The Cloud and the Question of Purpose

The first warm Virginia evening in Spring of my Junior year at seminary, I arrived in the historic chapel a few minutes before Evensong. I came early so I could get my preferred place in the worn seats of the choir. When I walked in, I saw the cloud.

My seminary’s chapel was not my favorite building. A hodgepodge of architectures and styles, the building was historic, but I thought it was ugly. Fraying red carpet, mismatched wood, bad acoustics, strange layout: I didn’t like the chapel. Thankfully, Virginia Seminary is about to consecrate a new chapel. The historic building burned down my senior year. I deny that I had anything to do with the fire. I promise. Really. However I will confess, I didn’t mourn the loss. But on that particular evening, the old chapel played host to one of the most strangely beautiful sights I have ever seen.

We didn’t use incense much at Virginia Seminary. We were the seminary that historically emphasized the word Protestant in the full incorporated name of The Protestant Episcopal Church. When the chapel did burn down, several students wondered if the ghosts of our more low church predecessors had been angered by the high church worship that had been happening.

Incense wasn’t common at Virginia. But on Thursday evenings a group of us gathered to chant Evening Prayer. Chant and incense seemed to go together. The incense that particular Thursday, maybe by some trick of the atmosphere or air conditioning, was hanging in a six inch thick cloud, about 7 feet off the ground. The air above and below was clear. It was as if the smoke sat on an invisible shelf. The cloud hung above our heads and over the altar as we intoned the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitis, the ancient hymns of evening prayer. The light shifted through the service, the setting sun slowly lifting the angle of the beams. As we sang our final prayers, the colors of the stained glass windows refracted through the cloud, causing a rainbow of color. The sight was inexplicably beautiful.

I’ve never had a stronger image for the cloud described just before the verses we have today from First Kings. Solomon stands before the great fiery altar. He’s come to consecrate his new temple, the first temple in Jerusalem. Moments before the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant, with the tablets of Moses, into the Holy of Holies. The First Book of Kings describes that a thick cloud filled the sanctuary. God has chosen to dwell with the people Israel. God’s name will rest in the inner sanctuary. What a sight the writer of Kings describes.

What boggles my mind in this scripture, is Solomon’s declaration. He’s just built the most expensive and elaborate building in the history of his people. He’s constructed a house for God of gold and cedar, and it seems God’s presence has agreed to dwell therein. But listen again to Solomon’s words:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

Solomon seems to question the whole enterprise. But he goes on. He asks God to bless the foreigner who hears of the temple, and comes to pray here. In the tribal society of Israel, this could have seemed like madness. The temple was meant to be the marking that God belongs to Israel, has decided to dwell with Israel, blesses a particular people in a particular place. But Solomon reinterprets the temple. As the prophet Isaiah states later: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” The temple is not just for insiders. The faith, is not just for insiders.

We’re in a place in our life as a parish when we are talking about our Mission, our Vision, our purpose. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be gathering in people’s homes to have small group discussions about the direction God is calling us toward. We’ll be asking, what is our mission as a congregation? Communities of faith need to ask questions of purpose.

What is all this for? All this? The faith, the prayers, the music, the community, the building, what is it all for?

Some of you know that our Music Director Mary Chapman and I spent much of this past week in Canada at a church music conference. At the conference, a young music director shared three things she knew to be true about church music:

1) All of us have what she called a “heart song.” Everyone has a song that touches them deeply. Some of us have more than one, but music touches us, and for whatever reason, certain music affects certain people specifically. Sometimes we sing because we are singing our heart song.

2) Sometimes we sing for the person next to us in the pew. Sometimes our neighbor needs our song. I can tell you, one of my favorite hymns is not “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the hymn that prays ”for those in peril on the sea.” Not my favorite. But there was a widow in my former parish who used to sing that song for her father during the First World War and her husband during the Second World War, and so we sang “For those in Peril on the Sea” in that church, and I sang it for Margaret. Sometimes we sing for the person next to us.

3) Sometimes we sing for the person not already in our pews. Sometimes the songs we sing are getting us ready for those who aren’t here yet. We might do some singing in other languages this year. We might sing some songs that aren’t familiar to us. I think it’s good for a congregation to have a balance of feeling the comfort of tradition, and having the chance to be new at something. It helps us understand what a visitor goes through when they dare to walk through our doors on a Sunday. Sometimes, in the church, we sing for those who aren’t in our pews.

I know some of you don’t think of yourselves as singers. That’s okay. Do some translation. We could say the same about prayer. Sometimes we pray for ourselves. Sometimes we pray for those who are close to us. Sometimes, our faith asks us to pray for those who aren’t already part of our community. We could say the same about faith. Sometimes I need my faith. Sometimes we need our neighbor’s faith. Sometimes the world needs our faith. The threefold pattern works in many ways.

That triptych was true for Solomon and his temple. He built the great house for God partly for himself, to fulfill his duty as the Son of David. He built it partly for his people, to have a place of stability and tradition in which to worship God. But Solomon tells us, those two weren’t enough. He built the Temple for all of those other nations as well, so that all people could find rest, quiet, and comfort in the dwelling place of the God of Israel.

If it was true for Solomon’s temple, I hope it can be true of our church. I hope The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion is a place of sanctuary for you. I hope it is a place where we can contribute to one another’s lives. I hope it is a place where God can reach out in ways we can’t yet imagine to people we do not yet know. A few weeks ago, we didn’t know Vivienne Maezie Pearson, who we’re about to baptize. A few years ago, we didn’t know many people who are part of this church community. And we may never know some of the people this church impacts, but I pray the impact is for the good.

The cloud of smoke is an odd mystical image. I won’t say I definitively saw God’s presence in that unique moment in Virginia Seminary’s ugly old chapel. I can’t ever quite bottle up the meaning of all that smoke. I’m with Solomon this morning. I think no one building, no one experience, no one scripture, no one community, can ever fully capture God. But, with Solomon, I pray that our traditions can point us in the right direction. With Solomon, I’m willing to invest in that hope. Maybe together we can point the way for others as well, that together we might walk with God.

3 thoughts on “The Cloud and the Question of Purpose

  1. The Rev. Wilson Nathaniel Pyron, Jr. Priest Retired. says:

    Wonderful sermon. WOW. Thanks be to God for your words. I love that old chapel at Virginia Seminary. The small ember of faith flamed high for me in that chapel. Daily prayers in that chapel got me through seminary. Seed prayer answers to prayers made in that chapel have helped me through life.

  2. James Lowe says:

    Mike A thoughtful sermon. I agree on the old chapel. I hope when you come East you go to VTS and pray in the new chapel. To me it speaks to todays generations. I love it.

    Jimmy Lowe

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