Monday, August 29, 2011

Whose House? God's House!

At a recent conference, I heard an Episcopal priest recite with great enthusiasm the “mantra” (his word) that they use in his parish. Although I don’t remember it exactly, it went something like this: “We believe that every man, woman, and child who crosses the threshold of our church can and will experience the presence of God…” It continued on with expectant language of how the Holy Spirit transforms each of us as we gather for worship. What struck me, however, was the emphasis on place.

Something happens when you cross the threshold of that church. Perhaps something happens when you enter any sacred space, but there are plenty of times when no one notices. For a congregation like his to declare to themselves and to the world that simply by entering their physical space an individual can and will experience God is to name a possibility and claim it as reality. How exciting that must be—to go to church in a place that is universally committed to encountering the Holy Spirit.

In today’s lesson from 2 Chronicles (6:32-7:7), we read Solomon’s prayer to God about the sacredness of the temple in Jerusalem. He entreats God, saying, “When a foreigner…comes and prays toward this house, hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee.”  Later on, Solomon prays, “If thy people go out to battle against their enemies…and they pray to thee toward this city which thou hast chosen and the house which I have built for thy name, then hear thou from heaven their prayer and their supplication, and maintain their cause.” It’s as if the physical place of the temple has a role in uniting all the prayers of the world—those of other nations and those of Israel.

Toward the end of the lesson, we read how God enters the now-consecrated temple in dramatic fashion: “When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burn offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’ house.” This was—both metaphorically and literally—God’s house. God, who had dwelt for generations in the ark of the covenant and the tent of meeting as Israel had wandered through the wilderness, had now taken up residence in the temple. It was his new home.

When your faith dictates that God dwells in a specific place (like ancient Judaism), it’s natural to understand intuitively the sacredness of that space. The challenge for us is to recognize that God dwells in every sacred space and to respond to his presence in terms just as specific as Israel’s response to the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple. We might not need to offer “twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep” to signify that presence, but it is a good idea to find some intentional way to set our holy spaces apart to remind us of God’s presence there.

We do this, of course, in lots of different ways. One of them is the elaborate but demonstrative service for the consecration of a church. This lesson from 2 Chronicles reminds me of that service. In it, the bishop moves from one part of the church to another, naming its symbolism and praying appropriately for God’s work to be performed through its function. For example, at the font the Bishop’s prayer mentions the waters of baptism. It’s a great (though lengthy) service. Unfortunately, not everyone who walks through the doors of our churches has been to one of those services. In fact, many (if not all) of the people in our own congregation weren’t around (or even alive) when our specific church was consecrated. How, then, are we to remember?

Worship itself is an engagement of God’s presence in a specific place. Spirit-filled gatherings, therefore, should remind us that God is in our church and that we can encounter him in a tangible way when gathered together. Sometimes, however, we need to remind ourselves of that—much as the catchy mantra helps remind that congregation that God is in their church. If we really believe that God is present with us, why aren’t we celebrating that fact in more substantial ways? If we really believe that God lives in our church, why aren’t we inviting the whole world to come and experience that? If God lives in our congregation 365 days a year, why are we only showing up twice a year?

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