Monday, May 5, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part III

This is an extended reflection. If you have not seen the previous two "chapters" of this four-part post, then it makes sense to read them first. You can find Part I here, and Part II here.

I want to outline, very briefly, the Biblical narrative. Or, more accurately, I want to offer a theological reflection on the Bible from the perspective of buildings. I want to think about worship in the Bible, and begin with Abraham and Sarah. After God calls them to "go to a place that I will show you," they worship God on the way. There are not permanent buildings for a pilgrim people but that doesn't mean that sacrifices are not offered or covenants made.

And then in Exodus we also have encounters with the Holy One, but it's on a mountain and then in a tent-of-meeting. And again the tent keeps moving - leading the way. I love the great Lenten hymn that says:
Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church
walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent,
led by your cloud, by day, by night your fire,
moved by your love and toward your presence bent. (The Hymnal 1982, page 149)
That takes us through the rest of the Torah. It isn't until King Solomon that we get the Temple (see First Kings 3) and then before you know it, it is destroyed. And that presents a very serious crisis in faith: how could God's people sing the old chestnuts in a foreign land, without a house of worship? Turns out there were a lot of tears and a lot of anguish but what emerged was not a loss of faith but a new thing that God was doing and some of the best poetry in all of the Bible. See Isaiah 40.

So of course they come back and they rebuild the Temple - see Ezra and Nehemiah. Lots of laughing and crying when the foundation is finally laid - see Ezra 3:11b-13.

We get to see that second-Temple in the New Testament. Jesus isn't a huge fan of it, however. Or at least, and perhaps more accurately, he is a prophetic critic of the ways it has been co-opted by the leadership. It has stopped being a house of prayer for all people, so he goes in and starts moving around the furniture, which as any Episcopalian could have warned him will be met with some hostility. It is.  (See Matthew 21:12-13) He does say this: that the Temple he will rebuild is his Body, in three days. A few decades after his death the Roman army destroys that second Temple; all that is left to this very day is the western/wailing wall. And of course his resurrected Body - the Church.

The communities that gather throughout the rest of the New Testament begin as tenants in the synagogues until they are kicked out, and have to move into people's homes. They are a people before they have buildings. They are a people on the move. See the Acts of the Apostles.

At the Building Fund Symposium (don't worry, I am going to get there in the next and last post, I promise!) one of the workshop leaders told the story of how he likes to open up the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and turn to Revelation 1:4 and ask "what do the seven churches in Asia minor have in common?" The answer? They are all closed. Of course there is something else noteworthy in the Book of Revelation: the seer on Patmos "saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." (Revelation 21:22)

So what does all of this mean? That we should not have church buildings? No. That is not the answer, at least not for me. We need to gather. We need holy places and sacred spaces because we are not only a spiritual people but a religious people.

But it does mean this: a building ought not to ever be confused with the living God. A building is like a Sacrament - an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. A building is like an Icon - that is to say that we need to see "through it" to the living God. Our problem is not buildings. Our problem has become our relationship to our buildings - which is sometimes idolatrous.

And so the very first place in our diocese where Anglicans got a foothold, in Congregational New England, in Great Barrington - a few years ago the wall of that building came down and not by choice but circumstance that congregation became a pilgrim people who then merged with another congregation that left their building. Together they formed a new, nomadic parish: Grace in the Southern Berkshires. They meet for worship in a pub. Their website describes them as an Episcopal "community" - I don't think that's an accident. Their identity and their sense of what it means to follow Jesus has been tested in ways akin to what it must have been like for the Iraelites who were taken into Babylon, but came back with their strength renewed, mounted up with wings like eagles.

Now here is the thing: the story isn't over. That community of faith may yet decide they need a building, and there are a variety of futures that may emerge - none of them clear to me from this vantage point or, I think, to them. They are currently searching for a new rector, a unique ordained leader who can help them to discern what comes next. But for here the point is that their journey as a people without a building has taken them deeper into the Scriptures and has led to spiritual growth - and I'm sure none of that has been easy. But their witness may be a story we need to hear, so that those of us whose walls are still in tact might at least wonder aloud: is this building serving us, or are we serving it?

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