November 20, 2011
1 Kings 5:1-5, 12-13; 8:1-6, 27-30
As most of you know, we’ve been using the Narrative Lectionary these past several weeks–beginning in Genesis 1 and working our way through some of the key stories of the Bible. After today, we’ll be shifting into the Advent and Christmas season, and we’ll pick back up with the Narrative starting January 8.
Last week, Thomas preached on Ruth. You might not have caught the very beginning of that book: “In the days when the judges ruled . . . ”
In their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites had established a system of judges to help maintain the peace. When conflicts arose, people would take their complaints to an individual who had been designated as a judge. The judge would listen to all perspectives on the situation and then tell the people what they must do. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they continued to use judges as the primary means of governing their society.
But pretty soon, the mumblings began. “Those Perizites have a king. Those Hitites have a king. All the cool people have kings. What’s wrong with us? We should have a king, too.” The people begged their judge, Samuel, for a king. And Samuel gave them a warning from God: a king will send your sons into battle to be killed; a king will take your daughters as his servants; a king will take food from your fields; a king will take your best servants and animals and make them work for him.”
But the people still wanted a king. So God granted them their wish. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king over Israel. And Saul didn’t work out so well, so Samuel anointed David. Which made Saul pretty upset and he spent a lot of time trying to find David and kill him. Finally Saul died in battle and David became king. The whole thing reads something like a soap opera, and it doesn’t settle down once David’s in power. There is still deception and sexual intrigue and abuse of power. And wars. Lots of wars.
Eventually, after more intrigue and brother against brother stuff, David’s son, Solomon, becomes king. And it falls to Solomon to build a temple for God. There were too many wars going on when David was king; he could not build the temple–though he gathered lots of supplies. But Solomon has managed to create a space of peace–at least long enough for the temple to get built.
Up to this point, the Israelites have kept their holy items in a tent–the tabernacle–that they could move around with them during their desert wanderings. But now it is time for a permanent home for the ark of the covenant, a permanent place for the people to worship.
The scripture reading we heard this morning just pulls out some bits and pieces of the story. You can read more details than you want to know about the temples construction beginning in chapter 6 of I Kings–how many cubits was this and that, what materials were used, what was carved in the walls . . . The building of the temple was a huge and expensive project.
The temple itself came, in many ways, to represent the people of Israel. It was a reflection of their identity–an indication of the nature of their relationship with God.
And our holy places, our church buildings, still reflect the identities of the groups that worships there. Thad Holcomb, at ECM, is excited because they are working out the details for the Orthodox congregation in town to use the ECM space–in much the same way that our congregation did before we moved into this building. Thad is glad for the extra income this will bring. Glad to form a relationship with another faith group in town. And glad to work with the patient and kind folks of the Orthodox church. I gather, though, that he is a bit baffled by all of the stuff that they will need to store and set up for worship each week. Screens and icons and robes . . . the “smells and bells” as my seminary professor would say.
Our congregation had a hard enough time setting up chairs each week. I can’t imagine the time and energy it will take for them to get their worship space prepared. Seems like more trouble than it is worth. Except of course it’s not–not for them. These screens and icons and robes are part of their religious identity, part of what reveals to themselves and the world the nature of their relationship with God.
Religious space is important. So important that it sometimes causes controversy. There is a Catholic retreat center not too far from here called Shantivanum. It is a place of legend in circles of “spiritual” folks. And much of the legend revolves around the chapel at the retreat center. I went there for a day with some of my women clergy friends awhile back, and I can tell you that the chapel lived up to the spiritual hype: simple wooden walls and floor, a huge window at the front of the space looking out onto a beautiful garden and pond; the floor tiered down from the entry with a simple altar at the lowest point, front and center, resting on the earth. When you worshiped in the chapel, you sat on a cushion.
I loved this space. I experienced it as holy space. Many, many people felt the same. So I was sad this week to learn that the bishop has taken control of this little retreat center. And for some reason he felt that the chapel did not adequately represent the holy. And so the earthen floor was covered over and the altar was raised. The cushions were taken out and pews were brought in. Now the space is more holy according to some; less holy according to others.
We Mennonites pride ourselves on not caring about such superficial things as buildings. Except, of course, we do. Many Mennonite churches do not have steeples because they are too showy. Many Mennonites walk into a Catholic or Orthodox or Episcopal church and roll our eyes. Then start calculating how many MCC workers we could support with the money it cost to buy that table and those candlesticks.
