1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Legend has it that there was once a traveler who journeyed over the globe in search of wisdom and enlightenment. Finally, having come upon a village in France, the traveler heard a great deal of noise, and beheld dust and commotion. It was easy to see that a great building project was underway.
He approached the nearest laborer and asked: “Excuse me, I’m not from this village. May I ask what you are doing?” The laborer replied curtly, “Can’t you see? I’m a stonemason. I’m making bricks.”
The traveler approached a second laborer who was working with wood. This laborer replied: “Can’t you see? I’m a woodcarver. I’m carving benches?”
The traveler came to a third laborer who was soldering lead and he replied: “I’m a glassmaker. I am putting together panes of glass to make a window.”
Finally, the traveler came to an old lady in tattered clothing who was sweeping up shards of stone, woodchips and broken glass. He approached her and asked, somewhat hesitantly, “What are you doing?” With a broad smile and a gleam in her eye, the woman stopped her sweeping, gazed up and proudly replied: “Can’t you see? I’m building a cathedral for God.”
This story teaches that even though our individual actions may appear inconsequential, constituting something as simple a sweeping the floor, our involvement is in a bigger story and a larger purpose, and this is what makes these actions meaningful. Imagine—building a cathedral! It is an impossible task for one person, or even one generation to complete, and yet, it is a grand and wondrous goal.
Today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings forms a high point in the history of Israel. Here, King Solomon issues a prayer of dedication for the Temple. This event marks the end of a long struggle of the people of Israel for freedom and security. No longer is Israel a band of wandering nomads battling for a place on earth to call its own. Now, they are an established kingdom with a firm hold on the Promised Land and a stable government headed by a beloved king.
And so, Solomon prays. He begins by acknowledging that God is too awesome to be relegated to a building, even one as splendid as the Temple of Jerusalem, when he remarks: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Speaking to God, he says: Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! … And Solomon goes on to ask God to hear the prayers that will be offered in the temple, saying: “Hear my prayer…that your eyes, O Lord, may be open night and day toward this house, and that you may hear the prayers of your people Israel when they pray toward this place….And when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name and prays toward this house, then hear and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and hold you in awe, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
We live in a world filled with need. Is it any wonder that quite frequently we hear people questioning the value of spending money on a building, when there are needy people requiring aid. Look at the great cathedrals of Europe and imagine the good that could have been done had that money and talent been dedicated to feeding and housing the poor. To be honest, there’s truth in this observation. But there is also this—that the beauty of our houses of worship addresses another fundamental need of humanity—that of transcendence. The cathedrals of Europe, like our lovely building here at St. Paul’s, belong not to one person or even one household, but to all the people of God and the community which they serve. They are architectural invitations to prayer, to commune with the divine. They are also a welcome to people far and wide, to open their hearts (just as a church or a temple opens its doors) to a spirit of hospitality and grace. These places don’t belong to individuals so much as they do to a people. And they are created not simply in a day or month, but over years, generations, in fact. Created so that the people of God may come to know and love their God—the creator and redeemer of the world.
Consider again Solomon’s Temple. It was a massive undertaking—It wasn’t a single building, but an entire complex. And it required tremendous sacrifice on behalf of the entire people of Israel to construct. In order to build that structure, it was necessary for the people that it served to feel involved in its construction. To feel that it represented them, they would have to have had a stake in its building, and thus a stake in the mission that it was built to serve. True enough, we might refer to it as Solomon’s temple, but truly, it represented the people of Israel and their love of God. In many ways, it reminds me of what we are facing here at St. Paul’s as we consider the scope of repairs required if our bell tower is to remain standing.
Recall, if you will, the story with which I began today’s sermon. Think of all the individuals who made that cathedral possible—from people of wealth who donated significant sums of money, to skilled laborers who created fantastic pieces of beauty in glass and stone, to wood carvers and ordinary folk; those who made small donations, according to their ability, others who felled timber and still more who grew the hay that fed the animals carrying the wood to the cathedral in wagons to the humble people who swept the floors. All of them, in their way are absolutely essential to the creation of these places of worship. Each of them were building a cathedral, a house of prayer and a place of beauty and transcendence into which all people, regardless of social rank or place of origin were invited to call their own.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “Beauty will save the world.” In this, there is truth. There is beauty in the natural world that human hands cannot replicate, but there is beauty as well, when people work together to construct something that isn’t practical so much as it is inspirational, an invitation in brick and mortar for us to consider, more deeply, the presence of God in our lives and our world. Think of churches, temples, and other holy places as touchstones by which we orient our hearts. They mark significant moments in our lives as families and individuals, and also our communities as well as our world—they remind us of the God to whom we belong, and they give us strength to continue to follow the Holy Spirit where it leads.
It’s true that God doesn’t dwell in a building, so much as Jesus lives in the tabernacle of our heart. And yet, holy places continue to speak to us. They are places of solace and refreshment when we need them; as well as launching pads for ministry to address the greater needs of the world. Just as Solomon prayed that the Temple might be a place where the people of God would pray and the Lord Almighty would listen, so the same holds true today. May our home of St. Paul’s, like Solomon’s Temple, be a house of prayer, its doors open for who seek the Lord In Jesus’ name. Amen.