August 26, 2018

2018 August26

Proper 16 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

In today's Old Testament lesson Solomon dedicates The Temple that he built in chapter 6. In our letter to the Ephesians, we hear how prepare and protect ourselves in order to spread the Good News of Christ among the hostile world. And in the Gospel, Jesus again proclaims Himself to be the Bread of Life. This combination of Bible readings can speak to us today about what we do with our own buildings for our Welcoming – Worshiping – Working in San Luis Obispo, spreading the Good News and inviting people in to share the Bread of Life.

 

The building that we are sitting in now is the oldest wooden building in San Luis Obispo and the second oldest building dedicated for Christian worship. We just got a new steeple and refurbished our bell because we are attached to the building, it has historical and spiritual significance for us and we want it to remain a witness to our history and faith long after we are gone. You will discover in The Witness that the steeple and bell cost us quite a bit more than we had planned. What we have accomplished so far was to be Part 1 of a 4-part project to address the most serious aspects of long-overdue deferred maintenance.

 

Don't worry! This is not a sermon to beg for money to continue the renovation work on our building. This is a sermon to explore how buildings have been a part of our worship and our witness for thousands of years and to explore how we can continue to do that as faithful Christians rather than be building worshipers.

 

The Temple which Solomon dedicated in today’s Old Testament lesson no longer exists. It was built between 970BC and 930BC. David had wanted to build it, but God said, “NO!” The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 586BC, and the Israelites were taken into a long captivity in Babylon. The Second Temple was built around 520BC, as part of the agreement to free the Israelites, and as an indication that part of their independence would be restored. The Temple in those days was not so much the center worship, but as the center of political and economic power that was armored by God. The religious significance was that The Temple was where the heavenly God was met on earth. So, to allow the Israelites to re-build The Temple was to give them true authority over themselves.

 

It is the remains of the Second Temple that are in Jerusalem today. The Second Temple was intact and in use during Jesus’ time, where Jesus was found teaching when He was just a boy. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70AD, Temple worship ended.

 

For those of you who have been to Jerusalem, you know of the Wailing Wall and its history and controversy as the last substantial remainder of the Second Temple, and of the construction of a mosque, the Dome of the Rock, on top of the ruins of the Second Temple, along with the earlier Church of the Holy Sepluchre built by Constantine. So, the site of The Temple is a place of pilgrimage for all three Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 

As we think about what our own buildings mean to us, it is worth reiterating that The Temple from Solomon’s time through to its destruction was a dwelling place on earth for the God of ancient Israel. Its concept was fundamentally different from our own religious buildings. Our building is a place of worship, a place in which we focus our attention on the God who is Omnipresent and cannot be contained. However, we all know a person who fears coming into a church building because God will strike them down for not being a good Christian. We all, at one time or another, associate this place as a dwelling place for Jesus.

We all understand how this
building, and other religious
buildings are symbols of God’s
presence among us.

For those of you who have traveled across Europe, you have seen the grand cathedrals that dominate city centers, and the ancient stone churches that dot the countrysides. I have the immense pleasure that, when I was in seminary in Cambridge, I got to walk past Kings College Chapel almost every day. I would gaze up and think about the thousands of craftsmen who worked on that building, devoting their entire lives – from the time they could carve their first stone until they took their last breath – to this great tribute to God almighty!

 

For Solomon, The Temple was God’s earthly dwelling place. That was not 100% true, but it was true enough. Critical to that belief was that the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant. Supposedly, God dwelled in the Ark, and was taken into battle with David. We actually don’t know what the wooden chest contained, if anything. Scriptural editors wrote in that the tablets of the 10 Commandments were contained within. There seems to have been some sort of holy power, because Uzzah was struck down for just gazing upon it.

 

The Temple was actually built for the Ark, so the concept of God being in the Ark makes sense. It was in the most holy place in the temple, beneath the spread wings of 2 enormous cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. The cherubim become the carriers of the throne when the Ark becomes the pedestal of God as King. The Ark’s carrying staves remained intact as the signs of mobility, symbolizing that God is not bound to one place:


“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

 

God is too great to be bound, but can be found in The Temple, and therefore accessible to The Chosen People. So, The Temple was and wasn’t a house for God. Today, we sit in this church building, which is a House of God, and we, the people, are the Church, The Body of Christ.

 

Yes, we are the Church, the Body of Christ. In some way, we represent Jesus on earth, and our participation in the Eucharist is keeping the Bread of Life in this world. That is what we do in this building. We have the aumbry, the little cubby hole – right here – in which we place the Reserved Sacrament in case it is needed for those who cannot be with us today. The lamp is lit when the Reserved Sacrament is present to indicate that Jesus as the Bread of Life of the Sacrament is present. But we know that Jesus is present with us to eternity, transcending time and space. The aumbry is for safekeeping, literally. It has a lock so the Sacrament cannot be stolen. In medieval times, locking up the Reserved Sacrament was necessary. Now, we store the Reserved Sacrament in the aumbry out of the immense respect we have for the presence of Christ in the consecrated Bread and Wine.

But our theology tells us that
God – Father, Son and Holy
Spirit – is everywhere.

This building is where we come to learn about and share the Bread of Life. It is the place to which we are to draw others in so that they, too, may know the love of God through Jesus Christ, to share with them what it is to live because of Jesus, and to know Eternal Life.

