Sunday, November 11, 1991

Location - Boston
Bible Verses - 1 Kings 8:12-30
Revelation 8:15-27

But have respect for the prayer of your servant and to his supplication, O Lrod my God, to heed the cry and the rpayer which your servant is praying before you today, that your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which you have said, My name shall be there. - I Kings 8:28f.

Solomon¡¯s prayer at the dedication of the temple wrestles with a question that has vexed and continues to vex institutional religion. It puts the question as clearly and concisely as it has ever been put: ¡°But will God actually dwell on earth? If the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house which I have built?¡± If you can forgive the oversimplification, Solomon¡¯s solution is to picture the temple as a kind of relay station. The nation is to direct its prayers toward the temple, and the Lord in the divine dwelling place, heaven, is asked to be listening to those prayers. Rather than choosing to dwell in the temple, the Lord has set his name there; and repeatedly throughout Solomon¡¯s prayer there comes the refrain, ¡°then hear in heaven, and when you hear, forgive,¡± or ¡°judge,¡± or ¡°do,¡± as is appropriate to the situation described.

For many organized Christian churches, this remains a fairly accurate image of the basic answer to the question. The groups often labelled ¡°sects¡± may tend to restrict God¡¯s presence to their own premises, but most churches seem to regard their buildings more as focal points of God¡¯s attention. There is often a sense that some particular holiness attaches to the building, and especially to the chancel and the altar. The late Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock had a story which illustrates the attitude quite nicely. He was booked into a small town in the middle of winter, and when he arrived discovered that the only heated auditorium was the local church. He felt uncomfortable about doing his comedy routine in those surroundings, but the local minister assured him that it was quite all right, and offered to say a few words to help the audience feel at ease. The few words turned out to be an appreciation of Mr. Leacock¡¯s religious sensitivity, and an assurance that God would surely forgive anyone who laughed at him.

There are more serious problems with unexamined feelings that the church building is a special place. They rest in the usual corollary that other places are not so special--that is, that the Lord is not so present elsewhere. The consequences have included a truly harmful gulf between religion and life--what is said in church is true in church, but does not carry out the door into the ¡°real world¡± of business or even of human relations. When it comes to the other six days of the week, our treatment of other people and of our environment is to be governed by what we like to call ¡°practical¡± principles, as opposed to the ¡°idealistic¡± principles we hear from the pulpit.

This kind of situation is fertile ground for polarization. The stronger are the demands for practicality on weekdays, the stronger are the pleas for idealism in the sanctuary. Since the church assumes itself to be more directly informed by and about the Lord¡¯s will, it has a distinct tendency to regard itself as the voice of righteousness in a fallen or secular world. Since ordinary people find themselves under insistent pressures to do what is conducive to their prosperity, or often to their economic survival, they tend to regard the church as out of touch with their needs.

I do not believe that the solution for this lies in simply amplifying the voices of idealism. I believe rather that it lies in the church¡¯s recognition that the Lord is very much present and at work in our spectacularly imperfect world. The Lord, for example, shares the pain of the top-level executive who feels that his company will not survive unless it is as ruthless as the competition. In his or her own way, that executive ¡°knows¡± that things will get worse and not better if there is a genuine concern for the living standards of the company¡¯s third-world suppliers. On a much smaller scale, the salespeople ¡°know¡± that they will not have their jobs for long if they start being sensitive to the actual needs of their customers. They have to find a way to believe that their customers actually need what they are trying to sell.

It is easy for ministers, standing in the focus of holiness, to call for righteousness. To be uncomfortably candid, that is their job. That is what they are paid to do; and while they may indeed be doing it from honest conviction, they cannot do it with full integrity until they themselves know what it is like to make a choice that may cost them their jobs.

Something like this underlies the passionate plea of Jeremiah, who warned Judah not to trust in a particular set of ¡°lying words,¡± namely, ¡°the temple of the Lord.¡± He was saying that the nation had come to understand the promise to David to mean that the nation would be secure as long as the temple was revered and cared for, and had managed to forget that national security still required obedience to the commandments given at Sinai. He could say this with integrity because he put himself at risk in saying it, and especially because he did not fall into the trap of seeing the temple as an oasis of righteousness in a wilderness of transgression. His words picked up on the wording of Solomon¡¯s prayer--¡±Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?¡±

It does seem clear that the church will not permeate the world unless the world is allowed into the church, and it seems equally clear that this is a risky permission to grant. Whether or not we can do it collectively depends in whether we can do it individually, personally; and this is where a Swedenborgian reading of the temple as an image of our individual situations becomes directly pertinent.

