Open Sanctuary: Hebrews 9.1–14

maxresdefaultDelivered at Ames UCC on August 30, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Passages like today’s give me a very “Indiana Jones” vibe. You probably remember the Harrison Ford movie from the 1980s. In it, the Nazis are trying to get the Ark of the Covenant, the portable sanctuary of God and the ten commandments.
The goal of the lunatic scientist is to access that divine power. So we watch him, with Indy, as he dons ornate ceremonial garb and opens the ark. Immense power does emerge. Then everyone’s faces melt off.

The ancient Hebrews could have predicted as much. Look at today’s scripture: In the Hebrew temple there was a tent with a lampstand, a table, and sacred bread. Behind that, the holy of holies, with a golden altar and incense. In a container of gold there was manna from the wilderness and the 10 commandments.(A)bove it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.”

And who gets to see all of that? Only priests. And the high priest is the only one allowed in the holy of holies and that but once a year. Our unknown author presents us with a portrait of rich gold in the midst of a dry desert. There’s an opulence known but rarely seen. It sounds magical. It sounds like a place of magic meant only for sacred magicians.

Which is a pretty valid way to characterize the work of a priest, in the broadest sense. The priest, the ritual worker, for a community was and is one who acts as emissary between the sacred and profane. Be it from birth or training or a combination of the two, the priest is set apart to attend to Spirit and spirits.

This reflects a couple of different assumptions about the relationship between humanity and the divine: either that God cannot be directly accessed by regular people or that God should not be directly accessed by regular people.

This is not, however, the belief of our unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews. She is arguing that in Jesus Christ, the temple and the priesthood are no longer necessary. Jesus Christ, she says, has performed the last ritual of purification. And now the holy of holies is accessible to all. Our one eternal high priest has rendered us permanently and directly connected with the divine.

As a result, the early Christian movement didn’t have priests. Instead, house churches and communities, concerned with feeding the hungry and burying the dead, formed in the name of Christ. God was among them and all who affirmed that holy presence were called to care.

But that didn’t last very long. Christianity became a highly structured institution once it was adopted by the Roman Empire. In direct opposition to the freedom described by our author, the Roman church put up new barriers to God, created or adopted rituals and spaces that only priests could perform or enter. Christian sanctuaries became places of magic with access to God meant only for sacred magicians, a belief and practice eventually rejected by our Protestant forebears in the 16th century.

Or, as I like to say it, Protest-ant forebears. Because we are descendants of protestors. Protestors of professionalized penance and prayer, protestors of partitions between God and the children of God. We do not want or need anyone to mediate the liminal space between us and God. We are, as one, the priesthood of all believers (and doubters).

Yes, we do have pastors. And yes, we have rites of training and examination and blessing, known as ordination, to mark the pastors. And yes, we technically require a pastor at the table of God and the font. But it is rare in this era in a United Church of Christ church, for a pastor to be afforded the kind of stature one would have in ancient Israel or Roman Christendom.

I do not go to the holy of holies alone. In fact, in my experience, I am usually only able to go there with and because of you.

In the United Church of Christ, we affirm the author of the Hebrews: the ark and the altar and priesthood were placeholders. But through Good Friday and the Easter mystery, Jesus “entered once and for all” into the holy of holies and rendered all such worship completed. The sanctuary is open.

Which is a massive responsibility. Think about it: We are claiming for ourselves the ability to know God and act on God’s call. But that means we no longer have the luxury of outsourcing our service to God to a specialized priesthood. Each of us, not a priest, has direct responsibility for setting the table, nurturing the baptized, abandoning our comfort, touching the filthy and sick, and revolting against oppression.

The sanctuary will no longer be tended by the few but must be built up and kept open by us all.

Because sanctuary is needed by all.

One of the stories I followed this week was about Syrian refugees trying to escape their war-ravaged lands into Hungary. These are human beings with bodies and souls and histories and families who literally need sanctuary: shelter, food, water, sanitation.

Other forms of sanctuary came to mind as the story of the on-air murder of two television station employees in Virginia emerged. Where are the survivors of those deaths seeking sanctuary for their grief and anger? Will it be alcohol or drugs or is there a community of faith offering another way? What sanctuary might the shooter have sought out that could have prevented him from buying that gun, making his plan, and then executing it?

Often in the face of horror we ask the question, “Where was God in that moment?” But given our understanding of the universal priesthood and open sanctuary, it seems we should also ask the question, “Where were WE?”

We were here in Ames, Iowa, working hard to better our community.

All week you have been here setting up the Attic to Basement sale. The monies raised from that annual event go to community service agencies and our youth program.

You have been feeding people at the Emergency Residence Program and through Meals on Wheels.

You have been offering prayerful visits to those who cannot leave their homes or hospitals due to age or illness.

You have been committing funds to the upkeep and expansion of this space, an effort to keep Ames UCC welcome and relevant and stable in this century.

You are here today.

That might have been a real struggle. Maybe today you woke up kind of a mess. Maybe you didn’t even get to sleep last night because of a sick baby or sick spouse. Maybe you were just laid off or haven’t found work in years.

On those Sundays, the notion of getting dressed up may be unthinkable—clean underpants are about all you can muster. But you know you need to get to church. You need to get to this sanctuary of love and hope and mercy and unending feasts. And you know that you will be welcome, you must be welcome, just as you are.

On such a Sunday you may not feel like you can be a priest to anyone. You can barely form the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But in your very rawness and realness, you may be just who another worshipper needs to see. A worshipper who feared being rejected for not being educated enough or proper enough. Maybe she came in late to avoid passing of the peace, and sat in the back with the hope of not being noticed, not being hurt. And then she saw you being hugged and greeted, she saw you being respected and heard as you offered up your own prayer needs.

As many or most of you know, the United Church of Christ is known for our phrase “God is Still Speaking.” It’s a theological confession that God continues to speak to creation through us, through scripture. We represent that theology with a comma, the grammatical sign that the sentence is not over and there are more words yet to come.

I have here today red commas and rainbow pride commas. Please take one. Wear it as a reminder of your willingness to take on the responsibility of unfettered communion with the divine.

Maintaining the open sanctuary of God is an extraordinary task. But it is one we accomplish in very ordinary ways: showing up, being real, welcoming. As the earliest Christians did, we tend to the hungry and the dying.

The Nazis in “Indiana Jones” got it all wrong: Thanks to the Easter mystery, true sanctuaries of the holy do not require fancy garb or magical incantations. But they are most certainly magical, if not life-saving, for those served by the ministries of this priesthood, those who experience true sanctuary here.


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