August 23, 2015 | 1 Kings 8: 1,6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Many years ago I led a bible study group that met in the sanctuary of the church I was serving at the time. We would pull a circle of chairs together, light a candle placed in the middle of the circle and explore the scriptures being used in the coming Sunday’s service. We met in the sanctuary for the better part of a year, but then for some reason we had to shift locations and we started to meet in one of the other rooms in the church.
I didn’t think much about this change until one day someone in the group made an appointment to see me. She wanted to know if we could move our group back into the sanctuary. When I asked why, she explained that one night when we had been sitting together in the circle, with the candle burning in the center and the lights turned down low, she had a transcendent experience. It felt, she said, as if someone had come up behind her and put their arms around her, drawing her into a warm embrace. It felt as if she was being enfolded in love. She longed to feel that presence with her again. She was convinced that if we set up our chairs in the sanctuary and met together in that same way, she would have the experience again. She would feel close to God.
Many of us feel close to God in the sanctuary of a church. It’s the place we come to quiet our hearts and reconnect our souls, to have our spirits revived and find direction for our lives.
The word sanctuary is actually made up of two words sanctus meaning holy and arium meaning container.
A sanctuary is a container for the holy which interestingly enough is something we have been saying about our entire building over the last few years. And yet for many it’s this room in this building that is clearly identified as the place where the Spirit of God resides. This is the house of our God.
As we’ve been undergoing our renovation this summer a number of people have come into the building and been delighted at what we are doing with the narthex and the new space for the thrift shop and the offices down the hall, and then they turn to me and say “but you’re not changing anything in “there” are you?” while pointing to the sanctuary. What’s surprising to me is that these are people who don’t worship with us on Sunday mornings, and yet the sanctuary is still for them a sacred place.
The Celts call sacred places thin places and as we well know they aren’t just found inside of churches. Barbara Brown Taylor says the world is so full of thin places it’s a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shin on an altar.
We long for sacred spaces in our lives and some say holy ground, sacred space is most longed for and therefore most easily encountered when we are in a crisis.
In the Bible Jacob encounters the holy in a dream when he is running from his brother Esau from whom he has stolen his birthright. Moses discovers holy ground in a burning bush when he is hiding out from the Pharoah. Paul discovers the risen Christ when he is both in a crisis of faith and causing one for others, set out on the road to Damascus on his way to persecute the Christians.
When people are in crisis, God is sought and thankfully often found.
In this morning’s reading in which King Solomon and his people are celebrating the building of the long sought after temple in Jerusalem, what appears to be a high point in the life of the Hebrew people, is actually a moment of crisis as well. Scholars have long agreed that the story of the building of the temple wasn’t actually written until the time of the Babylonian exile, until after Nebuchadnezzar had ravaged Jerusalem, hauled away the leaders and the temple had been destroyed. In other words this story is really about the good ole days when God’s presence filled the brand new temple and God’s role in the saving history of Israel was certain, shared at a time when things weren’t looking so good anymore and there wasn’t that much to celebrate.
The Hebrew people once victorious in their reign over Israel are now defeated: residing in a land far away from the temple in Jerusalem, living in a state of exile, and wondering if God is still on their side. The story of the dedication of the temple is meant to remind them of God’s promises, God’s covenant with God’s people, and to remind them of Solomon and his wisdom. It’s meant to remind them of the law around which their community was formed and the model King Solomon set for their relationships with one another and with god.
It’s meant to remind them God is with them in their alienation and in their distress.
That’s why when king Solomon lifts his voice to pray there’s an element of uncertainty in his voice. He pleads with God to hear the prayers of the people spoken towards the temple. He hopes God will remember the covenant made with King David that there will always be a successor for his throne. He wonders will God dwell on earth? Will God continue to be with God’s people?
These are the questions of a people wrestling with political, social and theological crises. These are our questions when we are wrestling with disappointment and discouragement and disaster in our lives: when the fires are burning and threatening our homes; when we get the diagnosis or when our relationship falls apart; when hundreds of refugees are fleeing their country with no one to take them in; when one country threatens another and innocents are caught in the middle.
These are the questions we ask: are you there God? Are you here with us in our struggle? Can we depend on you? Is your promise really true?
I will never forget the first Sunday after 911. After being overwhelmed by the news of the week, watching those images of the planes flying into the twin towers over and over again and all the chaos and terror that followed, people flocked to church on Sunday morning needing to hear a word of hope; needing to know that evil had not overcome good; needing to know that God did still dwell on earth; needing to be with people who cared. For many the church was the one place they knew they could ask those questions.
In times of crises, one of the things the story of the dedication of the temple tells us is that the presence of the holy can be contained and found in those places the community has set aside as sacred spaces. Which is why from time to time strangers wander in off the street and come into this place just to sit in the pews and pray.
But our reading this morning tells us something else about where God can be found in the emphasis it places on the Ark of the Covenant. Most of you will remember that the Ark of the Covenant is the elaborate box containing the tablets with the 10 commandments inscribed on them and a jar of manna the people were fed in the wilderness. This is the box that the Hebrew people carried through the desert and into the promised land with them, the box containing the law that was placed at the heart of the temple, the holiest of holies.
What this reminds us is not only can divine presence be experienced in our places of worship and in the act of worship itself, but God is also present in the way we live our lives. When we are in right relationship with one another and with the earth, the presence of the sacred is made manifest.
That’s why it’s so powerful when we seek forgiveness from one another or when we stand side by with one another and work for justice and for peace. Many of you will remember how powerful it was to join our first nations brothers and sisters on the walk for reconciliation a couple years ago because god in found in when we are in right relationship. It’s why we need to keep working on those relationships. It’s why how we are with each other when we come to worship and when we volunteer in the thrift shop and when we welcome people into this place is as important as any spiritual experience we have in worship.
God is in this house not only when we worship together but god is in this house when we are reconciled to one another. But Solomon reminds us that ultimately God cannot be contained. God is larger than our churches and larger than us.
And that’s a very good thing to be reminded of in this technological day and age when as one of my colleagues puts it “the room has left the building” when you no longer have to be in the same room as someone to be with them anymore because you can connect with them online, when you no longer have to attend church at 10 am on a Sunday morning to hear what the preacher says because you can download it on the website on Monday morning.
In this day and age we need to be increasingly mindful of the ways people experience the sacred beyond the churches and temples and synagogues in which we have traditionally considered the sacred to dwell.
And yet we also need to be mindful of the ways that people still seek out sacred spaces when they are in crisis and the role we have to play in making those spaces available which is really what our building renovation is all about.
But experiencing the sacred in community and tending this house of our God isn’t just something we need to do so we will find comfort and meaning when we are in crisis; or so we can be uplifted by the spirit when we are feeling depleted and down. It’s something we need to do because it reminds us of who we are and what we are about. It gives us a blueprint for living.
When I was approached by the member of my bible study group who wanted us to return to the sanctuary for our meeting I sympathized with her request. I too have places where I have encountered the holy that I long to return to again and again and again but instead I encouraged her to be open to experiencing the sacred in a variety of different ways. As Solomon has reminded us, God does dwell on earth but ultimately heaven and earth cannot and will not contain the glory of the Lord. Thanks be to God.