God's Dwelling Place

Matthew 18: 21-3

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord. (Psalm 84)” “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will provide thanksgiving to God through us.” (2 Corinthians 9: 11)

Barbara Brown Taylor was a harried Episcopal priest at a busy downtown church in Atlanta. Wanting to get way from mounting stress, she took a break one weekend and drove up to the mountains of northeast Georgia. There she visited the small resort town of Clarkesville, which happened to have an old Episcopal church that was founded in 1842. In her memoir, she describes her first encounter with this church, which, by providence she would later serve as rector. “At the corner of Green and Wilson, I looked up to see a white frame chapel with huge clear glass windows and green shutters sitting in an old grove of white pines…The small porch of the church was supported by four square columns. Just to the left of the double front doors, a thick rope leading to the bell tower was draped over a hook just taller than a second grader. The church yard bore evidence of having been loved by generations of gardeners…Simply to stand in the presence of that building was to rest. Peace poured off the white boards and caught me in its wake as the sighing of the pines reminded me to breathe. When I did, I could feel the clenched muscle of my mind relax. My shoulders came down from around my ears. I shook out my arms and put my hands flat on the side of the church,” and thought, “Was this what happened to wood that had soaked up a hundred and fifty years worth of prayers? Did all that devotion seep into the grain like incense so that any passerby could catch a whiff of it?

“When I walked up the painted gray steps of the porch, the old boards creaked under my feet. I stood in front of the heavy doors, which had survived so many humid summers that they scarcely met anymore. When I bent over to look through the huge keyhole, I could see a narrow slice of the sanctuary but no more. I tried the doorknob, mostly to feel the cool metal under my hand, but when it turned I was not really surprised. The generosity of the church was already established in my mind.” (Leaving Church, p. 11-12)

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O God,” the psalmist writes. “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Reading Taylor’s description and reflection about the old Grace Episcopal Church building in Clarksville, I was reminded of the first time I parked my car on Kenilworth Avenue and looked across at Kenilworth Union Church for the first time. It was a cool October morning, but the church and its surroundings seemed to radiate warmth. After a series of interviews, I was taken on a tour of the church. When we entered the sanctuary, I remember noticing how the sunlight played through the stained glass windows, the modesty of the space, the pulpit set on an angle.

What do you remember about the first moment you stepped into this space? Did you notice the wood carving of the angel face and wings above your head as you entered? Were your eyes drawn to the Tiffany-like windows in the transept? Or the beauty of the organ, with its rich brown wood and red colors to represent the earth and blue for heaven and gold for the divine? Did you look up to see the high pitched wooden ceiling?

Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I began to think of the wood in this place. Wood that has become sacred as it soaked up more than one hundred fifteen years of prayers across the generations of Kenilworth Union. Prayers offered as couples proclaimed their love and exchanged solemn vows. Prayers offered at baptisms as parents made promises to nurture their child in the faith we hold. Prayers offered for comfort and strength in the face of death and in thanksgiving for lives well lived. Prayers offered for those who are sick and suffering and in need. The pews and woodwork in this special place have been stained by tears of joy and tears of sadness, burnished by hopes and dreams.

“My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord,” the psalmist whispers, “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

I believe strongly that the physical design, structure and appointments of a church’s sanctuary play an important role in the worship experience. Because architecture contributes, to some extent, to the experience of the community who gather to occupy it. I have visited some churches where I have felt the presence of God’s spirit come close, and other churches where God’s spirit seemed at a distance. The care and the imagination that a church building and sanctuary reflect matters…because we respond to the feeling that the architecture of the space creates.

However, for all the beauty of this building and this space, what makes Kenilworth Union a church is its people – the persons sitting beside you, in front of you and behind you; plus a number of others we can’t see who are in the Culbertson room and in the classrooms and children’s chapels. We are Kenilworth Union Church, a family of faith, friends on a journey together.  John Buchanan has written, “Part of what a church does is provide access to the life-giving power of friendship. Part of why we worship corporately is that together we can affirm and trust and believe and give our hearts in ways that any one of us on any given Sunday may not be able to. When we pray together, we are always praying on behalf of those among us who, for whatever reason, are not able to pray. When we sing, we carry with us those who are down, unable to sing, perhaps unable to do much of anything…and “when we give, we give also for those who cannot.” (The Christian Century, June 20-27, 2001, p. 3)

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians in the passage we heard earlier, urges that fledging Christian congregation to be generous in their giving. He reminds the Corinthians that God has blessed them generously, and now they are being asked to share their gifts in the same manner. So he says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver…and by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

Paul’s words of encouragement almost sound like an ancient Loyalty Sunday letter you get in the mail, don’t they? But actually they are a love letter. Paul is asking the people of that church to be generous in collecting an offering for people in the church in Jerusalem who are in need.

