Psalm 122 and I John
April 29, 2012 Fourth Sunday in Easter – Dedication of the Saint Mark sanctuary elegant simplicity

Roy W. Howard

I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’ We are glad, are we not?

Like the Psalmist we have a deep joy being back in this sanctuary to give praise and thanksgiving to the living God.

It’s not that God is worshipped no where else; of course we know that God is present in all place and at all times – sometimes frighteningly so! Truth be told, we are not always enamored of the fact that God is present at all times, in every place, in every action and in every conversation. Seriously. Occasionally we prefer a tamer, more constrained God; one whose ways we can control and comprehend.

It’s also true that either by accident or intention or habit, various things make us forgetful of God’s real presence. Incessant noise and relentless traffic capture our attention. So do work duties and family obligations, from fixing dinner to changing diapers to answering emails to hurrying to dance, soccer and music lessons. All of which may be good, but none of which is particularly conducive to concentrate the mind on worship. (Although there is a movement in that direction – everyday spirituality, it’s called; and it requires the spiritual skills that few of us have.) Is the Holy One present in everything? Yes, surely. Are we fully present to the Holy One? Not often and never without concrete intention.

And so the Psalmist declares our need for a sanctuary: “I was glad when they said, ‘let us go up to the house of the Lord.’ In a frazzled life with multiple demands on our attention, the sanctuary is a focal place to gather and be gathered as a community of God’s people. It’s a sacred place in which we offer ourselves to God. John Calvin, called this weekly offering “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” to the living God. One might also think of this sanctuary as a place of rest, a place where one regains perspective on what matters most, is replenished for the work of living faithfully in a broken world, mending wounds in the name of the One who mends all wounds, finding light for the path by gathering in the light of the One who scatters the darkness. Even better, all of this happens in the company of our fellow travelers who return each week for prayer, study and service.

The early Celtic tradition described some sites as “thin places” where heaven and earth seemed to be palpably present. This sanctuary is designed to be such a thin place. Here we hope one discerns the presence of God as we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving. There is no other purpose than this one offering to the Holy One who is gracious and merciful unto us. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an other Psalm that Rabbi Rudolph brought to my attention: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” And we have not built this sacred space in vain. Amen?

When the session took a look at the new sanctuary, one of our ruling elders said to me, “John Calvin would be pleased.” That, of course, brings joy to any Presbyterian pastor’s heart. It was not the comment I expected. “And why?” I asked. He said that the uncluttered plainness focused our attention rightly on God. I think he is exactly correct, and those who helped designed this new space many of whom are listed in your bulletin, with the architects, deserve our deep gratitude. I would call it an elegant simplicity that would please Calvin and our Reformed forebears, including those in the simple Congregational sanctuaries of New England. I think this elegant simplicity embodies one essential tenets of our Reformed tradition to practice “stewardship which shuns ostentation in favor of simplicity.”

The attention to such biblical and theological resonance enables us to what the Psalmist describes as “worshipping God in the beauty of holiness.”

Let me conclude with another comment made by a ruling elder during the session’s monthly bible study; one that also draws our attention to the reading from I John. “I hope our focus on the sanctuary,” he said, “will take away from God’s purpose for us. Then it would be just another idol.” Idolatry is an every present danger for humans. We have a great tendency to give allegiance to the wrong things and so become misguided in our actions. In a particularly dark mood, John Calvin described the human heart as “a manufactory of idols.”

So in the end we turn our attention to fruit of our worship in this sacred place. “Let us love, not in word or in speech, but in truth and action.” In his recent Jefferson lecture, Wendell Berry, borrowing a line from the novel “Howard’s End”, said “everything turns on affection” including the economy. Our scriptures remind us that everything turns on God’s love and that the evidence of such love in our lives is the love of neighbor, the sharing of our goods with those in need, and charity toward one another.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is this: that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is like unto it, that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

To this end we dedicate this sanctuary in hope that love with flourish among us and flow from us to our neighbors to the Glory of God whom we worship in Spirit and in truth.