Monday, September 1, 2008

The Temple of God is the People of God

[Even professors of liturgy can be confused by the lectionary. I mistakenly prepared my sermon for the 24th of August using the readings for Proper 21 in Year B rather than Year A: 1 Kings 8.[1-6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69. Fortunately I was preaching at St Dunstan's Parish in Aldergrove BC where the people are able to adjust quickly to the failings of the presider!]

+ Lord, to you we turn, for you have the words of eternal life. Amen.

This past week Paula and I enjoyed the gift of a cruise from Vancouver to Alaska through the Inside Passage. Our ship, the Radiance of the Seas, has been recognized as one of the ‘greenest ‘ cruise ships afloat and it is a marvel of contemporary marine architecture. At the heart of the ship is the ‘Centrum’, a towering atrium some eight decks in height around which many of the core social and administrative functions of the ship are clustered. No day on-board goes by without the necessity of passing through the ‘Centrum’, whether to catch an elevator from one deck to another, to use the Internet, to have a conversation with another person in one of the two bars of the ‘Centrum’ or to walk through to reach the on-board shops and theatres.

But the ‘Centrum’ is not the only focal point in the life of the ship. There are at least five restaurants or cafés on-board the Radiance and one or other of them are operational at almost all hours of the day or night. One can enjoy the formality of the dining room or the informality of the buffet. In the informal atmosphere of the buffet it is possible to create a degree of private space, but in the dining room the older tradition of being seated at a table with people one may not know continues.

Around these two gathering places the elliptical life of the ship flows, bounded by the physical limitations of space and by the customs of centuries of passenger sailing but shaped by human activity. While the design of the spaces may contribute to the experience of being in the ‘Centrum’ or in a dining room, it cannot be denied that the fundamental activ-ity that defines the beauty of those spaces is the activity of human beings, in all their diver-sity, as they gather. A well-designed public space, such as the ‘Centrum’, cannot prevent one from witnessing some of the less pleasant aspects of human life and community. A well-designed dining room with a five-star chef cannot prevent one from choosing voluntary fasting if one’s table companions are disagreeable. What we do in public spaces determines in significant ways to whether those spaces are good or bad, useful or useless, life-giving or life-denying.

In today’s reading from 1 Kings, a reading that could pass us by as just one more ir-relevant story from the history of the people of Israel, we are reminded of this fundamental reality of the divine-human relationship: Holiness does not rest inherently in a place, but in the activity of those who are gathered in that place. Even as Solomon stands in the midst of the building that he has caused to be built for the honour of God’s name, he must declare:

“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. . . . Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”

Although other religious traditions of the time would understand their temples to be the re-sidence of the god or gods, Solomon’s prayer is an affirmation of the ancient Israelite con-fession that God cannot be contained within the creation. Solomon’s Temple is a focal point for the faith of the people of Israel, a physical aid to their memory, a place where the saving acts of God are constantly remembered. By remembering those acts, their power to transform the present is unleashed so that God’s purposes for the whole of creation can be achieved. Perhaps the most significant petition of Solomon’s prayer comes when he claims that this Temple is not just for the people of Israel:

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name --- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm --- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

When Solomon speaks of God’s name, he does not mean ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Adonai’. Nor does he mean using God’s name as some sort of magic talisman that will compel God to act in a particular fashion. He means telling the story of the God of Israel who created the uni-verse, who made promises to Noah and to Abraham, who redeemed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and who established the covenant with Moses and the people at Sinai. It is the remembering of what God has done that God’s name is ‘invoked’. The Temple with its altar and ‘Holy of Holies’ has but one purpose: It is to proclaim that God has acted, is act-ing and will act to bring about God’s purposes in the kosmos. This is the proclamation en-trusted to the people of Israel and this is the mission into which God has called them.

We are living in a time when many people are seeking holy places and holy objects rather than seeking to participate in the on-going mission of God to redeem and renew the whole of creation. We are living in a time when many people seek ‘holy’ places that are dis-tinct from what they perceive to be ‘profane’ or ‘secular’ places. There is reason to do this: If we can contain God to some holy place or to some holy object, then we can contain God, then we can avoid the dangerous ‘thin places’ where one might actually come into contact with this unpredictable God.