In that view, the building of the temple is an image of what the Catholic tradition very nicely refers to as ¡°spiritual formation.¡± It is the construction, at the center of our own spiritual geography, of a ¡°deep structire¡± of values. One of our hymns expresses it by saying, ¡°¡¯Mid all the traffic of the ways, turmoil without, within, Make in my heart a quiet place, and come and dwell therein.¡±

As Solomon¡¯s temple was build from materials gathered from the borders of the land and beyond, so this inner character is built from the materials we find in and around us in our outward conduct of life. As the masonry of that temple was shaped where it was found, so that the temple rose silently, so this process of formation goes on inside us very quietly, with the shape of the structure being determined by the choices we make in the din of living.

Our theology tells us that this inner temple is there, whether we visit it or not. This assertion is supported by countless instances of experience in which individuals have found within themselves a center, a core, a ¡°quiet place,¡± that they had not known or believed in. If we neglect it, it will not be much of a resource for us. If we deny it, it will become more and more difficult of access--in Swedenborgian terms, ¡°closed off.¡± However--and this is an essential fact about our natures--it will still be there.

It is as possible for us as it was for Judah to misuse our inner sanctuary. As they used it for an excuse, in Jeremiah¡¯s judgement, so can we. That quiet place can become no more than a place where we escape from the pressures of daily deciding. Granted, sometimes we do need to escape. We are not built to endure constant stress. If that is all our sanctuary is good for, though, it becomes divorced from the issues of our ordinary living.

No, if we are to be or become whole, then on some regular basis there needs to be a conversation between that inner quiet place and the outer realm where we spend most of our time. We need to bring our outward problems into the light of the sanctuary and see what they look like from that perspective. As we then move back into the confusion of the world around us, we need to remember what we have seen.

In Biblical times, the temple was supposed to have this kind of relationship with the Basic events of people¡¯s lives. This was where people came to dedicate first-born children, to give thanks for harvest, to atone for sins, to be cleansed of impurities. It was intimately bound up with the law, a resource for everyone who was trying to live a righteous life. Jeremiah was not the only prophet who believed that Judah had lost sight of this. In one of the most famous passages in the bible, Micah asked whether he was supposed to come before the Lord with burnt offerings, to offer the fruit of the body for the sin of the soul, and concluded with the plea for a life of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. All this is set in a kind of courtroom scene, where the mountains and the foundations of the earth, who had witnessed the covenant at Sinai, are called to testify that the nation has not been faithful to its vows.

After the Romans destroyed the temple and exiled Jews from the Holy Land in the year seventy, the focus of Judaism turned to the synagogue rather than to the temple, and the leadership roles devolved on the rabbis--the teachers. Sacrificial ritual ceased, and in a sense, its place was taken by the study and interpretation of the law. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Christianity has moved in a very similar direction, and that over the centuries ¡°instruction,¡± in the form of the sermon, has become an integral part of worship. We can regard this as our own effort to keep the obligations of Sinai and the promise to David together, to respond to Jeremiah¡¯s accusation that worship has become a substitute for righteousness rather than a means to it.

Perhaps what we need to do is to rejoin Jacob on his way to Haran. He lay down to sleep beside the way, and had his dream of the ladder reaching to heaven. When he woke, he built an altar there, recognizing that this was an awesome place, the house of God, the gate of heaven. He and his successors did not make the mistake, though, of thinking that this was the only gate of heaven. If anything, the Biblical story goes on to say that if it happened here, it could happen anywhere--at a bush on the backside of the mountain, at the Valley of Aijalon, by the River Chebar--the list could be about as long as we cared to make it. Can we, then, regard this sanctuary as both ordinary and holy? Can we take its specialness as a sample of the specialness that is everywhere? Can our times here lead us into the kind of mundane spirituality that enables us to recognize the presence of the Divine on the Southeast Expressway? Or is our religion really one thing, and our life another?


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