What is Holy Land, Part II

Transcribed from the sermon preached March 16, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Genesis 12:1-9, John 4:20-24

The first edition of the Bible was by the scribes of David about 950. Using historic tales from Mesopotamia and tribes in the region, David sought to tie the history of the tribes together in support for his rule. Since the creation myths of kingdoms in the Tigris and Euphrates valley were adapted by David for his own, Abram’s story begins in the East, in the land of Ur. God tells him to pick up his family and property and immigrate. God will make him a great nation. And God says, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” Then, upon arrival in the region of Palestine, he sets up places of worship in areas central to David’s rule, in Shechem and Bethel, in the central highlands. Abram moves down to the Negev, the Southern desert. This connection between Israel’s early chiefs to Southern tribal sheikhs serves to appeal to those sheikhs who stood between David’s kingdom and Egypt, his chief threat. (Coote, Powers, Politics and the Making of the Bible)

At Shechem we hear God grants Abram the land. So God has said he would bless Abram as the father of a great nation, that he would bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him, that he would be a blessing to the world and that he would give him the land.

One of the things we contemplated on our trip to Israel and we will continue to contemplate during lent is the concept of Holy Land. What makes land sacred? It seems that most of the time, we call land sacred when we have heard a message from God there. We set up altars or churches in places like Plymouth, or Jamestown, or Salt Lake City or Bethel, because God spoke to us there, or spoke to our ancestors there. So sacred land may have something to do with the presence of God, God’s making God’s self-known to us in that place, and it is also connected to the presence of our ancestors. Land is usually recorded as being sacred by those who would benefit from this designation. It may be oral tradition or written, but somebody or some group with power propagates the story in such a way that their power is tied into the story. Story of sacred land will usually justify someone taking or ruling that land. In the case of Abram in Genesis 12, David benefits.

Now is there anything that precedes our ancestors in the land that makes it a place one is more likely to meet God, or feel blessed by God. Most of the time, people will experience blessing from God in land flowing with milk and honey. In other words, the geography and weather are conducive to economic prosperity; there is water and food.

Abram immigrates and comes to a place, which has springs and land for planting crops and raising animals. We hear this same economic theme in our sacred national music: “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain! America, America, God shed His grace on thee.” Sometimes the land may not be that full of resources, but it is the land that saves our life. It is the place we land after we have immigrated or fled, after we have almost died at sea or in the wilderness; We come to a place where we find water or food or safety or shelter or freedom which enables us to go on living.

“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed?” So sacred land may have a connection to God’s word to us, to our ancestors; it is likely to be a land with rich resources; it may be marked by past significant stories of survival. And, it is a place of hope for the future.

Plymouth wasn’t that great a place to land, but it sufficed. Arizona wasn’t a land for easy prosperity either, but the Hopi found a sacred home there. The Hopi have a beautiful creation story where they go through a series of worlds which they try on for size, kind of like “Goldilocks”, experiencing problems in each which brings about the world’s destruction, and their need for rebirth and immigration to a new world. Finally they come to their current home, in the highlands of Arizona. They are given the gift of farming corn by God. Since it is such a sparse land, with little rain, the people will not indulge in hedonism or materialism like before, so this land works just right. Of course, the land we find sacred is likely to be where we are, but not always. In some cases, for instance when we are sent off in exile from a land where we once knew life, family and prosperity, sacred land will be back at that other place, at the old home, or the original home.

Or sacred land may be what we search for: a land we can call our own, a land out ahead of the current messed up land we live in. We may not feel so blessed now, but when we get there, up there, over there, in the future, we will be blessed. Sacred land may be more hope than reality. It occupies the sacred space of the future hope, the promised land. I may not get there with you said Martin Luther King, Moses did, but we as a people will get to the promised land.

Most of the time, it is difficult to consider land sacred when we haven’t lived there long enough to get to know it, to build a family and a life there, to bury our dead there. We wander in the hills or mountains after sheep or cattle and discover sacred beauty, we feel blessed. So Moses is tending sheep and sees the burning bush way up the mountain and takes a hike. Ansel Adams wanders around his California and comes across Yosemite and says, “No temple made by man can compare.” I was rather surprised by my reaction visiting sacred spaces in Israel and Palestine. I realized that places where some have experienced God are not as important to me as those places where I have experienced God. And since I am a Californian, I have experienced the presence of God most powerfully here: In Big Sur, Joshua Tree at night, in the Sierra Nevada, in this church.

Another frequent ingredient to sacred land is where our loved ones have bled and died. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “… in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Chief Seattle, at a meeting called to discuss concession of native lands to white settlers, was recorded as speaking these words: “We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Ever part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.”

Often we designate land as sacred by structure we erect. Then we make structures and monuments to commemorate and thank the God who has blessed us, who has seen us through the wilderness and war, and then those symbolic structures become sacred as they point to the sacred. Usually those structures are controlled by the people in power, or the ideology emanating from within them supports those in power. If they don’t, then they are usually destroyed, or pressure is put on the people in that community until they shrink and a new community more acceptable to the status quo arises in its place. Where the Jewish temple of Herod stood and then was destroyed by the Romans, Byzantine Christians build a cathedral. Then the Muslims took over and converted the cathedral into a mosque, the Dome of the Rock. And we all trace our ancestry back Abram who receives a blessing from the Creator God.

What is God supposed to do with that, with a mosque on the temple mount? What is God’s opinion when each consecutive army believes it is blessed by God to drive out the people and faith before, and replace it with their own? As Christians settlers felt God had granted them the land that now makes up the United States, the Native American’s lost their sacred land. We the winners said it was Manifest Destiny, like Abram, as the New Israel, God granted us the land. And we changed the names of their sacred places to things like Devils Post Pile. What is God supposed to do with that? What about a mosque at Ground Zero? With two or three different groups of people who want to and do live in the same land, who each consider that land sacred? Is land more sacred than peace? Unfortunately, the history of the world says yes, land is more sacred than peace. And the Bible says yes, too, land is more sacred than peace until Jesus.

Now land is only one of the things that are passed on as blessing. Land, law, blood, and language typically delineate who is in and who is out. But Jesus does away with all of those. They are no longer needed for us to receive a blessing. Faith in Jesus is enough. When Jesus converses with the woman at the Well she asks him, “Where is the proper place to worship God? Where is the true sacred space?”

John 4: 20 -24
20] Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
[21] Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
[22] You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
[23] But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
[24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
God then is no longer located in one place, but the Spirit of the Creator of all is in all, and through all. Through Christ, the sacred becomes wherever we are open to the Spirit and truth.

Spirit of God is land in our soul. By God’s grace, whoever we are, wherever we are as we let go of our grip on things, repent of our fear and selfishness, we prepare the soil of our soul for planting and production of fruit of the spirit. May everywhere we walk be holy ground.