Saturday, November 12, 2022

More than a building

A few years ago, my family and I took a trip to Ireland and Wales before I did my last Sabbatical in London, Oxford, and Glasgow. While in Dublin, we stayed in a bed and breakfast and had a marvelous time touring the city, listening to churches across the city ringing the changes before evening prayer, and learning the history of that ancient place.

At the B&B, we asked where a good place to eat and where we might hear some Irish music and see some Irish dancing. We were directed to an unusual (to me anyway) restaurant. It is called “The Church” and that’s exactly what it is. Built in 1702 and consecrated as St. Mary’s, it continued as a Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish until it closed in 1964.

The organ in the church was used by George Fredrich Handel as he worked out the details and kinks in his oratorio, The Messiah, which premiered in Dublin in 1742.  Jonathan Swift, the author Gulliver’s Travels, attended the parish before he became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and took services there. John Wesley preached his first sermon in Ireland in the pulpit of St. Mary’s.

Now it may be me, but in bringing me to this place I think God was trying to teach me something. As much as much as I enjoyed the place, there was for me, a kind of poignancy about it

At first, I thought, how clever! What a nice way to use this old building! Then it struck me: everything that made this restaurant successful ought to have made the congregation once housed there a thriving one.

Yet, for some reason, the congregation disappeared. We don’t know why. The website for The Church says that the building was put to several uses since the parish closed in 1964 until the present owners bought and refurbished the place in.

I could not help but think of Jesus’ words to his disciples and followers when they finally laid eyes on the Temple in Jerusalem, some for the first time, I’d imagine!

In fact, Jesus had only been in Jerusalem a few times, too, at least once as a child, and at least once as an adult. In our Gospel today, we hear that he is in Jerusalem somewhere between the Triumphal Entry—a.k.a. Palm Sunday—and the Crucifixion—which we know as Good Friday. According to Luke, during this time he has raised a lot of Cain: he has cleansed the temple of the moneychangers; he has confronted the Pharisees and temple officials and revealed their hypocrisies; he has foretold his own death; complimented a poor widow on her generosity; and now he is talking about the destruction of the Temple.

The Gospel of Luke was written in 80 AD, plus or minus. He is recording Jesus’ words ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem including that magnificent Temple. But when Jesus is speaking about the magnificent third Temple—it was 30 years away from being completed—Herod the Great knocked down the puny and ragged second temple and his son Herod Antipas was finishing what the father began. When Jesus said that not one stone will be left on top of another, not all the stones were yet in place.

Still the Temple was a magnificent building! Sitting on top of the mountain that Jerusalem itself was built upon, it stood fifteen or more stories high. It is said that the exterior was sheathed in gold leaf so that the sun glinted off it’s sides and was visible for miles around. The complex could hold thousands of people all at once—it was the center of Israel’s political and religious life. It was the center of occupied Israel’s life. People would do anything to keep the Romans at bay, and make sure that the Temple still stood.

So when Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he was saying out loud what many people feared: everyone knew that Rome had leveled many cities as their empire grew. One good siege could turn their safe walled city into a noose. Peace with the occupiers was a dangerous, tentative thing.

Jesus is saying something else, too, something that we need to hear again and again: The magnificence of the building means nothing without the faithfulness of the people inside.

It does not matter if the building is the most magnificent structure on earth—or at least in town—if the people within it do not live in faithfulness. Unless the people who stream to that building go out from it to do God’s work and God’s will in the world, why it is just a pile of stone and glass or at most a tavern.

What makes a building—be it the great Temple of Jerusalem or a neighborhood church—a place of faith is the people who make up the community within it. The building is a symbol of faith only in proportion to the sense of blessing, the awareness of joy, the consciousness of holiness and the commitment to mission of the people housed in that building! The building does not need us to give to it; the building reflects the faithfulness of the people inside.

The people in Jerusalem thought the temple would last forever. The people of that congregation in New Orleans did not have a restaurant when they built their church. The funny thing is that when you give to save the building, when the focus is on staying open, when we worry more about balancing the books than in staying faithful and doing mission—then what Jesus foresees comes true: a pile of rubble, or a pretty building suitable for renovation.

I love this place, this building, this space. We have a wonderful worship space that also houses wonderful people and has witnessed an infinite array of sacred moments—births, baptisms, marriages, healings, new ministries, burials and memorials, and everything in between. There is much to cherish in these sacred, venerable walls, this living work of sacred art. This little corner of God’s kingdom does give us a hint of what God is making us into. We might be tempted to think that the building is the beginning and the end, but there is so much going on here! What is here is a kind of sacrament in stone, brick, wood, etched glass and tile. This is the outward and visible sign. The inward and spiritual grace is all of you and all of the people who have come in and out of our lives in this community. This holy space becomes holy because the Church has set it aside to do within the sacred things that God is doing in our lives, in this neighborhood, in our towns and homes.

Yesterday, I saw this in action: we had a small class for Lay Eucharistic Visitors, other members were cleaning and tidying up the vesting room in the back, the chapel, the narthex, and the patio. Meanwhile, the Thrift Store was busy, crafters were in the parish hall making fabric art, a large twelve-step group was meeting and Good Neighbor’s was both taking in food and getting ready for the Great Turkey Delivery—a 1000 turkeys and all the fixin’s that will arrive tomorrow for distribution next weekend (as Marti Moore described in our announcements).

We are a vital, dynamic community of faithful people because we are aware of God’s blessings in all our lives. Every week, we come to this table, and lay before God our whole selves, our souls and bodies, and we have discovered time and again that God’s gives back—over and over again-- more than we can ever hope for or imagine.

Jesus warned his disciples that temples are brought down, and that Christians will face hard times. Jesus assures us that no matter what happens, we will do more than survive, we will conquer and thrive because while human temples are made with stone and steel and glass. Jesus’ temple is us—the Church—and we are built with nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit!

We are not a restaurant, like “The Church” in Dublin, but people are certainly fed here! Notice that in our tradition, we never call our churches “temples.” This building is not a temple. That’s because we are! We are the adopted members of God’s household; we are the Body of Christ; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit! We are a gathered community of faith that is learning how to pray, how to worship, how to serve our neighbor, how to be friends and apprentices of Jesus. And we are doing the work of Jesus in our care for our community, our neighbors, and each other. We are doing something greater than just taking care of a nice building on the corner. Together we are bringing the love and the power and the healing and the welcome of God to a hurting, needy world.

And that is something that can never be torn down or taken away.

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Here is a link to a video of the sermon.
Here is a link to a video of the liturgy.

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