Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Where Yesterday and Tomorrow Meet: Working on a Building

Sunday, August 20, 2006

 

 

I Kings 6: 1-2, 11-13;
             8: 22-30; 41-43

 

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Israel was late in building a temple. It was almost 500 years after the Exodus that Israel finally got around to constructing a temple for God.

 

When they did build a temple, it really wasn’t much of a temple – only 20 cubits by 60 cubits by 30 cubits high. Matt Smith was just reminding me that in his Old Testament course that he recently took at seminary that they learned that in comparison to the size of the royal palace, the temple that Solomon built was the size of a garage.

 

Israel had ambiguous feelings about building a temple. That’s why it took a long time to get around to it, and when they finally built one, it wasn’t very much of a temple. Their ambiguous feelings had to do with the fact that they worshipped and believed in a God who couldn’t fit in a house built by human hands. They believed in a God who could not be represented by graven images or human designs or symbols. They believed in a God who was larger than the universe.

 

When Solomon dedicated the temple that he had built, he acknowledged this. He said: “God fills the heavens. God cannot live in a house made by human hands.”

 

Israel had ambiguous feelings about building a temple because they did not want to give the impression that their God was so small that God could be contained in human ideas or creations. Our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are not meant to contain God. God is out there in the midst of life. God is too big to dwell in houses built by human hands.

 

Israel also had ambiguous feelings about building a temple because there was always a tension in Israel between the priestly and the prophetic.

 

Israel had priests whose job, like all priests, was to give people access to God, to produce God for people. The role of the priest was to enter into the presence of the holy and bring the people into the presence of the holy and to take the presence of the holy to the people.

 

The prophets, on the other hand, emphasized not the availability and the accessibility of God, but the sovereignty and justice of God. The prophets emphasized God’s expectations and requirements. God is not a God of cheap grace. God is a God who expects us to live justly and to practice mercy with one another. The God of the prophets called upon the people to repent and to live according to God’s statutes and commandments.

 

I always liked the story about Abraham Lincoln in which a visitor to the White House during the Civil War said to President Lincoln: “Don’t worry. God is on our side.” To which Lincoln replied: “It is more important to know whether we are on God’s side.”

 

This was the prophetic thrust within Israel’s self-understanding. It was less important to know that God was with us than that we were with God, faithful to God’s expectations and requirements about justice and mercy and fairness.

 

For the prophetic side of Israel’s identity, a temple almost assumed too much. It assumed that you could go someplace and God would be there to meet you no matter how you lived or how you treated other people. It smacked of a civil religion God who would bless and legitimize Israel no matter what Israel did.

 

So the dedication of the temple included a prophetic litany in which the people of Israel heard God say again: “I require you to walk in my statutes, to obey my commandments and to live according to my ordinances, and, if you do so, then I will fulfill my promises to David.” (I Kings 6: 12)

 

The temple is a reminder of our call by God to live justly. It is not cheap grace.

 

So, for these reasons, Israel was ambiguous in their feelings about building a house for God, a temple, in the first place. To this very day, all religions struggle with the danger of coming to worship the things that we built rather than the God in whose honor we built them.

 

So, given Israel’s ambiguity: why build a temple? Why build a temple at all? Why bother?

 

In his dedication of the temple, Solomon gives two reasons for building the temple.

 

The first is evangelistic. Solomon built the temple so that foreigners, those who were not Israelites, when they came and saw it, might have an occasion to pray to God, have their prayers answered and come to believe in and trust in the God of Israel. One of the primary purposes of our churches and synagogues and mosques – all of these holy spaces – is evangelistic, to give witness to people who well may never walk through the doors of the church, to proclaim in the midst of a secular society that there is also the sacred.

 

In the midst of a society where most of us spend our time on busy-ness getting from today to tomorrow, they remind a secular society that there is also the realm of meaning and purpose in life to which we are invited to pay attention. Our steeples, our church buildings are an invitation to all who pass by to consider, in the midst of ordinary life, the divine and the holy.  

 

What could be a more fulfilling purpose of this church building than for somebody who is not religious, or who does not think of themselves as religious, to pass by this building one day and be moved to pause to think about the divine and the holy, to say a prayer, and to have a sense that there is one who has heard their prayer?

 

A couple of weeks ago, one my way home one evening, I stopped by the front of the church to look inside the fence where there is an opening where you can see the ground being dug and the ramp being built. I was standing there examining it. On the church steps there was a man walking his dog who had stopped to rest on our steps. 

 

As I stood there watching the ramp, the man said to me: “They are building a ramp so that handicapped people can come in the front of the church.”

 

I said to him: “Oh? What do you think about that?”

 

“I live across the street and it’s wonderful to watch the ramp being built. I stop and see it every day. It is a wonderful thing that this church is doing.” he said.

