Before I begin, I want to offer a few words of gratitude and background.
First, thank you for welcoming me to your congregation and this pulpit. I appreciate the trust that Deb and Steve have shown along with the Elders of Central Christian church.
Second, I’ll let you know how much I have admired the varied ministries of this congregation, from your thoughtful integration of modern technology into a very traditional sanctuary and worship service, your engagement with the community through the dog park, community garden, theatre programs, nesting of a young congregation Spanish language congregation, ….
Lastly, I’ll note that Deb filled me in on some of the big decisions that you all are facing as a congregation. While these are challenging times for all churches, your particular decisions are quite striking. They really do significantly impact the long term direction of the congregation. Let me say at the outset that whatever decision you make, God can and will still continue to be at work in and through you wherever you find yourselves if you will humbly yield yourselves daily to seeking the Lord in all things. Beyond that, I would not presume to suggest which direction is preferable. Even before Deb shared this information, I was intending to preach from the Lectionary. How interested I was to find that two of the four texts make mention of the construction of places of worship. I invite you to be curious with me as to what these texts might have to offer you, and us together as part of the One Church, in the midst of this Emergent/Missional shift.
The importance of our houses: Do you notice the builder’s signs in the yards, or the ads in the newspaper or online and even on billboards? They are all around a growing city, in urban, exurban, suburban and rural communities. Whether it is a large national builder like David Weekly or a local one like M. Christopher, Bella Vita, or Robert Elliot, for many people the name brand recognition of the designer and builder matter. It has become like the brand of car we drive or the shirts and shoes we wear or purses that women carry. Who designed and made it matters. Certain names denote attention to detail and quality.
Even the archaeology research of prehistoric man suggests that we have, as a race, always cared about the places we lived, and have customized them beyond mere functionality. We have carved niches in cave walls to hold small figurines, and have painted murals to tell stories of what matters most to us in our life. It is no surprise then that when humans turn to creating other kinds of spaces for other purposes, they would follow the same practice. And the more important the story, the more significant in our lives the relationships, the more effort goes into the construction and decoration of these spaces. Often it is believed that the space not only tells the story, but literally impacts how we experience life in relationship.
And we are not the only creatures who carefully construct homes, nor the only ones who decorate them. After all, there is a reason we use the phrase “feather your nest” to describe bringing into a home items that offer comfort.
Only humans create worship spaces: While we are not the only creatures to carefully craft homes, we may be the only ones who feel the need to do the same for God. And this seems to be a universal human need found in all cultures among all races. David and Solomon felt this need to create a permanent worship place. The Jews in Israel and everywhere they went build synagogues out of this same desire. Even spiritualities that do not really “worship a god or gods” such as Buddhism still put wonderful creativity and effort into constructing houses of prayer and meditation. Spaces and places matter to us.
Our two texts for today, both of which actually are appointed lectionary texts, may have something to say about this topic. Let’s listen for the word of God in our Scripture Readings from 1 Kings 8:22-30 and Luke 7:1-10.
If we go back in this story to 2 Samuel, we read about David’s desire to build a temple, and the Lord’s instruction that he should not, but that his son may build it. It is interesting to note that the LORD never commands that the temple be built. Rather, he permits that which the king desired to do. David is motivated both by a sense of guilt that he dwells in such a fine palace while God only gets a tent, as well as desire for pride among the neighboring nations with their gods. David, and Solomon after him, are interested both in doing something nice for another, as well as maintaining stature in the community – i.e. keeping up with the Joneses. Moses and the prophets us a similar argument with God when trying to persuade the LORD to save the people, basically asking, “What will the other nations say about you if you can’t even save your own people?”
And who built the Temple? From where did the craftmen and laborers come, along with the materials? Hiram of Tyre was the lead metalworker. The timbers came from the cedars of Lebanon. The King of Tyre send the materials, along with laborers to join the Israelites and the Gebalites in the work of building the Temple. It was paid for with grain stores from Israel, but much of the work, and the artistry, were done by non-Jews.
And you may recall that Nebuchadnezar destroyed the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem (2Kings 24-25). 70 years later, Cyrus of Persia sent the Israelites home from Babylon, and he and Darius provide for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the construction of the Second Temple (Ezra). This time the wealth of Persia paid for the construction of the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem.
Obviously the focus of this story is the healing miracle that Jesus works in response to the faith of this unnamed centurion. Yet in the midst of that, given as a justification for why the citizens are so motivated to support the centurion’s request, this brief notice: “he built our synagogue.”
