The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5