I want to sing of this earthen temple, a love song. I want to sing a love song of the sacrament of this world! I want to sing of the mystery that smolders from deep within the earth, The mystery that sparks and roars through the life that plays out here under the heavens and under the rain and the sun. ‘It’s all been on fire since the word “Go”’ – as Annie Dillard would put it It is all flashing with an exuberance and a genius that is sacred. It is all aflame with spirit and life, thrumming with the holy. How can this universe not be some kaleidoscopic reflection of the image of a great and holy Creator? Oh, yes, this is a world of such great suffering, and this is a world of such great beauty – so much to relish, so much to recoil from. So much that overwhelms our senses and our powers. We do not need to flee this world to know what is holy. We not need to evaporate and fly away to get nearer to God. For God has come nearer to us. To get nearer to God we need only to find and to follow the Way of God as embodied through the flesh – the Way of God as it moves through it all to take us through and bring us beyond it all, back to the Source of it all. In our faith as Jesus Followers, it is in Christ we discover that the Divine is embodied, Christ as God-with-us in the flesh plowing through all the furrows and harrows of life on earth, sewn as they are with sweat and tears and blood… Christ who lived and loved and broke and died as a body, so becoming a holy seed in the body of the earth, breaking open to bring forth new life. With Christ we die – in the words of the Apostle – and with Christ we are born anew. With Christ, all Creation, yearning and groaning, all Creation is born anew.
This is all hallowed ground. Let us sing of this earthen temple.
When people fashion for themselves temples for worship, they so often fashion them of stone and mineral and mud. The cave is the most ancient and elemental place to experience the Sacred. The cave and the mountain – the wombs of the earth and the earth’s vaulting heights. The Prophet Elijah was in a cave on a mountain when he experienced his famous encounter with the Holy One. And, yes, it was not in the elements, or in anything made by human powers, that he found God – it was beyond, to the great stillness beyond. Yet to get there we must pass through the elements of God’s creation, and to do that, we humans create. The spaces we create can help us draw nearer to the Sacred as present in and through Creation. The cathedral is the high art of making a sacred space of stone and light and shadow that evokes both the cave for contemplation and the mountain for transcendence. As earthen beings, our arts of making our earthen temples bring us more deeply into connection with the holiness embodied and flowing through this earth, with the sacred fire of its life, with its waters that quench and cleanse, with the breath and wind that sweeps through it all, the light and the shadow, Moving us through the great reach of Creation and beyond into the Realm of the Eternal in which we all live and move and have our being.
Looking at Protestant Christian sacred architecture, there can be such a beautiful clarity and simplicity to open us to the light and color and open air of new life in God’s Grace. The danger, however, of our temples is that they can be temples only of light and not shadow. Temples only of the sky and not of the earth. From the architecture to the preaching and the way of worship, European Protestant Christianity has the danger of being all and only about Heaven above. The danger is that we cut ourselves off from our bodies and our senses and the earth itself, and become only brains inflated with the spirit floating away like helium balloons.
The Protestant way is all about grace, which we find in Christ, God’s love and mercy meeting us as we are, in the flesh. But still there can become for us a striving for a heavenly realm of perfection and purity against which real life seems terribly wretched and depraved. There is a danger of distain for the grittiness and messiness of our lives as beings as bodies of this earth.
It breaks my heart when I sometimes hear from someone that they haven’t been to church lately because they feel their life is too messy. Or they’re afraid they’ll break down in tears. That’s exactly when we should come to church! But there can be this expectation that church is only for the clean and tidy and put together parts of our lives, not the real messiness.
But there’s a worse danger: severing spiritual from the bodily has a danger of contributing to the literal violence against one’s own body, which is a problem in our culture. It can contribute to literal violence against other people’s bodies, to try to purify society, which is also a problem in our culture. And our it can contribute to the literal violence against the bodies of our fellow creatures, and the body of this living earth – because why should we care when it’s all about getting to heaven? That’s also a problem in our society. So, here we are, with all creation, from our bodies, to the earth itself, yearning for love and care.
This is not what we are created for – to be severely divided from ourselves and our world. So, let me sing of this earthen temple! Let me sing of the sacrament of this world! Let me sing the story of creation: How “God created human beings, in the image of God, reflecting God’s nature. God created them male and female, and blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill the Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” How God said, “I’ve given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth and every kind of fruit-bearing tree, given them to you for food. To all animals and all birds, everything that moves and breathes, I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.” And there it was. Let me sing of how God looked over everything God had made And saw that It was so good, so very good!
When we go back to the ancient Hebrew people who first sang this Genesis song of Creation, It’s important to know that their song of creation that is “so good, so very good,” is radically different from the creation stories of the other ancient cultures and civilizations around them. According to those stories that those cultures told about their gods, The world is not created as a good thing, the world was created from an act of violence. Many creation stories from the surrounding cultures say that the world was formed from a god killing and dismembering the body of a goddess. There is brutality at the heart of creation. So, let’s be sure that’s not the kind of god that we’re worshipping. Because that is not the God, the true God that the ancient Hebrew people sang about in the Genesis creation story. Genesis is a love song of the earthen temple of Creation. According to this Genesis love song, the world is not born in violence but in love, it is not at its heart evil, but good. It is so good, so very good. God looked over all God had created, and sang a love song. According to this love song humanity is imbued with the image of the Creator of a good creation. And for this reason, according to this Genesis love song, God has created us to follow an ethic of balance and responsibility towards this earth. And, yes, as we know, this love song is tinged with sadness. Humanity, imbued as we are with the image of our Creator, humanity has fallen. We have fallen from the balance and responsibility for which we were created. And all creation yearns and groans. Yet our Christian faith in an embodied God, crucified and risen is that there is redemption, restoration, reunion, return to our original state and purpose. So, let us sing this love song, full of sadness and hope, of this earthen temple. Let us sing of the sacrament of this world.
Let me end with a prayer by the great Baptist leader, Walter Rauschenbusch, which he shared in 1910: O God, we thank Thee for this universe, our great home; for its vastness and its riches, and for the manifoldness of the life which teems upon it and of which we are part. We praise Thee for the arching sky and the blessed winds, for the driving clouds and the constellations on high. We praise Thee for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills, for the trees and for the grass under our feet. We thank Thee for our senses by which we can see the splendor of the morning, and hear the jubilant songs of love, and smell the breath of the springtime. Grant us, we pray Thee, a heart wide open to all this joy and beauty, and save our souls from being so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that we pass heedless and unseeing when even the thorn-bush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God. Enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all the living things, our little brothers, to whom Thou hast given this earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee in their place better than we in ours. When our use of this world is over and we make room for others, may we not leave anything ravished by our greed or spoiled by our ignorance, but may we hand on our common heritage fairer and sweeter through our use of it, undiminished in fertility and joy, that so our bodies may return in peace to the great mother who nourished them and our spirits may round the circle of a perfect life in Thee. Amen.