First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
June 10, 2018
“Sacred Spaces”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Genesis 32:22-31 (NRSV)

22The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Been in any sacred spaces lately? I guess to answer that question, we should define “sacred space.” How should we do that? How should we define “Sacred Space?”

Well, over the past ten days, I’ve been in a variety of spaces that I would consider sacred

I’ve been back to the camp that got this whole “you should be a minister” thing started. It was for the 50 year anniversary of the camp program that I had the privilege of directing for five years. The people who planned it really didn’t want it to be a reunion but it was. It was also the opportunity for us to experience MADD camp again, as adults, in very different times in our lives, with some of the same people and some who had come before and after us… all in the same location.

It was such a treat to walk upon the soil that had once held my footprints in snow and autumn leaves and sand as I traveled from cabin to cabin at night, making sure the campers were actually in the cabins they were supposed to be. It was a blessing to walk again, upon the stone floor of the chapel, to gather, once again, in a circle and sing familiar songs. But there were some new things: the opportunity to preach and serve communion alongside one of my former camp kids, who is now an ordained UCC minister, serving a church in downtown Denver; the occasion to walk a labyrinth that has been added since my departure almost 30 years ago. There were tears and laughter and memories shared. There were new life insights realized and, at the end of the week, there were plans to go forward in life differently because of what had happened there.

This place, this camp, is a sacred space, much like Camp Mimanagish is for this conference. As we gathered early on in our time together last week, we were invited to share just what it is that makes a space sacred. (much like what you shared this morning)

The other Sacred Space I walked through last week was the neurologic intensive care unit at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. It was a very different space than camp. Instead of leaving footprints in crunchy, sandy soil, I walked upon hard, cold tile. Instead of each day’s end marked with the soft glow of moonlight shining through the Ponderosa Pines, the darkened rooms were illumined with the never-ending, flashing lights of life-sustaining equipment and monitors. Instead of jeans and t-shirts, the people all wore different colored scrubs, except for the ones who donned long white jackets. Some came bearing good news, others not. But, just like camp, there were tears and laughter and memories shared. There were new life insights realized and, at the end of the week, there were plans to go forward in life differently because of what had happened there. It, too, is a sacred space.

Sacred space, it seems, really has not so much to do with the space itself but what happens there. Lives are opened up and examined. New friends are made. Old and existing relationships are deepened. Memories are re-visited and sorted out…. What really does matter in this life? Questions, sometimes really hard questions are asked…. And sometimes answered. And sometimes those answers are not what we thought we’d hear or wanted to hear. Sometimes the questions asked in sacred spaces aren’t answered until later, perhaps even much later but there’s something about a sacred space, whether it is physical or eventual, where it’s safe to ask even the hardest of questions and speak the most difficult of truths.

Sacred space is often the place where life-changing events take place. So it’s not so much about the space… the color of the carpet or the lighting or the artwork or the music but about the willingness of those who enter it to be vulnerable, to respect the tenderness that is laid out, to take a few chances, to be open to transformation. A space becomes sacred when those who enter it are willing to face the struggle and recognize that God is part of it.

It’s easy to look at beautiful, peaceful, places and see them as sacred. How many of you, when I first mentioned sacred space thought of a mountain meadow or a clear blue mountain lake or gently flowing river? Why not? After all, aren’t these the images of the 23rd Psalm: green pastures and still waters? But remember that the Psalm also speaks of the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of enemies. How many of you thought of sacred space as a desert, or a dark valley or a room filled with those you would consider enemies?

When we go back and look at the faith stories of sacred spaces, they are as likely to be places of strife and anguish as they are the serene and peaceful: Moses’ burning bush; the wilderness in which the Hebrews wandered for 40 years; the wilderness where Jesus was confronted with temptation; the cross upon which he died; the tomb from which he arose.

That which makes a space sacred isn’t so much about it’s décor, the contrasting colors and the architectural lines and the acoustics that allow the sound to reverberate just so. That which makes a space sacred is often the strife that takes place in some of life’s most challenging moments. That which makes a space sacred is in the realization that somehow, somewhere, some way, God was/is there in the midst of some of life’s most challenging moments…. Moments of contrast and the boundaries shaped by hard decisions, the sounds of uncertainty reverberating in our souls seeking the resonance that gives assurance. Sometimes that which makes a space sacred is the often not-so-gentle stirring of God’s spirit, shaking things up so that we’ll see it’s time for transformation. Sometimes that which makes a space sacred is the awareness of God’s presence because the transformation we are facing will be just too much to bear without a little help from the one who loves us enough to create us.

There was a sacred space in the wilderness along the shores of the River Jabbok. It was at this place that our ancestor in faith, Jacob, was said to have wrestled with God. And that struggle, along with the struggles that preceded it were told to have transformed Jacob. He walked differently. He presented himself differently to the world. He was even given a new name. He went on to meet and be reconciled to the brother from whom he was running. The place was not the serene, comforting place we often bring to mind when we think about sacred places. It’s a place of strife, of struggle, of eye-opening, life-changing transformation. It’s a place of new-birth, where God is the mid-wife that carries those who enter from one way of being to another.

We may never wrestle with God in the same way as Jacob, but we will, if we haven’t already, wrestle in the night with the challenges of life: health, family strife, financial uncertainty, personal and social implications of political decisions, the impact of decisions we made long ago or just yesterday. Those all have to potential to be sacred spaces, if we recognize the presence of the Holy One in the midst of it all and be open to the transformation God is at work trying to bring about in the midst of that struggle.

My guess is, you’ve walked in sacred spaces recently as well. Perhaps you have known it… maybe not. The call of our faith is to seek how God is present and active and moving in the events of our lives… not just the peaceful, gentle, calm places… but those places of strife and struggle. It’s what is at the core of faith. It’s the story of the past … of God hearing the cries of the enslaved and oppressed… of God leading people through wilderness journeys …. Of God saying “no” to the places of evil and fear… the voice that brings life out of death and turns the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of resistance and life. It’s not the beauty of a place that makes it sacred. It’s the recognition that God has been present that turns even the most devastating of landscapes into a sacred place.

May this week bring you into many sacred spaces.