The church has left the building

My fellow ELCA pastor colleagues this past week laughed as we read together the reading for today and they said, “If only my congregation had just moved to another building…I could just read this and then sit down – no need for a sermon!”  It was tempting to take them up on that advice.  Or to spend this sermon talking about space as though it were the main thing. That a church building is what we need to talk about.

Yet, we also know that we yearn for and need a space to gather.  It’s a question of logistics, really. But at this stage, it is also a question of identity – something the Jewish people from our reading today would have to seriously grapple with.  They didn’t have a space until Solomon decided to do something about that.

He spearheaded the building of the Temple and even refers to it as “his temple.”  A little about Solomon: He is the son of David and Bathsheba, he became a boy king.  He was known for his wisdom. He had 700 wives, 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), and a famous relationship with the queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10). And he is known for building the official dwelling place of God for the people of Israel.  While we only get a snapshot today, the previous 3 chapters detail Solomon’s building projects down to the etching.

The temple, back in the time this was written, well, it was central to life.  It was a natural gathering place and it was the place for God. It was where God lived.  In the Holy of Holies, the central part of the temple where only priests allowed to tread.  It held the Chest of the Covenant of God, otherwise known as the ark of the covenant, which held the 10 commandments Moses brought down from the mountain.  But most importantly, it held God. The temple was God’s residence.

The reading for today ends with these triumphant words from Solomon: God has told us that he lives in the dark
where no one can see him;
I’ve built this splendid Temple, O God,
to mark your invisible presence forever.

But all these proved to be temporary. Wealth and wives lasted only as long as his life, and his kingdom barely longer than that. Solomon’s famous wisdom was unable to recognize or prevent the civil war among his sons which split the kingdom in two. The Temple itself lasted three centuries, before being stripped and torn down in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. Its destruction led to a spiritual crisis in Israel.

So, it’s bound to be a problem when the very place you say that God lives is suddenly gone. Questions abound:  Did God abandon them? Were the Babylonians stronger than God? The problem is they never asked the important question: Can God be contained in a building?

That is a question we have been grappling with for our whole existence.  We have never had “our own” space.  So what does that mean?

Does God meet us when we gather?  Does God gather for worship at Vineyard or by the river or on the farm with us?  Does God show up at Main Street Sports Bar when we gather for beer & hymns?  When we clamber all around the outside of a house, painting it a delightful shade of yellow is God with us?  Is God with us when we gather after worship for lunch or dinner together?

The answer is of course. We are experiencing what it is to be church wherever it is we are. To live as if God has left the building.  As if God were waiting for us wherever we happened to be. We are living as if the church is not a building.

I can’t tell you how often I am asked, “So when ya gonna build a church?” and my favorite way to answer that question is that we are busy building a church.  After all, church is people not bricks and mortar.

Now, it can be inconvenient to not have your own space. It takes more planning and is riskier to have to depend on another’s hospitality.  You can’t just “set up shop” and leave it, like you can when you own your own spot.

It’s inconvenient to spend 1 or 2 million dollars on building a building.

It’s also inconvenient to then maintain the property and heat it and cool it and repair it and get so focused on it we might forget the inconvenient work we’re called to do as Christians.

We are called to go out into the community of Hutchinson.  We are called to go out into a bar for beer & hymns.  We are called to go out and paint houses around town.  We are called to go out of wherever we gather into our own community to show love to other people who aren’t here, to transform lives through Jesus Christ. We are called to meet and worship God in existing places, in restaurants, wherever!

That’s what church is. It is not a building. It is certainly not a building that contains and defines who God is. Being the church shoves us right out the door!

We hear in our reading today: When the priests left the Holy Place, a cloud filled The Temple of God. The priests couldn’t carry out their priestly duties because of the cloud—the glory of God filled The Temple of God!

Solomon may have said that the temple would be a way to show the invisible presence of God. But we know that God ultimately sends us Jesus to show that – God is not bound to a place.  For while the temple is destroyed – God is not.

God is filling our community.  God is filling us to be out in Hutchinson, loving people. God is filling each one of your lives so we can be the church that doesn’t have a building – but rather meets God out in the community. You know, where the people are.  God fills us and we are God’s presence in the here and now.

Our purpose is that we go out to transform lives through Jesus Christ. And we know it is Jesus that transforms us and other people. What if we continue to be not a place but a people where you find the presence of God? What if we are the physical, tangible, visible presence of God in the world? We are! And if someday we do decide to build, let us be known for building not only for us but for the community.  For that is where God is.

SO WHAT? What does this mean for your life this week? How will God work through you this week to be the visible presence of God at work, at home, at school?