TEMPLES OF THE HEART
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
June 10, 2018
Texts: Psalm 30; 1 Kings 8:1-14
Close to the ending of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my favorite films by the way, the evil archaeologist Dr. Rene Belloq, puts on the supposed attire of a Hebrew priest before opening the Ark of the Covenant. Tied to a post, Indiana Jones tells his companion Marion to close her eyes and not to open them no matter what she hears. The German Colonel Dietrich tells Belloq that he is opposed to this “Jewish ceremony” because he considers it super-stitious. But Belloq pushes on. He cannot contain his curiosity about what is inside the Ark.
For those of you who have seen the film, you know that as soon as the Ark is opened, and Belloq looks into it, crying out, “It’s beautiful!” But then a cloud emerges and engulfs all who are there, destroying Belloq and the German soldiers as they gaze in a paralyzed wonder upon the presence of the Lord. The cloud then goes back into the Ark and it slams shut.
Granted, most of us who saw the film wondered where Spielberg got the idea for this part of the story. Actually, it has some scriptural basis. As the texts from 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles indicate, the ancient Hebrews believed that the Lord resided in the Ark and the taber-nacle that housed it and made his – and the Lord was clearly male here – presence known through a swirling cloud.
The Psalm we read this morning has two distinct themes: the first is a thanksgiving of recovery from illness, and the second praises the Lord as part of the dedication ceremony in the Temple. The attribution of the Psalm to David is clearly anachronistic since the Temple was not built until the time of Solomon. But that is the case with many of the Psalms; bits and pieces of Psalmic poetry from David’s time and attributed to him were transmitted orally and then written down much later by various Psalmists who, for the most part, are unnamed.
Because the Lord was believed to reside in a physical place, such as the Ark which prior to the construction of the Temple was housed in a tabernacle built by command of the Lord as a place for the Lord to live, physical locations were extremely important. It is one of the reasons why Jerusalem is so vital to Judaism. We Christians appropriated the idea of sacred space, a place where the presence of God is felt; it’s one of the reasons we have churches.
Consider the language we use when we talk about a church or a cathedral. We talk about them as sacred spaces. After Christians were thrown out of the syna-gogues in ancient Israel, they first began worshiping in houses, and out of fear this continued especially in the newly formed Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire well into the second century.
As soon as it was safe, Christians began building churches not just as places to worship but as places to feel the presence of God. As I was describing my trip to Jerusalem to someone in my office on Thursday, I was asked if I felt the presence of God in the churches designated as “holy places.” Because present-day Jerusalem is really a medieval city, I explained that the grottoes built in the third and fourth centuries were the places where I experienced a presence of something beyond myself. They were the the sacred spaces.
The sacred is often imputed to magnificent religious architecture such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the Church in the Rock in Helsinki, or Notre Dame in Paris. They stand out from the urban landscapes that surround them, but other spaces dwarfed by buildings of corporate wealth also stand out as sacred spaces, usually in connection with momentous events, such as St. Paul’s Chapel at the foot of Ground Zero because of its ministry in the wake of 9/11.
Sacred spaces, however, can be more than buildings. Pathways and journeys can also be our sacred spaces. The Camino de Santiago, one of the major Christian pilgrim-ages of the medieval period, brought people to the Cathe-dral of St. James in the Spanish city of Campostela, where according to the story, the body of James the Apostle is interred. This journey is one of the most famous.
Martin Sheen –Josh Bartlett in The West Wing – a Catholic peace activist in real life, portrays an American doctor who goes to France to collect the body of his estranged son who died during his pilgrimage on el Camino and embarks on a journey of spiritual awakening in the film The Way.
Joseph Campbell once wrote that anything is possible on the other side of a door to a sacred space. However, the door does not need to be a literal door to a building but a door to the heart. For it is in our hearts that we find a true sacred space. A building is just a building but when we open our hearts to the presence of God, the holy and the divine, we can find a peace that often eludes us in the world.
Pathways such as the specially constructed labyrinths of medieval gardens and ancient societies as well have been used as meditation tools for centuries. The labyrinth was used in ancient and medieval times and churches have constructed them as a tool for meditation, another temple of the heart.
Opening ourselves to the presence of God is more than the bargaining by the Psalmist we read this morning who asks the Lord what profit there is in his death since that would eliminate a source of praise for the Lord? The Psalmist reflects much of the thinking of that time, that illness was directly tied to God’s will.
Much of that kind of thinking still permeates our theology, a word used not for an academically constructed system, but how we personally reflect on our lives in light of our faith. When we pray, when we create the sacred space in our hearts we are not asking God to be like a magician, taking away whatever evil or sickness befalls us. The sacred space in our heart is a place where we let God enter so we are strengthened by God’s presence in our lives. That’s quite different from expecting God to solve the problem.
In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Duke Divinity School professor confronts her potentially life-threatening cancer with a realization that God doesn’t “solve” it all, but with the understanding of the strength that God’s presence can bring even when we are confronted with death. We may grieve the death of others, but there’s nothing more per-sonal than our own deaths. Our own deaths are beyond our own imagination.
Allowing God to enter into our hearts is more than what might be called faith. It really is creating a sacred space, a space that even those most intimately connected to us cannot enter. And God enters that space oftentimes when we least expect it – in moments of joy or sadness, in our solitude or in the midst of a crowd.
There are tools we can use to open the innermost part of ourselves, that part we do not share even with the people we love the most. Meditation, of course, is one of those tools. Centering prayer is another, and they are different from each other. Some people create a place, such as a garden or studio as a tool, a place to enable that space for God to enter.
Often feelings of gratitude spur that sacred space, here reflected by the Psalmist in his gratitude to the Lord for recovery from an illness. As he sings, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” And when we are grateful and live in a spirit of gratitude, we cannot help but share our grati-tude with others, for gratitude is not a solitary feeling.
Gratitude begets generosity – generosity of heart and spirit and of material things as well. We actually give out of a feeling of gratitude whether it is because we have had a respite from the sadness caused by feared or real loss or by the recovery of our own selves from our deepest fears. We often experience gratitude because of the actions of others and their import on our lives.
Just as building the Temple in Jerusalem was not the act of one man, the process of creating the temples in our hearts is not the result of our actions alone. That process comes through our interaction with others and our deepening sense of community as we share our inmost thoughts and feelings in the sacred space we create together. In that sacred space we create temples of the heart as we learn to live in gratitude and share our beneficence with others.
Let us come to God in prayer: Create in us, O God, hearts open to you and enable us to share your love with the world. In the name of him who came to show us how to share, even Christ Jesus our Lord Amen.