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” By definition, the nature of generosity is to give beyond your own self interest to benefit a wider circle of people.

We all know generous people. For some it comes naturally, while for others (myself included) it requires a conscious, intentional decision. I have been fortunate in my life to know a number of generous people. Some of them, incidentally, are wealthy. But one thing I have found to be a common denominator among those who are generous is that people who are genero
us enjoy what they have more than those who hold back. Those who are generous…who give of their time and talent and gifts for others in their communities, who share in the life of the church by serving and giving, whose names are on the hospitals and orchestra halls and theaters and educational buildings…their generosity touches the lives of many they both know and do not know. These people are people, who for the most part, enjoy what they have more by willingly sharing some of it as gift.

Karen Blixen, also known by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, is famous for her memoir, Out of Africa. Among her other works, Blixen wrote a small novelette entitled Babette’s Feast. The story is set in a grim fishing village on a small island off the North Sea coast of Denmark where there is a dwindling congregation of elderly people who are followers of a stern Calvinist pastor named Dean, who is now dead. The little congregation continues its worship led by the former pastor’s two aging daughters. Life in the village is austere. Their daily diet is a gruel of boiled cod fish and dry bread. Then one day Babette shows up. She is a refugee from the Paris uprisings in the middle of the 19th century. She hasn’t a penny to her name and the two sisters kindly take her in as their cook and housekeeper. They have no idea that Babette was once a celebrated chef in Paris.

Babette settles into the drab village life, bringing a small measure of light and gentleness to the two sisters and other villagers through her consideration and care. Years pass and not much changes until…Well, it turns out that each year while Babette was living on the island, a friend of hers in Paris continued purchasing her favorite number in the national lottery. This year, the ticket with her number was drawn and she receives news of winning the sum of 10,000 francs! The two sisters expect Babette to leave with her sudden wealth. At that very time, however, the sisters and the little congregation are planning a celebration to honor the hundredth birthday of pastor Dean’s birth. Babette shocks them with an extravagant offer of generosity, insisting she spend her fortune on a sumptuous meal for the celebration. At first, the sisters are greatly agitated by the offer. How could she spend her precious zoney on a meal for them? Babette reminds the sisters that she had not asked them for anything in twelve years of service. “This is my prayer,” she tells them and so reluctantly they consent.

There are many raised eyebrows as the food for the feast is carted off the boat. The story’s power turns on the fact that Babette’s gift of sharing transforms those around the table – stony faces are softened with smiles, eyes sparkle selfconsciously with the taste of delicious food, and hearts open and old walls that divided melt away as the meal is eaten. Just one outsider is present at this feast, a general just retired from the Danish army. A man of sophistication, he savors every gourmet dish and each glass of fine wine. Near the end of the dinner, the general rises to speak. “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” the general begins, “righteousness and bliss kiss one another.” Then he continues, “We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.” (based on Philip Yancey’s telling of the story in What’s So Amazing About Grace, pp. 19-26)

Generosity and grace are inextricably tied together to create a space for grace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Adding, “You will be enriched for your great generosity which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” Paul’s belief is that generosity enlarges the spirit, that generosity brings joy.

This church was built and continues to thrive because of the generosity of the people who come through its doors and fill its pews and classrooms. Promises were made here when this sanctuary was built, and today we are the keepers of those promises. Can you imagine a life without commitments; a life without making promises and keeping them? Such a life would be empty and unconnected. It is through the commitments we make that our lives become deeper and richer, in every good sense of the word.

Near the end of her memoir, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Gradually I remembered what I had known all along, which is that church is not a stopping place, but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in the world. By offering people a place where they may engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up – not only in Holy Bibles and Holy Communion but also in near neighbors, mysterious strangers, sliced bread, and grocery store wine. That way, when they leave church, they no more leave God than God leaves them. They simply carry what they have learned into the wide, wide world, where there is a crying need for people who will recognize the holiness in things and hold them up to God.” (pp. 165-166) This morning we came into this lovely sanctuary, hallowed by a proud heritage of faith, trusting that we might catch a glimpse of God here. We came because we trust that here we share life together at its most fundamental level. Here we offer to God: our joys, our regrets, our deepest hopes, our gratitude and generosity. All of life is in play when we come into church. That’s why I love the church and this community that makes our church what it is. And so with the psalmist we boldly proclaim: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! …Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. …Happy are those whose strength is in you…O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.”

Let it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.