Sermon preached for the Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
My first year of college, I lived catty-corner in the dorms from a girl named Jenny. Jenny wasn’t exactly one of the saints of Sweet Briar. She liked life on the wild side. She was loud, she was brash, she was rude. Her fights with her roommate kept the whole hall up. If there was a mess in the communal bathroom, it never took long to figure out who left it there. If she went to class, nobody had evidence of it.
The next year, I was surprised to find myself sitting across the table from Jenny in a creative writing course. Our first assignment was a nonfiction essay. We were asked to describe our identity through a thing, a place, and a relationship. Jenny’s thing was her pickup truck. I was not surprised. Her place was her childhood church.
I was shocked.
Jenny was not a brilliant writer. Her spelling was so rough that it could be hard to even figure out what words she intended to use. But I remember being almost brought to tears by her description of her church home. She wrote about a little white clapboard church, and about the sense of peace she had inside its walls. She wrote about the cracks in the plaster and the stains on the carpet. She wrote about the stained glass windows, and making imaginary friends out of the apostles when she was young. She wrote about playing an angel in the Christmas pageant and spilling wax on the floor. She wrote about sharing a hymnal with her grandmother. She wrote about sneaking into the church at night in high school, just to sit there in the dark, and know that she was safe.
She wrote about that church feeling more like home than her house ever did.
I think of Jenny and her little Baptist church every time I read Psalm 84. It is a beautiful psalm, a song for Jewish pilgrims to sing on their way to the temple. It is a song of longing and joy—knowing that they will soon be home, and that once they are home they will be restored. Whatever else was going on in their lives, if they could just make it to the temple, they would know that they were safe.
While the whole psalm is beautiful, there’s a line in there that always jumps out at me: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.”
It is, in many ways, a ridiculous image—a bird’s nest on the altar of a King.
According to scripture, the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem was opulent beyond belief. There are several chapters in both 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles that detail what the temple looked like, and it is astounding: a huge multi-story structure built of cedar and pine, and then plated all over with gold—gold walls, gold floors, gold altars, gold lampstands, gold tables; precious jewels pressed into the walls; bronze sculptures almost sixty feet wide; carvings of trees and flowers and pomegranates; columns with necklaces, just because; purple and blue tapestried curtains; and a metal swimming pool so large it was literally called “the Sea.” For those of us with Puritan roots, such excess is almost uncomfortable.
Picture the gaudiest place you have ever been to. Picture Buckingham Palace. Picture the Biltmore. Multiply it by 11. Then maybe you have a sense of this temple.
And now, in the middle of all this bronze and cedar and tapestry, on a solid gold altar, picture a bird’s nest. Twigs. Dirt. Bits of fluff and feathers and egg shell.
You’d think this would be a humiliating image. Somebody fire the cleaning crew—how did this get past their notice? You’d think a sparrow’s nest in the palace of God would be an embarrassment.
But for the psalmist, a bird’s nest on the altar is something to celebrate, something to sing about. The psalmist enters the temple and instead of being blinded by the glare of the gold, notices that little bird’s nest, another creature rejoicing in the safety of God’s house.
I wonder, in the end, if the psalmist was not a little bit wiser than even wise old King Solomon. The psalmist doesn’t celebrate the gold or the jewels or the columns. The psalmist celebrates that God’s house is a place of safety, a place to call home, for everyone, no matter how insignificant they might seem. The psalmist recognizes that God delights in the sparrow’s offering of new life just as much—if not more—than Solomon’s vessels of silver and gold.
Again, I think of Jenny, sitting in her sanctuary in the dark, a sparrow come home to roost.
It is always tricky, I think, to talk about church buildings. When the psalmist sang about the courts of the Lord, he was thinking about a particular building, a particular place on this earth, a place that someone swept and mopped and made repairs to. But he also sang about the idea of our home in God, a spiritual place where we are loved and wanted, where we go from strength to strength. I do the same thing when I talk or write about the house of God—half of me pictures this sanctuary, and the other half revels in my feeling of living in God’s community, living in God’s heart, no matter where I am.
