On the Beach

August 26, 2018

Series: August 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

The second reading features King Solomon speaking at the completion of the building of the temple. The temple, as you know, was seen not only as a monument or a gathering place for people, but the very the dwelling place for the living God.

 1 Kings 8: 27-30, 41-43

27"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 30Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive."

41"Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm — when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built." THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

On the Beach

You might suppose I chose this passage because it has to do with completing buildings since we are about to renovate the church following a successful capital campaign. No, this is a lectionary passage.  I’d just assume talk about finding God in nature as so many do—that’s a much easier sell—finding God in the forests or, since it’s California, finding God on the beach!

This is not an anti-Christian message, for listen to the full passage from which your bulletin quote comes, St. Catherine of Siena:

It could be said that God’s foot is so vast
that this entire earth is but a
field on His toe,
and all the forest in this world
came from the same root of just
a single hair
of His.
What then is not a sanctuary?
Where then can I not kneel
And pray at a shrine
Made holy by His 
Presence? [1]

St. Catherine so eloquently captures the vastness of God, and the reality of all creation as a sanctuary for the sacred. Take the beautiful legend of Kevin, who I like to think of as the Celtic St. Francis:  During the holy season of Lent that leads up to Easter, Kevin goes into the wilderness to enter into deep contemplation.  When lifting his hands in prayer, in through the window of his prayer hut flies a blackbird who lands upon his outstretched palm.  Kevin’s hand was so welcoming, the bird makes its nest upon it.  Kevin holds still and steady long enough for the egg to hatch and a bird to take flight.  It’s reminiscent of the Psalm we heard earlier, isn’t it, with the swallows finding a nest in the dwelling place of God.  To this day, statues in Ireland feature Kevin always with a blackbird sitting in his hand.

Given the delightfulness of these expressions, what fun is it to talk about the building of a big temple?  What use is it to us?  Does King Solomon actually think he could capture God with a grand building?  No.  Solomon, known for his wisdom, says with his own hands reached out in grateful prayer, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  Neither is Solomon’s temple a display of Solomon’s own grandeur.  No, for Solomon, the temple was to be the strong place for God’s name to be placed and God’s ways to be practiced. 

Let us not confuse what we mean when we say strength.  When we picture Solomon’s temple, I think we often conceive a fortress.  Churches over the eons have sometimes taken that shape, but the function of the temple was not solely to draw lines between insiders and outsiders.  That would have been understandable for a minority people often under threat.  Notice what happens in the second half of this passage, when Solomon prays to God that visitors, “foreigners” to be precise, will come “from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm” –perhaps this is where Kevin learned the posture—Solomon continues, “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you (revere you)” (I Kings 8:41-43).

The significance of this gesture cannot be overstated.  This was a people whose identity was rooted in bloodline.  For them to welcome in the other, was to risk change to their very identity.  It, of course, is rooted in Solomon’s earlier affirmation that God is bigger than any one household, that God must be at work elsewhere too, in other peoples too and that when others come they aren’t only coming to “get the goods,” but they also come bearing goodness, indelibly printed on them by the Creator.

For some, this kind of openness is a challenge.  I suspect this is not the case for you.  One of the things I treasure about you is your commitment to openness, what we might call the freedom side of faith, the freedom to explore, to ask questions, to practice and express the faith differently.  If that’s so, what then is the challenge, the growth edge, for us? 

The partner of freedom or openness is not closedness or closed-mindedness.  The complement to freedom is form.  Take our passage on a literal level.  What makes the gesture of openness so powerful is that it emerges from a form, the temple.  The temple is a literal form with distinct spaces, different functions for the spaces and so on.  In the temple, people worship particular God.  They have particular commitments about what’s important, about what stories and teachings are foundational, and consequently about how to live in the world.

I suggest the temple can serve also serve as a metaphor for our faith, as individuals and as a spiritual community, for our teachings and practices likewise provide us structure and guidance, telling us, “This is where we came from. This is who we are and therefore how we treat others and ourselves.”  Form and structure, they go together.  Too much form and we get oppression, rigidity, spiritual death.  Unbridled, or better put, unthoughtful freedom and we get not necessarily anarchy (that’s awfully dramatic), but more a lack of substance, shared commitment, direction.  Balance, as in so many things, is the key.  It is the basis of any relationship.  Take any marriage, any parental relationship, any friendship, they all contain a balance of freedom and form.  It is also the basis of our relationship with God.  Interestingly, in a time in which we have access to more and more information and access to other ways, the deepest spiritual people I have ever met, including, maybe especially those involved in interfaith work, are the ones who find themselves solidly placed within one tradition.  It’s from that solid foundation that they can build a structure that can support open doors.

