Surely the Presence of God is in this Place

Genesis 28:10-17; Matthew 18:19-20

It has been said that when we sing, we pray twice. It is also true that our hymns are one of the most tangible ways we express our beliefs and find strength in times of trial. Over the past two weeks, we have pondered what it means to affirm “America the Beautiful” and how we might live out Katherine Lee Bates’ sentiments as we seek a truly just society. We have been “Marching to Zion” and on the way discovered that faith finds its fullness in compassionate action.

Today, we reflect on Lanny Wolfe’s hymn, “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place.” Asked to write a hymn for the dedication of a church building some forty years ago, Wolfe was inspired by Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” The church is more than a building. Brick and mortar and our white steeple church can be beautiful, but church is ultimately about people like us gathered for prayer and praise. It is in moments of worship, mission, service, and study, that we discover God is with us, or as Lanny Wolfe proclaims:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings.
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
In the midst of His children the Lord said He would be.
It doesn’t take very many, it can be just two or three.
And I feel that same sweet spirit that I felt often times before.
Surely I can say I’ve been with the Lord.

God is in this place. God is here at South Congregational Church. And, God is everywhere. That’s the meaning of “divine omnipresence,” wherever we are, God is present.

If we soar into the heavens, God is here. If we descend into the depths, God is here. If we hide ourselves in the darkness of depression, God is here, so says the author of Psalm 139.

The two poles of experiencing God are in community and in solitude, and we need both. When we come to church, we need to expect great things of God and great things of ourselves. We may be a motley group, quirky, finite, imperfect, broken, sometimes in conflict with one another over church business, but here in worship, we are challenged to see only Jesus in ourselves and one another, and to follow God’s path, not our self-interest. “To see God’s glory in each face,” even the one whose approach to faith differs from our own.

In worship, we gather to proclaim a reality that is countercultural – amid the acrimony of the culture wars and political campaigns, the greed and materialism of our culture, the focus on youth and beauty to the detriment of age and wisdom, we affirm that everyone is a child of God, that lifestyle is secondary to community, that love conquers all, and that sacrifice and mission, not possession or power, are the enduring realities of life. We learn that forgiveness transforms enemies into companions and grace enables us to let go of the past and recognize that now – and God’s coming future – are only moments that matter. Together as a community, we listen for the rustling of angel’s wings and pray that like God’s angels, we might become messengers of grace to one another and the world.

Jacob’s dream of a ladder of angels is one of my favorite scriptures. Jacob is in trouble. His shady business practices are catching up with him. So far he has been the Teflon man, getting away with fraud and misrepresentation, but on the horizon he must make amends with those whom he has hurt emotionally and financially, and he is afraid. Anxious about what the future will bring, he goes off by himself, makes a stone for his pillow, and then dreams of a ladder of angels ascending to heaven and descending to earth. He hears a divine promise that in spite of his shady business practices, God will bless him and in that blessing, the world will be transformed. He can’t imagine that God is planning to use him for good, but he accepts the amazing grace he receives. Jacob awakens, filled with awe, and stammers: “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.”

He calls the place, Beth-El, the house of God. He erects a pillar and calls the place sacred, but more than that, Jacob dimly realizes that every place is Beth-El, every encounter is holy, every situation is filled with God’s light.

As a pastor, I have discovered Beth-El, God’s light, in all sorts of unexpected places – in a hospital room where a child is being treated for cancer; at the deathbed of a beloved spouse and parent; in a prayerful moment when a wayward adult turns her or his life over to Jesus; and in my own sense of utter uncertainty about the future. I have found that God is here as surely as God is present in those joyful moments: at the birth of child or grandchild, sunrise on Craigville Beach, or giving thanks for a faithful spouse and loving friends.

Today’s scripture calls us to proclaim throughout the day, “God is in this place.”   And, then in the course of the day, pause and open your senses to the wonder, tragic beauty, and amazing grace of every day, and with Jacob discover that Beth-El, the gate of heaven is everywhere and in everyone, and that our primary task is to bless and love, and share God’s good news of salvation, healing, and grace –

For surely the presence of God is in this place.