This Week's Sermon
Sermon on Sunday, October 22
Tabor Lutheran Church 125th Anniversary
Dear people of Tabor,
It’s been a few years since I have been in this sanctuary, but I will tell you that the images of this place have traveled with me throughout the years; they’re etched in my mind ever since I had the privilege of serving this congregation. The big Ascension scene with the disciples gazing at Jesus as he returns to heaven, leaving them behind so that they may grow; the Mary and Martha story, memorialized on the side window, reminding us that it takes both doers and listeners to be the church; Jesus opening the door to those who are knocking and seeking. This church on busy Roosevelt Boulevard has always been a temple, not as big and majestic as the Temple of Solomon, but a sacred place with sacred images to host all kinds of people in an ever-changing neighborhood. I am proud that you continue to maintain it, honor it, inhabit it, love it as best you can under the great leadership of Pastor Marston. I am proud that you are still here after all those years, written off many times as churches are these days and especially those located in vulnerable places; you are serving this neighborhood in the love of God. I am proud that we can celebrate this Sunday together, remembering the founding members of this congregation that came together here some 125 years ago, speaking Deutsch, even as the language spectrum has much expanded since then.
When King Solomon stood before the assembly of Israel, raising his arms toward heaven a few millennia ago, speaking Hebrew, he started his prayer where we always must start our prayers: with God. “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below,” the wise king prayed. But who is this God we worship, whom people have worshipped and honored for so many centuries? Who is this God, so indescribable that, no matter how sophisticated the words are that we use to describe him or her we can’t catch God…; indescribable, no matter how smart the theologies and philosophies that humans devise…; indescribable, the God who spoke to Moses from a burning bush and said, “I am who I am.” And here in this passage at the dedication of the first temple of Jerusalem, Solomon addresses God with the words, “you, who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.”
Today, as the old American Christian culture that we once knew and cherished and that many of us mourn, fades into an uncertain future, there is no other way to honor God than by honoring this covenant of love that Solomon evoked wholeheartedly: with dedication, with devotion, and with the courage to stand out. Remember, courage comes from the heart, it is in the word itself: core, corazón, courage… Christians today are being asked: who are you people at your core? Are you disciples of Jesus? Do you still hear the voice of the good shepherd, the voice that no Artificial Intelligence will ever be able to imitate, as close as they may get? There is an authenticity about the Good Shepherd and about those who hear his voice truly and follow him that is difficult to imitate. The voice of the good Shepherd stands out in this world.
These days, if you evoke the name of God, you will almost certainly stand out in this culture; if you wear a cross - and not only as a cute ornament, you will stand out; if you go to church on a Sunday morning, it’s a subversive act, you will stand out; if you are kind to someone who does not share your political views just because that’s who you are, you stand out. If you seek the truth and not only what you always wanted to hear and what is being fed to you on your Internet Browser, because your Internet Browser knows you and your preferences better than your spouse or your intimate partner, no kidding, you stand out. Just by valuing truth, you stand out. Are we continuing wholeheartedly in the example that Christ set, in the covenant of love? Yes? Then we will stand out in this world and must not be afraid of it.
The old Temple in Jerusalem, built with so much hope, would become an object of contention in later years because upcoming generations were not as wise as King Solomon. As Americans – and I must tell you, I became an American citizen last October, I am a dual citizen now – as American citizens we appreciate the fact that we had wise founders who crafted an incredible Constitution that has served this country well for almost 250 years now. But future generations are not always as wise as their founding fathers and mothers. Sadly, we can see that in America today.
It was like that with the Temple of Solomon and the humble prayer the king offered at its dedication. He prayed, “The heavens and even the highest heaven cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Sacred buildings, even the most magnificent ones, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s in Rome, the Episcopal cathedrals of the new world, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the great gothic dome of Cologne and so many others… can only hint at God, can never contain the Holy One. If only all religious leaders were as humble and enlightened and wise as King Solomon! Instead, religious sites often became bones of contention in communities, and sadly, that is especially true for the site of the original Temple area in the Holy City. It has become a source of bitter contention and religious strife. Our prayers this morning are with the people of Israel, many of them in mourning over loved ones lost in the recent attacks. Our prayers and laments are also with the people in the Gaza strip, those who have no connection to the terror attacks but must reap the fruit of terror and its bloody consequences. Many of them are in mourning as well.
Buildings are beautiful things, except when they leak. Then they become a pain in the butt. I remember setting up buckets in this sanctuary a few times. Buildings are beautiful things, especially sacred buildings like churches. Sometimes, however, people get overly attached to them and they forget that the building’s purpose is to point us to a bigger reality, someone or something beyond us and yet present in our midst: the God we can’t catch. Solomon knew that so well: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
There is a story, according to Princeton historian emeritus Peter Brown, whose specialty was antiquity, about the magnificent cathedral of Constantinople, the famous Hagia Sophia, which still stands in modern Istanbul, Turkey. In the year 532, the Christian Emperor Justinian rebuilt that city on the Bosporus, replacing the old Basilica with a new church of magnificent splendor, named Hagia Sophia or “Church of the Holy Wisdom”. The church became the enduring symbol of Justinian’s piety and of Constantinople’s position as the center of the orthodox Christian world. The Hagia Sophia was also a symbol of the empire. It was, indeed, so powerful a symbol that the great Ottoman architect of the 16th century, Mimar Sinan, strove to rival it in a series of stupendous domed mosques. As a result, Justinian’s great church lives on, as the standard mosque of the Ottoman Empire, in areas as far apart as Mostar in Bosnia and Damascus in Syria.
At the time, however, the new church was a big gamble, according to Peter Brown. An engineer’s nightmare, the piers which supported one main arch began to sway outward under the weight of masonry piled ever higher upon it, and the columns beneath others began to flake from the strain. People were scared the whole thing would collapse. Justinian was said to have urged the builders to continue. Sure enough, the completed arches settled under their own unimaginable weight. As he first entered the completed building, Justinian was believed to have exclaimed: “Solomon, I have outdone you!”
What a stupid comment if in fact it is true! Justinian could have only outdone Solomon if he had shown some humility, but instead the church became a symbol of religious and national prestige and power, not a humble symbol of God’s superior splendor. The Church of Holy Wisdom was not built by a wise Emperor.
But here we are today with our old buildings, and sometimes we don’t know how to maintain them, sacred as they are, beloved as they are. Not everybody has a Claus Petersen… And we must grapple with the fact that we may have to die to greater ambitions of being a great mainline church as in the olden days and rise with Christ to a new, humbler but perhaps more authentic and God-pleasing version of the church: people bound together in faith, honoring God, loving their neighbor, providing hospitality, creating places that burst with love, even if they are smaller than in the past. Think of a church where Jesus would want to come and worship. I don’t think it would be Justinian’s masterpiece of architecture to be honest, nor some of the other famous monuments of Christendom, crowded by people with cameras and cell phones. But a place like this that serves, that is welcoming, that has an ear for the truth of the gospel, I think it’s a place where you might find our Lord. Maybe he is sitting next to you, invisibly, quietly, - sitting next to you this morning. Who knows? God is here, and we are his people. That is most certainly true. Go and serve the Lord.
Pastor Andreas Wagner