I mainly want to do some prep work for our conversations about this worship space, but the readings we just heard from James and Mark leave a proverbial elephant in the living room that I have to say something brief about.
These readings are a prime example of what we mean when we say we take the Bible seriously but not literally. We do not take literally, for example, the strong implication that if we pray faithfully enough for someone, they will be healed. But that does not mean we just dismiss the passage, because it has a very important thing to teach us. When we are seriously ill, it is not in our best spiritual interest to do what comes naturally: isolate. At the very least, when you are sick call for the elders, and allow the righteous ones to pray for you.
We also do not chop off body parts when we cause ourselves or someone else to stumble. We know for one that Jesus was prone to hyperbole in order to get people’s attention when he seriously wanted it. And the seriousness here is that when we cause ourselves or someone else to stumble, we need to take responsibility for it and seriously change our behavior. No excuses like “that’s just the way I am.” Jesus always wants us to ask the question, “Who does God call me to be?” And there is no one who cannot change. God teaches old dogs to do new tricks every day.
OK, now my entrée into some preparation for our conversation is Joshua and the disciples. Both are troubled—nay, in a panic—because holiness was popping up where they did not expect. This was not the way things worked, or so that was their assumption.
Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Now that’s an amazing statement that has not gotten enough attention in the church’s life, and I think it applies to more than the action of people.
I think the broader application is this: take care of how you try to define and control the sacred. Idols are amazingly easy to build. In one sense Joshua was making an idol of Moses, trying to protect his prerogative. Same thing with the disciples: they were making Jesus into an idol.
Why are idols so bad? Why does God hate them more than just about anything else? It is because they distract us from him. They become the object of worship, and often they become a distraction from doing justice, making peace, and proclaiming the good news.
In The Book of Common Prayer there is “A Litany of Thanksgiving for the Church.” It is something that is recommended for use on the anniversary of the dedication of a church, which today happens to be for us. The very first petition is this:
For the Church universal, of which these visible buildings are the symbol, We thank you Lord.
That’s wrong. This building is not the symbol of the universal Church. At best it is a symbol, but certainly not the primary one. What is the primary symbol of the Church universal? You are, of course. And not because of anything special about you by the way, but simply because God has accepted you as his People.
There’s a great hymn, Dutch in origin, not in our hymnal:
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor;
Walls and a roof sheltering people;
Windows for light, and open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
When we are gathered here,
And know our God is near.
The only thing I ask of you in this conversation, besides absolute respect for one another, is to keep your perspective, and guard against making any tool we use for the worship of God, into God. Do not make assumptions about where and how the sacred shows up.