A couple of weeks ago, our session of elders gathered on a retreat. Among other things, we asked one another the question, what is worship to you?
And some of the things that some of you said worship is were…
Something bigger than myself
keeps me grounded in the here and now
place God and us talk and listen to each other
puts my story in the context of scripture and the world around me
place where God and people meet, where heaven and earth touch
puts us back in touch with God again
Not about how I feel
happens in community
reminds me of the truth
helps me live the rest of my life with integrity
We do it to connect our stories to God’s story, we come somehow into God’s presence.
and many more…
What happens when we worship? What is this strange ritual of coming together like this, and why do we do it?
Israel built a temple to worship God. After hundreds of years in slavery, forty wandering in the dessert, hundreds more in the promised land but at war off and on, there was finally peace and prosperity in Israel. And King Solomon picked up his father David’s building plans and set about doing what it took to fulfill his father’s dream – to build a temple, a house for YHWH, one central place of worship for the One Holy God.
There had been other places – alters built on hills, piles of rocks to commemorate a meeting place with God, local sanctuaries and the tabernacle tent, the temporary structure that moved with them throughout the wilderness and which still housed the ark of the covenant with its stone tablets containing the law given to Moses. But when the temple was built, it became the place that all of these were foreshadowing, anticipating, waiting for. And scholars tell us it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the temple to Jewish worship and life.
"This is the place," one scholar says, "where Israel’s worship finds its heartbeat." (Craig Koester) The center of their life, where the Ark could come to rest and the people could come to worship. It was here the psalms became corporate songs of praise, here that almost all we know as worship found its beginnings, its language and rhythm, here the people were reminded in sacred and practiced forms who they were and to whom they belonged.
Now later - when the temple is destroyed and the people are be scattered – they’re devastated, and have to figure out all over again, how are they God’s people? and how is God is their God? It becomes the open gash of their exile; their homelessness and banishment is most expressed in the grief of the loss of the temple.
Later still, it gets rebuilt, as center of Israel’s faith life. The second temple becomes a prominent place in the New Testament, the place Jesus is dedicated and where he comes as a child, a gathering place for the disciples.
The temple was it, folks. Their touchstone. The place where the God who cannot be confined nevertheless promised to meet them. It was called “the footstool of God.” The Temple was place God promised to meet Israel, the sacramental place.
So how deeply offensive was it, hundreds of years later after Solomon built the temple, when it had stood for centuries as the home of God, the place God meets them, for Jesus to come charging through this holy place, the (second) temple with a whip, bashing down the merchants stalls and sending feathers and dung flying? When he roared that they’d turned what was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations, God’s dwelling place, into a den of robbers, and he desecrated their desecration, how much more did he break down that day than the tables of vendors?
And then, in a stunning moment of eternal clarity, when the onlooker sees what the whole cast misses completely, Jesus calls himself the temple. The place where God promises to meet us. The person of God come near for us not in stone and morter but in the very person of this raging man standing before us.
Because God is forever breaking out of the boxes we build up and coming nearer, and nearer still. And the word became flesh and pitched his tent right among us, full of grace and truth… (John 1)
God is greater than buildings can contain, greater than our ideas of God, greater than our prayers and our liturgies, beyond our best efforts to be relevant or real. God extends beyond all definitions and boundaries, and is not limited in the least by our language or our polity or our structures.
God is everywhere. God can meet us anywhere. But God knows we are human. And we need touchstones. So there are some places God promises to meet us.
When I was 18 years old, I backpacked around Europe for a month with two girlfriends. We were on our way back from 5 ½ months in West Africa and the Canary Islands. As fun and life-changing as this adventure had all been, I was feeling a bit homesick and road weary. We had settled in for a couple of days at a youth hostel in the middle of Amsterdam, right outside the red light district. We were about two weeks from coming home; it was Good Friday, and I was craving, of all things, church.
My friends were content hanging out at the hostel, but I desperately wanted to find a church to worship in that night. I asked at the front desk about churches in the area, and assuming I meant to sightsee, they gave me a map with a couple cathedrals circled and I set out. I followed my way to one large church-building and found it abandoned, with spray-painted words on the bricks and the doors chained and padlocked. I wandered from there through twisting streets as the sun was setting, frantically searching for another church, gazing up at the horizon for steeples and seeking out their buildings beneath, only to find them empty, locked and dark, and getting more and more frightened at being out alone at night and on the verge of lost. Finally, not wanting to be caught alone in the Red Light District at night, I gave up.
When I arrived frazzled and despondent back in the brightly lit hostel, I heard the laughter and conversation from the community room, and did not feel like being with people just yet. I was deeply disappointed, lonely, and pining for something I couldn’t put my finger on. I shuffled back to the dorm room and climbed up onto my top bunk.