For some people the Bible has ceased to be an authoritative witness to the encoun-ter of men and women to the Holy One of Israel and has become a repository for God. What the Bible says has been confused with what the Bible means. On the other hand, there are people who consider the Bible to be a collection of ancient texts that are more or less irrele-vant to the life of contemporary believers. In doing so, such people have lost sight of the power of the Scriptures to call people to overthrow oppressive regimes, to remove the shackles that bind slaves and to remind us that God cannot be contained in any philosophical or scientific discipline. What both groups have forgotten is that our God is not a tame God.

There are others who hold fast to one or other tradition of the Christian community as the immutable witness to the truth. When we do so, we forget the truth of that old say-ing, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead not the dead faith of the living.’ Tradition is and has always been the response of a given human community to the demands of its time and culture. On the other hand, there are those who are quite happy to shed any tradition in or-der to be ‘relevant’ to the present time. When we do this, we can demonstrate a certain ar-rogance towards our ancestors in the faith. Even birds that traverse the wide expanses of land and sea eventually must find a place to land and bear their young.

My friends in Christ, this is a holy place not because of the excellence of its design but because of the faithfulness in Christian life and witness of those who gather here to hear the living Word proclaimed, to hold up before God the needs and concerns of the whole world, to share in the life-giving bread and wine of the holy communion and to be sent forth as agents of that Word, of those prayers and of that Body which we have received.

• When we proclaim the Word, we invoke God’s name by telling the story of God’s holy activity in the world, so that our lives might become symbols of that activity in the here and now of our own lives.
• When we hold up before God the needs and concerns of the whole world, we are not relieved of responsibility but are empowered for act.
• When we share in the life-giving bread and wine of the holy communion, we do so not only for solace but for strength, not only for pardon but for renewal.
• When we are sent forth as agents of the living Word, we become symbols of God wherever we live and work.

May our gathering in this place remind us that every place is holy. May our proclamation of the Word remind us that the Word is very near to us wherever we are. May our prayers re-mind us that God has acted and is acting and will act in our lives and the lives of others. May our holy communion remind us that those who have received holy gifts become the gift that they have received. May our going forth be understood not as an ending of our work but as its renewal in the world. Amen.

What Shall the Bishops Say?

[The following sermon was preached at St Andrew's Parish, Langley BC on the 3rd of August 2008. The propers were those appointed for Proper 18A of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17.1-7, 15 [BAS 17.1-7, 16]; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21]

+ Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Amen.

My friends in Christ, today the Archbishops and Bishops of the Anglican Communion will bring their gathering to a close. They will struggle to prepare a statement to share with Anglicans throughout the world. We can be sure of three things.

i) Some Anglicans will be very happy with what the Lambeth Conference says.

ii) Other Anglicans will be very unhappy with what the Lambeth Conference says.

iii) Still other Anglicans will think that what the Conference says is irrelevant.

My reading of today’s Gospel has led me to five questions that I think might guide the bishops, if they were to ask my opinion.

What is the most important thing that we do?

Early in the third century a group of Christians in Asia Minor were arrested and brought before the local Roman magistrate. They were charged with violating the imperial edict forbidding the gathering of illicit religious sects. The magistrate asked them to recant their faith and to obey the imperial edict. Their answer was simple, “Sine dominica non possumus.” (“Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”) Their execution followed immediately. But with their blood they became the seed of a movement which has continued to this day, a movement that gathers in many places and in many ways.[1]

We can lose sight of the power of gathering together in one assembly. Yet, the most important thing we may do as Christians is to continue to gather together in this place and those like it throughout the world, to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer prayer for all of creation, to share in the bread and the wine, and to be sent forth strengthened and renewed.

We come from different places and from different situations. At the beginning of our assembly we need to be reminded of who we really are, God’s people, and what we are gathered to do, the celebration in word and song, in silence and gesture, in action and repose, of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

When the presider greets us, it is not the friendly greeting of a server at a restaurant or a passer-by on the street. The greeting itself sets the context for the action into which we are about to enter. In the liturgical assembly we are encountering a mystērion, not a mystery to be fathomed out, but a truth which beckons us ever deeper into its truth. Like an onion that grows larger as we peel away the layers, the mystērion whom we know as God wills that we enter into communion and learn what it means to be truly alive.

