Monday, August 28, 2006

Sacred Space

1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Eph. 6: 10-20
*********** Congregational Church
August 27, 2006

In the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often drew a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey. The pilgrim would point her finger outward and rotate in a clockwise direction until she completed the circle. This practice of faith, the “caim” or “encircling”, reminded the traveler that God surrounds him wherever he goes. Despite the danger that threatens personal safety, the “cosmic powers of this present darkness”, or any antagonists of the faith, the pilgrim is constantly within the circle of God’s protection, the everlasting circle of divine love.

Circle me, Lord. Keep protection near and danger afar.
Circle me, Lord. Keep light near and darkness afar.
Circle me, Lord. Keep peace within. Keep evil out.
Circle me, Lord. Keep hope within. Keep doubt without.

But can God’s presence, God’s love be contained in a circle around us? Just as Solomon acknowledged that even heaven and the highest heaven could not contain the Creator of the universe, much less the temple, the house of God that Solomon had built, we recognize that in this ritual it is we who are contained in God’s limitless presence and power.

What makes a space sacred space? What makes this church building a sacred space? Were the lumber and nails and bricks and mortar blessed by prayer? Is it because of the floor plan, the placement of pews and pulpit and lectern? What made the temple in Jerusalem a sacred space? Was it the presence of the Ark of the Covenant? Was it the priests and their presiding over the sacrifices and burnt offerings?

When 1 Kings was written, it was centuries after this dedication ceremony had taken place. The temple had been destroyed, Jerusalem was in ruins, and the people of Israel were in captivity. God’s people needed to remember whose they were, what it meant to have a sacred place in which to worship and around which to center their lives, and to renew their hope that one day they would return to their holy land, the place where God first spoke to them and joined with them in covenant.

Imagine what it would be like for your congregation if you no longer had a sanctuary in which to worship or around which to center your lives. Imagine living separate from one another, from your sisters and brothers in covenant and feeling separated from God. This coming Tuesday will be the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and those that followed. So many churches were damaged or destroyed. Many church members were forced out of their homes or moved away. Some died. Pastors and church staff members are still ministering while under heavy burdens of recovery themselves. Worship space and practices have had to take different forms in order for congregations to remain viable. What we think of as sacred space may be out of place with our brothers and sisters on the Gulf coast. If there wasn’t a church building for a church, what then would define sacred space?

At the church where I am a member, we refer to the place where we worship as the ‘meetinghouse’ instead of ‘sanctuary’. It goes back to our Puritan mothers and fathers, who stripped the worship space of all adornment and symbols. It is not the cross or the Bible or stained glass that makes this place holy. These and others are reminders of the divine presence. It is what we do in this space that makes it sacred. God’s presence is very real and palpable when we express that presence in our worship and in our life together.
One of my favorite church songs as a child (and still is) is the song “I Am the Church” by Avery and Marsh. If you know it, sing it along with me:

I am the Church/You are the Church/We are the Church together!
All who follow Jesus/All around the world/Yes, we’re the Church together!

The Church is not a building/The Church is not a steeple/
The Church is not a resting place/The Church is the people!

Yes, we are the Church: you, me, everybody! And not just the people we like and agree with, but the people we don’t like and disagree with; they are the church too. And those who have yet to be welcomed, those who are on their way here, they are the Church too. It is what we do in God’s name that makes a space sacred; it is we the Church, the people, who create sacred space wherever we are.

A few years ago Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and author, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock woke him at 3:00 a.m. The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling.

He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything was closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He went in and sat down at the counter. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, "What d'ya want?"

Well, Tony wasn't so hungry anymore, so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he said, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulped his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replied, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman said, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he said, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turned to the kitchen and shouted to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife came out. "That's terrific," she said. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they made their plans. Tony said he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, said he'd make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back. He had crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorated the place from one end to the other and got it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. Tony had everybody ready. They all shouted and screamed "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she totally lost it. Then she was sobbing and crying. Harry, who wasn’t used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

So she pulled herself together and blew them out. Everyone cheered and yelled, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

But Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asked. Looking at Tony she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

So Tony got up on a chair and said, "What do you say that we pray together?"

And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her life with God. Tony recalled, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he was finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thought for a moment and said, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

Space is made sacred by what we do in it. When we celebrate, when we pray, when we give and forgive, when we open our hearts and our doors with love, when we offer an extravagant welcome to any and to all, when we feed the poor, when we share in the Lord’s Supper, when we join in song, when together we put on that whole armor of God, when we stand against the rulers, the authorities, when we name the cosmic powers of this present darkness, when we proclaim Christ’s gospel of peace by living peaceably in the world, when we believe when belief seems foolish, when we take risks for the sake of furthering Christ’s message of love and compassion; when we do all this and more, we are the Church, we become the sacred space.

We still suffer under the illusion that we are a group comprised of individuals. But as a Church, as a Body of Christ, we are no more an individual than a hand or a foot. What Tony Campolo did in that dive in Honolulu, he did as part of the Church, as a servant of Christ, not as an individual. And he invited others to join him in showing God’s love for those whom most forget, ignore, or disdain.

He drew God’s circle of grace and love not only around Agnes but around everyone at that party, turning a greasy spoon into a place of prayer, redemption, and witness. Wherever we are, we are the Church in the world, making every space sacred when we draw others into God’s circle of love and grace.

What makes this space, this church, sacred? How have you been called forth from this place to be the Church in the world? What strides have you made to draw others, even those considered foreigners and strangers, into God’s circle of grace and love? What does it mean to you to gather in worship and prayer each week? How does this sacred space, this tangible reminder of God’s presence, inspire you to give?

(Invite everyone to stand as they are able.)

I invite you all to join now in this ‘encircling’, to point your finger in front of you and to draw a circle around yourselves. Imagine that the circle does not end at the tip of your finger but is limitless and extends far beyond the walls of this church, even beyond the horizon, the boundaries of our nation, across fences and border patrols and oceans and wars and poverty and disease and famine and even death, that all this earth and all its inhabitants are sacred space, contained in God’s limitless presence and power through Jesus Christ. Let this be our prayer without ceasing. Let this be the redemption of the world. Let this be our witness. Amen.

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