- Parish House
The Rt. Rev. Larry R. Benfield
175th Anniversary of Christ Church, Little Rock
In recent months my life has felt too messy and complicated and out of control, so during a few of those days when we were trapped in our houses by winter weather, I started cleaning out my attic. I longed for the sense of order that such work brings. It was the first time I had even thought about doing so in the fifteen or so years that I have lived in my house, and it is an activity I commend everyone to do, if not every fifteen years, then every twenty-five or fifty or 175. Prioritize possessions. Find a use for what needs to be saved. Figure out what our descendants will really need after we die, rather than simply fight over. Give away what is no longer needed. It sounds simple, but it is hard work.
I found box upon box of things that had been tucked away for years and that contained stuff in the “must get rid of” category. But, as I quickly learned, you can find life and memory and hope in some of the most unlikely of objects.
For me, it was a small brown paper bag, now about fifty years old, the kraft paper of the bag turned brittle, inside of which were three rocks. I remember the day when that bag was brand new. My dad had driven me from East Tennessee across the state line into North Carolina on a day trip. He had taken me to the area near the town of Spruce Pine to show me where he had been born and spent the first twelve or so years of his life. We stopped at a rock shop, that area having lots of such shops because of its geologic diversity—even the hope of crude sapphires in some creek beds—and at the rock shop he purchased those three rocks for me, representative of rocks you could find on your own if you only knew where in western North Carolina to dig. On the trip back to our house, in the back seat of the car, I held on to those rocks tenaciously, and afterwards put them in the same shoebox with my other, small-boy valuables. Although I did not recognize it at the time, they were in some sense a tangible memory of where my family came from, and probably in my father’s mind, what he hoped would continue to be, that is, a son in the future connected with his past in the shape of something as enduring as a stone, a rock hewed out of the mountainous area from which his father had come.
You can rightly guess that I did not throw away those rocks. They—and the brown paper bag that holds them—are for me living stones, containing both memory and hope. They are as powerful a way that my father still lives as anything of his that I own—rocks, of all things, transcending generations.
In this evening’s reading from the book of Genesis, Jacob has his very first direct encounter with God as he takes a journey through the desolate Middle Eastern landscape. This is the same Jacob who had deceptively gotten his father’s blessing at the expense of his elder brother. Yes, God will be with scoundrels as well as with saints. Two extremely significant things happen in this lesson. It helps to be a Hebrew scholar to notice the first, and those scholars tell us that the same word in Hebrew for the English word “place” is used six times in the lesson. In biblical studies, that is a big deal. Repetition means that the word is important, making a point. And the point is that this anonymous piece of real estate on Jacob’s journey through the wilderness is being turned into “place.” Anonymity is being transformed into something holy. The second significant thing is a bit more tangible. Jacob finds a rock, rests his head on it, dreams of the connection between the commonplace and the divine, and then sets that rock up as a marker of that liminal encounter. He calls the place Bethel, or in English “House of God.” An ordinary object, a rock, turns into a marker of the gate of heaven, the threshold between secular and sacred.
That is not the last of such stories of the anonymous wilderness being turned into sacred, liminal places where God is encountered. In 1712 we are told that Jean-Baptiste de la Harpe saw that rock on the south side of what we now call the Arkansas River, and thus began a city. And then on March 10, 1839, in this town by then called Little Rock, a group of lay people and a missionary bishop on his own journey through this particular wilderness, were so certain that this place could indeed be the threshold between secular and sacred that they gathered for prayer and organized an Episcopal congregation. Soon they set up stones in form of buildings, not simply to commemorate the event, but instead to offer a threshold across which people could journey from secular to sacred, a place not simply for the celebration of memory, but for the offering of hope as well.
They were like a dad taking a bill from his wallet and purchasing three rocks, and putting them in a brown paper bag, and lovingly handing them to his son so that one day in the future when the son needed it, when he felt that life was too complicated or indecipherable, he could once again hold in his grasp a marker that all things can become holy when offered in love. That is what those lay people and their missionary bishop did on that day.
And here we are today 175 years later, commemorating the event. It would be tempting to turn this gathering into the anniversary party of a dowager. The scary thing about that approach is that, as is the case with birthdays of dowagers, the main conversation whispered around the edges of the room would be the speculation on when the old lady is going to die and the estate be settled. When could someone finally put up something useful, such as another downtown hotel, on this site?
But I remind you that that is not why Jacob set up that pillar in the wilderness. It is not why the first epistle of Peter talks about living stones. It is not why the founders of Christ Church established this parish in the first place. This is not anniversary of a dowager.
It is instead a chance to make certain that the markers are still standing and pointing in the right direction, a chance to remind people that the good news is proclaimed, not in anonymous vagueness, but in very real places in the midst of real lives and experiences of hurt and loss. It is a chance to recommit ourselves to the opportunity to give people a chance to step across a threshold from the secular to the sacred, to find a transcendent experience of God. That is what the church can do in every location in which it has planted itself. We can make the good news less abstract and more concrete. We can find ways that resurrection is experienced in the here and now. What we have been offered, we can offer to others. It is memory AND hope, after all. In his own way, that was what Jacob was signifying when he decided that his encounter with God was powerful enough that he could do nothing less than call the unlikeliest of places the House of God, and erect a pillar so that future people could dream their own dreams of what it looks like to stand at the gate of heaven.
A congregation, or an entire diocese for that matter, has some serious work to do when it reaches the milestone that we have reached. Are the stones that we have erected still serving as the markers that are needed for the next 25 or 50 or 100 years? Do some of them need to be reset lest they turn into leaning tombstones that remind passersby of death rather than resurrection? What will we hold on to? What needs to be given away? How we answer those questions will determine if there will be a 350th anniversary celebration of this parish and of the Episcopal Church in Arkansas.
What I know is this: I have discovered in my life that small gestures can have great meaning, as when a dad hands his son something as small as a bag of rocks, a gift that has power fifty years later. I have discovered that in spite of the advances in civilization, people still hurt and we can still be cruel, and when communities of Christians offer unconditional love to the hurting, people will find peace. I have discovered that we need the chance to cross the threshold into sacred space now as much as we ever did in the past, and the holiness of what Jacob did at Bethel has been replicated every time a medieval cathedral or clapboard frame church has been built.
And finally, I have discovered that when Christians in community say our prayers and trust in our own resurrection and believe that we have a calling to act with lovingkindness to restore our relationships with one another, then the church has a future just as much as it has a past. Of these things I am certain, and they constitute the rocks that I will hold on to for as long as I live. Amen.