(A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC, on January 10th, 2021)
Today we’re in a series of sermons from the book of Hebrews. This book, which is really more of a sermon than a letter, is delivered to faithful people who are tired and ready to give up. At its heart, Hebrews is a call to faithfulness and perseverance. We too need to an encouragement to faithfulness and perseverance in these difficult times, and so for the next few weeks we are listening to Hebrews and the riches of this ancient sermon.
Hebrew 3:1-6. Hear now the word of the Lord.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, who are partners in the heavenly calling, think about Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. Jesus was faithful to the one who appointed him just like Moses was faithful in God’s house. But he deserves greater glory than Moses in the same way that the builder of the house deserves more honor than the house itself. Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant in order to affirm the things that would be spoken later. But Jesus was faithful over God’s house as a Son. We are his house if we hold on to the confidence and the pride that our hope gives us.
Buildings have a way of becoming sacred. Ordinary wood and stone can become holy. A building can become a house or a temple because of what happens there.
When Caitlin and I moved here to Asheville, just over five years ago, we said goodbye to a house – a Presbyterian manse – that had sheltered our family in its earliest days. As we swept the floor for the final time, we remembered bringing our first three children to that house, our first Christmas with them, parties with friends and quiet nights with family. The house was small and old, the floors squeaked, and it had no air conditioning, but it was sacred to us. We wept as we left it.
Buildings have a way of becoming sacred, of becoming a house or Temple because of what happens there.
On Wednesday of this week, we stood in collective national shock as one of our most sacred buildings was desecrated. The Capitol building in Washington, the People’s House, a Temple of Democracy, was assaulted by a mob who overran the police and broke windows and doors to get inside. They broke into rooms and offices, vandalized, and ransacked. At desks and seats that have held of our most sacred national rituals, they loitered casually and took selfies, wrapped in the flags of the man they follow.
Watching the Confederate flag carried through the halls of the Capitol by white supremacists, intent on insurrection, was one of the most profoundly disturbing political sights I have ever seen. I saw it first on my phone, standing in the balcony of this church, and I wept with shock and anger. It is impossible not to see all the threads of white supremacy and racism that are woven through the events of this week. These long four years of our national life, which have been so filled with division and recrimination, ended with mob violence, desecration of our sacred building, and a day of national humiliation. My prayer is that out of this awful spectacle, we will repent of our foolishness and find a new sense of truthfulness and common purpose as a nation. Perhaps the violation of that sacred building with help us find our way forward as a nation.
You probably noticed in the verses I read from Hebrews, that the preacher of this sermon talks often about a building: “God’s house.” Moses was faithful in “God’s House” as a servant. Jesus was faithful over “God’s House” as a Son. We are “God’s house” if we hold on to the confidence of our faith.
For many of us, “God’s house” is how we refer to the church building. This is God’s house. I was taught not to run in “God’s house,” to be respectful in God’s house, not to fight with my brothers in God’s house, because it is a sacred place.
The pews and chairs where we sit become like a burning bush and holy ground. The stained-glass windows give color to the sacred wanderings of our hearts and minds. The rafters shelter our time with God. The hymnals and the bibles place us in communion with saints of all the ages. The pulpit frames God’s word to us. The table and the chalice cradle the bread of life and cup of salvation. It is more than a building; it is God’s house because of what happens here.
Several years ago, I conducted a funeral for a saint of the church who was well known for teaching the children and youth of the church that they should always leave God’s house better than they found it. If there was a mint wrapper on the floor, put it in the trash. If a bulletin was laying in the aisle, pick it up. If a hymnal was on the pew, put it back. In a way it sounds like a Tom Sawyer-esque effort to recruit an army of housekeepers for God’s house, but it is good advice for children, and for adults. Whether we are talking about preparing for next Sunday, or leaving a legacy to the next generation, it is a good word to all of us: leave God’s house better than you found it.
