One morning some years ago, as I was praying in the clergy vestry part of the church, a woman walked by the window, and went underneath an evergreen tree in our church yard.
I finished my prayers, and went outside in time to meet her as she was coming away from the tree. I asked what she had been doing and she replied that she had placed a rose under the tree, because today was her daughter’s birthday, and her ashes were scattered underneath that tree.
That conversation led me to pursue the idea of a memorial garden for that parish, which became a very meaningful aspect of our care for people and their loved ones.
There is often a debate over where to place people’s ashes, because many if not most people need to be able to connect with some specific place.
People typically need a place, to gather, to be together and to focus on and remember specific events and meanings in their lives.
The scriptures today raise the question of: Where does God dwell? And they speak to us of the relationship between the local and the universal.
Being located, grounded, embodied, centered, and having a sense of place, is essential to being human. Because our mother is that “place” to begin with, small wonder we have sometimes identified the church with our mothers, because they are places of belonging and nurture and of beginning to find our way in life.
We need “sacred places” in our lives. We all have special places in our lives – places we go when we need to reflect or re-group. When we were young, perhaps that was our mother, or the closet, or a place in the woods. Later it might become places like churches, chapels, shrines, or a place in the woods.
At the moment we call the Transfiguration, that mountaintop experience when the disciples got an insight into the true identity of Jesus, Peter’s immediate response was to build something, a monument of some sort. A typical response to a profound experience is to build something, so it becomes a place where the experience can be re-visited, remembered and shared with others.
We have always had a sense about sacred places. I remember standing at the font where W.A Mozart was baptized. Temples, mosques, and churches have, since ancient times, conveyed a sense of the place of God in our midst, as well as giving people places to gather, to learn, and to be part of a faith community.
The question implied today is: Where is most likely to be found or experienced? In a temple? In a church? In a book, such as the Bible? And if so, then in which church, and which sacred scriptures?
You might have heard the joke about the Vatican official rushing in to tell the Pope he has some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus has returned and is on the line; the bad news is that he’s calling from Salt Lake City. People have fought huge intellectual and physical battles over their claim to have an insider’s path to God, and that conflict and competition has led to the place of religion in our society becoming offensive to many. In the epistle today, in the famous metaphor of the “armour of God,” (Ephesians 6:10—20), Christians are encouraged to see even getting dressed as symbolic, as meaningful, as a reminder of our task to confront evil and misleading ideas and deceptions – to be aware we are equipped to deal with adversity. Too often, though, well meaning Christians have gone too far, and become very literal about the way they have interpreted that passage, and have taken up arms in order to destroy what they perceive as their opponents. It should be noted that Christians typically were more prone to ask “Who is my neighbour?” than “Who is my enemy?”
Solomon identifies the issue of how ridiculous it is to assume God can be contained or confined in a building, or even in a particular set of beliefs or creeds. Solomon was known for his wisdom. He knew that God is indeed everywhere – in nature – in each created thing. When the medieval mystic St Julian of Norwich expressed that she could see the entire universe in a hazelnut, I am sure Solomon would have known what she meant.
Yet he also knew that in order to be human, we have to BE somewhere – we can’t be completely non-specific or ethereal. The great Temple in Jerusalem became symbolic of the life of the people of Israel, and they understood themselves as being God’s people in a special way – people of the covenant. And so great cathedrals and mosques have become centres, focal points, helping to define, connect and unite huge groups of people.
The Jewish people came to believe that the Temple was blessed and protected by God. The Temple was thought to be sacrosanct, the belief being that the very “heart of God” was present there. And yet only a few generations later, the Temple lay in ruins and the people of Israel had been marched off to Assyria as slaves. As if to emphasize the point, it was destroyed again, several hundred years after they re-built it. All that remains of it today is one section of wall, which became known as “the wailing wall.”
Some would say we should dispense with churches and mosques and temples altogether. But that would be a foolish and inadequate response to a much bigger issue in human life. “I can worship God just as well on a golf course or at Wal-Mart,” people say. The problem is that typically they don’t. And without the presence and influence of churches and other religious institutions in their lives, the general level of awareness of things spiritual and moral has been dropping dramatically. It is no wonder that we are seeing dramatic rises in the use of violence among young people, and that many people, including our leaders, seem to have lost any sense of what life means, or how we are supposed to live a meaningful life. The questions aren’t being asked; the issues aren’t being raised.
