October 31, 2021
Happy Halloween, everyone! At church, I suppose we should call it All Hallows Eve. This is the eve of All Hallows, or All Saints, Day. Whatever your feelings about Halloween—about haunted houses and scary costumes and ghost stories—this is, for many, a holy time of year. It is a time that many believe the spiritual world and physical world overlap; a time that the separation between heaven and earth is thin—so thin you can see right through it. It is a holy, sacred time.
In addition to All Saints, we, as a church, honor other days as well, such as Christmas and Easter. We may have sacred times that are more personal for us, too: birth dates, death dates, anniversaries. Spaces in time that feel set apart, that draw us out of ourselves and closer to God.
What is a sacred time for you?
In our scripture today, the Israelites are also celebrating a holy, sacred time. We know by the date given in the scripture (and by “we” I mean that the biblical scholars that I read and listen to) that this is when the Festival of Booths happened. This is one of the three biggest festivals for the Israelites; one of the three times each people were expected to come and gather in Jerusalem. It was a celebration of God’s presence with the people as they journeyed through the wilderness. They build makeshift shelters, booths, as a reminder of the temporary dwellings in the wilderness and of God’s presence with them. So the Israelites are gathering to dedicate the newly-built temple during a sacred, holy time in their calendar.
In addition to sacred days, we also, in our lives, have sacred objects. Some people find more significance in objects than others, but most of us have items that are special. I have my cross necklaces that my dad made for me; I feel an extra sense of his and God’s presence with me when I wear those. We have things at our church building with special meaning: our cross here that was made for us that represents our time of worship together, our peace lamp which connects us to other Mennonites across the country who have similar lamps lit during their worship. You may have your own sacred objects–items that are connected to special people or places, objects that remind you of God’s presence and help you feel more closely connected to God.
What is a sacred object for you?
Certainly, the Israelites had sacred objects. Their most sacred objects are carefully carried into the temple: the tabernacle, the holy vessels, the ark—and within the ark are the tablets that the ten commandments are written on. These objects are considered to be so holy that the ark is taken into the holy of holies. It’s kind of an odd image here where the poles on the ark are too long to fit inside the room; they are sticking out. The poles are permanently attached to the ark and they are so long because the people who carried the ark needed to be able to keep their distance from it. There’s another story in scripture where someone is struck down dead because they touched the ark thoughtlessly. So the poles are so long so the people carrying the ark can transport it without being too close to it. This is a sacred object that is placed in the temple.
So we have holy times. We have holy, sacred, objects. And of course, we have holy places.
I’ve been told by more than one person who has been in this building that this space feels holy. That this space has a good spirit, a sense of peace and prayer to it.
I’ve been to places where I’ve sensed that holiness, where the space seemed sacred. And I imagine many of you have experienced those places as well, where the air just feels a little bit different, where there is a divine energy that you don’t sense in other places. Some of those places are in nature; places that you stumble upon, maybe someplace where something significant happens and so you have a connection there. Some of those places are places like this church structure or the temple—places that are specifically created to serve as holy space. Places that are specifically created as places where people can come to connect with God in meaningful ways.
What is a sacred space for you?
You may have noticed in today’s reading that we skipped from King Solomon expressing his intention to build a temple for God, right to the dedication of the finished temple. If only church building projects actually worked that way!
In reality, as many of you know from our building expansion project a few years ago, there’s actually a whole lot that comes between deciding to build and getting to the dedication of the new structure: floorplans and building permits; concrete and beams and drywall and siding and windows; paint selection and flooring options; lots of money and, of course, meetings and more meetings. Those are the chapters we skipped over this morning because, let’s be honest, it’s bad enough sitting through your own church meetings, let alone listening in on another faith community outlining all of the details of their plans—how many cubits this is and where they’re getting that material from and who will carve what decorations into the wood of which room. I mean, if you like that kind of stuff, I commend to you 1 Kings 5-7.
But for us, this morning, the point is that Solomon said he would build a temple for God and he did. Or at least he conscripted people to build it. He made sure it got built—let’s just say that. And “Solomon’s Temple,” as it was known, became the most holy site for the Jewish people.
As Mennonites, as “low church” people, as people who don’t necessarily celebrate the holidays—the holy days—in really formal ways, who don’t have particularly ornate, special objects in our worship spaces, who don’t generally have fancy buildings—for us, I think we would do well to pay some attention here to the fact that there are spaces in time, there are objects, there are physical spaces that are set apart in important ways.
There is value in being attentive to the calendar, attentive to the objects we surround ourselves with, attentive to the spaces we inhabit. There is value in beauty. Some times and objects and spaces are set apart in a way we might not even be able to articulate, but that allow us to hear God a little more easily, that allow us to close that distance just a little bit every once in a while.
Sacred times and objects and spaces are important.
And also, let’s listen again to the end of today’s scripture reading:
When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
12 Then Solomon said,
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
13 I have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in forever.”
So in this sacred time of the festival of booths, with these sacred items—the holy vessels, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant—in this building that took seven years and an immense amount of wealth and labor to build, in the very heart of all of this sacredness that people have gathered around them and entered into, God shows up: “The glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”
But God doesn’t show up in quite the way that the people had intended. God doesn’t show up in light and beauty and warmth and comfort; God shows up in a cloud of thick darkness. God doesn’t show up in a way that is tame and manageable; God shows up in a way that takes over the space and makes it impossible for the priests to do their job.
God doesn’t show up because somehow the calendar and the physical objects and the ornate building that people have put into place compel God to show up. God shows up on God’s own terms. As the people are, in a sense, trying to control God, it becomes very clear very quickly that the people are actually not the ones in control.
This story about when and with what and where we worship seems especially relevant for us as we continue to deal with COVID. Our “normal” worship practices have been deeply disrupted. At Peace, we’ve been doing two services for a while now—in person and on Zoom. I don’t write two sermons every Sunday; I preach basically the same sermon for both services and this is the first week I felt like maybe I want to say something a little bit different to these two groups of people–to the people gathered at the church building and the people who are in their homes, gathered on Zoom.
For those in the church building, I want to say: appreciate being here. I have a lot of personal questions about the building of the temple, the conscripted labor that was used, the economics of it all, but in the end, God does not condemn these human efforts to create a space where people can worship God. People have gathered there, they seem to be having a good time, they seem to be worshiping well. There is something about the space that seems to be holy and helpful. Being present together in a designated space can help us connect with each other and with God in ways that would be harder in different space.
For those who aren’t gathered in person in the church building–because of distance, because of vulnerabilities from COVID, because of physical or time limitations, for those sitting in their homes or their cars, in spaces that are not necessarily holy or set apart—I want to point out how ridiculous Solomon’s words are: “I have built you an exalted house, / a place for you to dwell in forever.” We cannot build a container for God; God is not exclusively present in any particular place; God’s presence is not, cannot be controlled by human efforts. God can show up just as powerfully in your living room as God can show up in our church sanctuary.
In the end, this story is a reminder, for all of us, of how incredibly powerful and mysterious our God is. How-ever we set our calendars, whatever objects we surround ourselves with, whatever physical space we put ourselves in—these external elements might have an effect on us, but these are not ways that we control the presence of God.
If there are times, objects, spaces, that help you be more open to the divine presence, that feel sacred and good to you, by all means, acknowledge those times, appreciate those objects, enter into those spaces.
And when we can’t arrange things the way we think we need to arrange them, when it’s just a regular day with common objects in the most ordinary place–that’s OK, too. Because God always shows up on God’s terms, not on our terms. A fact that is both frustrating and liberating; encouraging and just a little bit terrifying.
Thanks be to God.