Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: How Lovely

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016, Pentecost 23C
Psalm 84

How Lovely

I am going to confess something to you. There are times when I get distracted, even to the point of losing my place in the middle of a sermon, if I make the mistake of looking out the windows of this sanctuary during a service.
This distraction can come in several forms. It is on occasion prompted by seeing somebody arriving after the service has started (to which my attitude is “better late than never”). Sometimes a bird or a squirrel might appear outside and catch my eye. Passing traffic can on occasion become a distraction. It hasn’t happened too many times yet, but the arrival of a storm outside can do the trick. Or sometimes these windows are windows to distraction simply because it’s a beautiful day outside.
I think, though, that such distractions might well be possible in virtually any sanctuary that was built and set aside principally for the act of worship. While in this sanctuary it is the openness of these window-walls, in others it is stately architecture or stained glass or the sheer antiquity of the place itself.
And yet these seeming distractions might also be the things that drive us more deeply into worship, if we think about it. The interior and exterior architecture of great ancient cathedrals serves to lift the mind and soul ever upward, straining for even a glimpse of the presence of God, while also amplifying the sound (remember, we’re talking about buildings built before microphones) so that it resounded throughout the space and could be heard by the gathered worshipers. Skilled composers learned to write music that took advantage of such acoustics.
For us, on the other hand, the window-walls bring the world into worship with us, so to speak – from the glory of God’s creation visible around this space to the ongoing suffering of the world, brought into sharp relief when a police car or ambulance passes by with sirens sounding. Those things for which we praise God or lift up prayers of intercession are not far away from us in this setting.
While the theology of the Temple of which the psalmist writes in today’s reading is different from our Protestant theology about church and sanctuary, there are things to which we can relate in this psalm about a pilgrim’s love for that place of sanctuary and worship. On one level Psalm 84 can be read more or less straightforwardly, reflecting the yearning of those Israelites making their regular pilgrimage to Jerusalem from remote parts of the region. While we don’t necessarily experience verse 3 of the psalm in a literal sense, the nearness of creation in our particular setting isn’t far from the psalmist’s sense of all of God’s creation finding a home in the setting of worship.
And that setting of worship, that realization of God’s presence in the place and act of worship, becomes a source of strength that sustains us at other times,  whether the Temple-era pilgrim making the sometimes arduous journey to Jerusalem described in verses 5-7, or us modern Christians just trying to get through another week. We are reminded of the presence of God in this place in order to remember the presence of God with us wherever else we might be in the week to come. The sanctuary is not an idol, or a confined space where God is hidden away from the world, but it is a place where we are refreshed in the worship of God and reminded of the presence of God even as we go out from this place.
And actually, those verses about finding a refuge aren’t that far off, either. Of course we know what goes on in this sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but think about what else happens on this patch of land during the week.
There’s a lot of singing that happens, between a Sunday morning service, our choir’s own rehearsal time on Wednesday nights, and the two community choruses that rehearse in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Throw in the music that Bill Chestnutt’s square-dance group dances to on Monday nights, the hymn festival that’s going to happen next Sunday afternoon, and special occasions around our major liturgical holidays, and this church looks and sounds pretty musical for its size.
Of course, that’s not all that happens here. Our children are getting an education in scripture and church and being followers of Christ on Sunday mornings, and when we can get enough of y’all adults together we do that too. Sometimes meals are prepared or collected for St. Francis House or Family Promise guests. Sometimes we are having meals together. Some nights a Girl Scout group is meeting, taking part in a program that helps shape and prepare them to be the leaders and citizens of tomorrow, if we’re lucky. And on some nights there are people, members of our community, who are meeting in therapy sessions or AA meetings, fighting some of the hardest and most painful battles any human being ever has to fight, and finding the refuge in our church building to do so.
How lovely indeed is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.
Of course, every now and then we get reminded that having this distractingly lovely sanctuary and all of the physical property here is hard work and gets expensive.  All of a sudden we’re having hurricanes again in Florida, and this lovely glass around us suddenly becomes something to worry about. Even without a hurricane accidents can happen, as that pane to your right that was broken a few weeks ago reminds us. Air conditioning (a non-negotiable building feature in this part of the world) sometimes fails, or a dying tree has to be removed before it falls on the building, or one of the sinks in the kitchen gets clogged with hair (true story; I wish I was making that one up), and that’s work and expense. Keeping up a church building is hard.
I have a few colleagues in ministry who are in settings where ownership of a physical property is not part of their work. On occasion (like some of those events noted above, or during the session meetings where those events have to be discussed), I envy them. Usually not, though. For one thing, even if its showing its age in some places, this is a good building in an interesting location that might just be a major opportunity for serving and doing Christ’s work in God’s world as Gainesville continues to change and evolve as a city. For another thing, we really wouldn’t be able to do or host a lot of things that we listed just a few moments ago without this place. In a sense, we are ministering through this place, and I at least would hate to lose the capacity to do that.
Next week is our Sunday for making our financial commitments for the support of the church for the forthcoming year. In these stewardship campaigns or pledge drives (I guess that sounds more like NPR or PBS, doesn't it?) or whatever various churches call them, one of the things they tell you is that you’re not supposed to talk about the physical building as a part of your campaign; that somehow people get turned off if you talk about mere buildings and meeting rooms as part of what we support as a church. I guess I used to believe that, but I don’t think that makes sense anymore. This building isn’t an idol any more than ancient Israel’s Temple was meant to be, but it is part of our life as a congregation and gives us opportunities to worship, to gather, to have fellowship, and, yes, to minister that we would not have without it. And if keeping the air conditioning working or fixing broken windows or even unclogging strangely clogged drains is part of what it takes to extend that worship or that ministry that we have in this place and time, then it seems to me to be worth the effort that so many of you put into keeping the place working, and worth our financial efforts to keep the place working too.
No, it isn’t the Temple that so provoked the psalmist to such yearning, but it is a kind of home for us, and a place in which God is present and working in us and through us and sometimes even despite us. It is a providence that does require some work of us. It’s an opportunity that does require some discernment and prayer on our part to understand how best to put to use. And it is a place where we are reminded of the God Who is with us in all places, when we remember to listen. So yes, it’s part of our stewardship of what God has given us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#401 Here In This Place (Gather Us In)
#417 Lord Jesus, Think On Me
#403 Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty
#741 Guide My Feet

Man, look at all those windows -- I don't stand a chance...

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