(You may click here for a recording of the livestream of this sermon and the service)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
A refuge, a holy habitation.
A safe sanctuary.
For many of us, we have come to feel that sense of God’s holy refuge through the years through being in the physical sanctuary of the church – this church or whatever church has been home to you. Where we gather with kindred spirits in an intentional way to pray, to share the stories and testimonies of our faith as followers of Jesus, to share the sacraments, to share the spirt of fellowship, where we gather to do that helps us to feel God’s nearness to us, and to sense the majesty and mystery of the transcendence of the Divine beyond human name.
Certain spaces, certain architectures lend themselves to serving in this way, to serving as houses of worship – because of the beauty of the space, because of the ways the space holds space, the ways it holds light and shadow and sound and silence. Certain spaces have a sacredness to them, and help us to clarify our attention, help us to remember God and remember the truth of our souls, and remember what is most true and good and real and holy.
The other powerful thing about sacred spaces is that they are often handed down generation after generation. So, the sanctuary of our community of faith helps us to feel our connection with our ancestors whose faith and spirit we receive and steward and wrestle with and recreate and contribute to and carry on.
For all these reasons, and more, and just because it’s good to gather with kindred spirits in a space, it’s been really hard for us as a church to not be gathering in our sanctuary through the pandemic.
And for all these reasons, and more, it’s really good now to be back here, in this hallowed space, to gather for worship.
Early in the pandemic someone from the church asked me, a little bit jokingly, “Do you feel like the sanctuary misses us?”
I said, “Well, when I’m in the sanctuary, as I’ve been to record our online services, I certainly miss us – it can feel sad to me to be in an empty church. But when I really sit and pray with it, in the sanctuary, the feeling I get from the sanctuary itself is just that it’s waiting patiently. It’s holding sacred space for the time when can safely return. It’s like the feeling you get sitting in a grove of ancient trees, you get a sense of a much, much bigger scope.”
Being in a sacred space, like our sanctuary can help us get a sense, even just a glimmer of a God’s eye view of things. Even just a glimmer of how God views things. This I find to be deeply comforting.
So, let’s just imagine for a moment, imagine time from the view of this sanctuary. What would we see if there was like a time-lapse camera in the sanctuary that had been here for years and years and years, watching all that passed through this space, year after year after year, through the 156 years since the founding of First Congregational Church of Walla Walla.
The ebb and flow of our community of faith coming in and going out and coming in and going out and coming in and going out, Sunday after Sunday, year after year … Baptisms of babies, who grow to have weddings, the baptisms of their babies, and the funerals for all of them as they grow old or died young … sacred gathering after sacred gathering, holy sacrament after holy sacrament … generation after generation celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, grieving the death of Christ in Holy Week, gathering in Easter colors to relive the joy of the Resurrection -spring, summer, winter, fall –
… what would it be like to see the ebb and flow of all the sacred life this sanctuary has held through the years?
And before this sanctuary as well.
The first two sanctuaries of this church community burned down, as you may or may not know, before this sanctuary was built. What would that look like and feel like in a time-lapse video of this faith community? How would it look to see the people coming together to build the sanctuary again for their generation and for the generations to come? And how would that shape how we viewed those generations as they shift and change through the years, through boons and busts, through war and peace, through upheavals, evolutions, through expansions of welcome, the ebbs and flows of our people all held precious within this sanctuary, this sacred refuge?
Then in this flow of time, the longer view of this sacred space, what would the past year, more than a year, feel like?
Within those ebbs and flows of the people, this space would suddenly stand empty.
We could witness this sanctuary as a space itself.
We would see the light and shadows of the sun and moon cycling through. Sometimes at sunsets, golden light beams down from the west windows onto the altar.
What would it be like to witness this sacred refuge as it held space.
As it held space, like a wise parent, the mother church, biding time while protecting her people by keeping them at bay.
And then we’d have to wonder, what are the people doing if not gathering in the sanctuary? We’d know that the camera view from within the sanctuary was missing something, many things. We’d need to take a much wider view, beyond the walls of this sanctuary, to witness everything that this community of faith has been doing to be the church during this difficult time of pandemic. Because we have been being and doing church. Very much so. In new and old ways.
We all know that a church is not a building, it’s the communal body of the faithful, which we call the body of Christ.
We know that the Holy Spirit is on the move within and through the relationships that knit together our community as we serve each other and serve the wider community, serving especially, as Jesus calls us to, the least and the last and the lost, whose suffering has only deepened through the crises of the pandemic.
We all know that any space or place can be sacred and become a temple. Holy moments can and do happen anywhere. The presence of God permeates all of creation, as the eternal Spirit in which everything lives and moves and has its being.
So, we can set up altars in our homes, as many of us have done. We can pray in our gardens or in the wide wild places of Creation or even through the quantum pulsings of the internet or out from our prayer wagon in the parking lot with a low power radio transmitter.
We know that a view camera in a physical sanctuary taken at any time would never be able to convey what truly is the church.
And yet not having a sanctuary to gather this past year has forced us to really live into how to be and do church beyond this physical space.
My friends, that challenge and that opportunity has helped us to grow and evolve in important ways. Now, it’s been hard, it’s been a struggle, it’s been a deprivation, it’s hurt to not be able to gather in our sanctuary when being together in a sanctuary is what we’ve really yearned for in these hard times. But we have found new ways to be together in good ways – new ways and old ways. And we are making it through, and making it through because the Holy Spirit has given us enough creativity and tenacity and love and kindred spirithood to keep on being and doing church through this season of upheaval.
And as we begin to return to this dear sanctuary for worship together, I pray that we keep a broadened sense of what is possible for us as we live into being a community of faith together.
I kind of like that we have to keep all the doors and the windows to the sanctuary open, literally. We have to keep fresh air flowing from the outside in and back out again, to keep this safe and healthy and responsible. So, let’s keep the doors and windows of our imagination open as well, the doors and windows of our welcome. Because that is how the Holy Spirit moves.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, which is considered the birthday of the church. It’s an auspicious day for us to return to worship in the sanctuary. Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit came upon a gathering of those who followed Jesus’s Way, which took place after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when the people gathered to pray about what was next for them.
I’m going to end this reflection with an open end, with us just listening to that story, guided by some questions.
I invite Audrey now to tell that story of Pentecost for us, from the Book of Acts. And I invite us as we listen to ask, What is the sense of movement we get from this experience of the Holy Spirit?
And what does that movement tell us about being the church?
A reading from the Book of Acts, chapter 2
When the day of Pentecost arrived, that completed the fifty days after Passover, the believers were all gathered together in one place. And suddenly there came a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
There appeared before them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest, one each upon each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. And they began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them ability to utter.
Now dwelling in Jerusalem were devout Judaeans from every nation under the sky. And on the advent of this sound a multitude gathered.
They were confused because each one heard the believers speaking in their own language. They were amazed and astounded, saying, “Look, are not all of these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us hears their own language, then languages in which we were raised – Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and those living in Mesopotamia, both Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia; Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya abutting Cyrene, and visitors from Rome; Both Judeans and proselytes Cretans and Arabians – we hear them declaring the great deeds of God in our tongues?”
And all were amazed and entirely at a loss, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
(Delivered on Pentecost Sunday, May 23rd, 2021, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)