Breathe in, Breathe Out: Architectural Sermons, A 2023 Perpective

Breathe in, Breathe Out: Architectural Sermons, A 2023 Perpective

Matthew 5:13-20

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen

Our congregation has a pattern. Whenever we build, there is a preaching series called the architectural sermons. A series of sermons about the theology of the space itself. The first batch took place in 1983. The congregation had moved from a local community center into this room and Founding Pastor Roxana Atwood preached a sermon called God’s House. She went to great lengths to remind people that this was not God’s house at all, but a place that directed people’s eyes to God’s house. To see God’s house, you had to look out those windows, windows built for that very purpose, to the trees and skies. To birds and leaves, to snowflakes in winter and buds in spring. God’s house, she said, is Afghanistan and Latin America. God’s house is astronauts and the sun and the moon, the end of time and the darkness of the universe. There is God’s house – a house not made with hands. She preached this before the red glow of Chik-fil-a or 40 years of red hot headlines from Afghanistan and Latin America, but it remains just as true.

She went on to describe this space as a liturgical one – liturgy from the Greek word meaning the work of the people. It is a place of movement and flexibility, rather than fixed rows and one-way instruction. It is a mighty fortress where unadorned stones become a bulwark from the stormy seasons in every life. It is a round table of welcome like a family dinner. I found it interesting that the pulpit was chosen precisely because it does not hoist the pastor up on some invulnerable pedestal. Rather, it intentionally shows the pastor’s legs as if to remind listeners and preacher of the vulnerability, the humanity, and the humility of this work. I could go on but it is all preserved in a pamphlet that we have carried along with us for 40 years, our arc of architecture.

Well, Burke Presbyterian built again. So, in July of 1989, it was time for more architectural sermons. Pastor Beth Braxton called back to Pastor Atwood’s sermons, but in her sermons, she showcased the theology of a library and classrooms and a meditation room, spaces that would nourish God’s people. The inhale of study and stillness balanced the exhale of service and Sabbath.

And now, 34 years later, it is time for Adam, Catherine and me to attempt the architectural sermons 3.0, allowing all of us in some way to place our hands in the wet cement of a new story of this space.

And thankfully, by our side this morning are a much older set of sermons, Isaiah’s vision about what the people of God should do and be. Be repairers of the breach! Isaiah preached, long before church schisms and modern US political polarization existed. Be restorers of streets to live in! Isaiah preached, long before Tyre Nichol’s family would call out for that very thing from the depth of their grief. Also by our side are Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world! Even if you feel like a basket case, you have light enough for this moment and you need to hoist that light high.

I am grateful to Greg Diggs, BJ Postlewaite and Elizabeth Sugden, along with many others who took the time to share with me in essence of a first draft of these sermons.

Greg said,

I was taught that there is a rhythm to a spiritual life.  Breathe in; breathe out.  Spiritual study, prayer and reflection nourish the soul.  Feeding the hungry, comforting the mourners, helping the poor; those activities both strengthen and tire out the spirit.  Done properly, the time spent focused inwardly helps us to grow in strength and faith, and then we can accomplish more (with God’s help).  Too much of “breathe in”, and nothing happens.  Too much of “breathe out”, and we all burn out.  It’s a cycle – as natural as a field growing wheat, and then lying fallow; rising in the morning and retiring at night.  For our physical church, it had been all service and no rest.  We had grown everything except the building.

We needed space, a gathering Space.

At one of the Annual Meetings, Greg and the vision team told the church that this building project was a “Hopes and Fears” moment for the church, a church that had done so many studies but had in many ways feared what it meant to take on debt.  It was a deep breath moment. That’s how you know it’s important, he said.  As a senior in high school, opening the letter from your first choice college.  Waiting for your bride to show at the other side of a church aisle.  Waiting for news from the operating room.  The fear was real, but God helped us find a way.  He then shared a quote that meant a lot to him, from Anne Lamott and E. L. Doctorov.  ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  “The whole building project was a lesson in faith for me,” he said.  “You don’t need to know the whole way, just the next step.”

Recently BJ and Elizabeth spoke about a kind of hospitality that mattered to them deeply. A hearth and home place where people could connect over their deepest stories. I was touched by their hospitality in the form of carpet squares carefully chosen so that those stories might not be drowned out by too a loud room.

The congregation imagined a space for youth to relax and children to play, where baptismal water flowed down the walls and bubbled out to the world where we are called to beauty and service. All while windows kept us eyes-wide-open to God’s work in the world.

This week Krista Tippet interviewed renowned brain scientist and psychology professor Dacher Keltner. Keltner had collected some 2600 narratives, in 20 different languages, of where people find awe. What it looks like in the brain when they find it. And why awe, mystery and wonder so often lead to deep joy in life. Krista Tippet was surprised to learn that what most commonly led people around the world to feel awe was an experience of other people’s “courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming.” The stories of everyday people bring us something he calls moral beauty. When we get choked up, when we get goose bumps, our body is responding to awe, what he calls collective effervescence.

Now, perhaps you did not wake up today with a deeply architectural prayer on your heart, and perhaps when the bottom falls out of your life, you don’t sniffle to your friend, “go ahead … call the architect.” But perhaps you are struggling, and often that feels like banging your head against a wall. Perhaps you are agitated in a world that seems driven by those who would sooner burn things to the ground rather than tenderly risk choosing a carpet square to protect the sacred art of listening. Perhaps your faith and family and routine has been so rearranged over the last few years that you wish for a blueprint to construct joy and healing and space for your tired soul, but most days that blueprint is lost in a bottomless stack of papers. It is my hope that these sermons would not just be interesting tidbits about what someone else built but an essential reminder of what God is still building in us and around us. That we would notice the architecture of awe in our own lives.

Apparently in construction, if a beam or floor joist is carrying too much weight or is damaged, another beam is applied to both sides of it, and the procedure is called sistering. There is a lot of sistering that happens here.

Where do I notice the architecture of awe…

in the person who lost a loved one just a few days before nevertheless walking in this space with six bags of food for the ECHO food pantry. Someone whispers, I tell you, she is the salt of the earth.

In the person who sits crossed legged on the carpet square helping an 8 year old learn math. And a little lightbulb goes on.

In the teenager releasing some unflinching truth in one breath and a goofball joke in the next. In the woman in her late 80s laughs with her whole body and the men who have known each other for 30 years shooting the breeze. Rest assured, Jesus, the salt does not lose its saltiness.

When the whole community packs into the space, staring through red eyes at photos displayed on the monitor of a beloved human being in her prime. The hair on their arm standing on end as they share story after story of moral beauty, a light lifted up as high as our arms can reach and eventually given over into the eternal light of God, utterly blinding us through afternoon sunshine and unexpected grace.

When a gentleman shuffles in to community table, speech garbled by hard knocks and living on the streets, confessing that he hasn’t sat down for a meal with people in more than 6 weeks. And he takes off his coat, takes the bread, drinks the cup, makes a friend, and somehow a breach in the fabric of the world has been repaired a little bit through a bite of everyday communion.

Thanks be to God for the architecture of awe.