Sunday, June 2, 2013

Place of Worship, Place of Faith

All three readings for this Sunday’s liturgy (1 King 8:22-61 [alternate], Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10) remind us that our relationship with the living God, as someone has written, “is very much an incarnate matter.” In other words, our relationship with God is formed in specific places, times, conditions, and among specific people.

Unfortunately, that makes our relationship with the Holy One somewhat difficult, because our practice of religious faith is limited and tied down by various human factors. There’s always the temptation for us to try to tie down or to limit God also. In reality the living God whom we worship transcends, goes beyond, every human construction, institution or viewpoint. God is not identified with these things, and they should never be allowed to get in the way of our relating to God as God really is.

There are two things we might consider about the readings today: 1) the place where we worship (“church”, “temple”, “synagogue”, etc.), and 2) the place of faith in our lives. 

The service of a dedication of a church can be a wonderful and uplifting experience. One of my memorable recollections of such a service began well, but ended in a comedy of errors. On October 3, 1954, our 27-member seminary choir was asked to sing at the consecration of the Diocesan Shrine of Perpetual Adoration at Santa Clara Monastery, Canton, OH, by the Bishop of Youngstown, Emmett M. Walsh (lovingly referred to by us wags as “Bishop M & M”!). During the long three-hour ceremony the Sisters recruited a few of us choir members to serve as acolytes, me as thurifer.  At one point the Bishop needed some more charcoal for the thurible. Mind you, this was a brand-spanking new chapel with a cushy light green carpet in the sanctuary. The dear Sister sacristan had put the lit charcoal in a brazier behind the main altar along with some tongs with which to pick up the red hot coals. It was some distance back around the altar steps and up to the Bishop at the center of the altar. I was reluctant to try to carry the charcoal, obviously crumbly, with the tongs. It would have made more sense to have brought the thurible back to transfer the coals from the brazier, but I had left the bishop’s chaplain holding it at the altar. Embarrassed to go back and get it, I foolishly decided to make a bee-line for it, carrying the charcoal with the tongs. All this while the Sister sacristan was carefully observing me from just inside the sacristy. I didn’t get but a few steps before, predictably, the coals crumbled and fell to the floor! The Sister just about had apoplexy and hurried forward stomping on the charcoal so it wouldn’t burn the new rug! I was trembling, fearing I’d ruined the carpet, totally embarrassed that I’d brought the service to a temporary stop. I don’t recall how I finally got the charcoal to the Bishop, but once that was done I scurried back in disgrace to the choir loft where I’d felt I belonged in the first place!  A few days later, Mother M. Claire, the Superior, wrote to our director, Fr. William Volk, C.PP.S.: “Particularly for us in the cloister it was no small treat to have a male choir render the chaste melodies of the chant in our shrine...” No mention of the bumbling seminarian who had undoubtedly desecrated their “virginal” rug by dropping the hot charcoal on it!

Normally, however, consecrating a sacred space such as a church can be a powerful reminder of the presence of the living God. A sanctuary, nonetheless, can also be a dangerous place: a place which walls out the cries of agony of suffering and hurting people. It can also be a place which walls us in through isolation and selfishness, thus becoming the dwelling place of “God’s frozen chosen”! Solomon, in 1 Kings, and the centurion in the Gospel both had a proper perspective on the place of worship in the lives of God’s people. For them it was the place of the Presence, a point of personal contact, an environment of prayer. For the centurion the synagogue which he’d built for the community was a symbol of graciousness, respect, promoting the possibility that people of differing viewpoints can live together.

Perhaps the more fundamental issue in today’s readings, however, is the issue of the place of faith. What kind of faith do you and I exhibit? A covenant faith: enduring, open to all à la Solomon? Or is it a compassionate and respectful faith like the centurion’s, one which doesn’t put others in an awkward position? Is it a faith rooted in the Good News of the Risen Jesus, as is Paul’s in the Epistle: not one tied to specific places, dietary laws, religious practices, traditions, or specific leaders/priests? 

It’s not by chance that we who are the Church are also called “the people of God”. Our forebears grappled with these two issues as we do. Their history was a story of having a place, and then being without one. It was a story of waffling back and forth between believing in the one God and then rejecting the same God. Karl Adolfs writes this about us who are the people of God: “There was, until recently, a sense of security within the walls of the churches and the ordinary Christian could wrap himself in an unconditional (and uncritical) surrender to God’s word (fundamentalism) or seek refuge in an individualistic devotion to Jesus (pietism)...the name, ‘People of God’, refers to a living, dynamic community of people, seeking and on the way towards what is already alive within the community in the form of promise. The Church is not a rigid, fossilized and static institution but a people on the way, on pilgrimage -- a people that lives far more in tents than in temples.”        

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