 

I suspect that he has not worshipped here often, at least, not when I have been around. But he is connected to God through the witness of this congregation building a ramp so that we might truly be accessible to more people.

                                                                                                               

The function of a synagogue or a church building or a mosque is to witness to those who may never walk through our doors that part of life has to do with God and holiness and something that transcends our own existence and a reality that was here before we got here and will be here after we are gone.

 

One of the functions of the temple was evangelistic.

 

But there was a second function that Solomon talked about. This one is, in some ways, harder to get a hold of. When Solomon dedicated the temple, one of the things he said in his dedication and his prayer to God was that the temple might be a place to which Israel might turn as individuals and as a people in order to find forgiveness.

 

Solomon prays this at the dedication: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place, O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” (I Kings 8: 30)

 

The temple was built as a sign and a sacrament and a symbol of forgiveness, as a means of forgiveness, so that people might know that there is a God who forgives and that forgiveness is available to them.

 

Forgiveness is a very powerful but a very difficult thing. We tend to make forgiveness trivial. Forgiveness is sort of saying: “It’s O.K. or “That’s O.K.” or “I’ll just pass that over. I’ll just let that go.”

 

But true forgiveness is a very powerful thing of experiencing the pain that you have known and deciding to let it go and to treat another person as a sister or a brother in spite of the fact that they have truly hurt you.

 

Forgiveness is a powerful thing individually and it’s also a powerful thing in terms of community. Forgiveness is the crux of history. Forgiveness is where yesterday and tomorrow meet in our lives and we let go of yesterday on behalf of a new tomorrow so that new life becomes possible.

 

This is why it is worth building a temple, for Solomon: so that all might see it and recognize the reality and possibility of forgiveness.

 

Isn’t it true that we are all caught up in the pain of our past? We just keep living out of the pain of our past, rehearsing it, reproducing it, and putting ourselves into situations where we will experience the same pain that we are used to.

 

Hugh Missildine, decades ago, in his little book called, “Your Inner Child of the Past,” said that we all try to place ourselves in situations in life where we will feel comfortable with our at home feelings. Whatever we grew up with in our family of origin, no matter how painful it might have been, we will try to reproduce it the rest of our lives because it is what feels natural and “at home” to us. 

 

Only if we can forgive and let go of the pain of those at home feelings do we have the possibility of new life, of new possibilities. It is true for us as individuals and it is also true for us as communities and nations and as the world.

 

How much of the violence and war in our world is a playing out of the pain of the past that has never been forgiven and let go of? We just keep hurting one another.

 

I have a friend who is a Methodist minister from the former Yugoslavia, where there were about 10,000 Methodists who were there. What a wonderful growing up experience he said he had. “Yugoslavia was one nation and there were different ethnicities, but all of the ethnicities,” he said, had been forgotten when I was growing up. We all considered ourselves part of a bright new possibility.”

 

“Then, suddenly,” he said, “it fell apart. People started remembering pains and atrocities that had happened 500 years earlier between ethnic groups in Yugoslavia.”

 

Soon, a nation was destroyed and fragmented. People were hurting and killing one another. He believes that 500 years from now people will be remembering the pain that they did to one another in his lifetime.

 

We keep rehearsing the pains of the past and inflicting the pain upon one another again. The only way to break the cycle, the repetitive cycle of hurting one another is the possibility of forgiveness in which we let go of the pain that was done to us, let go of the guilt that we experience for the pain that we have done to one another, and search for reconciliation and a new possibility of living together in new ways.

 

There is nothing more important to the future of our individual lives and the future of our nation and the future of our globe than that we believe in the possibility of forgiveness, let go of the pain of the past and believe in the future, the tomorrow that draws us.

 

Human beings are pulled in two different directions. We are in the grip of the pain of the past, but we are also pulled by the possibilities of tomorrow, the eschaton, the heaven that God has promised us and that humanity has always dreamt of.

 

The only way to be pulled into tomorrow, into the eschaton, into heaven is if we are willing to let go of the pain of yesterday. That’s what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is personal and forgiveness is political. Forgiveness is our only hope of salvation as individuals and as a world.

 

Solomon built a temple so that in the midst of the nation there might be a sign and a sacrament and symbol of the possibility of forgiveness. This is, I think, finally, what it means to believe in God, to believe that we can be healed of yesterday and that we can walk into tomorrow with newness of life. This is what it means to believe in the divine, in the holy, in something larger than ourselves: that we can let go of yesterday. We can face yesterday square on and, in the knowledge of forgiveness, let it go and claim a new tomorrow.

 

This is what every mosque, every synagogue, every temple, and every church in our world proclaims. May we receive the word.

 

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