Psalm 91:11-15; Genesis 28:10-22
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
March 10, 2019
I grew up in a subdivision named Quail Creek. Now, this was in Oklahoma City of course and I lived there for 18 years. There was a small ditch when ran through a park near my house. The water in it was brackish except after a rain, in which case it was stained red by the Oklahoma clay. It fed into a large manmade reservoir. I guess some people could say it was a creek. I never saw any quail. My friend Andy lives in Glen Ridge Estates in McKinney, a suburb of Texas. A Glen, in this case, refers to the British usage of the word which refers to a narrow valley. A ridge is, well, a ridge. Glen Ridge estates used to be a ranch, so basically a cow pasture. There is not a narrow valley there, and if you have ever been to North Texas you don’t need me to tell you there is no ridge. There are estates, I suppose, if by estates you mean Mc Mansions. My brother has lived in San Antonio for the last 25 years or so and he has spent most of that in the subdivision of Deerfield. Now this one could be close. There was certainly a field there once, although there is not now, and there were almost certainly deer there at some point, although those that are there now are usually seen lying inert by the highway. Across the street from him was the tonier “waters of Deerfield.” This being San Antonio I can only assume that the use of “waters” in the name was intentionally ironic.
So why am I telling you this? Well, it’s simple. America has become a land of subdivisions. Most Americans live in something that probably used to be a cow pasture or a wheat field. The trees, if there ever were any, were clear cut. Houses were built as close to one another as reasonably possible, and then, when finished, the cluster of homes, now a subdivision, was given a name like Quail Creek or Glen Ridge Estates or Deerfield to make them sound peaceful, safe and natural. But the truth of it is they are really not a place at all, at least not in the historical understanding of the term. Nobody is going to move to a subdivision called “Farmer Dale’s Back Hay Field,” or something like that. Regardless most people live in a place whose name has little or nothing to do with the place itself, a place in which nothing in particular has happened for most of human history. Thus most of these places, whether they be in Dallas or Oklahoma City or San Antonio or Fort Smith feel like they are basically the same. They feel this way because they aren’t really a place.
So with this in mind when I go about developing my first subdivision, which I am working on right now, I am just going to call it “a certain place.” Where is your house Phil, people will ask. “A certain place,” I shall reply. And when I sell out “a certain place,” I will build, “the waters of a certain place” across the street. I have lots of good ideas. You may recognize the name that I am using because I have lifted it from this passage from Genesis. As we find Jacob he is on the run. He has stolen his brother Esau’s birthright. He is alone in the world, with no tribe, not much stuff, and perhaps most importantly, no place. Our narrator underscores this twice in the beginning of the story. Where does he arrive? Say it with me, “a certain place.” Then, when he decides to stay there, the narrator just says, he took a stone of that place and used it as a pillow. Where did Jacob arrive? Nowhere. He was nowhere. It was a non-place, and there hadn’t even been a developer through to give it a cool name.
I think we don’t even realize that most of us live in no place. The developers did their best to give our places some gloss, but largely that did not work. There is a suburban malaise that has fallen over people in our country. All the same-ness, all the isolation, these things have taken a toll. My brother left Deerfield a few years ago and moved to downtown San Antonio. Now he lives in a converted factory called “The Candy Factory.” Why is it called the Candy Factory? Well, because that’s what it was before it become lofts. It’s like a place. You can walk from his place to the main square of San Antonio in just a few minutes and there you can find the San Antonio Cathedral which has been there for a couple of hundred years. When you go into the cathedral and walk down the aisle on the right you come to a thick, wooden door. There are holes in the door. Those holes are from the battle of the Alamo. It was fought right there. It is a place.
What makes something a place? For us, in America, it is a history. It is a legacy. And that is what makes this story remarkable, we get to see nowhere become somewhere. How does this happen? Jacob lies down to sleep and has a mystical experience. Here is a man who is nowhere…literally. And he receives a visit from God who has already shown a predisposition toward Jacob. In this vision God tells him, “the land on which you lie, I will give to you and your offspring.” After the vision, Jacob wakes up and remembers the whole thing. And now things are different. Now, this is no longer a certain place, and the rock under his head is not just some random rock. Now this place is something special. So what does Jacob do, he names the place. He calls it Bethel. No place is now a special place.
What does the life of faith do for us in our lives? God has made promises to us, just like he made them to Jacob. And those promises give our lives meaning. They shape how we see the world, and other people and ourselves. But they also give our places meaning. Think about this place. What is this place if not a similar pile of stones to the one Jacob made? We worship in someone’s stone pillar each week! At one time, this was no place. It was a patch of forest. Then, around 1895 some folks got together and they decided their church needed to be something more, and they built this place, and others have added onto it since then. Why? Because this is no longer no place. This is church. This is the place we come to meet God, to be together as a people, to help our neighbors. This is a place because it means something.
Your faith has made other places special to you. Think of them now. Picture them. They are other sanctuaries and churches. They are mountains and rivers and trees. They are houses and roads. The world is littered with stone pillars, some you can see and some which exist only in the mind of the believer. And each one of those pillars is infused with the work of God in the life of another person or people.
My brother’s neighbor Kathy has a name for all the suburbs in Northern San Antonio; all the Deerfields and Waters of Deerfield and their ilk. She calls them Stone Oaks. Now I call every subdivision Stone Oaks. It’s the sort of nice but meaningless name that you give to no place. And guess what you can find if you look carefully around the Stone Oaks of the world, you can find the stone pillars if you know how to see them. You can find the little cross someone left where a loved one died, the bench named after a friend, the church built and planted in the midst of the sprawling subdivision. Stone pillars all of them because God has touched those places and someone thought to mark them. I suppose it is nice to know that God is still making a place for people who find themselves in no place. And I suppose it is nice to know that no matter where we roam in this world we will never be a people without a place, because wherever we go and wherever we live we know one important thing, God is there. And if God is there, we know that sooner or later a stone pillar will follow. Amen.