Sermon, November 15

This Sunday finds us deep in our fall Giving Campaign. St. Dunstan’s, like most Episcopal churches, gets the overwhelming majority of its financial support from its own members – from our giving, week by week, year by year. Every fall we take a few weeks to ask people to make a statement, a pledge, of how much you intend to give to the church in the coming calendar year – 2016. Those pledges allow your Finance Committee and Vestry to plan for the next year’s programs and expenditures with some realistic sense of our income. Response has been great so far – I’m pleased and excited. We’re hoping to have most or, ideally, all! our pledges gathered in no later than next Sunday, our Giving Campaign Victory Celebration. If you’ve pledged in the past and you haven’t turned one in yet this year, you may be getting a gentle nudge this week, to see if you have any questions, if you need a new card mailed to you, that sort of thing…

In conjunction with our Giving Campaign, I’ve worked closely with the Finance Committee to make sure that anyone who’s interested in our church finances can find answers to their questions. We’ve explained our income and expenses, where our money comes from and where it goes, by displaying it in tables and pie charts and glass cylinders full of marbles… Anyone with more detailed questions – how much does Miranda’s health insurance cost? How much do we pay for snow plowing? – you just have to ask. Our finances are open to our members.

Anyway – if you’ve taken a moment to peruse those pie charts and tables, you might have noticed that our Buildings and Grounds are a pretty big expense.  Tied for second largest area of expense with our diocesan assessment, the funds we give to our church jurisdiction to help support the Bishop’s office, diocesan programs like Camp Webb, aid to other parishes, and more. Our buildings and grounds expenses have totaled around $42,000 in recent years – around 16% of our budgeted expenses. Now, a lot of different budget lines are included there – snow plowing, grass mowing, cleaning, maintenance and repair, utility bills, our property and liability insurance, city assessments. But all taken together, that $42,000 is what it costs us to have a place. To have a physical location that we own, and to keep it safe, clean, functional and accessible. (And believe me, that number could be even higher if some of you didn’t pitch in as volunteers to help out with some of that work!)

You don’t have to have a place, to be a church. The mission parish Phil and I helped start in North Carolina rented worship space from a Jewish community. It worked fine. But we, St. Dunstan’s – we have a place. And we spend over $40,000 a year taking care of it.

When I first looked at this Sunday’s Scripture lessons – look, I am going to talk about Scripture! This really is a sermon! – I thought, Well, that’s a mess, what will I do with that? Then I began to notice that all of these texts say something about having holy places. The pros and cons of having a particular place that is the focus of a people’s relationship with God.

We know that God is everywhere. A prayer here is no more valid than a prayer from a back alley, or a speeding vehicle, or a hospital room, or a bathtub. And yet: we like having places… places to come where we feel close to the Divine, places to bring our gifts, offer our prayers, receive blessing. Google “Gobekli Tepi” sometime – it’s one of most interesting archeological discoveries of our time. It’s a carved stone complex on a hilltop in Turkey, about twelve thousand years old – which means it predates pottery, metal-working, writing, the wheel, and agriculture – and yet those people, Paleolithic nomads, built this amazing site, consisting of circular enclosures of finely-carved stones decorated with realistic stone animals. It’s amazing – and it’s a testimony to the fact that, as soon as humans developed the skills and organization to build stuff, we started building holy stuff. Churches, temples, henges. It’s a deep-seated and ancient impulse.

One reason we like having holy places is that they give us a place to go. Sure, we know that God is everywhere, but only young children and saints actually seem to remember that. Most of us need the cue, the intention, the routine, of going to a particular place, to help us focus and open our minds and hearts and spirits to approach and receive the Divine.  We see that in our Old Testament lesson for today, a portion of the story of Elkanah and Hannah, who become the parents of Samuel, the prophet and kingmaker, who anoints first Saul, then David, kings over Israel. In the time of this story, Jerusalem is not yet the capital city of God’s people, and it will be David’s son Solomon who builds the great Temple there. But there is a temple to the God of Israel at Shiloh, tended by a priest, Eli, and his sons.

Elkanah expresses his faith in God and his gratitude for God’s blessings by going to that temple every year, and offering animal sacrifices there. It’s not our thing but in early Old Testament Judaism, sacrificing animals was one of the central ways for people to honor God and express their devotion. Now, Elkahah and his family have done this for years, but this particular year, Hannah finally breaks. She is barren, childless, and that grief and grievance overwhelms her. And it drives her away from the family party and to the temple, where she feels herself to be in the presence of God; and there she pours out her distress, her bitterness, her heartfelt longings, to God in prayer. She is so moved, so worked up, that Eli the priest thinks she’s drunk. But they get that misunderstanding straightened out, and Eli blesses her and sends her away. And she leaves the temple with a new sense of peace and hope – “her countenance was sad no longer.” A few months later Hannah finally gets pregnant – but note, please, that she finds relief from her anguish long before her prayer is answered. Coming before God and releasing the passionate prayers of her heart in that holy place helped her. Eased her mind and heart.

