Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




A Pillar, A Drink, Some Oil: Working on a Building

Sunday, August 6, 2006



Genesis 35: 1-14


Rev. Dean Snyder


During these four Sundays of August I would like to look with you at some passages of Scripture on the general theme of “Working on a Building.” I want to look biblically for the reason why we have churches and mosques and synagogues and temples, why we have buildings we call “houses of God.” I have selected this theme for what I assume are obvious reasons.


The first story I would like us to look at together is the story of Jacob building an altar and then a pillar in a place called Luz, renamed by Jacob “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”


Now, I don’t know if you have ever noticed that, in the Bible, most of the families whose stories are told are what we today would call “dysfunctional families.” Jacob was the product of such a dysfunctional family. His father Isaac, old and blind, had an unusually fierce craving for red meat. He himself was too old to hunt anymore. Jacob’s older brother, Esau, was an athlete and a hunter. He loved to hunt and he kept his father supplied with meat. Esau became Isaac’s favorite.


Jacob, his younger twin brother who was not strong or a hunter, was his mother Rebekah’s favorite. Rebekah conspired with Jacob to trick Isaac, his father, into giving Jacob his paternal blessing rather than Esau, and it created bad blood between two brothers and the family.


So Jacob left home. As he was leaving, a young man with nothing except his father’s blessing that he obtained under false pretense, Jacob, sleeping one night, his head on a rock, had a religious experience. In a dream, God promised to be with him and to bless him all the days of his life. That’s the place he called Bethel, the house of God because he had experienced the presence of God there.


Now it is many years later, and Jacob is an old man. He has lived his life away from his family and his brother. He is retuning to his home to face his brother and the sins of his youth. He is traveling with his household of children and grandchildren and their servants and their herds and their many possessions that he has accumulated during his lifetime. They are an army of people returning to his homeland and his home place that he had left decades ago alone and with nothing.


When he and his family came to the place Bethel where he as a young man had experienced God’s blessing upon his life, Jacob feels in his heart that it is true that in spite of everything that has happened to him, in spite of everything he has done right and wrong in his life, in spite of how hard life has often been, in spite of his failures and set-backs and grief and disappointments (and there were many in his life), the old man Jacob now feels that God truly has blessed him through it all.


He wants to build something to honor and thank the God whose blessing he experienced in a dream years before in this place. At first, he builds an altar, but that is not enough.


So then he also builds a pillar there. He finds a tall, thin stone. He has his sons and his grandsons gather rocks and create a base for the stone. He plants the pillar, the stone, in the middle of the rocks, pointing skyward, pointing toward the heavens.


This apparently was not an unusual thing to do. Archeological digs in Israel and Jordan have uncovered many such pillars quite a few that predate the biblical times of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob: pillars placed in the earth, pointing skyward, that go back to the earliest days of humanity.


These pillars were planted by early man and woman as signs that a person had somehow had an experience of holiness, of otherness, of mystery. Someone had the experience of the divine in this place, and they wanted to mark that place as holy ground, a holy place where they had somehow been touched by transcendence, by something bigger than the earth and life itself.


These pillars were the first steeples, pointing skyward, as reminder that there is more to life than meets the eye.


After Jacob had built the pillar at Bethel, he needed some way to celebrate it, to ritualize it. He needed a ritual. So what he did was to gather his family around him, his children and his grandchildren, and he poured out a drink offering on the rock. Then he poured oil on the rock.


These were a desert people. When an honored guest came from a long way through the desert to visit you, the first thing you did when your guest arrived was to give him or her something to drink. It still happens in the Middle East today. When you go to a hotel in the Middle East, when you’re in the lobby, the first thing the hotel does is to bring you something to drink, because as you traveled over the desert you became thirsty. The first thing you received was the offering of something to drink. Then, because you had come through the desert, you were given oil to wipe and to smooth your skin where the blowing desert sand had chafed and turned them rough. You were given oil to soothe yourself.


So Jacob gave to God in Bethel the symbolic gifts presented to an honored guest who had come a long way through the desert to be with him…drink and oil.


Jacob, as he looked back over his life and realized that through it all he had been blessed by God, Jacob needed a steeple and he needed a ritual to acknowledge the presence of God in his life and his world.


So much of what we do in this place is so primal, so elemental, so basic to the stuff of life. So much of what we do here in this place is archetypical; it is pre-rational. It is primitive, dressed up in theological language to make it seem less visceral and earthy.


But so much of what we do in this place is really rooted in the days when our ancestors were really just beginning to walk upright and had brains not much larger than oranges. This is primal stuff – raising steeples that point toward the sky. Our steeples may be bigger and more complicated and more dramatic and more expensive than Jacob’s, but we are doing the same thing here that Jacob did. Looking at places in our lives when we have had a sense of otherness and mystery and knowing that there is more to life than just the daily “daily” that absorbs ourselves – there is more meaning here. There is some sort of continuity that existed before we got here and will be here after we’re gone. To recognize that we need to leave something in place, we need to point something toward the sun as a sign of our experience of mystery and awe, of holiness and otherness. So we build our steeples.


Then we need our rituals, which really beneath the nice prayers that we have written to accompany them lately, which really are very primitive and go far back into our human history, almost to the time before we were human. Like midwife priestesses of millenniums ago, we wash babies. We wash newborn babies like midwife priestesses and we hold them high for the world to see. Humanity has done this ever since we’ve been human.


We come to church. Of all things that we do when we are in church, we eat and drink, for God’s sake, and insist that holiness and otherness enter into our lives, our ordinary lives, through this bread and this cup. We celebrate children becoming adolescents, bring them to the front of this church, and lay hands on them, and say to them: “You are now adults responsible for the decisions that you make in life.” We bless people’s desire to love one another and to be lovers. We bless the promises they make to each other of faithfulness in this space. We gather to offer the spirits of our loved ones who have died into the keeping of their mysterious Maker.


We dress them up into polite ceremonies, but these are very primitive things that human beings have needed to do ever since we have been human. We need a space to do them in, a space where we believe that the divine is in some way present in the midst of all of these ordinary, earthy things in life, that we are somehow touched by something beyond ourselves that was before we were and will be after we are gone.


This is why religion is so powerful, because it is so primitive and so deep down within our human spirits and human bodies. This is why religion is so powerful and has the capacity to bring integration into the broken places in our lives, to bring places of healing where we have been ill or sick or disturbed. Religion has the capacity to call forth from us the courage and the power that we did not know was within us.


But it is also the reason that religion is so dangerous, as we in our time have reason to be all too well aware of, and why religion and reason always need to walk hand-in-hand, as John Wesley taught us, because either religion or reason without the other has the capacity to be cruel. Religion without reason has the capacity to destroy, and reason without religion has the capacity to be cruel.  


So, what we have here is this place where we come to eat bread and wine and to wash babies and to bless the vows that couples make to one another and to mourn for our dead. This is a pillar, a drink and some oil. This is the place we have stopped to experience the presence of mystery and transcendence and continuity in our lives.


This is why we gather here to celebrate the passages of our life, because in the midst of hard times, in spite of our sins and betrayals, our failures and regrets, still we have sensed the presence of a mystery beyond our own selves in our lives.


We need a place where we can remember that there is a God who surrounds us, who works through the odd circumstances of our lives, our dysfunctions as well as our functions. We need a place where we can remember that there is a mystery that will take what we offer to God and will bless us so that we will know that we are standing on ground that is holy, where God is present, where God is in the mix of all of the ordinary stuff of our living.