Why, I wonder, do we get so hung up on worship space? I think it helps to consider what function it is that the holy space is supposed to serve. Looking at today’s scripture reading, I think Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication is quite telling. We heard the beginning of that prayer: “But will God indeed dwell on earth?”
The answer, we gather, is “no.” Because throughout Solomon’s prayer, he acknowledges that God dwells in heaven. So we do not build our temples or our churches as a house for the Divine. I mean, we might use the phrase, “house of God,” but few people would argue that God fully dwells within any particular physical building.
Throughout the prayer, Solomon repeatedly asks God to “hear in heaven.”
When there is no rain and people pray towards this temple, hear them and send rain.
When people have sinned and they pray to you in this temple, hear them and forgive.
If there is famine or plague or mildew or caterpillars or a military attack (yes, in that order) and the people pray with their hands stretched out toward this temple, hear them and act on their behalf.
If even a foreigner hears about your power and prays toward the temple, hear and respond.
This is the heart of Solomon’s prayer: “Hear us!” It seems that the whole elaborate temple structure was constructed as some sort of microphone. As a way for the people’s voices to be heard more clearly in heaven. A way to get God to listen.
I wonder if that is part of our concern with holy space even today. If the icons are not right, God won’t listen. If the person up front is the wrong gender or wearing the wrong clothes, God won’t listen. If the altar is down too low to the ground, God won’t listen. If the candle holders are too shabby, God won’t listen. If the candle holders are too nice, God won’t listen.
I’m going to venture to say that Solomon got the temple wrong. Not the cubits and gold and cedars of Lebanon. I’m sure the temple was a magnificent, beautiful structure. But Solomon got the purpose of the temple wrong.
I won’t spoil the suspense of the biblical narrative by giving away the details of the story, but let’s just say that the temple as microphone model doesn’t work out too well for Solomon.
Solomon was concerned with getting God to hear him. But the truth is that God can hear us just fine from anywhere. Anywhere at all. No matter how softly we are speaking.
God’s concern throughout scripture is not being able to hear us. God’s concern throughout scripture is getting us to listen to God. God speaks in the Garden. God comes in the burning bush. God leads with a cloud and a pillar of fire. God speaks through prophets. God becomes flesh and lives among us as Jesus Christ. It seems that it is God, not us, who needs the microphone in order to be heard.
That’s why I think Solomon got it wrong. The purpose of a holy space is not to allow God to hear us more clearly. The purpose of a holy place is to allow us to hear God.
If we build sacred spaces as an attempt to control the Holy, we are building in vain. Because the almighty and holy God cannot be contained in a box or a room or a building or a nation.
If, on the other hand, we create and inhabit sacred spaces as a way to open ourselves more fully to the presence of God, I believe our efforts will be honored; that we will see or hear or somehow know God is with us.
And, it seems that we can allow each other more room, more freedom in creating these sacred spaces when we can agree that their purpose is to allow us to listen. Since we are each different, it makes sense that our holy spaces will be different. That some of us will listen better sitting on pews and others on cushions. That some of us might respond to icons and ornate altars while others need blank walls and clean lines.
The measure of a holy space is not the presence of God–because God is equally present everywhere. The measure of a holy space is how present we are to God’s presence.
We are entering a holy space–a holy season right now. That’s what “holidays” means, right? Holy days. I know that for some of you, gathering with family is stressful; it does not feel holy. For many of us, the constant sale alerts and catalogs and pressure to buy stuff is stressful; it does not feel holy. And the parties and programs and cards and travel. These so called “holy days” can be anything but.
And so I urge you to consider this question: where is your temple during this holy and hectic season? What space can you create–what space in time, what physical space– that will allow you to listen to the voice of God?
Maybe your space involves smells and bells–we love lighting the advent candles at our house. Maybe your space involves the increasingly cold wind and a good sturdy tree. Maybe your space is quiet time in the morning or family prayer in the evening or a retreat day or brief God-breaks anytime you feel overwhelmed. Maybe your space is here, in this place, with these people, each Sunday morning.
I encourage you to find your temples. To build them yourself if necessary. And to go to them often. Go, be still, and listen.