(First posted on July 16, 2023)
The sermon (abridged) for the first Liturgy in the new building: Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today is the first time we are serving the Liturgy in this new building—a happy moment for which our church community has waited 36 years. When my family first came to St. Herman’s in 1987 to begin the tiny mission under the OCA we began in the little chapel in the backyard of the Hartley family. Dr. Edward and Mrs. Vivian Hartley, the founders of our church, were pious converts to Orthodoxy who had received the bishop’s blessing to build a chapel in their backyard, but the goal was always to build a church temple large enough to accommodate a growing congregation. I remember the fund-raising thermometer first put up in the chapel, one that would chart our fundraising to our big goal of $10,000—a rather ironic sum, given the final cost of this building!
Again the Lord rescued us, as the people of the local Christian Science auditorium heard of our plight through the local paper and offered us their building for sale. Thus we moved into our former building here on 72 Avenue, the building not even being put o the market. This became our new home—one that would last for the past 20 years. We survived and have built this present building through the mercy and provision of God.
Today therefore I would like to speak about the temple of God—and would begin in a strange place and time. That is, I would begin in London, England, in 1943. The British House of Parliament had been bombed by the Germans in 1941, and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill was making a speech in 1943 to the House of Lords, arguing that the House of Parliament, when rebuilt, should be rebuilt exactly as it had been. In his speech, he argued, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This insight was echoed by (of all people) country music singer Miranda Lambert. Her 2009 song “The House That Built Me” told of the singer’s desire to return to the house in which she was raised so that she could reconnect with her past and find her way again. Her dad built the house for her mom, and thereafter, she said, the house built her. Sir Winston perhaps had the more memorable line, but both would agree of the importance of buildings in shaping, building, and forming our inner lives.
A Christian house of prayer shapes us by its silent witness to the glory and majesty of God. After a while the prayer offered there soaks into the walls, and sometimes even casual visitors entering can sense the sanctity abiding there. One sometimes feels that if one listens real hard, one can almost hear the rustle of angel wings; if one breathes deeply, one can almost smell the scent of holiness, remaining on the air like spiritual incense. The building shapes us into men and women of prayer, people who can give voice to the silent witness of the church building by living and declaring the glory and majesty of God.
And it is not only holiness that can linger in a building; evil can sometimes linger as well. In some places where great evil has been done, those entering can somehow feel it. It all feels wrong, somehow disconcerting. People talk about such places as haunted houses, but it is not the ghosts or spirits of departed human beings who linger there, but the demons who worked through them. In such situations the Church can exorcise the building, driving away the spirits in the Name of Jesus.
Materialism might declare that the physical and the spiritual (if the latter exists) stand side by side like oil and water. It is not so. The physical and the spiritual intermingle, and the physical can be suffused by the spiritual. That is why some houses are haunted by evil and why holy houses of prayer can shape us.
But as large and glorious as our present building is, we are reminded by the Scriptures that even so, God does not dwell in buildings in the same way as a man dwells in his house. The house is large enough to contain a man, but nothing can contain our God. As Solomon confessed in his prayer dedicating the glorious Temple he had just built, “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You—how much less this House that I have built!”
In fact, with the coming of Christ, God now has a new Temple—the people of God who gather every Sunday in the Name of His Son. This building is, properly speaking, not a church. We are the Church, the gathering, the assembly, the ekklesia. This building is but the house where the Church meets, and where the Church’s prayers can soak into its walls.
Sts. Paul and Peter are clear about this. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote that we are the Lord’s temple, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, and that we were growing into a temple in the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Peter, in his first letter to young Gentile converts, each Christian was a living stone, and were being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood. That is, the assembled Christians were the true temple, a temple in which they offered the Eucharistic Sacrifice as the royal priesthood, the chosen race, God’s holy nation. We are the true temple—this wonderful structure is simply the building where we currently meet.
That means that we must not only treat the building with respect, but must treat others with respect also. St. Paul had a word of warning for teachers in the Church who taught from a heart of egotism, putting themselves before Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians he said that if any man thus destroys the temple of God—the Christians who he presumed to teach falsely—God would destroy him (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). We must all heed this word, and treat one another with kindness and love, with the reverence proper to God’s temple.
In the Liturgy of St. Basil, there is a line in the anaphora about this holy house lasting until the end of the world. That is what we want for this present building and for the gathering that will meet in it—we want St. Herman’s church to outlast us all, to be there as a witness to God’s faithfulness and Lord’s glory to our children and to our children’s children, and even until the world’s ending at the Second Coming of Christ. We do not build for ourselves, but for Him. May this temple building in which we now stand by the mercy of God remain and make its silent witness to the Triune God, declaring His faithfulness and His love to all generations. It has been our privilege to play our parts in this abiding witness.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.