To engage in the construction of a new church is an awesome and difficult task. Many pastors and congregations have tales to tell that suggest that undertaking a building project is not for the faint-hearted. There is so much to consider. A new building must reflect the congregation’s need for new space. There is consideration of cost. A new building must meet the needs of the congregation as it grows, and its service deepens. A new building can reflect and encourage a deepening of faith among the people, where strong commitment leads to life-giving service throughout the community.
It is indeed an awesome and difficult task.
I have never served a congregation where there were plans for a new building, but the church that was the anchor of my childhood, my grandfather’s church, Triplett United Methodist Church outside of Mooresville, NC, underwent a building project as I was growing up. I remember worshiping at the old church when I was quite young. I loved the sanctuary of the old church. It was a soothing place for me, set out in the country among the fields of the farms that I knew and loved. On Sunday mornings and evenings and on Wednesday evenings too, my relatives could all be found in that sanctuary, worshiping God, praying and singing.
This sanctuary was the place where my parents met as my father preached the 1954 spring revival for his friend, my mother’s pastor. It was the place where my parents were married. And the very last service I remember attending in that church was my grandmother’s funeral.
There was a need for a new building. The sanctuary of my childhood that I loved so much could hold the congregation no longer. For several years, the congregation worked to raise money and to find a design that would express to their community that their sanctuary was a welcoming place to find the peace and healing and grace of God.
Construction began. My grandfather Thorn, who was always a bit nosy, could not really imagine what the sanctuary would look like when completed, so he was quite surprised as he watched the construction of the modern building. It was straight and tall on one side with a sloping roof to a much shorter height on the opposite side. I thought it was marvelous. My grandfather thought it looked like half of a building. He referred to it as half of a barn.
The inside was quite spacious and had a very progressive look. The pulpit and altar area, the focal point of the sanctuary sat underneath the tallest, most amazing stained-glass windows that I had ever seen.
The Sunday of dedication was a big celebration with prayers and scripture, song and preaching, history and future and of course, feasting. My immediate family was not present for that big day, but from the stories I heard I imagine that there was a procession from the Old Church to the new with the children leading the way, the candlesticks and altar plates and the altar cross all carried at the head of the procession. It was a wondrous day!
At all times of the year, the new sanctuary is beautiful, cool and quiet and I loved to sneak in there to sit and look. Even though my grandfather questioned the modern look, I knew that he found God there and loved the renewal that he received there each week.
Just as the old sanctuary was special to me, this newer one has been as well. My grandfather’s, aunts’ and uncles’ and my parents’ funerals have all been held in this sacred space. Cousins have married, and their children have been baptized there. And many, many sermons and prayers have been spoken there. It is sacred space.
First Kings tells the story of the Temple dedication in Jerusalem. For Solomon and for the people of Israel, the Temple was a sacred and special place. Solomon’s father David had longed to build a spectacular temple for God, but God had not allowed him to build such a place. He wanted to build a glorious temple that would provide a place for placing the Ark of the Covenant and for the people to gather in worship, but God had told him no. It would be his son who would be the one to build a temple—a temple built to God’s name. God would not be, could not be confined to a building. Rather, the temple would be a place for the people to come and pray to God and worship God. God would be there, but not just there.
According to First Kings there was a lavish procession that brought the Ark of the Covenant to the new Temple. As the priests placed the Ark in a most holy place a cloud filled the Temple. The cloud was the glory of God filling the Temple, causing the priests to fall down. This dedication of the Temple was significant in showing the people that the Temple was a sacred place of worship, of song, of prayer, of sacrifice, of mercy, of forgiveness. And even though the people knew that God was not contained in that Temple, but is everywhere, it was a place to find God and to stand in the presence of the Holy.
The dedication of the Temple was unforgettable helping the people know and remember always what God had done for them. In the midst of this celebration, this dedication, Solomon lifts his arms and prayed. In his prayer, he proclaims:
There is no God but YHWH. In heaven and on earth, there is YHWH. And YHWH keeps promises and covenant with the people, with steadfast love. YHWH walks with the people.
Boldly, Solomon reminded God to keep the promise to keep the descendants of David on the throne, if they walked in the ways of God and kept the covenant.
Solomon proclaimed that God cannot be contained in heaven nor on earth, not even the house that Solomon had just built.
Solomon asked God to “Regard the prayer of God’s servant,”
That God’s eyes might be open day and night toward the Temple and that God might hear the prayers that are prayed toward the Temple and toward God.