The last time I played golf a guy hit his ball onto our tee, and wouldn’t have found it if we hadn’t let him know where it was. “I had no idea how far off line I was,” he said. What an appropriate comment, I thought. In any human activity, there is a need for a compass, a sense of the right direction, and help in getting ourselves properly located and back on course.
Christians believe that the incarnation of God in Christ reveals the profound and saving truth that God is everywhere, and yet God is here. That insight pulls together the universal and the local, the future hope and the present reality. The great insight that the New Testament proclaims is that God is not only with us, but in us – as it was embodied in the person of Jesus, so it is embodied and located in us. But it needs to be given expression, and shape, and direction.
Already, by the time of Jesus, there was an awareness that the people could not rely merely on a building, as powerful a symbol as that may have been. So Jesus apparently related the concept of Temple to his own body, pointing to the indestructibility of what he was about, and that, unlike the Temple, the Spirit that was in him could not be brought down, and even if people tried, it would be raised up. It was a metaphor of the resurrection, of course. And it is on that basis that Christians build churches: as expressed by an early saint: “Where Christ is, there is the universal Church,” rather than, “If you build it, He will come.”
It is significant that the early Church developed its life and practice and worship with no official church buildings for at least 300 years – a good reminder when we get a bit attached to the idea of Christianity as being mostly about buildings. And yet Christianity has created some of the most beautiful sacred places in the world. I have stood or knelt in awe, in gratitude, in some of the most beautiful churches in the world and those places themselves have the power to change us, to raise our spirits and our sense of purpose. “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord God of hosts.” The 84th Psalm expresses this very clearly, and yet it expresses the awareness that even though there is a connection with the Temple in Jerusalem, with the building, the reality of God’s “dwelling place” is much greater.
The term “church” derives from a word that suggests a place dedicated to or belonging to God, a reminder that the church is never a mere possession. In a sense, it is a place we go to remind ourselves that we belong to God – that we are God’s creations (or creatures).
God can’t be confined to buildings. Christianity does have something to do with where we gather, and the place where we gather can be a very positive influence and inspiration, but Christianity, to be real, must be lived out in places like golf courses and Wal-Mart and the problem is that so often Christians have been perceived as not doing that.
The poet TS Eliot said: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To begin, as infants, we are the universe, but as we mature we realize we are a very small part in a very big picture, which can be intimidating and overwhelming and tempt us to retreat and shrink back and remain within a manageable, familiar environment. Eventually we see our place in the universe and develop a sense of connection – we develop or create a “story” about the way things are and why.
Ultimately, we return to the child’s experience – that we indeed are the universe – we are one with it – that in fact we are the temple of God – and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Yet the trick is to be able to maintain and balance that tension between the local and the universal, the immediate and the eternal. Somehow we have to try to give expression to both ends of this spectrum in the way we practice our religion: reminding ourselves and others that we are both finite and infinite, mortal and immortal.
Once you have experienced that larger sense of being, and taken your place in the big world, it is interesting to return to former places – homes, churches – and invariably they always seem much smaller than we remember them. That is because we outgrow them, not just physically, but spiritually, intellectually. And they can become confining in ways we are not even conscious of, unless we maintain that sense of the summons of the universal, the cosmic.
When the great Temple that Solomon built was destroyed by the Babylonians, the people were carried off into exile to serve as slaves. It was a tragedy, but one that the Jewish people managed to turn into a triumph, because they found new ways of gathering and consolidating and celebrating their faith despite the destruction of their central place of worship. This became the synagogue tradition, which Jesus himself was raised in and continued to participate in throughout his life.
As we move through what seems to be a difficult and confusing time in the life of the church, it is important to look back to the witness and example of our ancestors in the faith, and realize that we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit; we are the “building blocks” of a Church which is much more than any particular structure. Yet even though God cannot be contained by our buildings, and despite the immensity of the universe and the purposes of God, we need to be reminded that God loves each of us as if there were only one of us, and that God loves us where we are.
Like Solomon, we strive to hold together those two extremes. The Good News is that in Jesus the Christ, the extremes are reconciled and become one.
The Reverend Grant Rodgers+