1 Kings 8:14-18/John 14:1-4
To many of you, these words from John’s gospel are quite familiar. You might remember the King James word for these “many dwelling places” – “mansions.” You might even recall that old gospel song:
I’ve got a mansion just over the hill top
in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.
And someday yonder we will never more wander,
but walk the streets that are purest gold.
And so you think of heaven.
However I’ve come to understand that these words were not intended to be about heaven. They are not words about the future but about the present. They are not words about a place called heaven but about our relationship with God. To go from one metaphor to another, God’s house is God’s heart. And the “many dwelling places” is space in God’s heart. Jesus seems to be saying that because of his redemptive work, places have been prepared in God’s heart for his disciples, and for you and me. Can you envision a huge building with many, many rooms that is God’s heart? God’s heart: An eternal building project of relationship.
I invoke these images of building because that is what we’ve been about here for many, many months. The audacious idea to re-build what was sort of a shabby yet lovable place into this beautiful, inspiring space is finally coming to fruition. Unfortunately, we can’t say it is finished but we’re almost there. The end is in sight…we think. The wait is agonizing, isn’t it?
As we sit in this space I’d like you to consider how God is in this space. I’d like you to invoke the image of a cathedral and think how God’s heart is like a cathedral. This space is cathedral-like, isn’t it? And in this cathedral there is plenty of room for all of us; indeed, for everyone. But also I’d like you to think about the fact that God lives in your heart. And wonder at the idea of a cathedral in your heart.
Now I’m sure you realize that despite the many delays we’ve experienced with our building project, in reality our building project has been but a tiny blip in time compared to the construction of the great cathedrals of the past. Time, in the era of the cathedrals, was unquestionably regarded in a much different way than our over-night delivery frame of mind. That a cathedral might take hundreds of years to build was a fact of life. The typical cathedral builder did not expect to witness the fruits of his labor. It was enough to know that in the amplitude of time, his grandchildren, or perhaps even their grandchildren, would see that to which he had devoted his life finally come to completion. Such was the faith of the cathedral builders that they knew that what they were constructing would live well beyond their years.
Even though the vast majority of those who worked on the cathedrals knew they would not live to see the final achievement, this did not diminish their dedication or craftsmanship. In fact, it enhanced it. The reason is that in their minds they weren’t just building a building. The inspiration of faith motivated them. Faith was the core purpose, the essential, uncompromisable ingredient of the entire architecture and design. Every other consideration was secondary to this. One can’t stand in the aisles, dwarfed by massive pillars, staring at the unfathomable vaults and buttresses, and not feel this purpose.
There is a special feeling that comes with entering any one of the great cathedrals. It is definite and distinct, a feeling inside the chest. First comes the sharp intake of breath. The cool, damp scent of ancient marble can be inhaled. You take a few steps, but only a few, and then you stop. Your eyes adjust and you look up as the cathedral builders meant for you to do. And what you see can’t be taken all at once. It is truly overwhelming.
It is this feeling of immense time and space that I would like us to grasp as we consider the heart of God. Borrowing from a concept developed by Bill Shore, director of the anti-poverty program, Share our Strength, our relationship with God is like a cathedral. It is bigger than we can grasp. We are part of something that is much bigger than we are by ourselves. One thing the cathedral builders understood implicitly was that to build a great cathedral would require everyone to share their strength. They knew they were part of something big. And it came from their hearts.
This is where our text from First Kings comes into play. King Solomon and all the people of Israel are gathered for a building dedication. The temple in Jerusalem has been completed. And in his remarks to the people Solomon evokes the memory of his father, David, who did so desire to build this temple himself but was unable.
We read this text in the King James Version because that is the version Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. read from when he preached from this text in a sermon. It was March 3, 1968 in his home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, just a month before he was assassinated. His sermon was titled “Unfulfilled Dreams.” Dr. King was struck by the notion that whereas God did not allow David to finish the temple God wanted to bless David because it was in his heart. “You did well that it was in your heart,” it says. Dr. King then went on to catalog leaders through the ages who did not live to see the fulfillment of their dreams. An ominous foreshadowing of his own dreams cut short. “So many of us in life start out building temples,” he said, “and so often we don’t finish them.” It is “one of the great agonies of life that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable…. Well, that is the story of life,” he concluded. He understood the nature of the struggle.
