Diocesan Convention Homily

Larry R. Benfield
Genesis 35:1-20
19 February 2022

Every time something significant happens in the world, authors start trying to make sense of the event through fiction. Our current pandemic is no exception. In fact, there have already been debates on whether it is too early to write fiction about Covid-19. But that debate has not stopped authors such as Gary Shteyngart, who has published Our Country Friends, his novel about a half dozen people who left New York City in early 2020 to ride out the pandemic in the country. Long story short: not all of them survive. At the end of the book, the survivors go to the hospital after the death of their friend to pick up his personal belongings. The hospital employee hands jewelry and clothing to them in a plastic bag and advises them not to open it; it might be dangerous for their own future health.

It is a powerful image. Those tokens of the past would not continue to give life, the way that we often hope that mementoes will. The survivors would not be returning to the life and times they once knew and enjoyed. The world was going to look different. They would have to find new ways to live and new people with whom to journey for the rest of their lives.

Shteyngart’s novel is in some small way a retelling of today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis in the Daily Office lectionary. In the biblical story, Jacob has faced challenges in the past, but it is time for a new beginning. He even gets a new name: Israel. As is so often the case in holy scripture, the admonition of God to Jacob is to arise and go someplace new. In this case, Jacob is to go to Bethel. Or to translate the Hebrew word “Bethel,” Jacob is to set foot in a new place that will be known in the future as the “house of God.”

And look at what he does as a part of his journey to find the house of God: he announces to his people with him that it is time to set aside the gods they had once worshipped, so they change their clothes and give him their jewelry, and he buries those objects before leading them on a journey and getting a new name for himself and consecrating a new altar in a new location. The old ways no longer work.

Jacob’s story is the story of what has so often happened in religious history: God calls on people to arise and go to some new place. It happened famously to Abraham, who perhaps never quite settled down in his journey. It happened to the Israelites as they left enslavement in Egypt and headed to a new land. It happened in the life of Jesus as he apparently spent somewhere between one and three years as an itinerant preacher, always on the move in an attempt to bring health and wholeness to those around him. He did not find his calling by staying where he had grown up.

And let’s admit it; it is happening to us right now. For those of us who grew up in the church, and I must admit especially for those of us who decided on a clerical vocation a generation ago, we have long had the security of an institutional church and established ways of doing things. What has happened to us over the past two years is nothing less than a death and, I also think, a call from God to arise and go someplace new to find where God is dwelling. In 2022 and 2023 and into the future, where is the house of God?

I am confident that we are going to have to bury a lot of our old gods, our old ways of doing things. Digging a grave is hard work that none of us wants to do. Metaphorically speaking, we will have to find new places to construct altars, new places where we discover sacred space. Perhaps a storefront. Perhaps a house. Perhaps in a church with no resident priest. To take that journey is to trust that God has something good in store for us, that we will find where God dwells. It is in new sacred spaces that we will discover other people yearning for new life as well. After all, everyone has been scarred by what has taken place these last few years. When we find those people, we will have found the house of God. And having found them, our call is to invite them into this community of faith that means so much in our own lives.

As much as anyone, I want church life to return to what it once was. I know how to do traditional church, as I call it. Give me a Hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer, and I can preside at a rather good liturgy. As I have heard said, we Episcopalians can do a great funeral. But this biblical lesson today, and the secular lessons we have learned these past two years, are telling me that God is admonishing us to arise and go someplace new. Don’t be burdened by the old gods. They can be dangerous. Put them in a bag and bury them. The book of Genesis is telling us that funerals are not the end, but rather the beginning of something new.

In the coming months and years, we have a chance to experience good news ourselves and share good news with others if we are simply willing not to be afraid of the future, but rather to go into it with confidence that wherever we find ourselves has the potential to be known as Bethel, the house of God. The house of God won’t look as it always has looked. The house of God can have digital walls as well as stone walls. The house of God will be filled with new faces if we are willing to be hospitable, if we are willing to simultaneously hold on to what is essential and bury what is idolatrous. And the hard thing is to figure out which is which.

What is it going to be like to have a new name? A new way to look at people whom in the past we have often looked over or beyond? A new way to act as the church? I cannot predict what the details might look like in any congregation. But given the biblical witness, and given the truth that scripture is holy precisely because it is still speaking to us, I think that this horrible pandemic has had at least one good outcome; it is allowing us to hear the voice of God to arise and go to a new place, go to Bethel, and find a way to construct a new altar, a new place where God will be worshipped, a place where people who are on a journey will gather and rest, and share stories and holy food and holy drink, and most importantly, share love without condition, so that the risen Christ will be seen yet again in our midst. Amen.