For the people who heard this sermon that we call Hebrews, when they heard the language of God’s House, they would have thought immediately of the Temple in Jerusalem. Those ancient stones and gates; that was God’s House because of what happened there, in the Holy of Holies. By the time this book of Hebrews was written, the Temple had been destroyed by the Roman Empire, and those who longed to go up to God’s House, as the Psalmist sang, could not do it because it the Temple was gone. In the background of this sermon, in the life of this community, there is a weariness the comes from the absence of God’s House.
The preacher of Hebrews, like Paul, asks them to think of God’s House not only as bricks and mortar but more deeply community of people. As the preacher says, “We are God’s house.” God’s house is more than sticks and stones, God’s house is siblings. God’s house is the brothers and sisters and friends whom God has gathered into this new community called the church. We are God’s house, made sacred because of what happens in and among us.
One of the most difficult parts of COVID19 restrictions for our congregation has been that we have been unable to gather in this space and this place. Just before Christmas, I was in the foyer downstairs when a dad and his daughters came to drop off gifts for Helpmate. One of the girls walked in and saw the building, and said spontaneously, I miss this place. We all know the feeling. We miss the house of God, these windows and floors, and we have visions of regathering within these walls at some point in the not-too-distant future.
But one of the most precious parts of this unusual time has been to realize the gift and blessings of the relationships that makes up the deeper house of God. We have talked on the phone, and exchanged cards and notes, and we have met by Zoom. We have seen one another in our homes, in living rooms and kitchens, on porches and decks. We have prayed and studied and laughed together. We have realized in a new way the gift of the house of God as the people of God who are knit together in a community of brothers and sisters and friends.
That’s why, of all things to be excited about, the church staff is excited about a new database app that we are asking you to download today. On its face, a database is about the least exciting thing you could think of, but it represents the relationships of the church. It helps us to contact each other, to know each other’s name and faces, stay in touch with each other. It tells us who our brothers and sisters are. It tells us who is in the house. So please, download the app today from the link in your email.
We are the house of God, made sacred because Christ gathers us together and lives within us. I marvel at those new members who decided to join this church before they ever set foot inside. The session met in September on the lawn, and Dennis and Betsy and Wes asked if they could just peak inside the sanctuary because they had never been in the building before. God called them to be part of this people, and then this place. There is something deeply right about that. We are God’s house.
Baptism is the sign and symbol of Christ’s work among us, and the way that Christ makes us God’s house. This morning we will celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and reaffirm our own baptismal vows. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. In that murky water the Word-made-flesh took his place alongside every other human being, with beating hearts and feet of clay. Baptism is about identity. Jesus identifies with us in his baptism. We identify with him in our baptism. We become siblings in God’s house.
We reaffirm our own baptismal vows because baptism is not a one-time event. It’s not like a graduation, where once you’ve done it it’s done, and you can put it behind you. Baptism is more like a marriage. The event is only the beginning; it’s something you work on your whole life. We grow into our baptism as we let the life of Jesus, who lives in us, shape our lives and our living. Baptism is a gift of grace that grows our whole lives long.
When we gather around this font and reaffirm our baptism, we are doing what the Hebrew preacher encourages us to do: we grab on once more to the confidence of our hope. We trust in God’s mercy, we renounce evil and its power in the world, we claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and we promise to follow his way and show his love.
It is said that Martin Luther, whenever he was feeling discouraged or afraid, would splash himself with water and say, “But I am baptized.” Baptism reminds us who we are and to whom we belong, and reaffirming these promises is our way of claiming once more the confidence of the hope we have in Jesus.
The world needs the confident hope of the people of God. From the halls of congress, to the halls of our homes and apartments. We need to hear the good news of a new world that has come in the birth of Jesus. We need that for one another, our city needs that, our world needs that. We need to hear of a new order marked by peace and reconciliation. We need the hope of a new day marked by forgiveness and love.
The church is called to speak this hope boldly, to say it cheerfully, to sing it with celebration, knowing this good news has nothing to do with anything we have done and everything to do with the boundless grace of God that washes over us like water from the font.
Thanks be to God. Amen.