Wait a minute. Let’s back up. Capernaum is a provincial sea-side town, filled with fishermen and trades. It is a town where people go to and from the gentile territories of Gennesaret. That means the town is diverse in culture and religion – far more than a place like Nazareth, for instance. It is a happening place, a place to which people want to move.
Centurions were Roman citizens. This man was clearly wealthy enough to be a benefactor, and he had some kind of interest in helping the Jews. Perhaps he was like Cornelius of Caesarea about whom we read in Acts 10 when Peter goes to visit him, prompted by the Holy Spirit. There Cornelius is described as “a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (Acts 10:1-2) Maybe our centurion of Capernaum from Luke 7 is a similar kind of fellow.
Tear down and rebuild: Where I live in Collin County, most of these homes are in new neighborhoods, where all the neighbors have the same builder. Here in the Park Cities areas, they are frequently tear down and rebuilds, where people pay up to a million dollars for a small house on a lot, only to destroy it and build a new one lot line to lot line. Interestingly enough, in studying the history of churches and synagogues, we find that this is often the case. A new structure will be built on the remains of the old one, raised either by war or natural disaster, or perhaps by forward looking planners who see opportunity and possibility where others only see heritage and legacy.
Have you ever had the experience of entering a restaurant, looking around, and walking out, simply because “it didn’t feel right”? The ambiance, the ‘vibe’ was all wrong. There is a homestyle restaurant chain here in the Metroplex that we love. We tried a new location several years ago. Very same food, but we will never go back because the space was awkward and uncomfortable. We never felt at ease. Why do they remodel a perfectly good restaurant or store space when it is not deteriorating in any way? Because our tastes and attitudes have changed, or because they are trying to reach a new demographic who is attracted to a different kind of atmosphere.
1) God does not dwell in buildings. Even Solomon understood and affirmed that. Buildings are tools that serve our need, not God’s. God often says yes to our buildings, sometimes God says no or not now or not here. Ultimately, the buildings are for us, not for God, no matter what we tell ourselves.
2) Houses of worship have often been designed and built by people who did not worship in them. They have even frequently been funded by those people, as in the case of the second temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue at Capernaum.
3) Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Rebuilding and starting over are common themes related to these worship spaces. In the case of both the temple and the synagogue, multiple structures were built over the centuries, with the previous ones being destroyed or dismantled, and the materials repurposed.
4) The worshipping community always finds a way. The absence of a “place” may have temporarily disrupted but never eclipsed the people of faith.
5) And one final thing, that you all have demonstrated time and again, and that is also found in both texts. The work of God is not contained within the walls of a building. Our buildings are hospitals and schools – places to heal and places to train. Both of these activities are ministry in themselves, but they serve the greater purpose of preparing us to go out, into our community and world, to proclaim in word and deed the Good News that in Jesus Christ we encounter the fullness of God’s redeeming and reconciling and all-consuming love.
Whatever you discern, I think it will probably be ok. Decisions open some doors and close others. David was not permitted to build the temple because he had too much blood on his hands from all the wars he fought. Yet had he not been victorious, Solomon would not have ruled a peaceful land where the Temple could finally be constructed. And be open to the miraculous ways that God might use others outside Central to help you fulfill whatever you and God set your hearts upon, so long as your intent is to honor God and build the Kingdom.
The scriptures for the sermon will be 1 Kings 8:22-30 and Luke 7:1-10. The Kings text depicts Solomon at the dedication of the Temple which he built for the LORD. The Luke text is actually a story about healing, with a surprising aside that the centurion featured actually built the synagogue in that community.
Churches over the last 150 years have taken on increasingly elaborate building complexes – think Prestonwood Baptist Church or even Lakewood in Houston. As our ministry has focused more on programming, we have built structures to accommodate this work. We are now moving deeply into an emerging/missional era of church history, where we hear God calling us out into the community away from our buildings and property, back to the streets, cities, and neighborhoods where we live.
What do these two texts from thousands of years ago tell us about their contemporary communities’ relationship to their religious buildings, and what might they say to us about our own property? What are your experiences of church property? How have facilities enabled ministry? How have they limited or hindered it?
Though I’m not going to address the politics, I am certainly mindful of the 2012 political conversation between the President and the Republican Party. He was trying to make the argument that even wealthy business owners who are “self-made” had immense help from various forms of infrastructure in our nation, from education to roads to utilities. The Republicans defended their view that in fact much of what they have they did build, with their own hard work, discipline, creativity, risk-taking, etc. What is true? BOTH! (Read more: http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2012/08/21/gop-convention-session-be-themed-we-built#ixzz2UpoDDPv3)
I introduced the theme of this sermon on a previous post: http://kengcrawford.com/2013/05/27/1st-sermon-in-4-months/