We seek peace in a sanctuary but we need to think of how we prepare ourselves as we move into the world to live out Jesus’ good news in the midst of all the challenges we will face.
Today’s texts – Psalm 84, Ephesians 6: 10-20
“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord of heavenly forces.”
“Stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace.”
Two phrases from today’s readings. But let me take you back a few days.
Ellen and I were at a memorial service last Tuesday for the son of some friends of ours. Damon was 44 years old when he died suddenly earlier this month. He was a nurse at Meriter Hospital where I got to know him. But we also knew him as part of his family from when he was a small child.
He was one of those people whose personality filled up a room when he entered it, a dad who brought energy and zaniness and adventure to the life of his two early-teen daughters. His wife works for the elementary schools in Sauk City.
So you can imagine there was quite a crowd at his memorial service at the UCC church in Sauk City. The sanctuary was full.
A sanctuary. A holy place. A dwelling place for God.
The psalm we heard to day – Psalm 84 – is a hymn of longing to be able to dwell in the sanctuary, a place of comfort, a place where all of creation can find a home.
The birds build nests and lay their young beside the altar. The writer says, “Those who live in your house are truly happy” and “Better is a single day in your courtyard that a thousand days anywhere else.”
The idea of a physical sanctuary as a holy place has a big role in the Jewish tradition that Christianity emerged from. Solomon, the son of the great King David, built the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem and its inner sanctuary was described as “the most holy place.”
Psalm 84 probably grew out of the singing of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple, to rejoice out loud to the living God, to find happiness, inner peace in their sense of trust in God.
There we were last Tuesday, gathered in a sanctuary along with Damon’s family and friends and co-workers, seeking a glimmer of inner peace in the midst of great sadness.
The memorial service went along as these things do. There were prayers, quotes from scripture, stories told by some of Damon’s friends and relatives that evoked both laughter and tears.
And then Damon’s father, Gary, walked to the podium. I took a deep breath. But I needn’t had worried.
He said that as he listened to the people talk, as he had greeted people in the long line during the visitation in the sanctuary, the thing that struck him was how this room was filled with love –
the love that Damon had for those he touched during his life –
family, friends, patients in the ICU,
the love that all of them had for Damon,
the love that now surrounded those who had gathered
in this sanctuary to hold Damon’s memory in their hearts,
the love especially for Damon’s family.
Gary paused and said he was going to ask us to do something a bit unusual for an occasion like this. He asked that we take just one minute and find someone in the sanctuary we did not know and ask them how they were connected to Damon.
Well, it took more than a minute, of course – but it did not drag on too long. And the sanctuary – the dwelling place of God’s love – was buzzing with conversation as people broke out of the natural clusters that form at a time like this – the family all together, the parents’ friends here, the Meriter nurses there, the neighbors over there.
Because, you see, a sanctuary is not simply a quiet and solemn place. It is a place where God’s love comes alive.
“My very being longs, even yearns, for the Lord’s courtyards,” the Psalm writer said. And here in those courtyards – whether in a church in Sauk City on a Tuesday afternoon or here at Memorial UCC on Sunday morning – we can encounter God both in moments of silent beauty and in the buzz of care and concern that can fill a room.
Once upon a time, it was pretty common when coming to the sanctuary – to the church – that folks wore their “Sunday best.” It was a dress-up occasion. We’ve gotten much more relaxed about that over the years, which I think is a good thing, since the norms of dress-up could often also be norms of separating those who could afford fancy clothes and those who could not, those who fit in and those who did not.
But when Paul wrote this letter to Ephesus, he understood the power of how we clothe ourselves. Paul used military imagery to suggest how we ought to protect ourselves from the evils in our world.
It’s imagery that may seem distant to most of us, although that little riff I did on football clothing with the kids is a reminder that we do pay attention to ways to protect ourselves from the things that can harm our bodies.
When you hike in the deep woods, you may wear hiking boots to protect your feet and you may soak your clothing in tick repellent to protect your skin.
When you are riding a bicycle, you wear a helmet to protect your skull and when you are in a car, you buckle in with a seat belt to keep yourself from being catapulted into the air.
The idea of wearing protective gear is a common one. What the writer of this letter does is carry that into a sense of the struggles between good and evil in our world.
