“Avoiding the Edifice Complex”
October 28, 2012
1 Kings 5.1-5; 8.27-30, 41-43
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” These words from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens foreshadow the paradoxical nature of the French Revolution. The “best of times” is the joy of freedom from tyranny imposed by the nobility over the peasant class. The “worst of times” is the reign of terror experienced by the violence that was unleashed following, mostly through the agency of the guillotine. Life often works that way, rarely is it all good or all bad. The election season that pollutes our airwaves is an economic boon for the media and a field day for political junkies and commentators. Our most exalted heroes seem to come with equally deep flaws, witness Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, winner of seven “Tours de France,” and consummate cheater. Even our cherished institutions aren’t immune, witness the Boy Scouts of America, molder of boys and young men that also failed to protect them.
One of the blessings of the Bible is that it doesn’t sugarcoat life. It is often brutally honest about the human condition in all its splendor and in all its brokenness. David, a man after God’s own heart, the greatest king of Israel, and writer of psalms commits adultery with another man’s wife and has him killed when he finds out she is pregnant. Even Solomon, David’s second son by that same woman, Bathsheba, asking for and receiving wisdom that becomes legendary, bringing peace to Israel and the builder of the temple, falters by going after other gods. It is not only people that exhibit both greatness and corruption, its beloved institutions that do so, too.
Today’s reading gives some snippets about what was promised last week, the building of the temple. Solomon accomplishes what God both denied to his father David yet promised as well. The temple took seven years to build and was magnificent. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were housed and God’s holy seat. Solomon, in a wonderful prayer of dedication, of which we only get a glimpse, acknowledges that God is way beyond residing in the temple yet also promises that any and all that come to the temple will be heard, including non-Jews.
However, the biblical narrative also describes in lurid detail decadent and corrupt priests, heavy temple taxes on those who could least afford it, and a sacrificial system that had Jesus going on a rampage. Yet, even today, with only the Western Wall remaining of a temple that has been destroyed three times and rebuilt twice, the Temple Mount and Wall draw thousands of pilgrims daily. It is the best of places and the worst of places.
It is providential that we celebrate the Reformation today, remembering how Martin Luther began the great conversation by nailing 95 theses, or points of discussion, on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He did it to protest the sale of indulgences that would finance the renovations of a temple of sorts, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgence promised special grace, for a price, and Luther objected that we should not have to pay for something that Christ gives us freely. However, before we get too carried away by Protestant pride, we need to remember that the Reformation, too, was “the best of times and the worst of times.” We need to remember that our forebears in the faith and our institutions are also both heroes and flawed. In Luther’s parlance, we are simul iustus et peccator, both saint and sinner.
The rallying cry of the Reformation has become, in another Latin phrase, "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda," the church of the Reformation is always reforming. This slogan challenges us to ask several questions. What is God doing in this place? What is God calling us to do in response? Is this a place where all are truly welcome or have we constructed barriers that prevent access to God’s presence? The good news is that God has not given up on us and continues to work in, with, and through the most deeply flawed people and institutions. In other words, God is working in, with, and through you, me, and this place. Through Christ’s grace, we will reform the broken places and strengthen grace-filled places. Thanks be to God. Amen.