On the Design of Worship Spaces

August 23, 2015

Bible Text: 1 Kings 8 |

“Then Solomon said, ‘I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (1 Kings 8:12a, 13).

Throughout the summer our Old Testament readings have followed the life of King David. But the story moved on last week – moved on to David’s son Solomon who succeeded him. But unlike David, whose story our lectionary followed for a couple months, Solomon just gets a couple weeks, focusing on the two things for which he is most famous. Last week it told the story of his great wisdom, and this week the story of his great temple.

And – if I were writing this sermon like I usually do – I’d pick out what I thought was the most significant theological theme, and then I’d explore it for our context today. So with the building of Solomon’s temple I would start with the idea of “Where does God’s spirit dwell?” and then I’d trace that theme throughout the scriptures, ending with, “the Spirit of God is in God’s people, the church.” In fact, that is exactly the outline that I developed for this sermon. And if that’s the sermon you’d like to hear, then give me a call, and we’ll go out to coffee and talk about it, because that’s not the sermon I ended up writing.

After all, you hear that theme a lot from me in one form or another: that the true church is the people of God. The spirit is in us... But once I started writing that sermon I found myself drawn instead to another idea that we never seem to talk about, and that is the value of the church building itself. So this morning I’d like to talk about the actual buildings in which the church worships.

So… starting with Solomon and the temple he built in Jerusalem:

To begin with, Solomon’s temple was a thing of beauty and splendor. Earlier this week I read the chapters that precede today’s lesson. I was struck how Solomon used the best materials known in the ancient world, with no regard for cost. The whole thing was paneled with the cedars of Lebanon. The holy of holies was covered in gold. It was breath-taking.

As well it should be. For at that stage in the development of Israel’s faith and relationship with God, the temple was God’s dwelling place on earth. In all creation, it was the distinctive locus of God-with-them. And, though Solomon could rightly discern that “even … the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built,” God’s temple was like an embassy in a foreign country. God’s ultimate home is beyond our reckoning, but if you wanted to meet God here, in your land, then you go to the temple.

Now, in our day and age, we have a more “expansive” understanding of where we might meet God – namely, anywhere. In fact, many of us would say that we feel God’s presence most in nature. And that is fitting – for nature is the direct handiwork of God.

And yet, there is still something fundamentally human that wants a distinctive place. We are physical beings of flesh and blood, and so we want physical places that are holy. Throughout human history we’ve always felt the draw – the need – to construct space that is holy and consecrated. And in this there is sense of participation and union with God: you gave us the natural materials; we took them and built a space; and now let’s meet here together: creator with creators – for we were made to worship the God in whose image we were made.

And, perhaps it’s just our human sentimentality, but when you walk into an old church, you can feel the centuries of prayers that have saturated its stones. You feel the communion of the saints and the timeless witness that we were made for something much bigger and much truer than the frantic economy of our little lives.

For indeed, we live in a world that is becoming increasingly frantic – quickly-changing technology that we now carry in our pockets, with its barrage of emails and Facebook and advertisements, clambering for our attention. And we’ve just begun another round of presidential campaigning with all its hollow promises and venomous accusations. And society itself is shifting so quickly – that who we are as a people, as a culture, is all up for grabs. And our own bodies are in various states of rebellion against us; every week I learn of someone else with cancer. And in all the clutter of this life – that we do have to deal with – we can return to church, to this church, to this space, to these walls, and take our seat in these pews, to draw us into this liturgy – its familiar refrain from week to week, from century to century. It is this space and the gospel we rehearse here, that teaches us how we are to live in that world, that is also our dwelling place, and also the dwelling place of God.

We live in that world. And we live in this world. The longer we belong to a community of faith, the more that community’s space forms us and informs us. This communion rail is where you knelt at your confirmation... At your daughter’s wedding… At your husband’s funeral…And countless Sundays in between that were far less memorable, yet formative all the same. This space has fostered the spiritual rhythm that speaks to the eternal essence of who you are.

And you know – there are some who come here week to week or intermittently, who I hardly know, who aren’t involved in much else beyond Sunday worship, who slip out quickly and quietly. There was a time when that would annoy me, when I’d think it shallow and uncommitted. But that day is over. If you come here and find in our space a place of sanctuary from this world and all its demands, and then leave quite anonymously, then I say “Bless you.” May this building and its liturgy be holy unto you.

We need holy space. For there is a carelessness in this world. It assaults you with a thousand stimulations every day, but does so with no regard for you. The church should be a place whose very design is to care for you – to tell you that you belong, that you are safe, that there is a sanctuary set apart for you to meet your God. And though we normally speak in terms of the community of the church providing this kind of love and welcome, there is something to be said for the space itself.

That is why, over the centuries, cultures have understood that temples and holy places should be well-designed, to foster a sense of the holy. That is why, for centuries, the church was the largest patron of the arts: for musicians and sculptors and painters and craftsmen. The best of culture was fostered in the church, that the church in turn may give to the people its best expression – or portal – into the divine mysteries, for which the arts are uniquely qualified.

This is not an invitation to excess and gaudiness. God forbid. The “best” can just as well be a spacious simplicity – where the soul can breathe. I was once in a search process for a church needing a new rector, and honestly, the thing that attracted me most to them was the picture of their little prayer chapel – a small white room with a few benches and beautiful light streaming in. I think of the music at the midnight Christmas Eve service last year. We employed outstanding musicians. (For a moment, we were patrons of the arts.) And, under Joe’s leadership, they didn’t show off, overwhelming us with their virtuosity. They wove a gentle and exquisite song befitting the incarnation: of Mary, our mother, caressing the infant God, entered our world in vulnerability and love.

As my spirit continues to adapt itself to this church and this space, it’s the spareness that most attracts me. We’ve laughed about the boxiness of St. John’s, and – God knows – the exterior of this building does little to welcome people in. But once inside, I’m increasingly appreciating its simplicity. It’s clean: clean walls, simple altar, high ceilings, no fussiness or over-decoration. There is one principal thing to do here, and that is to meet God.

A worship space and all that is in it should foster the soul’s encounter with the divine. What you see and touch and hear and smell should resonate deep within your spirit.

So look around. What do you sense?

Altar. Cross. Light. Shadow. Each could be a sermon of its own. But I would draw your attention to two candles in particular. When this candle is burning it tells you that within that box built into the wall, the “aumbry”, is consecrated bread and wine – the real presence of Christ with us. You can come here any day, and when that candle burns you know that the sacramental presence of Christ is here to meet you. And when that light (pointing to the other direction) is burning it represents all the prayers that have been prayed there each week. Though we must leave this space and worship to tend to the duties of our lives, that light reassures us that our prayers remain ever-present before our eternal God who continually hears them with mercy and love.

That is why the Altar Guild is such an elemental ministry in any Episcopal Church – those men and women who are called to tend this space lovingly each week: preparing it for our worship, with reverence and care.

Now, it is true that churches can get out of balance and spend masses of money and energy on maintaining the building of the church while failing to foster the mission of the church. But a healthy church learns to do both:

Yes, of course, we must invest in being the people of God who are living out the mission of God: of loving one another and participating in God’s redemption of the world.

And, we must invest in the space that gathers us as a community – and do so with an intentionality that will draw our hearts towards God.

It’s no secret that St. John’s could be a prettier space. The acoustics could be better. There could be more natural light. Trust me when I say that the designer in me has redesigned it a thousand times. And the day may come when we can make improvements. But already, there is a simplicity and a cleanness to this nave that I would never want to lose.

So come. Come in peace and may the God of your senses meet you here, this day and always.

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