As we begin a new program year, I ask you, what part of your form needs work?  Is it in studying Scripture or other sources of sacred wisdom, putting the same energy into that sometimes strange library of stories, poems, letters, and wisdom as we do other important things in life?  Is it in the disciplines of prayer, which can be practiced in countless ways, and of which some bashfully admit they are not sure where to begin?  There is no shame in that, only a time to try or reach out for direction.  Is it in an act of serving or giving to something beyond yourself and noticing what in your soul is affirmed?  As we begin another program year, and begin a literal building program, I wonder what you will do to avail yourselves of the opportunities to work on your or our faith.      

Look at what establishing a good form did for Saints Kevin and Catherine.  What gave the ability of that blackbird to nest, if not Kevin’s well-formed and deeply committed outreached hand?  What gave Catherine the language to speak of God’s ever presence in the world, if not the language of sacredness?

One of the sadder recurring themes of the interfaith work I have done over the years is that the Christians, particularly the Protestants, seemed least well versed, least steeped in their own tradition. I’m not trying to blame or guilt individuals.  This is not only about choosing sports over church; it’s also about the fact we don’t have the parochial schools some other groups do.  Whatever the cause, weak tea is not very fulfilling and neither is it very good to share.  This is one reason I’m so glad we’ve begun the Sacred Stories program here, a derivative of something called Godly Play that teaches biblical stories in an engaging way using simple figures, wooden pieces, and sand, not so the kids can so easily tell you what they learned that day, but so that the stories can get inside them and become a reservoir from which to draw throughout their lives.  This is a perfect example of offering a powerful form while maintaining a spirit of openness.  Listen to how delicately its philosophy balances form and freedom with these principles that are to be expressed implicitly to all who come in to the room where the class is held:

  • We welcome you.
  • We value you.
  • We love you.
  • We respect you.
  • We honor you just the way you are.
  • You are capable.
  • You are our primary concern during this time.
  • We trust you to make choices.
  • This is a safe place to wonder and find meaning.
  • The community is important and will be supported.
  • We will set clear limits and expectations.
  • This is a place of imagining.
  • A different language is spoken here.
  • The stories have value.
  • We love the stories.
  • You can use the stories to make meaning.
  • We love God.
  • God is present in this place.

Did you catch that? Plenty of room to explore while also establishing a foundation of who we are. Now, if only everything we built together signified that so clearly. I think there is a misconception that if we just watered down who we are to the least distinct most palatable version then we would likely to attract more people. First of all, I have no interest in attracting more people for the sake of our own ego or the sake of our budget. I am interested in attracting more people because of the prospect of being in community in Christ with more and more people who bring their own gifts to the table.

I am often asked what my vision is for Westminster. My vision is that as individuals and as a community of faith, we would be a refreshing expression of Christ. Many people know all too well what tired, irrelevant, or even abusive expressions of Christ look like. The name of Jesus is too often, but understandably, associated with hypocrisy, hatefulness, and judging people in this life while damning them in the next. Here we espouse that the true Jesus came to give life, to call the people to the integrity of their faith, to call the powerful to account(ability) and the downtrodden to new strength. The true Jesus came to forgive, reform, and set free now forevermore.

That’s a gift with which we’ve been entrusted and entrusted to share (with those who seek it). The data tells us that we are right now within walking distance of thousands of people who may be disenchanted with the religious communities they have found, but who are searching for it. They are searching for something authentic and for something sacred. Open doors are a great start, but we have an obligation to work on what’s inside, inside our community and inside ourselves. It would be arrogant to think we have anything of the sort to offer them without putting in the work of shaping the form of our outstretched hands. Let it be a year in which we shore up our foundations. It will be joyful work, and it will take us all to participate in the ways each of us can. Without you all, this is just a lecture series not a church. The work will produce something every bit as grand as Solomon’s temple, and I’m talking not talking about the building.

The church’s youth group took a trip to the shore—that’s what they call it back East. A parent leader brought their younger child along, who seemed content to play in the sand. Play is all it looked like at first, and then it became clear something else was taking shape. The child had been through a version of the Sacred Stories program and was proceeding to use makeshift figures in the sand to tell the Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection. Form and freedom. Being totally grounded in the midst of total openness. If we don’t give this to our children, to one another, to ourselves, how will they and we know how to understand, give voice to, and experience the God they meet in the church, in the streets, and even on the beach. Amen.   

 [1] St. Catherine of Siena, “The Sanctuary” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West ed. Daniel Ladinsky (New York:  Penguin Compass, 2002), 205.