The slippage between these two ideas can be dangerous. If we think of our sanctuaries as God’s actual house, than it can seem like we should do whatever it takes to make it as big and grand as possible, to live up to the majesty of God. Scripture points out that the way Solomon was able to construct such a resplendent building was through conscripting 20000 of his own citizens into forced labor, sending them away from their families six months of the year without pay. The great cathedrals of Europe were built on the backs of oppressive taxation and exploitation of the poor. My own beloved home church in Salem—the place where I have felt God’s presence—was built by slave labor. All in the name of “the house of the Lord.”
And yet at the same time church buildings—even if they are as flawed as the humans who built them—are powerful “thin places,” places where our repeated encounters with scripture and sacrament and each other’s love and God’s love can wear down our spiritual callouses and open us up to God’s presence.
It is not currently very fashionable to praise church buildings. I remember a very heated argument with a friend in seminary who insisted that the only faithful option for the PC(USA) was to sell all its property and move all congregations into the nearest strip mall. (Now, to be fair, this was a friend who liked to argue, and it could be hard to tell what he really believed and what he just said to get a rise out of you.) He had a point, though—our buildings can become idols, or millstones around our necks. There are congregations buckling under the weight of buildings they cannot maintain. But I had to speak up on behalf of the church building, not, I hope, because I am clinging so desperately to the status quo, but because I have witnessed the power of a place to call home.
I had to speak up on behalf of Jenny, sitting in her sanctuary when no one but God wanted her around.
I had to speak up on behalf of the sparrows, searching for a place to lay their nest.
The main reason people feel squeamish about church buildings is because, quite frankly, they cost a whole ton of money. In stewardship season, this gets even more awkward. I have rarely seen stewardship resources that center around building upkeep. It feels selfish, somehow, to put that much money into something primarily for us. I am as guilty of this as anyone—when I talk about stewardship, I tend to use missional language, to talk about our programs and ministries, things like our partnership with the River Ridge Resource Center. That was what I learned growing up—especially our prayers of dedication after the offering focused on how that money would leave our doors to serve our community. I was in seminary, serving as an intern at my church, before I really looked at our budget. I was shocked to see how tiny the mission sliver was, especially compared to the great big piece of pie the building got. I honestly felt punched in the gut, like I’d been lied to all those years. We weren’t a missional church at all, I thought. We were just prettying up a second home for ourselves.
But what I eventually came to realize is that, despite a pie chart’s best efforts, you really can’t separate the building a people worship in from the ministry they carry out. Our building is our biggest tool for mission. It is base camp for the work that we do—storage for Food for Thought and VBS supplies and communion juice. But more than just storage, our building is a place to call home—a place for each of us, I hope, to feel loved and wanted. A place for the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets here Friday to feel safe and empowered. A place for the Burmese immigrants to meet here to feel valued and heard as they learn the language of their new home and work towards citizenship. A place for our children to feel comfortable; a place for them to learn and play and grow. A place for those of us who are tired to find rest. A place for those of us who are bored to find purpose. A place for those of us who feel torn apart to find peace. A place for us to go from strength to strength.
This building is a physical place, a place that has to be swept and repaired, a place with a mortgage and the occasional bat infestation. I am so grateful for our wonderful Building and Grounds Committee, and for those of you who volunteer your time to clean the building, for the mission work each of you do in caring for God’s house.
As I think about the pledge I will make to the church, and today especially the portion of that pledge that will go towards the building, I have to confess I am not terribly interested in Solomon’s vision of a house of God—a place of worldly opulence and excess. But I am committed to the vision of the psalmist: that Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church, at 710 Western Reserve Road, would be a place for the sparrow to find a nest for herself, would be a place of welcome and refuge for those who are seeking a place to call home.
That is a song with singing; it is a vision worth investing in.
For the gift of a place to gather, and the miracle of God’s presence here, I give thanks. Amen.