Frank Kacmarcik, an American liturgical designer, once accompanied the chair of a church building committee on a tour of the recently-completed building just prior to its dedication by the bishop. Frank asked the chair what he thought about the space. “It looks,” stammered the chair, “unfinished.” “Wait,” was all Frank said.

Later that day, as the bishop began the liturgy of consecration, Frank noticed the chair standing with a contented smile on his face. “You’re a miracle worker,” the chair said to Frank, “how did you finish it in so short a time.” “I filled it with people,” Frank said. “No worship space is ever complete without the people of God in it. Holy spaces are made holy by holy people at work within them.”

When asked what was the glue that held the Anglican Communion together, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said this, “We gather.” Despite all the forces that conspire to prevent our gathering, we gather. Despite all the temptations to do something else with our time, we gather. We gather because we know what our sisters and brothers knew in the first centuries of the church’s mission and ministry, “Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”

What is the first act of the gathered people of God?

At an early point in his public ministry Jesus travelled to Nazareth, the town in which he had been raised. He entered the synagogue and was invited to read the appointed reading from the prophets. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” After sitting down, Jesus said to the assembly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Most of the people in the synagogue that day were amazed, not necessarily because they believed him, but because he was a local boy. How often had they heard him read the appointed lesson while he was growing up? For that matter, how often had they heard that same text? Perhaps they had grown deaf and no longer expected the prophetic text to be fulfilled. It was, after all, the lectionary text for the day, nothing more.

When the reader proclaims the texts appointed for the day, it is tempting to forget that he or she is speaking God’s Word to us. Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we have heard all of this before; the words roll off the surface of our minds and hearts like rain rolling off the roof of this building. Yet, we never know when there is some person sitting next to us, in front of us, behind us --- dare I say, in us? How many people are there in the pews today who are longing to hear some good news? How many people who need to hear the Word of God again --- for the first time?

To read the words of the scriptures is to release the power of the Word of God into our midst. The preacher stands before us, small in stature, a known quantity, a familiar figure. Within her or his grasp lies the power to free the Word from the texts that sometimes imprisons it, so that the heart of some one sitting near to us may be “strangely warmed” and God’s new creation begins again to work its transformation of our loneliness, our despair, our fear. It is to the preacher that the responsibility falls to move us from the surface of a text, what a scriptural text may say, into the depths of what the text may mean.

What is our first response to the proclamation of the Word?

When I was first ordained, it was my responsibility to travel with the Bishop and the Suffragan Bishop of Colorado on their parish visits. On one such occasion, I accompanied the Bishop, Bill Frey, to a parish in which there was considerable dissension. I joined him as he listened to three representatives of the congregation give their interpretations of the situation. After each one had spoken, the first asked the Bishop, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” “The first thing I am going to do is pray,” responded the Bishop. At this the second person turned to the other two and said loudly, “See, I told you he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it!”

There are, no doubt, many people who share this view. To some of them, prayer seems more like shouting into the wind rather than entering into conversation with the Holy One of Israel who caused all things to come into existence and who has entrusted us with the stewardship of these gifts. To others, prayer has more in common with sending to heaven a shopping list of wants rather than the more difficult task of discerning the presence and activity of God in us and around us.

I confess that I do not know if prayer changes the eternal purposes of God. I do know that prayer changes the one who prays. Prayer orients us to God’s purposes and opens us to God’s grace working through us. God responds to our new-found awareness of the needs and concerns of the world by offering us the means to use the gifts we have. We discover new avenues and ways that seemed obstructed are re-opened. This is God’s work, not ours, but we are the agents of God’s purposes.

Because there is still work to be done, we are lifted from our prayers and into an embodied expression of those intercessions, petitions, and thanksgivings. We are bidden to exchange the peace with one another. From the earliest generations of the Christian people it has been understood that Christian faith requires concrete expressions. To exchange the peace is (a) to acknowledge our fellowship in Christ, (b) to put our bodies where our mouths (or thoughts) are, and (c) to commit ourselves, one to another. Unless we choose liturgical perjury, then the exchange of the peace requires us to consider how we, in keeping with our stations in life and our personal abilities, will work for Christ’s peace in our congregations, our homes, our communities, and our world.

