That completely defeats the purpose. But if you’re feeling a little healthy guilt this morning because the Holy Spirit is nudging you to more faithfully attend services of worship, then thanks be to God. Remember, please, that with God everything starts with an invitation. Look at what is possible. Imagine what this place, what Zion, could become if we faithfully attended services of worship, whatever truly faithful attendance means for your family. Dream for a moment about the energy and spirit and presence we would feel here if we made this gathering a priority. You know what it would be like because you’ve felt it. Bigger isn’t better just because it’s bigger. But if this lawn and that sanctuary and our Facebook broadcast were full of people who were looking forward to being together, excited to welcome guests, hungry for a word from God, longing to bless each other and the world, and inspired, equipped and empowered to bear joyful witness to their faith throughout the week — well, that would be incredible. That would be a powerful experience in and of itself, and it would also be an unshakeable foundation for mobilizing a force for the healing of the world.
This morning, God is in this place. And we know it and experience it when we choose to be together in this place too. Amen.