Out of the Temple, Into Our Hearts
For several years, Disney has been on a live-action-remakes-of-animated-classics rampage. Last year was Dumbo. Much of the plot was changed to make it more family friendly—an elephant doesn’t get drunk off champagne in a kids movie, the singing bird literally named Jim Crow was omitted, at the end instead of getting a nicer circus boxcar Dumbo and his mom now go free, and more—though much changed between the live action and animated films, the two core elements remained. In both films, 1) Dumbo loves his mother. And 2) Dumbo the elephant flies… but only with the aid of a magic feather. At least that’s what we’re told at first. But when push comes to shove and Dumbo is in danger, it always turns out that it wasn’t the feather that had the magic but Dumbo himself. The magic was in Dumbo all along.
While we still have some repairs that need doing, today I’m declaring the vast majority of restoration work on our sanctuary now complete. For the sake of reflection, let me walk backwards in time through this sanctuary restoration project. Last week saw the completion of work on our stained-glass windows to repair exterior trimming, reinforce some sections to prevent cracking, and generally clean up them up so they look nicer inside and out. Over the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, repairs to rotting and collapsing plaster and paint in our sanctuary, association room, and library were made. In May of 2019, over a year ago, repairs were finished to our church’s tuckpointing and stonework—including the removal of a tree from one of our chimneys—in order to stop the leaks causing the water damage to our plaster and paint. In fall of 2017, three years back now, we held a stewardship campaign dubbed “Behold the Glory” to raise funds for those repairs. Back in January in 2017, nearly four years ago, you decided to hire me for some reason. A few weeks before then, I remember during at first get-to-know-you event Mike Mosher coming up to me saying, “So about all that stonework and plasterwork we’re having repaired. Have you given any thought yet to how we’re going to pay for all that?” To which I replied, “What repairs?” And it was around 2016 that our church originally noticed and decided to act upon all that damage, when we took our first steps to repair this sanctuary. Almost five years went into revitalizing this sanctuary, so worship might continue here for years to come. If there were not a pandemic going on—and from reports getting worse again right now—in normal times today would be a bigger affair. We’d have cake, a huge meal, maybe a brass quarter or bagpipes… all to celebrate that at last the work on this beloved sanctuary is finished. But we don’t have normal times right now, so the party will have to wait awhile. But even if we can’t go overboard like you and I would prefer, I at least wanted some small moments to reflect on what we’ve achieved here.
As for our scriptures today, I suspect many churches use the former when blessing a new worship space. King Solomon dedicating the Jerusalem Temple is a powerful scene, and the establishment of Israel’s first permanent worship site is a perfect story when marking changes in your worship center today. But as I read that story, I was struck by something. In chapters 5 and in chapter 6, the importance of King Solomon’s ceremony is not the bulls sacrificed, the gold ornamentation, the crowds of adoring fans. The central moment of this scene is God’s arrival. “When Solomon ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices. And the glory of the Lord filled the Temple. Even the priests themselves could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house. When the people saw the fire and glory of the Lord fall upon the Temple, they worshiped and gave thanks, saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. God’s love endures forever!’” It’s the glory of the Lord, God’s own presence in their midst, that makes the Temple sacred.
Reading that story, I couldn’t help but remember the story of Pentecost, which is the story of the birth of the Church. Then too, fire fell from heaven and amazed the people. But whereas in the old days not even the priests could come near, now because of what Jesus did we instead read, “Divided tongues, as of fire, fell on the people, and a tongue of flame rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” And then later on in that chapter, we see the Church first becoming itself: caring for each other, praying together, sharing communion, blessing the people. God’s power and presence overflow the boundaries, enter into these first Christians, and enter into us today. Thinking of that moment, when God’s Spirit flowed into believers—as God’s Spirit now dwells even within you—and comparing it to God’s Spirit first falling upon the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, made me realize how great a gift we already have. The presence of God caused the ancient Israelites to fall to their knees in wonder and joy when the Solomon blessed the Temple. But now Christ has declared that you and I have God’s Spirit within us, that his sacrifice does for us what the thousands of animal offerings did for the Temple. We have God’s Spirit within us now. We are each a Temple to the Lord.
Over those five years of planning, fundraiser, and construction work… this sanctuary nonetheless had life go on. Babies were baptized here. Lovers married here. We said goodbye to friends here. We held Christmas pageants and lock-ins, learned from missionaries and Christian organizers, sponsored a gathering of all the churches in our presbytery, hosted Boy Scout ceremonies, visiting choirs, and more. Not to mention individual moments here: someone finding solace in quiet prayer by themself on a difficult evening, or wandering the hall to remember family gone by, or learning the organ because God gave them a gift with music. Over five years went into restoring the beauty of this place. Yet even as we worked to rebuild what we had, the glory never left Lapeer Presbyterian. The Lord was still at work here, even as we worked hard for a day when you could look upwards in here and think only of God, instead of thinking, “My God! The crumbling ceiling’s going to fall on my head!” Even as we worked towards the goal we have now largely reached… God was still at work here. You see, that 2017 “Behold the Glory” campaign we held wasn’t merely an homage to Reverend Fox’s earlier restoration project. The point was that the glory is right here among us, right now. It always has been. We just need eyes to see it, ears to hear it. Repairing this sanctuary didn’t add or take away any glory. God’s glory has been shining here through each of you, in every act large or small.
So when you enjoy this refurbished sanctuary in the days and years ahead, remember this. We have restored walls of stone, ceiling of plaster, windows of stained glass, and more, yes. But this sanctuary is not where God’s Spirit rests. God’s Spirit is within you. This sanctuary exists to remind you of that, to equip you to live up to that, to connect you to others who likewise share that faith and that Spirit, to recharge you… so that together we can live out the gospel. Though the coronavirus means our celebration for now is humbler than I would prefer, today we honor a big moment. Our sanctuary is restored. But our sanctuary was only restored… so that this place might restore you. The Spirit of the Lord never left. Just like Dumbo realizing he can fly without his magic feather, the Spirit of God’s been inside you all along. So let us celebrate today that our sanctuary has been restored: a tremendous achievement! But let us do so that God might restore ourselves, that we might remember God is within us… just as God is in this sacred space of worship. Praise the Lord, for God’s love endures forever. Amen.