Sunday, June 2, 2013

What the Worship Space Tells Us

[Sermon from June 2, 2013, celebrating the return of St. Andrew's to its renovated worship space.]

Well, let me say, “Welcome home.”  This place cleans up pretty nicely.  Just glancing around, you may not get the full scope of the last two months’ work, so let me list some of the highlights:  The flooring in the nave has been replaced, so it all matches.  The broken pews have been fixed.  The walls and ceiling have been painted, and what would be the keel and the ribs of the “ship” of the nave have been stained to match the rest of the wood.  The lighting is much brighter.  The sound system and speakers have been replaced.  And the work was completed within budget and on time. 
We’re pleased to have representatives from Pearce Construction, as well as some of the subcontractors with us here this morning.  Thank you for your holy work to renew this holy space.  And to the members of the Facilities Commission and Interiors Committee, and to the staff – and particularly to Mary Heausler, our stunning junior warden – thank you, thank you, thank you.  You all have served admirably as stewards of the household of God.  As Jesus says in one of his parables, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:23)  After this experience, you may not want to be in charge of anything else, but I think the point is how much God appreciates your work.
So we’ve spent the past two months worshipping in the Undercroft – sitting in a semicircle around the altar and pulpit, much closer to the action than usual, singing some different music with different instruments, and hearing responses from you after the sermons (at the 10:15 service).  It was a chance to experiment, so we did.  And as you know, over the past three weeks, we asked for your feedback about these changes through a quick survey.  Even someone with my level of expertise in statistics can interpret the results for three of the questions on the survey.  Overwhelmingly, people enjoyed the different music, the different instruments, and being closer to “the action” and to each other.  About inviting parishioners to respond to the sermons, the survey results were a little less clear – a bimodal distribution at both ends of the curve, if you remember your stats class.  A plurality of you really liked the sermons done that way – and coming in second were those of you who never want to see it again.  Welcome to the Episcopal Church. 
So what did we learn from worshipping in the undercroft?  If nothing else, we learned that space matters.  Space doesn’t just have utilitarian value; it has theological content.  You may like one space better than another, and the reason why might well have something to do with how you relate to God.
The comments from the survey captured a lot about what the worship space downstairs communicated theologically.  This was my favorite comment:  “It feels so good [in the Undercroft], like everyone loving each other. When we go back upstairs to the nave, I hope we’ll keep this spirit alive.”  With all its challenges, our worship downstairs did a great job of reflecting the immanence, the intimacy, of God’s presence.  One of the things that differentiates Christians from people of other faiths is that we put a lot of stock in the doctrine of the Incarnation: the idea that the sovereign Lord of the universe “became flesh and lived among us” in Jesus Christ (John 1:14).  God came to save and redeem humanity from the inside out, enabling God to experience our life and sanctify it directly.  We could feel this in the Undercroft, being close to the preacher breaking open the Word, close to the Altar where bread and wine became Christ’s Body and Blood, close to each other – even able to look into each other’s eyes as we worshipped.  It was a beautiful experience of the immanent presence of God.
And here we are, in a space that communicates something different about the divine.  Here, the arches and vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows draw your perspective up, always up.  The three main sections are on three different levels:  First you have the nave, the ship of the faithful for your voyage of discipleship.  It’s at street level, welcoming everyone aboard.  Then you have the chancel or the choir, where the clergy and musicians lead our prayers and praise.  It’s raised slightly and separated from the nave by this little wall, seeming to imply that somehow holier work happens up here.  And finally, up another step, through the gate, and past the rail, we have the sanctuary, the holy of holies where the Body and Blood of Christ are consecrated.  In the old days, as some of you will remember, only ordained people and acolytes could even enter the sanctuary – well, and the Altar Guild, who were really in charge.  My point isn’t to critique the architecture of this beautiful space but simply to observe that it communicates something other than the immanent, personal presence of God.  This space gives us an experience of transcendence, of God’s divine otherness – beautiful and majestic and set apart from the day-to-day-ness of our lives.  Here in this amazing space, we know who’s in charge.  And it’s not us.
We proclaimed it in the psalm this morning, the perfect psalm for this Sunday when we’ve come back into the temple of the Lord:  “[G]reat is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods….  Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence!  Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary! …  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him.  Tell it out among the nations, ‘The Lord is King!’” (Psalm 96:4,6,9-10 BCP)  You come into this space, and hear this organ, and see the light streaming through these windows, and feel yourself drawn into the presence of the risen Christ towering over the high altar – how can you not know that God is King?  “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder, and all that is in it,” for God is God, and I am not (Psalm 96:11 BCP).  Many of us, if pressed, would have to say this realization isn’t as self-evident as we might hope.  In fact, we might have to admit it comes as a surprising relief to say that God is God, and I am not.
In our worship here, we enact mysteries that seek to capture ultimate mystery:  that the God who’s always been king, who created the heavens and the earth – this eternal sovereign is enthroned again and again, right here in this space.  Every week, we remember the timeless reality that God’s rule is both constant and constantly new, both forever and forever surprising to us.  The people of ancient Israel had no trouble wrapping their minds around this mystery of a God who was, and is, and is to come.  We remind ourselves of the same truth here as we consecrate the bread and wine, remembering out loud that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  Every week in our worship here, the Word and the prayers and the sacrament remind us that God was, and is, and will be God, no matter what. 
So why do it?  Why do we enact this truth, week after week after week?  It’s not because God needs the reminder.  It’s for our own benefit – and thereby, for the benefit of this world God loves so much.  Gathered in this place of transcendent beauty, performing rites handed down across the centuries, we enthrone God in our own hearts, over and over again.  And in our hearts, the Lord of all creation takes on flesh and dwells in the world once again.  You and I become the incarnation of divine majesty, the Body of Christ given for the world God has made.  We look into each other’s faces, and we love the people we see.  We look into the faces of people we don’t know, and we reach out hands and hearts to them.  We look across the street and see a neighborhood of people who can’t name the spiritual home they need.  We look down the street to Southwest High School or Gordon Parks Elementary – or we look across the sea to our partner school in Haiti – and we see children of God who need healing in ways that, miraculously, we can help bring about.  When our hearts are formed and reformed here to honor the majesty of our divine king, we are made into nothing less than Jesus’ own body, broken for each other and for those we don’t yet know. 
So, as we go forth from this glorious space today – fed by Christ and with Christ to be Christ in the world – let me offer you one small challenge.  Estimating generously, when we come to church on a Sunday, we spend half a day in the kind of transformative worship I’ve been describing.  What would happen if we worshipped God that way the other six and a half days of the week?  I don’t mean spending all your time at church – just the opposite.  I mean bringing church into all of your time.  What if, every day, we praised the Lord, and blessed God’s name, and declared God’s wonders among the peoples? (Psalm 96:1-3)  What if, just once every day, we actually spoke of the fact that God is God, and we are not?  It might start with simply saying grace around your dinner table.  It might grow into saying grace when the waiter brings you lunch at a restaurant.  It might be simply observing that God did a great job with the sunset that day.  It might be a quick “Praise God!” when someone tells you good news.  It might be “I’ll pray for you” when the news is not so good.
These small acts might not seem to matter a bit, in the greater scheme of things.  But when we’re tempted to think this way, that’s when this beautiful space whispers to us and reminds us of the lesson it never ceases to teach:  that we’re called to “tell it out among the nations:  the Lord is king!” (Psalm 96:10 BCP).