All the other beds were empty at the moment, their occupants down in the raucous lounge or out on the town. I reached in my backpack for a roll I had left over from lunch. And an orange. And I sat in the middle of my bed, peeling the orange and laying the segments in a little pile. Then I dug out my pocket bible from the bottom of my bag and spent a while trying to find the part where Jesus broke bread with his disciples. I finally found it and read it.
Then I took the roll and I prayed. I prayed that it could be communion. That somehow, even though I was alone, even though I was far away from the people I loved, even though I couldn’t find any community to share communion with, even though I had a dinner roll and an orange, instead of bread and wine, that somehow this moment would be communion.
Then I closed my eyes and ripped a chunk off the roll and put it in my mouth. When I had finished chewing and swallowing it, I picked up an orange slice, held it in my hand for a moment, closed my eyes again and then placed that too in my mouth.
And next to the loneliness I felt a grace and warmth. I felt like I was part of something bigger going on all over world, this eve of Easter Vigil. I felt like I wasn’t alone. I felt like I had gone from being tossed on the breeze like a loose kite to being firmly planted on the ground. Oddly and momentarily secure. I might still be swaying a bit, but Somebody had anchored my tail with their foot.
It was a sacrament - Jesus Christ came close and united me with the Body of Christ – even though I was apart from them in the moment. I hadn’t wanted to go see churches; I had needed CHURCH.
We worship, we gather here and do these things because now we are the Body of Christ. Christ is present in and with us in a real way. God’s promise to be near to the world is given form in us. We can’t begin to understand what this means, except to accept that somehow, when we come together, God meets us here. Or wherever we would gather, wherever here may be. We are the place. This is the touchstone. All of us. All of the us’s all over the world. Gathering together in worship.
Our symbols and practices, our polity and denominations, our worship music and hymns and everything else that we do cannot contain God, or even, on their own, reveal God. At worst they become like the vendors in the temple, they obscure God and warp God’s message. At worst, they become what we worship instead of what helps us worship God. But at best they speak of God and remind us who God is and why we are here and invite God to come and be with us. And then, whether we’ve done it well or poorly, whether we feel or believe it or not, because God is God with us, and we are the Body of Christ, God does.
I spent this last week between Kansas City, where I met my newest nephew and lots of new foster nieces and nephews, and then at ARC retreat center in Cambridge, where I wandered trails in the woods and sat in a quiet cabin under the still, quiet, star-filled sky, (when I wasn’t co-wrangling five children).
And God was there, in both places. I met God. In the tears of a struggling sister and the laughter of an oblivious nephew, and the warmth and astounding beauty of a tiny sleeping infant on my chest, and the sacredness of a godson writing a prayer for snow and tucking it between some rocks stuffed with other people’s rolled up prayers. In the friendship between young boys that don’t know their moms are listening to them help each other, and the late night conversations between otherwise long-distance friends when the pain and the joy find words with wine and whispers not to wake the baby.
In difficult conversations with a friend and support that is beyond ours to give and somehow we give it anyway, we are church, God is present.
But how to make sense of these experiences? How to recognize God in them? How to share the things I am afraid or sad about, or the things that bring wonder and joy? Where do these things become faith for me, cohesive, revealing, instead of scattered, individual moments?
In this worship. In these people. In this gathering. In the community eating broken bread and drinking spilled wine, and pouring dribbled water over a dry head. These actions are our sacraments, our thin places, the places God promises to meet us. God is present everywhere, but God has promised to meet us in this place, in our worship. The Holy Spirit makes us into the temple of God, the Body of Christ, the place in which the God who is already everywhere in the world, nevertheless promises to meet the world.
So as Solomon prayed when he dedicated the temple, in hope and longing, and trust for it to be the place where God meets us, Let us also pray in dedication:
Holy God who cannot be contained, who will always be greater than any attempt we could ever make to know or see or reach, or speak for you, we ask you today,
Be here in this space, this space we have made for you. Make your home among us, between us, within us in our worship. Make us a thin place, a sacred place, a place you promise to meet the world.
When people come here with grief and sadness and they cry out to you, give them comfort.
When they come here in anger, seeking the strength to forgive, forgive them and give them the power to do likewise.
When people come here because they are lost, overwhelmed or confused, meet them in solace and give them strength.
When people come here divided, torn apart by tensions that seem insurmountable, hear them, and meet them with reconciliation and hope, with healing and unity.
When people come here alone, give them belonging.
When they come weary, give them refreshment.
When people wander in from nearby or come from far away, because they need a place of sanctuary, a place of prayer, because they long to be in a place where they can meet you, meet them here, O God, answer their prayer.
Dwell here among us. Sojourn here with us as we gather.
May this place be your place. May we be your people. Make us your temple.