Is God here?

The first parish I served as a priest is Holy Apostles, located in suburban Memphis.  When I arrived there, however, Holy Apostles wasn’t located anywhere.  I mean that geographically, not spiritually.  Holy Apostles had been planted in a city neighborhood in the early 1970s, and as the demographics of Memphis shifted over the years, the parish’s fortunes waxed and waned.  Some years before my arrival, Holy Apostles had shrunk precipitously and sold its church building.  For some years they’d rented worship space in a Presbyterian church parish hall.  Eventually, that church, too, was slated to close, and Holy Apostles once again became a shrinking band of wandering nomads.  The low point may have been the day the Mission Council formally interviewed me to be their new vicar at a Perkins Restaurant on Old Shelby Drive in the middle of Memphis, amidst waiters busing scrambled eggs and French toast.

Once I’d arrived as the sheepskin-holding, seminary-trained, newly-minted cleric, our first order of shared business was to find a new house of worship.  I finalized negotiations with the headmaster of the brand new St. George’s High School at the edge of the suburbs for us to move into their chapel, which we did.  Between the chapel’s front door and the road was a large, flat field.  At this point, Holy Apostles’ worshipping congregation was something like forty people.  Eventually, we grew by leaps and bounds, but those first few months I would stand before church at that front door and gaze longingly across the field, toward the road.  Cars would drive into my line of sight, and I would pray, “Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.  Please nudge them to come to church.”  And I always fretted that no one would come.

“Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.

“Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.” Agape Chapel at St. George’s School, where Holy Apostles found a new worship home.

Some part of me still stands on that front stoop today, more than a dozen years later.  Every Sunday morning my heart reaches out to my savior and my Lord and begs, “Please, sweet Jesus, please nudge them to come to church today.”  Every priest is that way, I think, which is why we loathe the doldrums of late summer and so look forward to Rally Day.  You came to church today!  Thank you, and thank you, Jesus.  (**Sigh**)

Roughly ten thousand years ago, some unnamed nomadic hunter-gatherer picked some wild wheat from a field and, after chewing on it a while and gazing across that field, had the epiphany that he might be able to plant roots right there, to cultivate that wheat year after year, to give up his traveling tent and instead make a home.  He did, and others did, and almost as soon as there were settled communities, there were also places of worship.  I visited two of the very oldest this summer, in Malta and Ireland, each dating back more than five thousand years.  Those early settled people painted ornate, infinite loops on the ceilings and walls of their proto-churches.  They oriented them to catch the sunlight at dawn on the winter solstice.  They did everything they could to entice not one another, but God to show up.  I can imagine the wheat-chewing fellow standing at the front stoop of his village temple, nervous about the spring planting, needing God’s favor and grace, and praying, “Please, God, please turn in here.  Please show up today.”

The ancient Tarxien Temples in Malta

The ancient Tarxien Temples in Malta

The history of the Israelites follows that pattern almost exactly: Forty years of nomadic wandering in the wilderness, followed by a barely settled era in the Holy Land, until King David finally stabilizes the realm.  But even then, there is no temple.  It isn’t until David is dead and gone and Solomon is on the throne that the Israelites build a permanent house of God.  It is the dedication of that temple about which we read in the Old Testament today.  Most of the description is mystifying to us.  You sort of had to be there, I think.  Lots of incense, smoke, liturgical parades, and more priests than you’d find at a cocktail party with free food.  Right in the middle of the ceremony, King Solomon gives the keynote address, and it’s very kingly.  He speaks in confident, lofty terms about this house he has built for God, the doors of which have been opened, with the ark of the covenant safely stored in the holy of holies.  But then something odd happens.  There is no break in the dialogue, but Solomon seems to turn aside.  He leaves his prepared text.  And almost to himself (under his breath, maybe?) he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God, much less this house that I have built.  Hear my prayer and my plea, dear God, that your eyes may be open towards this house.”