We may not think of the world in quite such a binary way – good here, evil there. We may not use the image of the devil in quite the same anthropomorphic way it was used in the past. But evil is still a reality in our world. It does not take long to compile a long list of places where evil disrupts that sense of God’s vision for the world.
You can start with war.
Add in threats to our global climate.
Look at the incidents of domestic violence or rape.
Notice the huge gaps in wealth in our country and in the world.
Hear the personal anger and disrespect that so often shows up in public discourse.
Witness the consequences of both personal and systemic racism.
Add your own experiences with evil and how it affects your life.
Paul recognized that we cannot always live in the sanctuary, in the divine dwelling place, as comforting as that can be. The sanctuary – whatever that means to you – can be a place of nourishment and renewal, a place of rest and regrouping, a place to be intentional about our relationship with God and with each other.
But eventually, we go back out the door, we return from the cabin on the lake, we come in from the walk in the woods. We are faced with the realities of the world – realities that include evil.
Get dressed to face that, Paul advises.
He’s not being literal about what to wear, of course. It would get mighty hot in the summer if we all walked around with breastplates and helmets and the police might get a bit concerned if we walked into Target with a sword and shield. And it would like Halloween if we all came to church dressed like that.
Paul attaches meaning to those items of a warrior from his era, someone facing the threats of evil.
What do we need?
A commitment to truth.
A sense of justice.
Working for peace.
Extinguishing evil when we encounter it.
God’s word – that could be the wisdom of the Bible or the idea that Jesus is God’s word among us – as something we carry with us through it all.
But wait, there’s more. It’s not just clothing ourselves in protective gear. It’s also “offering prayers and petitions to the Spirit all the time.”
We’re glancing back at that holy place, that sanctuary, even as we walk through our daily lives. The sanctuary is not the only place where God dwells and it is not the only place where we can pray. It is just one point on the journey – an important point, to be sure, but not the place where we get to stay.
One of the favorite verses of folks around here comes from the prophet Micah. It’s in the context of people coming to the sanctuary to try to win God’s favor with burnt offerings and year-old calves and thousands of rams and rivers of oil.
What does the Lord require of you? asks Micah. “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
Let me put on a few items that can serve as a reminder of how we can leave this sanctuary clothed today. They are not items to impress others with my beliefs. They are items to remind me of who I hope to be.
First, there’s a t-shirt. It comes from Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, the place where people from Memorial have gone for years – and will go again in October – to serve others and to grow in our understanding of a world divided by poverty and race.
Then there’s an olive-leaf necklace. This comes from Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, where I helped plant olive trees 10 years ago because the olive tree is such a potent symbol of life and hope and healing in that contested land.
This is not a helmet of salvation but it is a cap that reminds me of the United Church of Christ’s commitment to a world where we see all as one and where we hear God still speaking.
As a minister, I sometimes wear a stole. It has a long history in the church. It’s a symbol of acting on behalf of the wider church, not just doing something on my own.
When I was ordained in 2007, this stole was place over my shoulders and then my mentor and friend Dave Michael reminded me to wear it with “gratitude, humility and courage” as I remember those who have worn the ministerial stole before me and the those who carry out Christ’s work today in congregations like ours.
There’s one more item that’s part of my wardrobe, so to speak, but I won’t show you here because I would have to drive my car into the sanctuary and that would not be a good idea. But if you look at the license plate on my car, it reads LK 2430.
Those are more than a random set of letters and numbers. They refer to verse 30 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke.
Jesus has been walking on the road with some followers who were grieving over his death and who could not comprehend that he might be able to transcend death.
They invited him to eat with them and as verse 30 says, “When he was at the table with them, be broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them.” That was how they recognized Jesus – in the act of breaking and sharing bread.
Clearly, I don’t wear these things all the time. But what I am suggesting is that maybe you take a few minutes to think about what the touchstones in your life might be to remind you of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It might be something explicitly religious or something more abstract that helps you connect with God.
Those touchstones can offer a sense of sanctuary and then, at their best, they will also be what clothes us to go out into the world around us and live out the good news of Jesus that we call the gospel.
And then let’s remember that we do not do this alone. We need each other and we need to remember that we are enfolded in God’s love.
There’s a hymn that can help us remember that. It’s number 69, “Come, God, Creator, Be Our Shield.” Let’s join together and sing it.