Let Us Raise an Ebenezer

Let Us Raise an Ebenezer

The Call of Abram
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot and all the possessions that they had gathered and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran, and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Genesis 12:1-9 (NRSVUE)

Today’s scripture reading is such an important one and has so many wonderful themes within it. We could spend several weeks and still not cover all of them. There is God’s call to Abram and Abram’s courage to follow that call. We could talk about what a covenant is and what it means to our faith. We could dig a little deeper into this “blessing” that God promised Abram and all the families of the earth, and just so you know, that includes you and me! We could talk about how difficult is to face change, or to leave a place that you have always called home. We could talk about starting all over at the age of seventy-five, or who and what we would take with us if we moved away.

What jumped out for me as I was reading today’s story was how twice Abram stopped in the midst of his travels to build an altar. Now if you read more of Abram’s story, you find that he built many more altars throughout his travels. But in today’s reading alone, we hear that: God appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So, in that very place, Abram built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. Then scripture says, From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. 

So, the first altar Abram built was to mark a sacred space where he not only felt the presence of God but where God made a covenant or promise to Abram, promising that the land that he was standing on would be given to his offspring. And the second altar was built because Abram wanted to invoke the name of the Lord, or in other words, Abram wanted a place to worship and pray.

Now you may have noticed that today’s sermon title is “Let Us Raise an Ebenezer.” And you may be wondering who this Ebenezer is. After all, we heard some strange town names in today’s reading, but we didn’t hear anything about Ebenezer. Now many of us, when we hear the name Ebenezer, think of Ebenezer Scrooge. And to be honest, I think the story of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol has given the name Ebenezer quite a negative connotation. Because when we hear the name Ebenezer, we often think of an old man yelling at Bob Cratchit to conserve coal and get to work. The name Ebenezer causes us to think of someone who is unpleasant, miserable, tight-fisted, and stingy. Doesn’t it?

Perhaps you have seen this picture of an old man that usually sits at the back of our church sanctuary, and you think, “Oh, he must be the Ebenezer we are talking about.” He looks quite unpleasant, miserable, tight-fisted, and stingy, doesn’t he? But this gentleman’s name is Ezra Walker. He is the man that built our sanctuary back in 1828. In 1800, there were no digital cameras, so people had to sit still for three whole minutes as primitive photography captured the scene. Now Ezra was not an unpleasant, miserable, and tightfisted person. He was quite kind, so you can’t judge a book by its cover! But to sit still for three minutes, it is easier to sit with a straight face, because you use fewer muscles. That is why in many antique pictures, people look so serious. As you can see, the baby did not sit still.

Okay, so if the man in this picture is not Ebenezer, what is this “Let’s Raise an Ebenezer” all about? Well, the word “ebenezer” means “the stone of help” in Hebrew. And throughout the Old Testament, we hear of people marking sacred spaces or building altars to God. There was Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, the Israelites, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, and Elijah, just to name a few! Altars were often built because they wanted to mark a place where they had heard God’s voice, felt God’s presence, or because they wanted a place to worship and pray. So rather than saying, “Let’s build an altar,” many would say, “Let us raise an ebenezer.”

Now the Old Testament altars were not often finely crafted out of wood, but on the contrary, they were simply a stone set in a special place, and that stone was to be a marker that something special or sacred had happened there. I love the idea that stones were used to set sacred spaces, because, think about it, stones are simple everyday objects. They are a part of God’s amazing creation, and each is beautiful in its own way.

I wonder, have you ever been to the beach, to the desert, to a National Park, or to some other space where you saw a pile of rocks stacked on top of one another? Those are referred to as a “cairn,” and they are often used for very different reasons. In National Parks, cairns or stacks of rocks are used to mark hiking trails. Here in North America, evidence shows that early Native American tribes used stacked rocks to mark burial sites or to create a memorial. And in Judaism, when mourners go to a cemetery, they often leave a rock on the tombstone, sometimes stacked on other rocks to honor the person who has died. Creating cairns also has a spiritual meaning across many cultures, because the act of balancing stones indicates patience and careful physical effort. But in the Old Testament, raising an ebenezer was a little different. An ebenezer was not a stack of rocks like a Carin; it was one rock, placed in a certain place, and once worship happened there, the stone was left to mark that space as holy.

Friends, we experience Holy Ground in our lives all the time, but we don’t always pay attention to it. There are moments in our lives when we feel the presence of God or the movement of the Holy Spirit, and we may stop and acknowledge it, but then we move on to whatever we are doing next.

Today, as you received your bulletin, you also received a stone. In the week ahead, I invite you to use that stone as an Ebenezer or “a stone of help.” You can either use it to make a space that is sacred to you, or you can put it somewhere that you will see it on a regular basis. Now, it’s just a stone, but if you let it, it can become a sacred tool or an ebenezer, “a stone of help” reminding you to stop and take a deep breath, or say a prayer, or simply remember that God loves you just the way you are!

“Let us raise an ebenezer” is a very old phrase. You don’t hear it much in today’s conversations. But to me, it carries with it a holy moment in time and an important piece of our sacred story. Our sending hymn today is called “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Now it might sound familiar to some of you. It starts out like this: Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Well, I was so excited to pick this as our sending hymn, because I knew that the second verse begins like this: Here I raise my Ebenezer. Here by Thy great help, I’ve come. And I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

What a great song to follow today’s theme! But unfortunately, because people no longer know what an Ebenezer is, when I opened the Chalice Hymnal, I found the verse had been changed. Instead of saying, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” it now says, “Here I raise to thee an altar.” Now I fully understand that it ultimately means the same thing, but somewhere deep in my heart, I feel a little sad that we are losing the story of the ebenezer, or the stone of help, because stories are such an important part of our faith, and sometimes the little details do matter.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as we all go out into our busy week ahead, let us raise an Ebenezer! I encourage you to take your stone with you. Find a place that is sacred to you or a place that you will see on a regular basis. You can put it indoors or outdoors. Don’t worry; there are no rules. But when you look at it, remember that as an ebenezer, it is a stone of help, so use it as you may. Perhaps it will be a reminder to stop and smile, appreciating the world around you. Or maybe it will be a place to pray. You may choose to use it as a reminder of the holy ground that is all around you, or a simple reminder that you are amazing. and that God loves you just the way you are! Friends, I know, it is just a simple stone, but believe me, the mystery, and the possibilities that stone holds for you are endless!

My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!


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