This is the place. This is the place where we worship the Lord, we sing praises to the Lord and pay our tithe or something approximating our tithe in this place and we volunteer our time to this place and through this place.
We consider it holy.
Not in the banal sense of Holy, like a sacred square of ground in all of the world, but actually holy, a place ennobled by what transpires here.
Our children were baptized here; in some cases our grandchildren were baptized here. We were married here and our friends were memorialized, commended to the God that they worshipped in this building, on this patch of ground, in this place.
It is not the history that makes it so. If it were then there would be no need for new people to ever enter our doors, no reason for us to seek out a new generation of people to hear the word and inhabit these walls. Positions would be inherited and passed along like prized possessions, after all how many of us have not bored our children to death with the glories of our legacy. If the glories of our legacy were what made this place a holy place, then this place would be filled to the rafters, because the history of the church, in the larger context and here in this place, is a pretty glorious one.
History fades and is lost to memory. It is never what we thought it was, it was never as good as we recall because we tend to gild it a little, to polish it a little, to make ourselves look as good as possible, or as bad as possible, whichever suits our current needs. History is a poor guide to what is or is not holy.
But still, this is the place where a disparate group of people gathers each weekend, even during football season, and devotes a couple of hours to looking at things a different way, at considering living a different way, a way more in accord with what God might prefer of us. In all the world, this is that place.
Is it the people gathered here that makes this such a place, a place of holiness and grace a place worthy of reverence or of honor in the world? Are we the key to this place’s special relationship with the world? We do not pay taxes, after all, and the county sends us a little veiled threat each year asking us to affirm that the only things that happen here are religious things or educational things centered around religious things. Are the people gathered in this place the key to its holiness, either in the eyes of the government or in the eyes of God?
Get over yourselves. You’re all very nice, and I love each and every one of you more than the rational world would consider seemly, but the key to the holiness of this place is not the people congregated here, not you and me.
I’m Irish so I have a temper. Some of you are of Scandinavian heritage, so you have a greater than average tendency to be a little passive-aggressive. Each of us has individual flaws as well, in addition to the made-up ones I just mentioned, the ones we use as excuses for our bad behaviors. Yes, we make them up to give us some cover, relying on inheritance to assuage our feelings of guilt or inadequacy over our sins, over our failure as individuals to be holy in this life we are living.
None of us are, by the way. None of us are holy, there is not one who is righteous, no not one, sayeth the psalmist and he was right. But somehow we still hold it up as a goal or a standard or a litmus test for ourselves, this notion of righteousness, of holiness, like it says in the Leviticus reading this morning, and the Gospel from Matthew.
If it were the people who gather here that made this place a holy place then this would be no more holy than a movie theater or a sports arena.
But this is the place we confess to be holy, our memories of what has transpired here make it a special place.
Luther said that what makes a church a church is that it is a place, any place where the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered so when people ask me if it is okay if I perform their wedding somewhere other than in this building, if I am somehow tied to this place; I tell them that it is not this building that makes me a pastor, and not this building that makes me capable of officiating at a wedding in the eyes of the state of California at least. I tell them that holiness is not to be confined in that way; this is holy ground to be sure, but not the only holy ground.
But this is the place where we come and worship, sing praises and all of the other things we do each week to demonstrate our love for God and if Luther is right, then we need to be pretty careful with how we say and do things around here. We might not be able to keep the startup church worshiping here in this building because their theology might be different from ours as cannot be truly certain that they are preaching the Gospel truly, the way Luther said it has to be preached.
Is it orthodoxy that makes this a holy place?
Definition time: Orthodoxy an amalgam of Ortho, correct or right and Doxy meaning praise or opinion.
So if we are to be orthodox in order to be holy then the rules are gonna need to be tightened around these parts. I especially will have to stop leading the Bible study classes down the paths of heresy in order to show them how easy it is to find yourself down that path and how easy it is to find your way back.