 

Jesus changed our understanding of The Temple, and the Early Church gradually moved away from Temple sacrifices and the political and economic life that occurred there. For the first 300 years, the Early Christians were ostracized and martyred, anyway, and those who retained their Jewish ties became increasingly unwelcome.

 

For Christians, the New Jerusalem would not have a temple. Jesus’ life, Death, and Resurrection symbolized the Jewish Temple sacrifices, transformed them and fulfilled all Temple sacrifices once and for all. There is no need for any more sacrifices. The whole of John chapter 6 is Jesus offering Himself as the Bread of Life, but also alluding to His Crucifixion, through which He is the Passover Lamb: the slaughter of the paschal lamb, Jesus Christ, is, by extension, the full Temple Sacrifice.

 

Our building is where we recall and remember this history through the exercise of our faith. The building facilitates our relationship with God. And on occasion, we end up worshiping the building. There are some Christians who want to knock down all the buildings because they cost too much money and they're too much of a distraction. “Worshipers should be worshiping together in their homes.” Indeed, the early church worshiped in homes. That is commendable, and I do encourage you to worship in your homes and invite others to worship in your homes with you. [As an aside: Morning and Evening Prayer are intended for people to say in their homes, as is Compline.]

 

Levine writes,

 

“The nearly universal human willingness to commit substantial resources to the construction of sacred buildings, the maintenance of expensive cultic practices, and the provision for extensive priestly personnel attest to the profound nature of humanity’s insecurity about the nearness of divine power and protection.”

 

So, we are kind of genetically programed to have these buildings. And our buildings are in need of repair, costly repair. We are reassessing the costs, because the costs we were given before we started the work on the steeple have turned out to be grossly incorrect. Part of the assessment is to think strategically about what these buildings will be used for, and how can they be used for the Glory of God in San Luis Obispo. No, we don’t intend to use them as centers of political and economic power. We left that to The Vatican at the Reformation.

 

In that assessment of how to use our buildings for mission and ministry, we look to our reading from Ephesians. The reading is a vivid portrayal of the spiritual struggle that the Christian life can be. Paul compares it to warfare, and in some places in this world, living the Christian life is a life or death matter. For us, living as Christians is pretty easy here in San Luis Obispo. But being Witnesses to the Gospel and engaging in this new-fangled Episcopal Evangelism is a bit more challenging. We can reflect on the reading from Ephesians and identify with the existence of hostile forces (some external and some our own internal struggles with sharing our faith), how to approach others with our faith, and the need for this to be a supportive and cooperative effort.

 

  • We need a belt so that we don't trip over ourselves.
  • We need God as our breastplate who keeps us secure in the face of hostile criticism.
  • We need to be sure-footed.
  • We need to use faith as our shield but also as our witness.
  • We need to keep the head of our body safe with the helmet of Salvation. That Salvation, though, needs to be firm in our minds as a true promise, not just a questionable hope that Jesus might come again and draw us into Eternal Life.
  • And we need our only offensive weapon: the sword, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God. We use that offensive tool lovingly as we spread the Word of God going forth from this place that we have built for the Glory of God.

 

So, we can be a little frustrated that our renovations are going to cost considerably more than we thought. But our battle, the hostile world out there for which we need the Armor of God, is not the true cost. The battle is how we use our resources to build a temple that allows us to witness to others so that we may draw them in to share the Bread of Life.

 

We already do a lot of that. St Stephen’s welcomes all. My philosophy is that one’s financial pledge may be an indication of one’s “membership”, but anyone who walks through the doors is part of the St Stephen’s Family while they are with us. If we look at whom we have opened our doors to just in the last two years, we will discover that we have wielded that Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, to many:

 

  • Renewal of Marriage Vows
  • All Souls’ Day Vigil which included homilies by the Police Chief and the President of GALA CC to remember slain Police Officers and the victims of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Shooting, respectively
  • A public vigil for the victims of the Parkland School Shooting
  • An annual World AIDS Day Service hosted jointly with Access Support Network
  • Three productions of The Vagina Monologues to support victims of gender-based violence
  • Two weddings this year of couples who want to be married in the church, but no other church will take them because they are not members
  • Host to several 12-step programs
  • A private pre-school
  • Senior Volunteer Services
  • Host to support groups for mental health and for physical disabilities

As we discern what direction to take next, we must consider what more we can do. We know that God is not housed in this building. The prayer for the Founding of a Church makes that clear:

 

O Lord God of Israel, the heavens cannot contain you, yet you are pleased to dwell in the midst of your people, and have moved us to set apart a space on which to build a house of prayer.

 

As we consider what to do with our buildings, to continue with long overdue maintenance, or to think about how to use our site strategically for the glory of God, we also have to think about how the buildings and the site will be a witness to San Luis Obispo, and how the fundraising will be a part of our Witness.

 

The final tool that Paul gives us for our mission is prayer: “Pray in the Spirit at all times.”

 

So, pray for The Vestry as we pivot from Renovations to a Capital Campaign. Much work needs to be done before we can have an effective launch. Pray for the people of San Luis Obispo that they may hear our Gospel Witness. And pray for us – the St Stephen’s Family:

 

O God, send us your Spirit,
that we may learn what you would have us do
and the words and witness you would have us offer,
that your Kingdom may come
and your power be revealed in this city;
to the glory of your Name.
Amen.

 

(Collect for Planting a New Church, revised)

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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