That holy place – church, temple, sacred grove – can be especially important when we’re walking the road of grief, anger, anxiety or struggle. People tell me regularly, “I’m holding it together OK most of the time, but when I come to church, the tears just come out.” And I say, That’s OK. That’s good. It’s safe here. This is a place where you can unlock your heart. Weep and rage before the altar, like Hannah, if you need to. I’ll try to be like Eli, honoring your pain and joining you in prayer.

So that’s one thing about our holy places. They give us a place to practice our piety and pour out our prayers. We could do those things anywhere, and some of us do – I do a lot of praying in my car. But it seems to help us to have a defined place.  And it helps us to have a place to gather with other people of faith. This was assumed, in Old Testament Judaism – that people will gather, learn, and pass on faith to their children. In the New Testament, and especially the Epistles, our Scriptures begin to call us clearly and consistently to gather regularly as a community of faith. Christians were a minority, often despised, sometimes persecuted. Their ways of faith and life were very different from those of the surrounding society. They needed to come together, for solidarity and strength, for mutual support and sharing of prayers and resources.

Listen again to these verses from the letter to the Hebrews (10:24-25): “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another.” The author goes on to remind the Christian community of the struggles they’ve already been through, and how well they endured, caring for one another even through imprisonment and loss, holding confidently and courageously to their faith. They’ve stuck it out because they stuck together, holding each other up, encouraging each other, reminding each other of God’s steadfast love in the best possible way: by showing steadfast love for each other, even in the worst of times. Holy places are places for God’s people to gather, to meet together, encourage one another, learn and live more deeply into the teachings of our faith, and provoke – I love that verb! – provoke one another to love and good deeds.

So. Our holy places – churches, temples, henges and groves – they provide a place for us to practice our piety. A place to bring our deep yearnings, struggles, and joys, in prayer. A place to gather with others, to be made and re-made as God’s people.

But here’s where it gets interesting. The people to whom the letter to the Hebrews is speaking – they didn’t have a church. They were meeting in somebody’s house. Maybe, when times were especially bad, they were meeting in underground tunnels or other hidden locations. When this author talks about entering the sanctuary, passing through the curtain into the holy of holies, he is using imagery from the Great Temple, from the practices of Old Testament Judaism, to describe a new way of worship, of approaching God, in heart and soul, without a temple or any other special holy place to visit. Because the Temple was gone.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples marvel at the great stones, the majesty and beauty, of the Temple in Jerusalem – the heart of Jewish faith and identity, the Second Temple, rebuilt even greater and grander than the first, Solomon’s temple, destroyed by the Babylonians. And Jesus says, Soon, not one stone will be left upon another. All of them will be thrown down.  Jesus is absolutely right in predicting the destruction of the Temple, but with all due respect, it’s not his most visionary moment. Probably lots of people could have seen that coming. Imperial occupation is an inherently unstable political situation. The Romans were unpopular and the Jews were restless. There was going to be a revolt, eventually. And it would probably be a religious revolt. And the Romans would win, because they were the greatest military power of the age by a long shot. And the Temple would be torn apart, to make it very plain to the Jewish people that they should not let their funny little God encourage them to revolt against Rome any more. It happened maybe forty years after the conversation in our Gospel, in the year 70.

So early Christianity – and our sister faith, rabbinic Judaism – took shape in circumstances that were not favorable for big fancy religious edifices. Eventually those first house-churches started to get a little fancier – altars, baptismal pools, religious mosaics. But the first churches, per se, don’t appear till the fourth century.  I think that’s why the image of Christians as stones in a spiritual temple is so dominant in early Christian literature – early Christians didn’t have special buildings in which to practice their faith, so they developed the idea that they, the community, were the building, the temple, the holy home for God’s spirit.

But. The fourth century rolls around. The Emperor Constantine smiles upon Christianity. No longer persecuted, Christians start to build churches. And then they start to build really big churches. The great churches and cathedrals start to be concrete manifestations of the power, wealth, and glory of religion, just as the Jerusalem Temple was before them. Christians had holy places, to gather, and honor God, practice their faith, and offer up their struggles and their thanksgivings. And that was good in many ways. But it wasn’t all good. Like the Temple, the great cathedrals could carry the message that God lived here and not elsewhere – and that the religious functionaries of that place controlled access to God’s attention and favors. Like the Temple, the great cathedrals demanded resources for their construction and upkeep. They shone with wealth, while most of God’s people lived in grinding poverty.

