What an amazing event yesterday’s Sun and Fun was! So many different people here to have fun, to learn about so many different environmental and earthcare groups and methods, to celebrate our efforts and commitment to live more sustainably and responsibly, to meet new people, and maybe to see what this church that they didn’t really know much about was up to here on Hillside St. Of course, the weather was perfect for a Sun and Fun event, because we could be outside, on the lawn, all over our property, and only inside for a few necessary occasions–like eating, or using the bathrooms, or having a little quiet time with the kids. I suspect that for many of us who know the inside of this building pretty well, we may have been in places and ways we’re not used to being when we think of “being at Second Congregational Church.”–out on the parking lot, on the front lawn… Our experience of “the church” may have been expanded a little, beyond the walls, out to the edge of the property, and, hopefully, a whole lot further than that.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” the psalmist sings. “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” Solomon asked. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!…But regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God…that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house,…that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.”
There is something about this place, isn’t there, that makes us believe that somehow God is here in a way God is not elsewhere. We call this a sanctuary, a place to hold the sacred or holy, and there are expectations about how we act here–don’t run, we tell our children, be very quiet. We try to be on our best behavior, maybe more careful with the language we use. When the public school teachers met here during the strike a few years ago, a number of them spoke about how this place was a sanctuary for them, a place of safety, of peace, dare we say, a holy place. There is an on-going discussion in some of the 12-step groups that meet in our building about whether profanity should be allowed, since they meet “in a church.” “I haven’t been in a church for so long,” I’m told more often than you’d think, “that the walls might cave in if I stepped foot in there.” “Take off your shoes,” God is said to have warned Moses, “for you are standing on holy ground.”
Where does God live? That’s a perfectly good question our children may ask us, a good Godly Play sort of question–I wonder where God lives? Does God have a house? Is it in church? In heaven? In temples or mosques or synagogues? Beth-el, the name of our local synagogue, literally means house of God.
Of course, even in the ancient stories of Israel, God is pretty clear about not needing or really wanting a house. In fact, God tells King David through the prophet Nathan, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. …Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”
“The house” that God promises to David, instead–the house that God wants–is a people. “Being of the house of David” means, being of David’s lineage.
The same can be said of the church. Even though the language may be architectural–”I will build my church upon you,” Jesus is reported to have said to Peter, the Rock–it is the people, not the building, that Jesus is talking about–the ekklesia, the community, that is to become Christ’s body, not Christ’s home, in the sense of a building. “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together,” the song goes. The warning is clear and repeated throughout the Biblical testimony–don’t confuse God with a place or any other container. That is idolatry, #2 in the hit parade of commandments.
So, of course, God is not only to be found in a church building. Many of us experience God in nature–in our gardens, at lakesides, on mountaintops and ski slopes and hiking trails. We experience God in music that transports us, that speaks beyond words. And we experience God in our relationships, in our families, in our communities, including our church community or family. But we know that nature can be violent and destructive, witness the horrible wildfires burning out west, or the devastation of hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, as we come upon the anniversaries of Irene and Katrina. Music can be coarse or vapid or trivial. Too many families are dysfunctional and abusive; too many churches, for that matter, are dysfunctional and abusive, let alone petty and divisive. What kind of God is found in those storms or in those relationships? What kind of God is found in those churches? Some would say it is the God of anger and retribution, the God of righteousness, the God who demands obedience and subservience, the God of hierarchies and vengeance. That, in my humble opinion, is a cop out.
It is a cop out because it puts the blame solely on God. It is a cop out because it makes us only victims, puppets at the hand of a manipulative God. God destroyed those houses? What about our responsibility for building homes and structures in ways and places that take the power of nature seriously? God caused that hurricane, that flood? What about our responsibility for heating the atmosphere and the oceans? God allowed that massacre? What about our responsibility for acting lovingly and ethically? What about our responsibility for speaking out against injustice?
An article in the Huffington Post this week told about research by Dr. Josh Packard, through the Social Research Lab at the University of North Colorado, in which he reported that “There are now 30 million de-churched people in our country. Another seven million are about to walk out the door. They are done or almost done with the church.”
Of those who are “done with the church,” over 55% participated actively in the ministries of the church, many were leaders, givers, teachers. It was with profound grief that they left. This is true across age ranges–not just young people, but the over 55 group as well. These people came to church seeking an experience of God, through the experience of community, which is essential to these people, and through engaging in meaningful activity and service.
