At this time of year I often daydream about standing on a beach by the ocean or Great Lake. I can feel the warm sand squish in-between my toes as the waves lap onto the shore and rush up around my ankles. I take a deep breath of the breeze coming off the water, relishing the aquatic smell. I see the wide open sky and marvel at the brilliant colour display on God’s pallet of wispy clouds and wind-scapes high above me: the dark blue hues gently transforming into bright red, orange, yellow. All this wonder surrounds the giant orb of flaming majesty relenting and finally sinking beneath the pulsing horizon.
I take it all in. I feel full and vibrant with God’s presence. Are you with me? Isn’t that worship? I often feel God in those situations: Out in nature, out in the open, and often away from people and their noise.
And yet, despite the beautiful connection with God I feel watching a sunset, something is missing. Something about God and God’s purposes are lacking here. Is this the ultimate place for Christian worship?
My feeling of wonder, yet incompleteness, in my experience of God watching a sunset alone on a beach reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode from a couple of decades ago.
The story was about a man who loved to read, and believed himself superior to his fellow human beings. He rebuffed others’ attempts to get to know him and to get him to share his rather considerable knowledge. Then one day there was a nuclear war, and this man was the last human being left alive on the earth.
Rather than being devastated about this development, he was elated, and he hurried to the nearest library. There he found the building in ruins and thousands of books scattered on the ground. In great joy, he bent over to look at the first heap of them, and dropped his glasses in the rubble. The lenses shattered. 1.
Whatever meaning you derive from the disquieting ending, one thing is obvious: This man needed someone to fix his glasses. In a moment of horror he finally realizes that he cannot indulge in his gift, his passion, without the support of others.
The Twilight Zone episode highlights the delusion of independence and self-reliance. Because no matter how hard we try to dis-engage from others, we ultimately find ourselves wanting for meaningful community.
When we talk about a community, place is significant. The Lenten journey is about being somewhere, and sometimes even moving from one place to another. The physical location of our worship is important. Where do we find ourselves in Lent? On a beach? Watching a sunset? In a room by ourselves? Isolated from one another? Do we approach our weaknesses, our losses, our pain and suffering secluded?
Solitude, silence and stillness are certainly part of the spiritual journey, necessary for our health – spiritual, physical and emotional. But ultimately, the destination of our walk with God leads us beyond the self.
For Jesus, Jerusalem was the destination. For it was in Jerusalem where he found God’s purposes for him in his Passion and death on the Cross. As we approach Holy Week with Jesus, we’re headed to “Jerusalem”. And what do we find in Jerusalem? What physical structure stands at the centre of the social, religious and even economic activity of that great city?
From the middle of John chapter 2 (v.13) to the middle of chapter 3 (v.21), the action takes place in Jerusalem. And not just anywhere in Jerusalem, but in the temple: Jesus cleanses the temple; Jesus meets Nicodemus; Jesus preaches on the steps of the temple about the love of God for the whole world.
And in the midst of that speech, Jesus describes the temple of his body. In doing so, Jesus identifies himself with a concrete, physical reality. He offers his being as a gift to those of us who long for a sense of God’s presence.
But notice here: Not in a vague, amorphous, disembodied experience. Not in a “meeting-God-in-nature” sort of way, disconnected from the real, concrete structures of human social organization.
The Christian faith is a concrete, real, social religion. In the ancient world, the temple gave a real sense of community to a people who didn’t all live in the same place, scattered around the city, and countryside of Palestine.
In the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures we often find this image of God drawing diverse peoples from the corners of the world. In the Psalm for Lent 4B, the Lord “gathered [people] in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:3; see also Isaiah 43:5-9). It is God’s work to draw people in to be together.
A vague, “meeting-God-in-nature” sort of spirituality doesn’t lead us into community. True Christian worship aims to overcome a sense of human fragmentation and isolation. We are not about a disembodied spirituality.
We are about the real, concrete presence of Jesus in bread and wine. We are about the real, concrete words of forgiveness spoken and heard in confession of sins and absolution.
As we are brought into relationship with God, we are brought into relationship with others. You can’t have one without the other. And that’s what I miss on the beach: While I indulge in moments of self-glory in the midst of God’s beautiful creation I miss something crucial to my faith – that wonderful experience means nothing if I don’t share it with someone, and if it doesn’t ultimately lead me back into my church community – to real flesh and blood.
It’s to this community where God’s Spirit draws me, where the steadfast love of God is offered and received, where God’s compassion is reflected in the lives of those who gather.
I soon leave this church community at Zion Pembroke to begin a new call serving Faith Lutheran Church in Ottawa. While the separation and distance will be real, there is also another reality we will continue to share: we still belong to the same God, and gratefully, the same church – the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Every time we participate in the Sacrament — you, here and I, there — we will be connected in faith.
We will be in communion with one another not in a vague way, claiming some invisible, abstract unity in Christ. But I can say we belong to the same church because our congregations, in reality, are essentially the same: we share the same language, the same worship book, a similar understanding of sacramental practice and theological orientation, etc. In real, concrete ways, we still belong to the same body – the body of Christ – which is the church on earth.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
- The Twilight Zone episode, as recounted by Robert Moore & Douglas Gillette in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p.114