The Lord's Sanctuary

Jul. 19, 2015

Jer. 23.1-6; Ep. 2.11-22; Mk 6.30-34, 53-56

When Moses went to investigate a burning bush atop Mount Horeb, he heard the voice of God say, "Take off your shoes from your feet because you are standing on holy ground." It's like walking into someone's home and they ask you respectfully, if you would remove your shoes. I have a friend who was Jewish and he converted to Christianity in the Episcopal Church. But he still takes off his shoes when he kneels to pray because he is in a holy place.

Not only that, but it's customary all across the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches to keep silence or at least to speak in very hushed tones in the church proper. This whole area that we refer to our "nave", or seating area of the church, is often called the "sanctuary" or the sanctified place. Additionally, when a church is built in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, before it's used for worship, it is "consecrated" ...meaning it's set aside for the purpose of worshipping God. And if a church building is sold, and it's to be used for other purposes, there's a service of de-consecration. The point being that the things of God are God's, they are set aside for that particular purpose.

Growing up in the Baptist church I didn't have a sense of this. In fact, the only incense I had ever experienced on a Sunday morning was when I had to walk through the cloud of cigarette smoke just outside the front door of the church where the men had gathered to talk and get their nicotine fix. And the inside of the church was called the "Assembly hall," sounds like the military drill, doesn't it? I guess if we'd had a dormitory it would have been called the "barracks".

But I had quite a different experience as a Boy Scout when I went to a night meeting at a nearby Roman Catholic Church. I remember we took a break from our meeting and played a game of "hide and seek". And the rule was that no one could hide in the church proper, but our troop had a number of malefactors, like me, who fudged on the rules. So, I crept into the darkened space searching. There was just the dark silence, and except for the flame of a single candle that shone out to mark the presence of the holiest of holies in the Blessed Sacrament...and I realized that the only ones there were ME and GOD. I felt like I should take off my shoes because I was standing on holy ground.

Throughout human history, in every community there have been places which have acquired the name "holy place" as a result of something that happened there. One sees a cross and flowers by the roadside to mark the place where a loved one died or memorials are set up to remind us of some Lincoln said at Gettysburg the soldiers who died on the battlefield "have sanctified and hallowed the ground" beyond anything we can do.

In the OT lesson today we have such a case in point. One of the primary questions in this scripture revolves around the building of a "house" for the Lord. Since days of the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew people had carried around the Ark of the Covenant which contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed by God, and according to the Book of Hebrews in our NT, it also contained the Rod of Aaron (which had been used in the performance of miracles like the dividing of the Red Sea), and the Ark contained a golden jar of manna from the wilderness, and the first scroll of the Torah written by Moses himself. But the presence of the Lord God was especially strong directly above the winged figures framing the Ark. It went everywhere the people of Israel went as a sign that God was powerfully present with His people. It was kept in a tent and later in more permanent structures that in each case was called the "house" of the Lord. I guess the idea is that we all live in a house, and God must have a dwelling place as well. Even to this day, Jews gather at the Western Wall of what was formerly the Jewish Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Today, it is called the "Wailing Wall" and the people approach the wall as a place of prayer. Every crevice between the great stones of the Wall is filled with small slips of paper with the names of those for whom prayers are offered. The place is sanctified because atop the wall once stood the Holy of Holies in the former Jewish Temple. To Jews is still represents a place where God is strongly present, just as God was strongly present above the Ark of the Covenant. In any case it was the dwelling place of the Lord and one stood or knelt before the Lord in awe and fearful wonder.

A holy place is kind of a "launch pad" for prayer. Some places we feel the distance between us and God is very "thin" or we completely lay ourselves open before God's presence. It's not complicated. As the Desert Fathers used to say, "Go into your room and your room will teach you everything you need to know about prayer." Or as Brother Lawrence wrote about in his book Practicing the Presence of God, after spending 15 years washing the pots and pans in his monastery kitchen..."We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of (our) work, but the love with which it is performed.". It was there that Lawrence learned to be constantly aware of God in whatever he was doing. That's what Jesus was doing for his disciples by drawing them to a quiet place...he wanted to show them how to pray and nurture their souls, to experience communion with the holy.

The practice of prayer is like keeping the wind from blowing out your small candle... we need to shield it from the winds of busyness, neglect, or carelessness. God invites us to come away and learn to pray. Come away and find how to put yourself in the bosom of God. When we get there we feel like we need to take off our shoes because we are standing on holy ground. When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, he said the words that inspired the hymn, "Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power and his grace, I can hear the brush of angels' wings, I see glory on each face. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place." Amen.

The Reverend WA Ray
St Thomas Church

Diamondhead, MS