“Light and Salvation”
February 21, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Sanctuary, it’s a word that sometimes is functional, the way we point to the room we are sitting in right at this very moment; sometimes historical, as the word was used to identify a place of refuge in which people could have protection; sometimes referring to spaces that enable us to feel a sense of peace and connection with God; and sometimes this sense of sanctuary comes not from the feeling of the space itself, but rather the particular intention of the people gathered together in that time and place.
Throughout history, religious people of all beliefs have gone to great lengths to experience this sense sanctuary, an experience of God’s presence. Like the Psalmist, there is an intrinsic desire in us to “live in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] lives.” Some seeking this experience using their life savings to travel thousands of miles on pilgrimages to places that their tradition have identified as holy, from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Stonehenge in England, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There are also personal pilgrimage destinations, where others you’ve known have experienced God at work in their lives: perhaps the church in which your grandparents were married, the place your church family goes on mission trips, or the camp that your youth group has gone to year after year. There is something in these places that draws us near, beyond what the place itself could offer us, a sense to experience what others have before us, that is, sanctuary.
For many of us, this church is one of those places, a place where we have experienced the presence of God, sensed God’s light and been awashed with God’s salvation, where we have engaged in worshipping God, and where we have sensed God at work in others. If you have been around here for a while, and I know some have 50 years on some of the rest of us, this space is more than just this space in this moment, it is also where you and your children were baptized, the place you held Christmas Eve candles alongside your family and church family, where you married your beloved, where you were anointed with oil and ash year after year, and the place where you mourned and celebrated the life of loved ones. Some of you even helped to build this very building, deciding what sanctuary would look like to all of us these many years later. But this space is so much more than this roof and these walls, it’s a summation of the experiences had here, and the enduring sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all.
In “The Power of Place,” historian Thomas Bender writes, “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.”
In other words, this sense of sanctuary comes not from without but within, the sense invoked in us, the hope stirred, the wholeness felt. For us, the strongest of these “inner resources” is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the places in this world that from an objective perspective might seem ordinary into the extraordinary, opening our hearts and mind to God’s presence in and among us wherever we may be.
When you sense this sort of peace and healing in a space it’s tempting to want to somehow bottle it up, keep it safe and protected from any who might somehow alter this experience. But if our intention is to follow the Gospel, to welcome all into an experience of Christ, this sense of sanctuary is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. Sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the world, but it is not a place we should set at a distance from any of those who are seeking that same sense of God’s presence.
If we truly believe that we as followers of Christ are the body of Christ, welcoming more into our midst won’t diminish God’s presence, but increase it, as each individual with all of their unique gifts, challenges, joys, and struggles enable us all together to better be the full body of Christ.
Layton Williams, Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago speaks of what this greater inclusion looks and feels like from her perspective as a woman who is bisexual. She writes, “Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. ‘Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,’ the thinking goes, ‘but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.’”
She continues, “ Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning.”
By being fully inclusive of the entirety of the body of Christ we give greater credence to the safety and wholeness that we have experienced, for what is safety that is unsafe to some, and how are we to have wholeness as the body of Christ if we choose to sever or ignore any part of ourself?
Like the Psalmist, we can see “the goodness of the Lord” revealed “in the land of the living.” Christ’s hands and feet at work through all people who seek God’s will. The greater the diversity there is among us, the better we are able to know the fullness of God, who created each and every single one of us in God’s image.
In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read of God’s presence in and among us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
When we embrace our own ability, as the body of Christ, to be a living sanctuary for God’s presence to be known and felt, we expand the reaches of God’s kingdom here on earth: God at work in and through each of us.
In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
God does not need human made shrines, temples, altars, or even churches to be felt in this world, but will meet us in the spaces where we seek God’s presence. It’s important for us to realize this distinction: God is here among us because of the intentions of our hearts and our own receptiveness to God’s Word, witness, and work in our midst. That is what makes this space we inhabit into sanctuary, rather than just another room in just another building.
Building these buildings and calling them churches can serve an important function. Our human designations of sacred space point people to places where presence of God is sought and the body of Christ is alive. In that way our human made sanctuaries are signposts in our journeys, postcards saying “wish you were here” sent out to those who are searching.
As those who have experienced God in our midst, we are the ones tasked with making sure all who seek God may receive their own invitation into the light and salvation of God’s sanctuary. May we ever endeavor to welcome all into the sanctuary we have experienced. Amen.