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)

It’s ok to fall (5): God knows everything about us anyway

I don’t like being in the spotlight. Literally, too. I don’t mind being the centre of attention from time to time. But I must confess a high degree of self-consciousness, especially when I am supposed to be the sage on the stage.

I suspect many of you share my knee-jerk away from standing on a stage by myself feeling the heat of the light on my face, not being able to see anyone in the auditorium, and just knowing in the back of my brain that every little wrinkle, every little blemish, every little imperfection is exposed — fully. Are your hands sweating? Mine are, just thinking about it.

And that is why the Psalm for Lent — and often read on Ash Wednesday — is Psalm 51. “Create a clean heart in me O God and create a right spirit within me” (v.10) — we sing in our weekly offertory.  Before this petition, there is a quiet yet poignant confession, in verse 4: “Against you, you alone [O God], have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

This, at first, may sound threatening and alarming. Yikes! God almighty has been offended by my sin! I. Am. Doomed! And there’s no hiding from God. Wow! We’re in for it, aren’t we? Never mind the friends, co-workers, family, spouse, people around me that I  have offended and hurt. They may not always easily forgive — but they’re not God! After all, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand!?” (Psalm 103:3)

Perhaps that is why we read in the Gospel for today (John 2:13-22) about Jesus snapping his whip and overturning tables in a righteous anger and prophetic impulse. This image of Jesus may leave us feeling a bit queasy. We may not like this image of Jesus. We may feel threatened by it. Uncomfortable, at very least. 

Why is Jesus angry? Jesus is angry for the injustice of the temple moneychangers taking up valuable room where the Gentiles are allowed to come and pray to God. And he is losing it, in the temple of all places! Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appears to fulfill its function, closer inspection reveals that the temple has forgotten its purpose.

I read this story at our mid-week bible study a couple of weeks ago, when we discussed the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is a re-telling of Dostoyevsky’s classic poem about the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus:

“During the 16th century in Spain, at the very height of the Inquisition, Christ appeared unannounced in the streets of the city of Seville. As he went about caring for and healing the poor, the sick and the lame, the people began to recognize him and flock to him. An old Cardinal also recognized him …. and had him arrested!

That night in prison, Jesus had a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor entered his darkened cell and reprimanded Christ for appearing again and getting in the way of the Church’s work. ‘You are offered three tools to bring in your kingdom and rule the world. You were told to change stones into bread. Imagine the possibilities … bread for the hungry … people would have followed someone who fed them. But you refused! It was suggested that you throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels sweep you up before you came to harm. People would have been amazed. Everyone would have followed you. But you refused! And you were offered authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world. But you refused! In all this you wanted people to follow you out of love or not at all. And look where it got you.

‘Well, we have corrected your mistakes and we’re doing well. We cannot let you hinder what we are trying to do. And so, tomorrow, you will die.’

Jesus said nothing in reply. Rather, he looked into the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor for a long time and then walked over and kissed him. Oh how that kiss burned. The Grand Inquisitor stepped aside and let Christ escape into the night, saying to his back as he left, ‘Do not come back again.'”

We may squirm in our seats, now. 

This Gospel, I believe, pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. What kinds of ways of doing things have gotten us stuck in a rut — in our individual lives, and in the life of the church? It’s an important question to ask. Just because Jesus is ‘our’ saviour, doesn’t means “he is perpetually well-pleased with us knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even, on occasion, against us.” (Paul C. Shupe, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2 David Bartlett/Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.96)

Well, there’s one thing we do I don’t believe Jesus could get upset about — at least, one activity of the church, one way of doing things. Know what that is? The potluck meal, of course! Everyone likes a potluck! Right?

You come, bringing your own dish to add to the table. But you come, also willing to try a little bit of everything, right? That’s what makes it fun! Doing this, doesn’t mean you will necessarily like each and every dish. Tasting a bit of other people’s gifts doesn’t mean you will run home and try to make what everybody else made. And, you certainly wouldn’t be rude to the people who brought dishes you weren’t too crazy about. At the potluck we practice being generous, adventurous, compromising, and kind to the other.

The potluck is an important symbol in the history and practice of being the church; I would say a guiding image on congregational life and how to work together. Because in the potluck experience, we practice being ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘self-centred’.

This practise reflects the ‘outward’ movement of church-orientation. It may start with a potlluck. It ought to end serving those who are hungry. The ancient word for church in Greek, ‘ekklesia’, literally means: ‘a people called out’. Called out to see what God is doing ‘out there’ in the world. Called out to act.

The movement is centrifugal. It certainly isn’t ‘convenient’. Sometimes we need to be ‘thrown out’ of our self-centred preoccupations with maintaining the institution of the church and the comfort of our lives, and out into the world where God is doing something. Where there are people in need.

The cleansing of the temple — though hard it feels sometimes to be judged, to be convicted of our sin, to be honest about our true motivations — this scene ends with the sinners being thrown ‘out’. Out, into the world, in order to get a fix on what God is doing. Out in the world, in order to find God, again. Out in the world, to get back on track with what Christian faith is really all about.

The story of the cleansing of the temple as John tells it points toward replacing the material ‘bricks-and-mortar’ temple with the temple of Jesus’ body. This is a theme that is picked up later again in the fourth chapter, when he tells the woman at the well that she will no longer worship God in any particular, physical location (John 4:20-23) but in “spirit and truth.” John is painting, here, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection, and its embodiment in the Holy Communion which we celebrate every week.

Maybe it’s better that it is only against God that we have sinned. Because only God can fully restore us, heal us and love us despite knowing all the dirt in our lives. I think we know that human beings don’t have a good track record of forgiveness of others. Only God, in Christ, will continually offer to us his mercy and forgiveness, knowing full well how off-the-mark we are. And, for us to know that we can always return to the Lord our God, return to the table of the Lord time and time again — in all honesty, truth and humility, to a God who will not spurn us for our faithlessness and weaknesses.

We can fall on our knees, because nothing is hidden from God, and everything we need, God gives us — and then some. Thanks be to God!