June 22, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Ezra 3:8-13 (Matthew 7:24-27)

Whispered in the Walls and Wailed Out Loud

Here at Church of Peace, we are blessed by the ministry of those who care for our church building and grounds. Tuck pointing the tower, maintaining the boiler, mopping up flooded restrooms, repairing pipes older than many of us in this room. This work makes possible the mission of our church, and it is work that is physically demanding. It takes money and expertise, muscle and energy, patience and creative problem-solving. It is also the case that the ministry of caring for the church building, this house of God, is work that takes gifted listening.

A little over a year ago, my lapel mic was making a strange buzzing sound in the chancel. It worked fine up here, and it was okay on the floor. But there was always a low groaning hum when I stood on the top step or behind the communion table. Well, Aaron worked and worked on this.

One morning, he spent a long time walking around testing the mic with different variables trying to determine what was going on with the sound system. Do you know what it was? Interference from the light bulbs in the candelabras!  Now the writer of the Gospel of John would love the symbolism of the light reverberating with the word! But who could have guessed this? What Aaron’s discovery proves is that caring for the church takes listening, precise and persistent.

Today is the last day of our spring sermon series, and in these past weeks we’ve been reflecting on our winning provocative proposals. The proposal for today is printed in your bulletin: Church of Peace protects the foundation of its ministry through effective stewardship practices that sustain the building and the budget. Indeed, our newly-blessed Statement of Identity and Purpose names this as the spot where Church of Peace gathers. Here at this address, inside these walls. Now we carry the church out into the world too. But this is our place. This sanctuary. This house of God.

There’s a common saying: “If only these walls could talk” which usually gets said when something scandalous is afoot. In the Bible, the prophet Habakkuk issues a warning against the Babylonians: “You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples… The very stones will cry out from the wall and the plaster will respond from the woodwork” (Habakkuk 2:11).

Of course, there doesn’t have to be a scandal or an act of terrible oppression to imagine that even the walls have something to say after all these years.

Our church building is not just brick and mortar and drywall. It also holds the stories of all the people who have worshipped here. Think of how many feet this floor has supported, how many times the windows filter the sunshine that cascades upon brides and grooms making their vows right there. Think of all the music permanently imprinted in the fibers of the woodwork —every song ever sung, every measure ever played in this room. Imagine the residue building up inside the dome from all the prayers launched into heaven from these pews. This is not just any building. You hear the very power of God whispered in the walls and wailed out loud.

Through the entire history of our faith, there has always been this question. What is the role of the building in our worship of God? The Old Testament tells stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with the presence of God in the cloud and the fire. Moses is commissioned to direct the building of a Tabernacle as a mobile dwelling place for the LORD (Exodus 25). Later under Solomon’s reign, the First Temple is constructed as the permanent house of God (I Kings 6). Except that it gets destroyed during the Babylonian exile, and our story today picks up with the building of the Second Temple. That Temple gets destroyed in the year 70, and many books in the New Testament are written in this period following the destruction of the Second Temple, which was never rebuilt.

Now in twenty-first century America, Christians continue to wrestle with this question of the building. For some, the history and beauty of their church buildings invite an experience of worship you just can’t have anywhere else. On the other hand, as many churches face financial challenges, it is becoming more common for congregations to sell their buildings and land. They rent meeting space for worship and claim their identity in their work of mission and service. I grew up singing the camp song that goes, “The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people.”[1]

Not every church has a building, but if we’re going to have one, how can it gather us closer to God, and to each other?

In our scripture today, the people are building the foundation for the Second Temple. They had come back to Jerusalem after being taken into exile. Now the Persian King Cyrus directs them to build a new house for the LORD. The very description of this rebuilding is meant to remind the readers of building the First Temple.  Our story starts out with such promise. Those who returned from captivity made a new beginning. But as things progress, the building process gets delayed for years because of political opposition from those who were enemies of Judah. There’s already a hint of trouble in what we hear today.

See, as the foundation is being laid, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets. The Levites played the cymbals as they sang responsively praising and giving thanks to the LORD.  A strange thing happens when the people see the new foundation. All the people respond with a great shout, but upon seeing this, the people who remembered the first Temple wept with a loud voice.

The Bible says, “People could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:13). Their unsilenced cry was laid in the very stonework of the house of God, like a handprint in the concrete.

So I think it’s like this: if you’re going to dedicate a piece of the earth as the place to come and stand in the presence of the LORD, it has got to be a place where you hear the sound of deep sorrow and great joy rise up together in the same shout.

One of my favorite descriptions of worship comes from the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison.  Here the people don’t gather in a building. They meet in the clearing of the woods, a flat place where all is in common. Listen to this story of church:

“When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing… After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently.

The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!… Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling… ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees. ‘Let your wives and your children see you dance,’… Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them, ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’…

It started out that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.”[2]

Friends, our God does not demand to be worshipped only indoors, in a building all beautiful and blessed. But if we are going to build a house for the LORD, it has got to hold the laughing and the crying mixed up together. If we are going to hear the word of God whispered in the walls and wailed out loud, well, we’ll have to listen to each other.

That is exactly what happens in the rooms of this building. We know there is grief to be heard. It gets poured out in weeping, and complaining, and aching silence. We grieve for our loved ones who have died or left us. We grieve for the way things used to be. It’s like a swell of homesickness that fills up in your heart and makes a sigh too deep for words. This grieving is vivid and valid, and it cannot be cured or repaired. But it can be heard. We can listen to the grief of each other, with patience and persistence.

But there’s not just grief echoing through the hall downstairs. You’ll find if you really listen, you can’t help but hear the joy of the LORD here in this place. The people of this church are not shy when it comes to expressing gratitude or sharing good news. Words of encouragement; subtle and simple acts of kindness; the walls of these rooms can ring with laughter —even at meetings!

In just a little while, we will have the opportunity to hear from one another at our Congregational Update. In this sharing, I encourage you to listen for the subtext of sorrow, and listen too for the enthusiasm of  new possibility. The good news keeps going.

I know that caring for this church building is not easy. It is expensive to maintain; it takes time and hard work. To all of you who support the ministry of this building, I thank you. While we don’t need a building in order to be the church, what this building does is invite us to listen well to each other.  For over a century, this building has marked 12th and 12th as a place of holy listening. In this sanctuary, we hear songs and cries rise up together. We always have. Here in the silence and in words spoken to each other, you can hear the chord made of grief and joy sounding together. And when we can hear this, make no mistake. We will hear the voice of God. Amen.

[1] Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh “We Are the Church” Hope Publishing, 1972.

[2] Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books: New York, 1987. pages 102-103.

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