“O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”
Solomon continued by asking God to hear the prayers of all who pray toward the Temple, especially the prayers of those who were foreigners, who were not from Israel, who came from distant lands because of the name of God and the people.
“Hear these prayers, O God, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name as do the people of Israel.”
I believe that the beauty of that dedication and the prayer that day is probably expressed in Psalm 84:
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. (Psalm 84:1-4, NRSV)
The Temple was a place of beauty and love and peace and was meant to be a reminder that God is always with us, that peace and mercy, forgiveness and love abound. It was a place for the people of God to gather and to join together in song and prayer and worship. It was the best that could be offered to God and to each other.
And it was meant for all people, not just the Hebrews, but even the foreigner in their midst. Solomon called upon God to hear the prayers of the foreigner in the midst of the Hebrew people. The request that came from Solomon that day came from his heart, spoken out of his deep relationship with God and for the people he loved so dearly. That request was significant for the people to hear and one that was meant to reflect the compassion and love of God’s people.
The story of the dedication was not written at the time the events occurred. It was recorded several hundred years later, at a time when both Israel and Judah had been invaded, their leaders exiled, and the Temple destroyed. Knowing this background makes Solomon’s words even more poignant for the people who are hearing the story. The First King’s historian reminded the people, whose Temple had been destroyed, that the Temple was for the name of YHWH, not for containing YHWH. Not even the “highest heaven,” nor the no-longer existing Temple could contain YHWH. God’s presence is everywhere, even with those in exile.
Knowing this background makes Solomon’s request for God to hear the prayer of the foreigner even more compelling because the First King’s historian was a foreigner, living in exile, longing for a place where God’s people could gather, longing for their pain and anguish to be heard, longing for the memory of the Temple’s beauty and songs, prayers and peace to sustain them all.
The words of Solomon’s prayer are rich in meaning for us as well. The words remind us that God is wherever we are, that God longs to hear us and our prayers, to provide us with beauty and love, forgiveness and peace, wisdom and grace. The words compel us to realize that there is nowhere, in all of earth and space, where God is not already waiting for us, arriving with us, sustaining us no matter what happens, and going with us when we leave. God is with us in peace, in struggle, when we are in exile and in a foreign land.
And God hears our prayers.
In this story we are reminded that you and I are not the sole recipients of the blessings of God. We are not the sole recipients of beauty and love, forgiveness and peace, wisdom and grace. And if we are not the sole recipients, shouldn’t we be working so that all people are recognized as precious and loved in the sight of God?
Many of you know that, recently, I have been a foreigner in Germany, traveling around, but also visiting United Methodist congregations whose passion for ministry has led them to embrace refugee foreigners who are among them. Solomon’s prayer turned my thoughts to these foreigners—the refugees–and the pain and anguish that they feel even as they are now safe in Germany.
Let me tell you about a celebration in their church!
The Sunday I visited the church in Göppingen was Confirmation Sunday throughout all of Germany. Earlier in the week I had participated in the Confirmation Class and their planning of the Thursday evening sharing time with the congregation when they presented their projects and spoke about prayer. Several of this class were refugees who had found love and acceptance from this congregation and had spent two years learning about the faith.
At the Thursday evening covered dish dinner, the congregation heard about the prayers of this class—prayers for their homelands, their families, their futures, for all people to feel safe and cared for, and for peace. There were also prayers of gratitude for what they have experienced through the kindness and support of the congregation. It was a humbling experience to hear these kids express what is in their hearts. These kids, who are foreigners—refugees—were sharing their deepest feelings and they were praying, knowing that God would hear their prayers in Germany, just as in their native countries.
It was an amazing gift for the congregation to be a part of the prayers of these confirmands and to realize how together, refugee families and German United Methodist families are making a statement to their community about who God is to all people. Together, the refugees and the German UM natives are showing the community how vital and beautiful and life changing their worship and their working together can be.
I received the honor of preaching that morning and for a couple of days, I thought about what I would say. As I spoke, a foreigner preaching to native Germans and foreigners alike, I made a promise to hear their prayers across the ocean and to lift up my own prayers to God for them. Every day.
Our world is not always understanding of Solomon’s request for God to hear the prayers of all people who pray. Maybe it is because we want to hold God all to ourselves or that we think that no one else can help us understand God better than we already do.
I believe that Solomon’s request pleased God, because Solomon understood that all people belong to God. Wouldn’t it be inspiring for all our churches to be places that welcome the prayers and worship of all people?
May it be so.
To God alone be glory!