In last week’s Gospel, the passage just before today’s text, Jesus praises a poor widow for her gift to the Temple. But I just didn’t have the heart to turn that into a stewardship sermon. I believe that Jesus honors the widow’s generosity and, more, her radical trust that if she does what is right and honors God, then it doesn’t matter what happens to her. But the context for that little vignette is Jesus’ teaching about the hypocrisy and greed of the Temple elites. He doesn’t believe that what the widow is giving to, is worthy of her. Two chapters earlier, he was in the Temple court, knocking over the tables of the moneychangers, outraged at profit-seeking in his Father’s house.

Our holy places can become drains and distractions. They can suck up more than their fair share of resources and energy. Every time I visit a fine old church and admire its beautiful stained glass or historic stone walls, I remind myself that stained glass windows can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain, that historic stone walls crumble and let in moisture and have to be repaired or replaced. There are things I don’t love about this building. But I would choose it over most of the other church buildings I know. It’s in pretty good shape, and it serves us pretty well.

But of course that $42,000 isn’t just this building. It’s the grounds and gardens. It’s the parking lot. It’s the 19th-century farmhouse that used to serve as the rectory. It’s that boxy but functional edifice we call the Parish Center, currently home to our neighbor church Foundry414. And it’s the woods – how many of you have ever been in the woods? Ask one of the older kids to take you sometime. They all know their way around down there. Taking care of all of that responsibly, keeping it safe, clean, functional and accessible, that’s what costs us $42,000 a year.

Could we do church, could we be church, the way Foundry414 does, or that mission parish in North Carolina, or like the little gathering that became St. Dunstan’s, in the early years when they met in a soda bottling plant? Making the best of borrowed space, with expenses for our holy place at 5 or 10 or 15 thousand dollars, instead of 40-plus? Sure. If we were starting fresh, or if we had to start over, we could do that.

But we won’t, because we have this place. Built with love and purpose, bequeathed to us by the founders of this church, most of whom are now long gone. We have it, so we take care of it. To honor the past, to maintain and improve for the future – and because we love it.  I won’t claim that we have a clear sense of purpose in how we’re using every part of our property. With the woods, with the rectory, there’s an element of just muddling along in how we’re using them right now. Maybe we’ll do that work, in the next few years – developing a clear sense of how to integrate those assets into our life, our mission as a parish. Make them part of what we are, instead of just part of what we have.

There are pros and cons to having a place. Scripture, history, and our own experiences tell us that. There are risks and downsides, to be sure.  The risk of usual wear and tear or some sudden catastrophe costing more than we can readily afford. The risk that we’ll let some failure of our physical plant – shabby carpet, torn chairs – either matter less, or more, than it really should. The risk that choices made fifty or twenty years ago, about the steps around an altar or the shape of a kitchen, will constrain what we’re able to do today. The risk that, in making this a safe and comfortable place for those of us already here, we’ll create stumbling blocks at the threshold for those who aren’t here yet. The risk of thinking that the building is what makes us a church. The risk of letting this place and what we do here be the fulness of our faith, forgetting that we are sent into the world as witnesses of God’s love – sent to Galilee, as our new Presiding Bishop likes to say.

But I think we’re reasonably mindful of those risks, here. And there are blessings, too. This is a holy place – our holy place. This space made holy – hallowed, in the beautiful old word – by the intentions and hopes of its founders, by artists and architects, by the pure beauty of wood and glass, by the presence and prayers and songs of fifty years of our predecessors here. This ground made holy – hallowed – by the shaping and tending of humans and by the urgent and beautiful grace of the life of the planet, manifest in trees and flowers and birds and squirrels and stones and sand. I met up for lunch with a friend who was then on staff at Asbury Methodist, right next door, a couple of years ago. She walked over to wait for me in our parking lot – and she remarked on how different it feels here from their property, all of a hundred yards away. There’s a kind of peace on our grounds that’s hard to explain without resorting to the supernatural.

This is our holy place. We love it, and we take it for granted. We use it, and care for it, and sometimes neglect it a little. We draw on the walls and spill things on the floor and leave messes for other people to clean up, just like home, because it is home, a kind of home. And we come here like Elkanah to give thanks and honor God, and to find comfort and hope in the familiar practices of our faith. We come here like Hannah, a woman deeply troubled, to pour out the desires and fears and bitter griefs of our hearts. We come here like the first Christians, to learn and teach, encourage and exhort and, yes, provoke.  That sixteen percent of our budget that it asks from us isn’t so much, really, when we look at all the ways it blesses us. With shelter and comfort, space to use and space to share, flowers in the spring, berries in the summer and the beauty of snow-laden pines in the winter, and most of all, simply being a holy home for our fellowship of faith.