Heaven’s Gate

Readings Genesis 28:10-17, John 1:47-end

Sermon – Rev. Kate McFarlane

When you went back to school each September, were you ever given the task of writing a piece entitled ‘What I did on my summer holidays?’ I used to dread it, feeling I never had much to say, but this year I had one brief experience I’ve wanted to tell everyone about, so this morning you are my lucky listeners, like it or not!

Down in Cornwall we visited a sculpture park with some impressive, and a few utterly hideous, works of modern art. The garden itself had beautiful flower borders, majestic trees and amazing views over to St Michael’s Mount, but none of that was what made me truly gasp.

Skyspace was an art installation you reached by entering a fairly modest doorway, and walking down a dark and rather tomblike passage. You emerged from the darkness and confinement into an almost unbearably bright space. It was a smoothly egg-shaped room, completely white and utterly plain with an oval cut into the ceiling through which poured the light from the sun. At first it seemed too much, physically painful in its brightness, and I had to look away, but as my eyes adjusted I could gaze out and up through that oval to the purity and intensity of the blue sky and the endlessly shifting patterns made by the clouds. Suddenly the sky seemed not distant but as if I was immersed in it and held by it.

Of course, I could have looked up at any point that morning and enjoyed the sky above my head. Why was this so different? You’d be entitled to question how this could be called a work of art at all; the sky is hardly the result of any artist’s endeavours. Yet I would say this was the most perfect piece of art I had ever seen, because it focused my attention so completely and helped me to see our world in a new way. It framed a beauty which was already present, but which I so very frequently fail to notice.

It’s very hard to describe, but sitting in that white room, gazing upwards, I experienced a sense of complete serenity, utter tranquillity and yet a sense of wonder and of awe which together spoke to me eloquently, though wordlessly, of the God I seek to serve.

The installation was made by James Turrell, an American Quaker who served a year in prison for his peace activities during the Vietnam War. He has known great darkness, literal and metaphorical and it has stirred him to use his art to help people to see and truly notice light in a new way. He has designed Quaker Meeting houses with similar installations, windows into heaven, within traditionally sacred spaces.

So I’ve been itching to share my wonderful holiday experience with you, knowing, of course, that my words can hardly do it justice, but today’s readings gave me the excuse to try. Here we have Jacob being shown the ‘gate of heaven’, but it’s really significant the context in which he sees it. Jacob wasn’t expecting to encounter God just then, because, at this point in Genesis, he’s busy running away, having betrayed his brother Esau who is now rather keen to kill him. He hasn’t come to a Sanctuary, a shrine. He hasn’t gone on retreat to have a spiritual experience. He’s alone and on the run, sleeping rough, very rough with his stone for a pillow.

Yet it is there, ‘in that place’, that dark, harsh, wild and difficult place that God stands beside him and the gate of heaven opens. The place will come to be holy and be named Bethel, meaning House of God, but surely the point is that the gate of heaven is any place where we realise God is standing beside us. A time of crisis may, in fact, be the time at which we experience, most keenly and most vividly, God giving himself to us.

Our Gospel story tells the same story. The very name Nathanael means ‘God gives’ and what Jesus is giving is the promise that his Gospel, his good news, will open heaven for us. No longer will heaven and earth, God and humans, be kept separate. In the person of Jesus himself the human and the divine meet, never to be torn apart again. God has come amongst us. God has given himself to us completely. We can witness heaven opened.

When I left Skyspace something had changed for me and in me. I looked at the sky with new appreciation. I noticed it in a way I hadn’t done before I entered through that tomblike passageway. I delighted in it and gave thanks for it.

I wonder perhaps if that is not what our times of worship should be like. We can encounter God anywhere, at any time, just as we can look up and see the sky at any moment. But our worship is our ‘skyspace’. It frames God for a moment. It focuses our eyes on God. In church, saying the Confession, our prayer of penitence, we confront the darkness of our world, and of our lives, and are taken through into the light of forgiveness. With the sign of peace we seek to make manifest, to make vividly real,  the loving lives God calls us to, recognising God dwelling right there in our neighbours beside us, and we prepare ourselves to become one body, sharing Christ’s one bread and one cup in communion.

God is not more present in church than he is in every corner of our lives and our world, however dark and barren they may seem, but by framing him for a moment in our worship we can then go out to see him, to apprehend him, to notice his presence more vividly everywhere else.

What beautiful, precious words God speaks to Jacob; ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’ Jacob has discovered the gate of heaven and that gate has not been shut behind him.

I pray today that, in our worship, as we sing ‘Lift up your hearts: We lift them to the Lord’, we will reach up to heaven. As we share the bread and wine, which Jesus gave us so we could enter again and again into the heart of his life-giving story, making it our own, I pray that we will find God stands among us. And as we leave St Mary’s this morning I pray that we will, each of us, know that we do not leave God within these walls but that God goes with us, wherever we go.