Have you ever walked into a church and said, “How lovely!” Perhaps it was in a cathedral where you were awestruck looking up at the vaulted ceilings and stained glass.
I know I thought I had seen some amazing artwork and architecture in the churches and cathedrals in Italy, but when I walked into St. Peter’s I was overwhelmed by the size and incredible beauty of that awe-inspiring cathedral PLUS all the artwork in the many chapels.
There are few places where you simply cannot take it all in. St. Peter’s is certainly one where there is ‘more than the eye can see’.....What a fitting place to worship God!
When I planned my ordination service, I chose Psalm 84 as the first reading for its wonderful description of the House of God. I love this Psalm. On that day, I felt like one of the birds mentioned, (sparrows) who had found a home in the Temple of God.
“Those who live in your house are truly happy;On the day, when I was ordained, I felt what the psalmist voiced,
they praise you constantly.
Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
Pilgrimage is in their hearts.”
“Better is one day in your courts than a 1,000 elsewhere!”
And I still feel that way.
This psalm about a pilgrim’s journey to worship God in Solomon’s re-built Temple, gives us a peek into his/her spiritual journey.
The pilgrim described in Ps. 84 yearns for closeness or communion with God and looks forward to that experience in the one place known to hold God’s presence. He or She writes specifically of the joy experienced when celebrating God’s presence in the life of worship carried on at the Temple.
Our understanding of God’s presence has changed since Solomon’s time. What remains true, is that strong spiritual feelings, especially the yearning for God, are feelings not easy to communicate. Like my experience at St. Peter’s and my feelings at my ordination, my words can’t begin to convey what I experienced.
As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,
“There are things no one can talk about. [and yet] if we insist on trying, as we are inclined to do, something unforgettable may happen in the air around our words, but it will not be because we understand (them) in any rational way. The experience will be one of worship--or awe--which involves a different kind of understanding.”1
The Pilgrim of Ps. 84, wrote poetry to express an understanding of God’s presence. A pilgrim’s joy is a very ‘different’ kind of understanding.
While we don’t limit God’s presence to a single place, we can still appreciate the beauty of cathedrals and churches that proclaim God’s glory by their physical features. We even experience a certain joy when we arrive here..in our small ‘temple’ and find it bright with the feeling of God.
Yet you may already be uncomfortable with all the talk about buildings.
Is it right to put so much money into a PLACE? Even a place of worship? How much gold, silver, valuable artwork, fine cloth hangings and weavings, and expensive architecture is the ‘right’ amount to express our worship of God?
We who have been raised in America, home of the Puritan tradition have been greatly effected by the desire to simplify worship. Our Brethren ancestors were lovers of simplicity. They met in homes for worship and when they needed a larger place, they built simple meeting houses, with HARD, straight-backed pews, and no raised chancels, no ornaments, not even crosses.
If you were raised brethren, or baptist, or another tradition descended from these simple-loving settlers of America, It is not easy to accept the value of putting large sums of money into a building.
Even in this century, we struggle with the choice between the ‘do-it-ourself’ approach and hiring experts in order to experience the beauty of professional results. Especially when our talents do not extend into the area of renovation...
Idol? the problem with bricks and mortar.
We recognize the problem with putting our focus into bricks and mortar. . .
You know the questions: “What is appropriate ornamentation?”
“How much should we spend on an exalted building to express our love of God?”
“Can we quantify the Glory of God by showcasing beauty with art-work?”
“Do we celebrate God’s gifts with such displays or are we being ‘proud & puffed-up’?”
The problem extends beyond the facility to the very institution of ‘church’. How much money, time and effort goes into an organization in order to glorify God? . . .
“Just how much is ‘too’ much?”
I think it is a very hard question for us.
Someone may ask if we are creating an IDOL that captivates the center of our worship or is there another way to think about how we focus our attention on God?
Rather than an idol, we might view our ‘cathedral’ as an ICON.
“That which points beyond itself to the reality of God.”
Ancient worshippers, in an age of illiteracy, discovered the gift of using images as ‘windows’ into contemplating God.
There are icon painters today that speak of the spiritual experience of painting such a work; how their hands are guided and they feel real communion with the presence of God.
Spiritual connection is conveyed from the work to the worshipper who uses the ‘window’ to center on God. It is a way of ‘understanding’ that reaches beyond words. (As BBT said.)
Perhaps our sanctuary, like many other places of beauty, POINT beyond the physical to point us to God.
If so, then we can rest in the greater purpose and pay attention to God.
We do not keep this lovely building in top shape so that WE can be proud of it. We do it for God’s glory.