Linda and I say the movie “Selma” last weekend. It depicts quite viscerally the nature of the struggle. It was really hard. Despite constant setbacks and second guessing, on the part of others and on his part, Martin fostered a constant hope. Not a pie-in-the-sky, fantastical kind of hope, but a hope born out of the realistic work of a persistent, vigilant struggle. This hope comes through in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is a long and somewhat discouraging assessment of the status of the civil rights movement especially as he takes on the clergymen of the city. But through it all he still has hope. The quote on the bulletin cover is how he concludes his letter.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
For Dr. King the “story of life” is the continual, ongoing, never ending building of a temple “in your heart” so we can continue the struggle for peace and justice.
King’s temple “in your heart” is another way of describing, I believe, “a cathedral in your heart.” On another occasion King said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve. All it takes is a heart full of grace, and a soul that generates love.” We are all God’s work in progress. This church is God’s work in progress. True, this building project is almost complete. But the work of God in our lives and in our world is unfinishable. We never arrive; we are never finished.
It is in this spirit that I would like us to consider our own hearts. By God’s grace our hearts are made bigger. Even as there is huge space in God’s heart so in relationship with God the space in our own heart can grow. Can you imagine a cathedral in your heart? I’m looking for the spirit of the cathedral builders and using that spirit to make our lives and our church better. I’m looking to capture the spirit of the cathedral builders, not necessarily in the experience of walking into a great cathedral, but through the experience of living, giving, and serving that builds a cathedral within our own hearts. I urge you to be emboldened by the commitment of the cathedral builders to commit your life’s work to something larger than yourself, to something so large it is unfinishable. In so doing you may come to know the unique fulfillment of building a cathedral in your heart.
It is a matter of perspective. Three men, all engaged at the same employment, were asked what they were doing. One said he was making five dollars a day. Another replied that he was cutting stone. The third said he was building a cathedral. The difference was not in what they were actually doing. They were all earning the same wage; they were all cutting stone; but only one held in his heart that he was helping build a great edifice bigger than himself. Life meant more to him than to his mates, because he saw further and also more closely.
God’s work in you is to build a cathedral in your heart that is, indeed, bigger than you yourself. Again I ask: Can you imagine a cathedral in your heart? God’s call to us is to build a cathedral out of the work of our lives together that is, indeed, bigger than this place. May we dare to imagine the cathedral of God’s grace filling our hearts and our church.
It will take such imagination for there is a lot of work to do. There is still a lot of work to do in this world of ours, in this country of ours. There are still “dark clouds of racial prejudice” throughout the land. There still is a pervading “deep fog of misunderstanding” because our communities are still indeed drenched in fear. In the spirit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy we need to imagine God filling up and overflowing in our hearts for there is a lot of work to do.
It will take such imagination for this congregation to live into its own legacy. Of being the caring, nurturing, peace-loving, justice-action church you want to be. You have this great opportunity with this incredible new facility. May it be filled to overflowing with God’s grace.
This is the hope – that “the radiant stars of love and brother [and sister] hood” shine over you all with “scintillating beauty.” This is the hope that is expressed in the hymn we are about to sing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Turn to it and look at it with me. I think it interesting that the lyrics to this hymn were written in 1921. James Weldon Johnson was the first African-American to pass the bar exam in Florida and served with distinction in the U.S. consulates of Venezuela and Nicaragua. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson wrote the music. But in 1921 the overturning of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement we decades away. Yet he wrote about hope and victory, but hope and victory born from tremendous struggle and hardship. Look with me at lyrics about struggle and hardship from James Weldon Johnson’s hymn:
• Sing a song full of the faith that the harsh past has taught us. (verse 1)
• Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. (verse 2)
• We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. (verse 2)
• We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. (verse 2)
• God of our weary years, God of our silent tears. (verse 3)
Yet, we sing:
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won. (verse 1)
Let us stand and sing with that hope.