Rev. Dr. Ronald Patterson
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Several weeks ago, on my first Sunday with you, I had one of those moments. I had the sense that I was suddenly in what the saints call a thin place. That Sunday was the first time I had been in a meeting house for worship in over a year. It moved me to tears because I had not realized how desperately needed and deeply missed communal worship had been. To sing my faith with others, to listen to a group of people who are happy to see one another, to hear the words of the Bible in a community on a shared journey had been absent from my life since a year ago March. It was understandable and necessary, and zoom and live stream were soul savers, but it just was not the same. Zoom is sort of like eating an ear of sweet corn or a half-ripe tomato shipped up from Florida in January.
And I have heard similar thoughts expressed by others around the country as congregations bolstered by the vaccinated; gather, as those who understand that loving Jesus, means loving your neighbor enough to be vaccinated, or to wear a mask, as they too begin taking baby steps toward gradual reopening.
We aren’t there yet. We are still taking precautions, listening to experts, and attempting to use the best information available. Given the Delta variant, this whole business is not easy. We are not out of the woods yet. But as people of faith, we know that we are on a journey and as St. John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay it’s not the end."
This congregation has wisely prepared for this gradual reopening, and I am really impressed that your leaders have embraced possibility with the new lighting on the way and the new cameras so that what we do here can be multiplied through media to enlarge our faith family and leave no one behind. We don’t know what might come next, but what you have done makes what might be less challenging. So let me say: “Thank you!”
Let’s start with a question: Do any of you collect things? Stamps? Beer cans? Barbie dolls? I collect church buildings and other places of worship. When we travel, I visit churches. I visit old churches, unusual churches, historic churches, and new churches. I visit great cathedrals or adobe mission buildings or churches with the simple colonial lines of a New England meeting house. And for some reason, I usually remember any church I visit or even pass by and often, when I am driving, I navigate by churches—once I’ve seen a particular church building, I just don’t forget it.
Over the years, a few of the people I have traveled with, including my beloved, have grown tired of this fixation. I tour an old city from steeple to steeple. Years ago, traveling with four college friends touring Rome from church to church to church, they figured out what I was up to and the whole group rebelled and took my map away. They had had enough while I was just getting started. On another trip I learned that the great gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany is surrounded by a dozen large Romanesque Churches, and I became obsessed with visiting all twelve.
If I had a bumper sticker on my backside it might say: “Edifice Obsessed” or “This Vehicle Stops at All Houses of Worship.” Now before you think that this is a sermon about my personal neurosis, let’s engage the text.
Today we heard another piece written by the anonymous Hebrew storyteller who’s book we name I Kings. We heard the story of the dedication of the first fixed non-movable worship space in our religious tradition—the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon. And it is an interesting story, full of things to consider.
Let me point out a few. According to this story, the priests cook up a grand celebration for the dedication of the temple. They bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies in the new Temple—and according to their tradition God is present in the Ark of the Covenant. But at the very moment in this big celebration when they manage to localize God, just when they imagine that they have tamed God so that they will know where to find God and where to come to seek the presence of God, God makes a U-turn. God fills the temple with a cloud and drives the priests right out of the temple.
In other words, God says: look, I don’t care how wonderful your building is, I don’t care how much time it took you to build it, I don’t care how magnificent it is, I am more wonderful still and I am not contained within any shrine you might build for me no matter how beautiful that shrine might be.
Lesson one: like Solomon’s temple, this place is a house dedicated to God, but God does not live here. God is here when we are here. And God travels from this place to wherever our journey might lead us. God is the one who walks the lonesome valley and takes us by the hand when the shadow of death comes calling.
God is here when we are here, because you and I bear the image of God and Jesus said that when ever two or three of us gather in one place (whether on zoom or through the live stream which some of you are watching), God is there with us and we are not alone.
This place is holy not because it is beautiful, it is holy because you and I are holy—the very children of God’s love and holy is as holy does—and being holy as God is holy is about loving others and making sure all God’s children have enough to eat and a warm, safe place to live.
