Sunday, January 26, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Churches & Courtrooms"

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

So a person should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and managers of God’s secrets. 2 In this kind of situation, what is expected of a manager is that they prove to be faithful. 3 I couldn’t care less if I’m judged by you or by any human court; I don’t even judge myself. 4 I’m not aware of anything against me, but that doesn’t make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me. 5 So don’t judge anything before the right time—wait until the Lord comes. He will bring things that are hidden in the dark to light, and he will make people’s motivations public. Then there will be recognition for each person from God. (Common English Bible)

“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week One

My hair fell down below my shoulders as my ponytail (yes, I had one during my college years, there is pictorial proof on Facebook) adjusted to how deeply I craned my neck to take in the entirety of what looked, on the outside, like a modern-day fortress…or at least an intimidating military installment, designed to scare away the native people it was conquering.  In the middle of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, this gigantic concrete precipice had been built as a foreboding presence to all who lived, worked, and moved through the Paris of the Plains (yes, we fancied ourselves quite a bit back in Kansas City.  If you had our barbeque, you would, too).

Of course, this building was neither a fortress nor a military barracks.  It was a courthouse.  Built in the wake of 9/11, the federal courthouse for the District of Western Missouri was designed to evoke a forbidding sense of ultimate security and safety.  And in doing so, the sheer heights of its architecture reminded me of yet another family of buildings that we often judge by their height.

Churches.  And that really is not a coincidence.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  Dan begins his story thusly:

I…had this growing sense that I should find a church to help me in this search, a place where I could ask questions.  There happened to be a church right across the street from my dorm, so once again, out of curiosity, I gave another Christian meeting a try.  This time, my friend Randy came along with me to attend a Sunday service.

As soon as we walked into the church building, I knew that this was going to be very different from my experience with the shiny happy people.  This was truly a church building—it had stained-glass windows, a pulpit, and a number of fancy religious symbols scattered around the room on colored banners.  When we walked into the building, we heard organ music.  I confess, just hearing an organ reminds me of a funeral parlor and puts me in a strange state of mind.  I also noticed that the seating was all pews.  Really, the only place you see pews, outside of a church, is in a courtroom.  So as we walked down the aisle with the organ music playing and found seats in the pews, I was thinking about two things: death and jury duty.

Speaking for myself, I am convinced that those two things are inextricably intertwined, and not as a result of any sort of coincidence.

There is far more than meets the eye to the architecture of a historic church building like ours—a more modern and overwhelmingly generic performance space our sanctuary is emphatically not.  And there are a great number of other structural similarities between our sanctuary and your standard-issue courtroom that you might see in an episode of one of those many Law & Order marathons that you watch on your couch, in pajamas, while consuming an entire bag of PopChips (I am, of course, absolutely not speaking from any sort of personal experience here).

If you recall, in a courtroom, the presiding judge sits on a chair in an elevated platform.  Similarly, traditionally, a preacher stands upon an elevated pulpit to preach…or, alternatively, to pronounce judgment on the hoi polloi.  In a courtroom, specific seats are set aside for the judge’s support staff: clerks, bailiffs, stenographers, and the like.  So too is it the case in many church sanctuaries, where you might see specific chairs or even mini-pews set aside on the elevated chancel area by the pulpit for associate pastors, worship musicians, or the odd court jester.

And so on.  But with our gorgeous stained glass, with our elegant vaulted wooden ceiling, with our beautiful Gothic revival architectural style, it is easy to miss all of those subtle touches that send perhaps a not-so-subtle theological message.  I know that when I visited here as a candidate, my neck hurt by the end of the day because, like with the federal courthouse in Missouri, I spent so much time with it craned upward in my effort to take in all of the visual appeal of our campus!

And even the architectural style is meant to contain both theological and practical messages as well.  Gothic churches like ours are renowned for their height, because during the Middle Ages, churches were often the center of towns and villages, and, if possible, were also set on the most elevated parcel of land.  It is why traditionally churches had steeples—the idea was that at any point in the town, one could look, see the church, and instantly orient themselves relative to it.

Of course, theologically, Gothic churches like ours tried to be as tall as possible because, well, God’s up there, and we’re down here, and isn’t church about being closer to God?  So, why not make churches as tall as can be?  They must not have taught the Tower of Babel story at medieval architecture school.

But that is still something that most churches try to achieve in how they are designed and made and built, even today—a sense of closeness with God.  Because, in the end, God is supposed to make us feel secure.  God is supposed to be our solid foundation, the foundation upon which we can build our faith, which sometimes looks as beautiful and elegant as our church building, but honestly, sometimes just as often it probably looks like a teetering stack of Jenga blocks.

And this is why what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4 is so important (were you wondering when I would *finally* get around to the Scripture?  “All this is great, pastor, but my architecture experience is limited to macaroni and glue in kindergarten, so could you just get on with it…”).

Paul does not fear human judgment, or, as he puts it, being “judged by you or by any human court... (because) it is the Lord who judges me.”  Now, first of all, I have to think that Paul is simply unique in not fearing human judgment, because in my experience, we fear the judgment of our peers all the time, perhaps even more than we fear the judgment of God, which I have to imagine is at least partly why we do some of the destructive things that we do.

Paul had to have known this, because he is emphatic in his exhortation to the church in Corinth to not judge anything until the Lord comes—until the right moment.  As with most things that one person exhorts another to do, this is something that Paul himself struggles with, as many of his letters contain plenty of judging of his opponents.  But it is still reassuring to know that Paul realizes that judgment is the Lord’s purview, and not ours.

It is reassuring precisely because somewhere, deep in the recesses of our brains, we likely know that as well.  As Christians and as a church, we are not supposed to judge with human judgment.  There’s a reason why, despite all the similarities between a traditional church building and a courtroom, we still call our church building a sanctuary: it is supposed to be a safe place, a secure place that anyone can come to and seek out God.  It harkens all the way back to the ancient Israelite tradition of claiming sanctuary: if a person, fleeing from their pursuers, made it to the Jerusalem temple and took hold of the horns of the Ark of the Covenant, it was an unwritten law that they were not to be harmed (of course, it did not always work out this way—Joab, King David’s army commander, was murdered while taking hold of the horns of the Ark by the men of King Solomon, whose ascension to the throne Joab had opposed.  I know what you’re thinking—if only our elections ended this way…).

But a sanctuary literally means a safe place, a secure place, and that is why, despite my embrace of so many things new for the church, I still so tenaciously believe, in an era of Christian “centers” and worship “spaces,” that we hang onto this particular gem of tradition.  You are meant to feel secure here, because while this may look like a courtroom and feel like a courtroom, it is because while it is a courtroom, we are not your judges.  Rather, God is your judge, and I am here to tell you that the first item on God’s docket is grace.  Grace for you, grace for me, grace for all those who choose to reach out and accept it for the divine gift that it is.

And that…that is why we have built church buildings the way we have for so, so long.  Because no human court could possibly begin to dispense the sort of mercy that God offers to each of you.  And so God calls upon us to build for Him His own courtroom…a sanctuary where you are to be welcomed instead of condemned, to be offered grace instead of judgment, and to be given the chance and the tools to become a better person instead of punishment by retribution.  It is not our way…but it is God’s.  And it is enough.  It will always be enough.  

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 26, 2014

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