Solomon dedicating the temple

“King Solomon praying before the Temple,” Giuseppe Bonito, c. 1750

Behind all the bombast, Solomon the Wise is shaky and uncertain.  Perhaps it is in his uncertainty that his wisdom lies.  He stands there, needing God’s favor and grace, and praying, “Please God, please turn in here.  Please show up today.”

This oscillation between confidence and unease will mark the history of Israel’s relationship with their God from this point forward.  The question perennially will be asked, often in the midst of religious celebration, pageantry, and fanfare, “Is God in the temple?”

So here we are on Rally Day, this day on which I am so glad we are all here.  We showed up!  But Solomon was far wiser than I am, and his uncertainty begs for me—for us—the question:  Does our presence—our showing up—mean that God is here, too?  If you’ll permit me a brief moment of pride, I daresay our expression of liturgy and music could give Solomon’s temple a run for its money.  Think of the worship aesthetics of a high holy day here at Christ Church, from morning Eucharist to Evensong.  There is visual beauty; there is sublime music; there is (I hope) sophisticated and faithful preaching.  Or, consider the Rally Day celebration and fellowship that will occur between today’s morning services.  There will be joy among us, and that will serve as an anticipatory prelude to an entire semester of learning, formation, and shared experience for every age.  Or, lean on our prayers, our doctrine, our formularies.  We say the creed each week.  We read the Gospel.  We confess our sins.

Does this do it?  Do all these things ensure for us that, as the Spirit of God moves down Texas Avenue of a morning, she’ll turn in here?  In this temple, this house of the Lord, this cathedral, is God here?  How can we know?

“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

Solomon dies without an answer to the question, but three hundred years later, a voice thundered through the temple from the lips of arguably God’s greatest prophet, Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s words reached back across history to connect directly to the wise king’s question, “But will God indeed dwell in this place?”  And through the mouthpiece of the prophet, God himself—God himself—says, “Hear the word of the Lord, all you who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For [only] if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place…forever and ever.’”[i]

For those of us for whom our worship is primary—certainly for the guy who preaches for a living—God’s answer is startling.  All that we do here, this beautiful and moving worship, this formation and fellowship, is derivative.  It is rightly the response to something else, and that something else is discipleship.  For what other word is there for the life’s path that puts God first and sets aside all other idols, that seeks first the justice of God; the healing of the sick; the feeding of the hungry; the hard work and exhausting effort to find the lost and bring them home, to God’s home, to this place where only then, when we have done these things, will God himself dwell within.  That is, after all, what it means in the Gospel today when Jesus says we must eat of his body and drink of his blood for him to dwell within us.  Yes, we consume the break and the wine in the Eucharist, but even that most holy act is a response to our eating and drinking of the Way of Jesus in our lives.  The Eucharist is the sup of discipleship, the nourishment for those who are all in for the justice and grace of God.

As we begin this new semester, as we come together in our beauty and our joy, it is crucial that we, like wise Solomon, pause.  It is crucial that we, like the disciples, admit that this teaching is difficult.

The Beacon

And yet, here, blessedly and by the grace of God, after the question has been asked we can unfurrow our brows and renew our joy, because I have never known a place so committed to the justice of God as Christ Church Cathedral.  As we rally this day, let’s remember that The Beacon, and Compass, and New Hope Housing are our foundation to the east, and that the Hines Center for Spirituality and Prayer will soon be our foundation to the west, feeding gnawing hunger both physical and spiritual.  Recall the work of the Mission Outreach and Justice & Peace Councils, and Canon Logan’s Johnny’s Walkers, and the work of Kid’s Hope and the At Risk Youth program in our schools.

This is the temple of the Lord, the grand Cathedral of this great city, where beauty and majesty are our loving response to the God who is the center of our lives, whose justice in this world is the true north of our being.  The Spirit of God is here.  Jesus the Christ does abide in us and we in him, in worship, in song, and in discipleship into the world.

Rally Day 2014 2

[i] Jeremiah 7.

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