We invite other congregations to use this space, why? so this lovely building can point others to God. Our ministry partner congregations may worship in different ways, but they all seek communion with God.
The greater purpose of seeking God also explains why we are trying to find ways to make this sanctuary more accessible for people with disabilities. We don’t do it just to accommodate pastors who have had foot surgery, members with walkers, or visitors in wheelchairs.
We make this place of worship accessible in order to point to reality of God's welcome which is for EVERYONE.
Seeking God in worship fuels our desire for excellence in music because it honors God and points us beyond sound, to the reality of God's bountiful gifts.
Sometimes we need reminding to think theologically about what we do; to look beyond the b&w practical understanding in order to seek what will GLORIFY God!
This psalm affirms our focus on WORSHIP and effort we put into places that facilitate the spiritual journey.
The psalm is a prayer that doesn't ask for anything but expresses yearning desire for the ‘Source of All Being’. It is not merely appreciation for a PLACE but affirmation that all of life is a pilgrimage, the journey to be ‘one’ with the reality of God.
Such a devout priority is easy to forget in Budget and Board meetings.
Truthfully, we never need to ARGUE between priorities; - THE BUILDING or the MINISTRY, for when we AGREE that God is
‘the focus and the culmination of all life’ our attention points beyond ‘here’ to an ultimate ‘there’.
God is the ‘END Goal’ for a pilgrim, not the MEANS to some end.
God isn’t a way to a better life.
Church membership isn’t a solution for life’s problems.
We don’t just offer people comfort and community with a promise of heaven some day.
PILGRIMAGE IS LIFE.
The Journey of Divine Communion IS our purpose. It’s the understanding of God which no words can convey, like experiencing the awe of a ‘holy place’. . .
& Those who experience the yearning, make the journey their entire life....
You’ve heard of people who make the pilgrimage in Spain known for a thousand years as El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James.”? It is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’ apostle Saint James the Elder lie. (I was reminded of this famous pilgrimage as I read the book the Young Adults are reading together.)
This long pilgrimage by foot is as popular today as ever and not only among the ‘religious.’ Yet almost everyone experiences a spiritual journey along with the grueling walk. Pilgrims on the El Camino soon discover the End is not the Cathedral in Santiago, but the journey itself.
One Spanish factory-worker walked the El Camino for a month then gave up his job. He bought and rebuilt an old building in which to offer hospitality to others on the pilgrimage.
A German woman became a pilgrim during a transitional time in her life. One morning along the way, she followed the sound of a flute playing and discovered a nearby hostel. She ended her pilgrimage there and now tends to passing pilgrims, feeding, bandaging feet and offering massages.2
I know a woman whose life changes began when she returned from her pilgrimage to El Camino. Her changes were hard to put into words but her journey by foot began the pilgrimage of her life.
Everyone who walks has a story, some..not easily conveyed by words. All, continue to seek routes to fulfillment, which IS the journey of the pilgrim; Life defined as the journey to God.
This seems to be an upside-down message for today, when the word fulfillment is always preceded by “Self”. What is fulfillment if not ‘self-fulfillment’? . . . It hardly makes sense to us.
Where else do we hear a message that doesn't seem to make sense?
It was just a moment ago, in the scripture; our gospel reading from John 6. Jesus’ words that are so difficult to understand and that don’t seem to make sense.
We’ve heard parts of John chapter 6 all month long and I won’t linger on them today. We know that Jesus’ often turned common understandings upside-down. (consider Jesus himself as the ‘temple’ of God, torn down and raised in 3 days.)
And although we are accustomed to words about eating flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood from years of participating in communion services, those around him were shocked and offended.
Yet, the problem Jesus’ presents is greater than language. The problem is Jesus’ demand that we participate in his death as a way to ultimate life.3
The Jesus’ Way is the Pilgrim’s Way, and like a building program for a cathedral, the cost is extremely high. . . It costs our entire life. . .
The problem for Jesus and any preacher is that no words can convey this life adventure of ‘ultimate fulfillment’. (BBT was right.)
What every pilgrim discovers along with sore & bandaged feet (the wounds of ‘flesh’) is the joy of meaningful living, the ultimate purpose of life.
Not merely hope for the ‘next’ life, but real fulfillment for this one.
And I, like so many others, run out of words,
For until you undertake the pilgrimage, you can’t experience the joy that exclaims,
“One day in YOUR courts, O God, is like a thousand elsewhere.”
May you discover the joy of the journey of Pilgrimage; communion with God.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor The Luminous Web (Cambridge:Cowley Pub, 2000) 79
2 Arthur Boers Living Into Focus (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012) 233
3 Charles Cousar Texts for Preaching Year B (Louisville: WJK, 1993) 482