Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2020
Human beings are uniquely tied to places. Geography and space are defining characteristics. Think of how spaces mean something to us. We ask people where they are from. We have boundaries and borders that delineate this place from another place. We can tell Aggies and Longhorns apart by whether they imagine Kyle Field or Memorial Stadium when they think about football. Places define us.
First is our homes. After a trip we long for home. It’s why moving is so difficult. Because you’re changing what defines you. Homelessness is not only an economic and social disaster, it’s an emotional one. For those experiencing homeless have no security, no boundaries, no place.
The second defining place is where we work. For millennia humans have left their homes to go work somewhere else; a field, the barn, a school, the factory, the corporate office. Even if we are working from home, we might have a home office; a place designated for work apart from our living space. The commute might be from the kitchen to the office, but it is still a commute.
But humans need another place, a third place, as they call it. A shared space, a gathering spot; a place for connecting with old friends and the opportunity to make new ones; a place that ties a community together. Many places fill that need for us – the gym, the kid’s soccer field, the coffee shop, and of course, the church. As Christians we understand that these places are critical to our discipleship of the Lord Jesus. For it is these shared spaces, these third places, that bind us together. In a shared space there is equality for it is no one’s home; but there is also a sense of welcoming, for it is everybody’s home. It is our place. It is not home, it is not work, it is something else.
Beyond that, the history of our faith is rooted in place. The Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt. The Lord Jesus actually walked along the Sea of Galilee, he really did visit cities like Capernaum and Jerusalem. The Temple was a physical structure, the very house of God. The apostles spread out, preaching in real, historical places. For millennia we have gathered in cathedrals, churches, hospital rooms, homes, outdoors, and in every imaginable place to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And specifically as Episcopalians, we understand that these places, our churches, our chapels, our gathering places are holy, sacred, set apart for something greater than ourselves. For this place is not for us only, it is for God. These churches are tangible reminders of whose we are. And already, we have built up memories of this place. Already we have a way of doing Christmas here, of doing Easter. Already we have a way of doing funerals, weddings, and baptisms and that is all good. Part of the blessing of a sacred space is that we can return to the same place to be inspired by our memories over and over again. Over time, use, and prayer, this space becomes sacred to us.
The psalmist says it best. “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and a longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God” (Psalm 84:1). From the first disciples, Christians have always been drawn to sacred spaces because we know that somehow we meet God there.
And yet, it has all been upended. For many in our parish family have not been to our church for nearly a year out of legitimate concern for their health and for the health of others. And for still others, they have joined our parish and yet they have never stepped foot on our campus, but have only joined us digitally since all this began last year. Along with so many other parts of our lives, our theology of place has been distorted. So what has all this meant and what will it mean going into the future? How can we, as faithful Episcopalians, retain a good theology of place while acknowledging the realities of our modern world? How can we long for the courts of the Lord while also living through a screen?
Of course, there will be two immediate, polarized reactions. “Everybody ought to be in church. Stop doing online worship.” Or, “sell all the church buildings. Do everything online.” So again as good Episcopalians, we must find the middle way.
And as we are a divided congregation – some together in our physical place, others together in our digital place – I want to say something to both groups.
To those who are physically at church: this is how Christians have worshiped for two thousand years. In the same place, physically together. We have said our prayers and broken bread in large groups and small precisely because it is good for us. Seeing each other gives us courage and hope and discipline in our walk of faith. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews put it this way: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). While this is the history of our faith, it is not the only history. During times of plague and disease in the past, the Church has refrained from gathering in person. Discretion has been the better part of valor before. In the past, Christians have adjusted the ways they gathered in order to serve the common good. And while you are here, I do not believe that your discipleship is any better or worse. For God’s grace is given, not earned.
To those who are not at church but continue to gather with us online: I do not believe that your discipleship is any better or worse, either. God’s grace is given, not earned. Now, in many ways, digital community can be real community though we are separated by space and by screens. This has been the gift of this time of separation compared to times past. It used to be that churches would have to mail out sermons during pandemics. Compared to that, YouTube is a dream. But be on guard against emotional, psychological, and spiritual isolation. What has begun as a prudent measure to keep us healthy, can become convenience, which can, and I want to stress can, become apathy. Remember that there really is a place called “Holy Comforter Episcopal Church,” with bricks and mortar and windows and restrooms and and Prayer Books and flowers and dust and pews and people.
And to both groups I want to offer a commentary on why we have chosen to do worship in all these different ways. In short, we have not opted to put cameras and equipment inside the church. For right now, I think that simply broadcasting what we do in church would be saying that worship in our building is better, and that everybody online only gets to watch, to get a glimpse, to sit on the sidelines. We must say that online worship is real worship. I am aware that we could send the subtle message that worship in the church is primary, and that worship online is secondary. God’s grace is given equally, it is never earned.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that churches have to have buildings. But I think it is good that we have buildings because these spaces, these actual, real, tangible places tie us together precisely because they are shared; shared by us and by the Lord God.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and a longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” As we stand now on the cusp of the new year, I have no great pronouncement for us. Rather, consider this sermon a theological reflection; one priest trying to make sense of what it means to have led a parish to build a new church and for that church to stand here quiet. Quiet, but not empty.
For the church is never empty. The Spirit of the Living God does somehow, some way, inhabit this place. These walls are but a rough sketch, an earthly shadow of the true Temple in the heavenly courts. We worship with “…Angels, Archangels, and with all the company of heaven…” (BCP, 362). The church is never empty. This is good news and encouragement for everybody. If you are here at the church, it is good news because it means that even if our prayers in this place are short, distracted, and half-hearted, others are praying with us and for us. And if you are not at church, it is good news because it means that you are still connected to a place that is filled with worship of the Lord God whether you are here or not.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and a longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” This psalm, Psalm 84, is a pilgrimage psalm, describing the journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. And perhaps that’s the best way to understand it. We are all pilgrims on this earthly journey and along the way we find safe harbor, friendship, joy, and comfort in these places of ours. And over time, those places come to define us. So whether you are here every Sunday or whether you are still away, remember that this place is yours. And whether it is packed with people or not, the Church is always filled, filled with the Spirit of the Living God.