But instead of community, they say, what they experienced was judgment– judgment about hair or dress, judgment about sexual orientation, judgement about this and judgment about that. “What was particularly disconcerting,” Dr. Packard reported, “were the subtle forms through which judgment was expressed: a raised eyebrow, whispering, gossip, jealousy, ostracism.”
When “the Dones,” or “Almost Dones” looked for opportunities to serve, they encoun-tered one bureaucratic obstacle after another. They want to make a difference in the lives of other people but they are asked to invest their time and talent in keeping the institution up and running.” That is an unavoidable part of community life, they acknowledge, but making it the priority is frustrating.” (posted 8/13/15)
“Happy are those who live in your house,” the psalmist sings, “ever singing your praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” It is clear that this is more than a building the psalmist is talking about. It’s not a call to occupy the Temple. To “live in God’s house” is to attend to God’s presence, wherever you are. It is to know that we live and move and have our being in God.
The theme of this summer’s 30th General Synod of the UCC was “Unexpected Places”– “seeking to explore some of the ‘unexpected places’ where we hear God’s voice, encounter the Spirit, and find the United Church of Christ lifting up its witness in the world.” My question is, where do we NOT expect God to be? Is there really such a thing as a “God-free zone”?
My guess is that what makes this building or even this property “holy ground,” as opposed to stepping off the curb onto Hillside St., is that we have an expectation that we might encounter God here, that something about the relationships we develop here will be holy, that the music or the message or the prayers will somehow take us to a place where we sense the presence of God. What we expect, what we focus on, determines what we shall find.
All those people who say they are “spiritual but not religious”? Many of them have experienced “religion” like the “Dones” or “Almost Dones”–or they think that’s what all “religious” people are like. Or they’ve never experienced “religious people” who are not judgmental, who care about the environment, who don’t demand or expect you to be able to spout off a list of precepts about God or Jesus or anything else that you and everyone else must believe, who accept you no matter what your race, economic condition, disability, or sexual orientation is, who believe God hasn’t finished speaking. That’s why “non-religious” events like Sun and Fun are important, to get folks who long for community and meaning interaction to come without the “religious” overlay, to come and experience what makes a place “holy” and relationships sacred. What we have to offer is spiritual and religious.
In an informal poll of his students, Bruce has found that well over 80% of them have never even been in a church or synagogue or otherwise “religious” building. Not by choice or intention; it’s just that it never occurred to them, they’ve never had occasion. Nothing in their world–in the media, in the culture, in their online community, in any of the relationships they have–even includes a religious community, except in a negative sense–religious extremists acting out, committing acts of violence or hatred. The ones who aren’t extreme are silent about their religion. These are not the “Dones” or “Almost Dones.” These are the Nones, with no religious affiliation at all.
Our future as a church community–if we are to have one–will require that we find ways of communicating the value of participating in a community like ours. If there are no expectations of encountering a holy, healthy, loving presence here in this place, then we must be vessels of that presence in the wider community. We create a dwelling place for God, so to speak, at the Kitchen Cupboard when people can acquire fresh vegetables and healthy food in an atmosphere of welcome, free from judgment. We create a dwelling place for God at Madison’s Brew Pub when we come together there to discuss matters of faith while sharing food. We become dwelling place for God when we “practice the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence put it, intentionally being open to God while we do the dishes, stand in line at the grocery store, change a child’s diaper, sweep the living room floor, visit a friend in the hospital or nursing home, when we practice expecting to find God everywhere and in all people.
And this place can become a dwelling place for God if we make it a place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “for the practice of alternative imagination,” [cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 8/23/15]. “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course,” Kurt Vonnegut said, “but to daydream about God.” We must make this a place where the consumerist, fraudulent, dominating voices of our culture are stilled. In his book Introverts in the Church: Finding Our pLace in an Extroverted Culture, Adam McHugh writes, “When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of 21st-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God’s love.” As an introvert, I say Amen to that, but I’m guessing extroverts might crave some of that too.
In Jesus, of course, God chose to dwell not in a place but in a human being, to be a living, breathing, moveable feast, so to speak, like each of us can become–with practice. The forces arrayed against our becoming that are strong and many, as Paul’s admonition in the letter to Ephesians suggests that we need to put on the whole armor of God. But our tradition offers practices like prayer and meditation, coming together for worship, the sacraments in which the real presence of Christ is offered, a community of support and accountability and opportunities for service, for making a difference in the world. We can become “attractive fields” of God’s energy and compassion, reminders that the God of love cannot be tied down or limited, but rather is able to work even through flawed and broken vessels like us, able to make any place holy ground. Holy lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God of hosts! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark