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 stalls. When I walked in, I saw the cloud.
My seminary’s old 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 consecrated a new chapel three years ago. The historic building burned down my senior year. I didn’t have anything to do with the fire. 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 Catholic worship that had been happening in their old house of worship.
Incense wasn’t common at Virginia Seminary. But on Thursday evenings a group of us gathered to chant Evening Prayer. Chant and incense seem 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 seven feet off the ground. The air above and below was completely 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 Dimmitis, 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 in the smoke. 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.
But the cloud isn’t the biggest surprise in this reading. The big surprise in this scripture, comes with 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 immigrant 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, and our building. We’ve already begun some minor construction, but in the coming months you’ll see drawings, and you’ll hear asks if you might be part of re-shaping this worship space. At the same time, we are asking questions about our direction as a congregation. Where is God inviting us in the next 5 years, the next 150?
What is all this for? All this? The faith, the prayers, the music, the community, the building, what is it all for? Why do we come to church? Why do we pay to light and heat such a place?
There is a descriptor for Holy Communion that predates my coming as rector. No, not “Holy Commotion,” though I like that one. This phrase was used to describe our building.
I’ve heard a number of folks call Holy Communion “a community center” for University City. In many ways that’s true. All sorts of folks come to Holy Communion throughout the week, to stitch quilts, to stand together in a circle and say “I am an alcoholic,” to sing, to take music lessons, to read books. The house we own and renovated together now serves as a home for graduates of Magdalene House, a program for women who survived sex trafficking and addiction. We are a center for the community to come and find friendship, to celebrate, to learn, to find healing.
In recent years we’ve been learning to take that community out beyond our walls. We invite friends and family members to talk over big questions in the upstairs room of a pub for Theology on Tap. You’d be amazed how often someone comes to me and says, “I’m bringing my son, or, I’m bringing my cousin this month. They’re not really a church person, but they’d love to have a beer and a good conversation about faith and ethics.”
This past week we had the most successful Laundry Love event yet, our neighbors did over 100 loads of laundry, our volunteers coordinated the madness, and your contributions provided the quarters, the soap, the dryer sheets. But most importantly for Laundry Love, we had over 20 volunteers show up to play with the kids, to help pass out pizza and cookies, to plug quarters and pour soap into the machines.
If you come to volunteer, you should know, there’s a lot of standing around at Laundry Love. If that surprises you, well, remember we are working in a laundromat. Standing around is part of the deal. For the 45 minutes or so the machine is running, you’re stuck. But the standing around is part of the miracle. Standing around gives you time to talk to people you don’t know. Standing around means that every time I show up, I tend to meet a new neighbor, hear a new story, sometimes make a new friend. We build community standing around washing machines and dryers.
We’re working on building community with folks in El Salvador, with the students of the Rockwell House Campus ministry that serves WashU, SLU, and other college campuses in St. Louis. We’ve partnered for years with Trinity Episcopal Church’s food ministry. A group of volunteers from Holy Communion make regular trips to visit kids in detention centers through Episcopal City Mission, to throw birthday parties for kids who otherwise wouldn’t celebrate.
All this work is wonderful, but it’s not enough on its own. All of this work is great, and if we were simply a community center, we could get a big star. All of this work isn’t enough for a church. Our work comes with a conviction, a belief shared by King Solomon. God’s presence fills this house of prayer, but no building can contain God. No box is big enough. God is already out there, ahead of us. God is already in the Classic Coin Laundromat. God can be glimpsed in the laughter of kids, the smiles of neighbors, in a surprising conversation with someone new. God is already out there at Dressel’s pub. God is already out there, ahead of us, in our workplaces, our schools, in our streets. God is even in the community meetings of University City, if you can believe it.
God has a stake in what happens in our world. God dreams of a world that is more loving, more generous, more equitable, more just. God is not just the God of the insiders. God hears the cry of the immigrant, of the foreigner, and those who have been red-lined into substandard housing. God invites us to behave differently. God invites us to see the humanity of our neighbors, and the human history of racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination that have left us with inequity and distrust in our neighborhood, in our city, in our nation, and in our world.
God hears the cry of all of those who have given up on the church. God is with those who have been betrayed, belittled, and abused by institutions. God is already there, standing with them. God will not be silent. The church should not be either.
I am proud to serve with a church that does not treat faith as a private matter. Faith is not just for us. Our God does not stay put in a house of worship, no matter how pretty we make it. Our faith is a faith that invites us again and again to embrace the immigrant, to question the boundary lines between insiders and outsiders. Our faith invites us to open our doors to all sorts of folks. Our faith invites us to march in LGBTQ Pride parades and political protests, as my friend The Rev. Amy Butler says: “Sometimes protest is prayer.” Our God invites us to show up when the wider community asks big questions of equity and justice.
The cloud of smoke is an odd mystical image. I won’t say I definitively saw God’s presence all those years ago 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 this building, this community can point in the right direction. With Solomon, I’m willing to invest in a building, in a particular community. With Solomon I hope we can point to a God who is bigger than our church, a God who invites us all to work for justice for the outsiders, a God who invites us to be more generous and more loving.