Sunday 29 October - Pentecost 21 - Evensong - Markus Duenzkofer

Narrative Lectionary: 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

When I was a child I loved to play with Lego. And one of the things I built over and over and over again was a church. It was a church built from mostly eight-nobbed red Lego brigs, complete with a steeple, a door, windows, and pews. I even had an altar-retable misappropriating votive cards handed out by Roman Catholic priest after confession.

I built those churches for my teddy bear, which I dressed as a priest in chasubles made from paper handkerchiefs.

Here he is.

[show teddy to the congregation]

He is very special to me, as he was given to me by my sister at or around my birth. He hasn’t really moved form my side ever since. And, no, you can’t talk to him after the service. God knows what he might tell you…!

So, here I was as a child: building churches from Lego and playing with my bear.

If only my parents could have interpreted these signs, we could have saved us so much heartache later…!

Of course, this story is not a at all a wrong metaphor for the church. Gathered together for worship we create sacred spaces that allow us to encounter the living God.

I believe that our prayers indeed change the fabric of our temples, establishing thin places in a thick world, and create spiritual oases. And it is not just our personal prayers. The setting apart of buildings as much as the setting apart of people for the service of God makes a statement in a lost and searching world: it challenges the powers that want to harm us in body, mind and soul, whatever these evil forces might look like. And it creates safe spaces. It creates safe spaces, in which the church can fully unfold its ministry of being a teddy bear, of being present in the lives of God’s people as comfort, as assurance of God’s love, and as a reminder of God’s healing power. In a world yearning for liberation from the death and from the destruction and exploitation of all human and non-human life, the church can create spaces within which is revealed God’s life-giving embrace of each and every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves on the journey.

 

No wonder, the people of God, even as far back as three and half millennia ago, longed for such sacred spaces. God’s people ached for a Temple, for a location of certainty that made a statement in the face of mortal threats and that created a safe space. God would live in the Temple. The Temple was שכינהה‎‎, the presence of God on earth. And when Salomon built it, it became true: A mighty fortress was the Temple of God was! Alleluia!

 

When I think of highlights of my ministry as a priest, though, I am surprised: Yes, there are moments of divine intimacy inside our structures. God’s temples of stone and mortar were “home” for me even before I started recreating them with Lego. And when I think of the life-changing baptism just two weeks ago, or of Peter and Alistair’s and Ross and Hayley’s weddings, or of hearing John Ireland’s breath-taking Te Deum sung beautifully at Evensong, or of the Creationtide Eucharist a few years ago with children – all of these things happening right here in this very here – yes, when I think of these, then I know that God’s Spirit was at work, and was at work here at St John’s in mighty ways, creating life abundant.

And, yet, if I am honest, the moments that shaped most radically and most profoundly who I am not just as a priest did not occur right here, or at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, or at St Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. Instead, it was the surprising encounters at a bar in Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood where I had to rethink the virginity of the Mother of God. It was the conversation with a young Nero’s barista here in Edinburgh when the meaning of life came into focus afresh. It was the “wet lunch” at the New Club, when a young entrepreneur and father reminded me that family and relationships come before business, always. It was the celebration of the Eucharist using the top of a baby’s high chair in a drug-recovery shelter, because there was no other space available. Or it was the moment when after attending Christmas lunch at said shelter, I had to strip completely bare naked in public on a city street in order to discard of my clothes and put on fresh ones, because there had been a bedbug infestation – it taught me about humbleness, gratitude, and making oneself vulnerable to the living God, whose Spirit moves in ways beyond our control, beyond our confines, and most definitely beyond our comfort.

 

It is indeed too superficial to read today’s texts from 1 Kings as a blatant affirmation of the Temple cult. The Hebrew Scriptures are way too subtle for that. Yes, these ancient texts are at times rather disturbing and our modern sensibilities get upset. But at their core, these parts of God’s self-revelation want to disturb and upset us and our self-aggrandising. And they want to make sure we never forget that God is beyond our control, beyond our confines, and beyond our comfort. God calls us into ever-new and ever-surprising situations.

Today’s texts are set within the intra-biblical struggle between on the one hand the prophetic tradition of the Sinai, when God’s presence was linked to the ark, a travelling ark on the journey into a promised, and yet unknown land. There was movement, there was discovery, there was exploration of new territory. And the only thing enshrined in stone was the reminder that God had liberated God’s people from slavery and oppression. Yes, the journey was dangerous and frightening. But it honoured God’s liberating force and God’s freedom. And it made God’s people rely on and trust in God, and in God alone.

The other strand in this inner-scriptural conflict was the priestly tradition that built a Temple on one specific mount for God’s presence. And the worship of God was to focus on this very Temple. There was a lot of safety and security in this. And it allowed for people to breathe, rest, and heal. But the danger was the professionalisation of the cult. Only the priest had access to the divine. It also made for one heck of an edifice, which led many to trust in human ability and skill.

Yes, today’s texts affirms and celebrates God’s abiding and restorative presence within the walls of sacred buildings and the institutionalised religious worship. And it is good to know we can all rely on this here at St. John’s, too.

But there are also hints of prophetic criticism in the text, hints that remind the reader that this is not it, that our edifices and institutions are not the goal, but mere means. God’s Spirit calls us beyond the Temple, beyond the institution into kingdom-building for the sake of the world.

 

Rosie, you have been called to this sacred building, into this community of faith. Yes, you come to be among us as a priest of God. You bring gifts of preaching and healing, gifts that already are nurturing this community. As you preside at the altar, שכינהה in bread and wine will draw us closer into the Trinity of Love.

But you come as one, who is not employed, who will not spend all your time in here. And we need you: we need you to be a prophet, too. We need you to share your experience of working in an ecumenical context and with people who are all too easily forgotten, ignored, or marginalised. We need your prophetic insights to remind us that God’s Spirit seek to push and pull us beyond the buildings, beyond the institutions into a hurting world. And this is the unique gift and office of vocational deacons and of non-stipendiary priests such as you.

Yes, Rosie, be among us as a priest in this Temple to be an instrument of God’s comfort and healing.

But Rosie, be among us also as a prophet to stir us and to remind us that God’s Spirit moves in ways beyond our control, beyond our confines, and most definitely beyond our comfort.