If orthodoxy is holiness then I am just going to have to start telling you what to do, and what to think and in obedience you will find your righteousness. Then, perhaps this place will be a holy place because the people inside will be righteous because they will not err, or diverge from the path, or wander away from the one truth.
Alas, Luther is right but only as far as his eyes can see, only as far as human beings are concerned if the church a place where the Gospel truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Behind that, in the background, underneath all of that is the simple statement, the simple answer to the question of why. Why is this place holy? Why are these people gathered? Why does any of it matter? Who is in charge around here?
This morning’s reading from Leviticus says it six times for emphasis, almost like punctuation to keep our attention focused. There are a lot of instructions and at the end of each of them; after “leave something for the poor and the alien,” and after “you shall not steal,” and after “you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor, as if in reply to the unspoken question, “why?” comes the answer.
I am the Lord.
Underlying all of the other things we say and do here is the notion that God is God and we occupy a different space, a different idea. God is the Lord of us and is due some respect, a lot of gratitude and yes, occasionally: some obedience. More than just some, I would like to offer, but we’ll get there eventually.
We come to this place and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord in a number of different ways, we praise His holy name and call upon Him to be present in our assembly, to hear our prayers and ask Him in the words of the Psalm this morning to teach me, O Lord, the ways of thy statutes, and I shall keep them, until the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep thy laws. Yea! I shall observe them, with my whole heart. (Sung to the Roche’s song Teach me, O Lord)
We reflect on the words found in our scriptures, the calls for righteousness and perfection in holiness and we nod and we earnestly ask that we might be those things because we are in this place, this holy ground, this church with its Gospel truly preached and its sacraments rightly administered and among this people, this Body of Christ and in this place we ask these things because this is the place where we do that.
Then we leave this place and another voice intrudes in upon the holiness, the echo of scripture that is all that remains once the Bible is closed and the signal is given to go in peace and serve the Lord.
Not just one voice but a cacophony of voices. They scream and they cajole and they tempt and they seduce. They are more subtle and more crafty than most pastors know how to be because they are the sharpened tool, the well-maintained implement of discussion and have been in continuous use since the beginning of what we now know as the media. As soon as a broadsheet could be turned out in numbers from a printing press, someone has been trying to sell you an easier way, a less rocky road, a simpler ethic.
Gone is “do not reap to the very edges of your field” and in its place “maximize profits, you can give something back later.”
No longer heard is “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and more often is heard “Are you dissing me? It is ON!” or “vengeance is mine!” yes, the voices can also misuse the Bible itself.
Soddenly the whole idea that someone else is the Lord and has a legitimate claim on our lives goes out the window and we are left enacting the play whose script is written by the wisdom of the world, cleverly titled “You deserve a break today” or “Have it your way.” Is it just a coincidence that the purveyors of some of the world’s least nutritious foods make the best use of advertising or cry out the loudest against the voice of God?
This is the place where we come and confess Christ and Him crucified but this simply cannot be the only place where that happens. This is the place where we come and cry out “Teach ne, O Lord,” but it simply cannot be the only place where the lessons learned are translated into actions.
Otherwise we have forgotten the thing that makes this a holy place, the thing that make you a holy people, the temple of the most high, the Body of Christ. We have forgotten that God is God and does not ask things of us lightly, is not just joshing or making suggestions.
The ways of the Lord may not always comport with the ways of the world but if the confession is true that Jesus Christ is Lord then the wisdom of the wise He will thwart and we ought give a thought to being His all the time, not just an hour a week, an hour and fifteen actually.
You will not be perfect as the Father is perfect, nor Holy as the Lord your God is holy, remember the Psalmist’s reminder that no one is righteous?
But if the word still rings in your ears, if the calling still guides your heart and if the needs of the widow and the orphan, the folks most often mentioned in the Bible as in need of our consideration, if their needs are in your mind and heart, then the Lord will truly be your God and as a people, you will know His peace, for the road of the Lord may not be the straightest, or the easiest to tread, but the journey and the destination are wondrous to behold.