How do we strengthen ourselves for the work ahead?

When I was a child, Holy Communion was reserved for those who had been confirmed. On top of this, it did not seem to be a particularly joyful event. Those who went forward came back with such solemn faces that, for many years, I believed that the bread and wine of the eucharist must taste horrible. When my confirmation day arrived, I steeled myself for the experience. When the bread was given to me, I placed it in my mouth and was surprised by its pleasing “wheaty-ness”. When the wine was given to me, I could not believe that this was the same taste which generations of adults before me had experienced. It was warm and it filled my whole body with such a sense of well-being. I am told that as I returned to my pew, I had a most un-Anglican smile on my face. My more knowledgeable twelve-year-old friends simply dismissed my quiet smile as the first signs of inebriation. But they were right. I was inebriated and I have remained inebriated to this day --- inebriated with the God who through the power of the Spirit makes bread and wine the agents of my incorporation into Jesus Christ.

Christians in the early days of the church had a saying, “Naos tou Theou, laos tou Theou. (“The temple of God is the people of God.”). While buildings and places of worship are important as shelters for the work of the church, they should not be confused with “church”. “Church” means people not buildings; “Church” means a people who, through the power of the risen Christ, have been given a share in the mission of God in the world. That people needs to be sustained, fed, and strengthened in its mission. The eucharist is food for the journey not a reward for regular attendance.

The Great Thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer constantly hold before us that this meal is intended to create and sustain a holy people for God. There can be no true reception of the body of Christ in the bread wine if we are not prepared to receive it in our children, our parents, our spouses, our neighbours, the stranger in our midst, and those whose views differ from our own.

Then we share a loaf and a cup. There are few places left in the world today in which strangers will share a cup together. Despite the fears of some, Anglicans have continued to resist the temptation to diminish this visible sign of our communion by using other means. We should take comfort in the fact that after four hundred and fifty years there are still more than seventy million of us in the world!

How do we bring our gathering, our proclamation, our prayers and our communion to an end?

In the Acts of the Apostles the account of Jesus’ ascension is told in some detail. Among my favourite dimensions of the story occurs at the very end. After Jesus has ascended into heaven, the apostles and those with them stand around looking up into the sky. Two angels appear and, in some many words, say, “Why are standing around gaping? Go home. You have a mission to perform and you will soon receive what you need to perform it.”

Our liturgical assembly has gathered, heard the Word of God proclaimed, opened itself in prayer to discern the will of God, and has shared in the meal which renews Christian fellowship and community. But the liturgical assembly does not exist for itself: the Christian faith is not lived safely within the walls of this place and insulated from the world. As William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, said, “The church is the one human institution which exists primarily for its non-members.” We have not been dismissed. We have been commissioned. We have not been sent from Christ (dis-); we have been sent with Christ (com-) to join him in his on-going work of transforming the world.

What should the bishops say?

If I were on the drafting team preparing the statement for the bishops of the Lambeth Conference, I would say that there are only five things to be said, five things that emerge from our Lord’s feeding of the five thousand.

i) Without our regular gathering, we cannot exist. Our gatherings are not exclusive but inclusive, bringing together all sorts and conditions of men, women and children.

ii) When we gather, we proclaim the Word of God not merely recite it. We expect our leaders to help us understand how the Scriptures speak to new challenges in new contexts.

iii) When we gather, we pray. We lift up before God all the needs and concerns of a hurting and confused world, not to be relieved of responsibility, but to be empowered to act as God’s agents.

iv) When we gather, we share in the bread of life and the cup of salvation. When we do so, we do not ask for membership cards or character references.

v) After we have heard the Word, after we have lifted up our prayers, after we have shared in the meal, we go forth into the world in hope and determination to reveal the presence of the kingdom of God in all the places we live and work.

I think that this is enough to say. It is enough to say because there
is still so much to do. Amen.

[1] Cf. Tertullian: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’