I think that most people would agree that this space is pleasing to the eye—the first time I visited here many years ago, I found this place beautiful in its simplicity—but its true beauty is the beauty of a community of people seeking to follow the way of Jesus who just happen to meet here. For example, God showed up here a week ago Saturday to meet some of you in the form of kitchen towels and kitchen gadgets and volunteers and students from around the world and that’s a fact—that was a genuine God sighting!
I sometimes come into this space during the week alone and I love to do that—but I must remind myself that the thing which makes this a sanctuary—a holy place—is the gathered presence of the people of God whether they are physically here or present on the other side of that camera.
It is beautiful because here we find the strength to go out into this community and into the wider world and find ways to let the Christ light shine. It is beautiful because we discover ways while we’re connected here to be neighbor to one another and to hold one another’s hands when the going gets rough. It is beautiful because in our gathering in person (or virtually), we are reminded that the true holy places are wherever we lift up our eyes to see the goodness and the beauty all around us in this world and beyond this world in the mystery of a universe still unfolding. Beauty is as beauty does, goodness is as goodness does.
Lesson two, when God filled the temple with a cloud, it was a warning about idols—don’t worship idols—you know that, don’t localize God and whatever you do, don’t make some image of God and bow down before it. This is just basic Christianity 101, Judaism 101, and Islam 101. Moses said it, Jesus said it, Mohamed said it!
Don’t ever get caught creating God in your own image or hemming God in with ideas that are too small or too local or that look too much like the backside of your own fears about the future. Don’t be seduced by conspiracy theories that are idols dressed up in ego-driven pseudoscientific costume. In my mind, that’s just the latest manifestation of the same old sin and there’s lots of it going around.
I have noticed that some people seem to believe that God is a conservative Republican. Others imagine that God is a liberal Democrat. I have noticed as well that some folks confuse their politics or their way of life or their contrary attitude with the will of God and call it freedom and that others are convinced that “God Bless America,” means that the rest of the rest of the nation and world with other ideas can just take a long walk off a short pier. That’s idolatry.
This text is a cautionary tale about religion or attitudes that create God in your image or mine because that is much more comfortable and comforting than the awesome deity who will not be built into a box or contained in my feeble brain or yours.
This temple text teaches that opinions and behavior that are too small, too narrow, too certain, are the dirty dishwater approximation of the Holy that filled the Temple and taught through the voice of Jesus. This story is a reminder that when we are certain about where God is located, when we’re ready to confine God to one type of building or hang the deity as a graven image above one altar dedicated to a particular way of life or thought system, God moves. God moves inviting us to expand our understanding of the mystery of God’s love. Simply stated wherever love abides, God resides, and love knows no borders and God’s love is bigger than anybody’s politics or palaver.
Lesson three, when it comes to God—when it comes to knowing God and following the way of Jesus, it is never about a place, it is about a relationship—our relationship with God, God’s relationship with us and our relationship with our neighbors and a place that makes relationships happen is a holy place. That is why we do what we do as a congregation.
Do you remember what Jesus said when he was asked what we needed to do to become the inheritors of eternal life? He said that we are to love God with our whole heart, with our entire soul and with the totality of our mind and find a way to love one another with the same depth with which we have been loved. Solomon calls it steadfast love: the love that will never let us go; the love that will never abandon either us or this beautiful world. The apostle Paul calls it grace: the unconditional acceptance of each of us no matter how unacceptable we might believe ourselves to be.
And so, here we are in this place, this place of beauty. And it is good, it is very good, but like that temple long ago—this beautiful place is not a destination. This place is a way station on the path that leads to life. Here we find renewal; here we are reminded of God’s love and mercy, here we can be recharged for the life journey, here we can meet a neighbor we need to love. Here we can work together, to accomplish great things, but here is not the destination. The journey is whatever comes next. Amen.
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson is with us again, having served as a sabbatical interim four years ago, and then serving as our interim conference minister during The Rev. Sue Artt’s sabbatical. Ron retired as Senior Minister of Naples United Church of Christ in Florida. Ron and his wife have family here in Fort Collins: their daughter is a member of Plymouth, and their grandchildren are active in Sunday school. Pronouns: he/him.