Come Build a Church – Gratitude Sunday 11-11-12

The assigned Gospel reading for today is the story of the widow’s mite where the widow gives all she has to God. The lectionary developers seemed to think that it’s a good stewardship text and scheduled it for this season, maybe on purpose. I wanted to preach on stewardship this morning, about God’s abundance and our call to respond by dedicating our lives to God’s generosity. But I know that that story of the widow is actually an anti-stewardship story, about the exploitation of the widow by the temple, so I decided to preach on Hebrews. When I read it, I thought I had made a mistake. But as I studied it, I found it contained a wonderful message for me.  I hope it does for you as well.

Hebrews 9:24-28 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

November 11, 2012

Come Build a Church -  Gratitude Sunday          

My cousin has a flight simulation game on his computer. I tried it out.  I took off in the plane, barely getting it over the trees at the end of the runway, and pretty quickly crashed the plane into a river. Luckily the simulator didn’t show me all broken and the plane crashed in the river. It just said I crashed and started over. I could reset the game and try again, getting better at it every time until I could fly around and feel like I was really flying a plane. This does not mean that you would want to try me as your pilot, but it’s a pretty amazing simulation.

Sometimes church can feel like a simulated experience – or at least you might worry that your pilot is just one step away from the simulator. You’ve probably had the experience at some time in your life, where you went to worship with your hopes up. You thought it was going to be uplifting, maybe you even dared to hope for a transformative experience and it turned out to be a little bit dull or worse, it felt like a simulation of worship. They were going through the motions, but nothing felt like it was quite authentically spirit filled. Church can be a hit or miss experience just like any place else.

The author of our passage from Hebrews from this morning addresses this kind of issue about worship. He begins, “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands…” Hebrews contrasts the old priestly system of sacrificial worship, where the priest put on priestly garb and sacrificed an animal for the people in a hidden place. He contrasts that experience with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Hebrews was influenced by the kind of Platonic thought that said that the only pure and perfect reality is beyond humanity in the realm of ideas and ideals. Everything in our current reality is just a shadow, inauthentic and less than real.

In this passage the author argues that the old form of worship – in which the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to make a sacrifice for the people was just a simulation of worship – trying to be in the presence of God. With this platonic sensibility, the writer of Hebrews images Christ as dying not just on a cross in Jerusalem, but ending up in the sanctuary of “heaven itself,” appearing in the very presence of God on our behalf. [Tom Long, Feasting on the Word, Proper 27]

We try to make churches feel like holy places. We build them with big vaulted ceilings, sometimes with big beautiful stone archways or transepts and naves, and narthexes. For some people it is that majesty that makes the church holy. For some it is the bells, for others the pews, for others the altar and the pulpit or the baptismal font.  All these things make us feel like we are in an authentic worship space.  How do we know its not just a simulation though?

Others of us might contend that it’s the spirit of the place that makes for authentic worship. We build a church not through the bricks and mortar but by the care and the love authentically expressed by the people.  Maybe the mission is the most important thing. Some would say that what makes authentic worship is how we send people out into the world to care for the poor or the sick. It’s the offering then that makes for authentic worship, because that’s when we give of ourselves and dedicate ourselves to being giving people.

Others might say it’s the care for the children that makes for authentic worship. We feel so good when the children are up here and we are teaching them and forming them to be good people in the world, representing the faith for the future. For others it’s the singing and inspiration of the choir music, the feeling of awe that the music engenders in us. That’s what makes for authentic worship.

The writer of Hebrews says that all of these trappings, all of these beautiful windows and lovely paraments are made by human hands. Hebrews implies that all of these gestures of worship are “mere copies” of the true sanctuary in heaven, where the platonic ideal of worship, of real caring is happening. Hebrews says that the high priest has to go into the Holy of Holies every year, year after year to make the sacrifices. But that when Jesus is crucified, there is a once and for all event that means that all there is no longer any need for repetitive sacrifice and for all the trappings and for all the gestures of good will.

Or to put it another way, the final gift that Christ gives, redeems all of our feeble efforts to worship, and makes every storefront church and every stale cathedral God’s home. Because Christ entered the true sanctuary, wherever we welcome Christ into our midst, wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, the Living God becomes authentically present.

We do our best to make a beautiful place for God’s presence. We do our best to express the forgiveness and renewal offered by Christ’s witness. We do our best to be the hands and feet of God’s Spirit in the sanctuary and in the world. Finally, though, it is the gift of God’s grace, the touch of God’s spirit on all these efforts, that makes them more than simulations, crashing into the river nine times out of ten.  It is the gift of God’s grace, the touch of God’s spirit that makes all our fears irrelevant and our inadequacy inconsequential.

We give thanks to God today and next week for the abundance of God’s love in our lives that takes our gifts and makes them enough to build a church.  We give thanks that God has saved us from simulated worship, and promises an genuine connection with the Living God. We give thanks for the talent and the dedication of God’s people in this place that God uses to build this church and the whole living sanctuary of God’s love.

“Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone.

We need no tower rising skyward; no house of wood or glass or stone.

Come build a church with human frailty, come build a church of flesh and blood. Jesus shall be its sure foundation. It shall be built by the hand of God.”

Ken Medema

Responsive hymn: 3030 Eternal God Transcending Time