Worship | Cultivating Beloved Community | August 22


Due to technical difficulties, we do not have the first part of the service recorded. The recording picks up during children’s time but as usual, does not include the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.

Gathering in God’s Name

Cultivating beloved community.  This was a worship theme that was born in part out of a hope that by the time we got to the series we would be in the process of returning to in-person worship services.  I suppose that hope has become somewhat of a reality, but I also recognize that this transition has been and continues to be more difficult than we probably would have guessed way back in that long-ago oh-so-naive time period known as just a few months ago. 

Regardless of how far we are into this transition, this worship series has coincided nicely with the start of that transition back to in-person services; however, we should not see them overlapping so much as to give the impression that cultivating beloved community only happens in person.  Whatever the next few weeks, months, or even years hold for us, it seems as though some form of hybrid community is here to stay.  And while it was hardly ever easy, the pandemic has shown us just how much we need connection to sustain us and just how much beloved community can be cultivated in lots of different ways. 

So while this series has coincided with the return to in-person services, it was perhaps equally as much born out of a recognition that the pandemic has caused many of us to reassess the relationships in our lives.  Maybe we found ourselves asking which friendships are most important for us to maintain even when it becomes difficult to do so.  Maybe this time has allowed us to wonder what kinds of communities we find life giving, which connections we long for and which are we willing to let go of, at least for now. 

Maybe this sounds harsh and has not been your experience at all, but I know that these kinds of questions are on some of your minds because I have had more than one conversation with people in the congregation exploring them.  For some, this time has even been an opportunity to reassess relationships with the Church, with their beliefs, and with God.  

In this worship series our various speakers have helped us explore what it looks like to cultivate beloved community with people and communities around the world, within our personal relationships, with our own bodies, and all the ways these relationships overlap and affect one another.  And today I want to explore what it means to cultivate beloved community as the Church, or more specifically I want to explore the question of why this form of community that we call the Church matters. 

In a world that is already overflowing with opportunities to connect, to get involved, and to build relationships, what do communities of faith offer?  How are we different from a community center?  A coffee shop?  A book club?  In some ways and at some times we act like all three of those examples.  Not everything the Church does needs to be its own novel idea, but if we are nothing more than a community center, a coffee shop, or a book club we might as well just spend our time elsewhere. 

Even if the pandemic has not caused you to reassess your relationship to the Church, I think we can all benefit from thinking intentionally about what unique gifts this kind of community offers us and the world. 

There is a book I bought a long time ago but didn’t get around to reading until a few months ago.  It is by Priya Parker and is called The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.  Parker is a trained facilitator, conflict mediator, and student of organizational design.  She has spent a lot of time studying gatherings of all kinds, and her book lays out the principles she has found that help create the types of gatherings that can be not just good, or pleasant, or entertaining, but that have the ability to be transformational. 

I bought this book because I thought it might give me some ideas to pass along to small groups, but as I spent time this week thinking about how the Church, as a whole, builds beloved community, I couldn’t help but think of Parker’s analyses and principles for gathering.  It is perhaps unsurprising that the first step she recommends is to begin by thinking about the purpose of a gathering.  I say this is unsurprising because enough of us have probably been to at least a few meetings that we realized later on could have just been an email.  We know that a good solid purpose is a strong place to start, but what struck me is how Parker unpacked what she has found it means to have a good purpose. 

According to her, a gathering has the potential to be transformational if it has a purpose that is not just clear but a purpose that is disputable.  Her use of the word “disputable” caught me off guard because she was writing about all kinds of gatherings, and I thought to myself “Why would a birthday party need to have a disputable purpose?”  Parker’s answer is that it doesn’t.  There’s nothing wrong with gathering people with no deeper purpose than to celebrate a birthday.  But she invites readers to imagine the potential for transformation that could exist if that same birthday party had a disputable purpose, maybe one such as: “surrounding myself with people who bring out the best in me,” or “reconnecting with my siblings.” 

Gatherings with those kinds of disputable purposes would probably end up looking very different from each other.  They also would have a spark of potential that a gathering with a more open ended purpose probably wouldn’t have. 

The Church is in the business of gathering people.  The Greek word usually translated as Church, ekklesia, has roots related to the concept of gathering.  The Church also cares deeply about transformation, both inner transformations of renewed hearts and minds and outward transformations of creating peace and justice in the world. 

But does the Church, with all the different ways it gathers, have a disputable purpose, one that truly creates the potential for transformation? 

It’s a question I’ve been sitting with this week.  And maybe you’re thinking to yourself that this is all leading up to a big reveal that “cultivating beloved community” is our great purpose.  This worship theme comes from our vision for ministry, which in many ways, is our congregation’s purpose.  We will cultivate beloved community by deepening relationships within and beyond our congregation.  I admit it is a pretty good purpose. I was there when it was written, and I helped shape its wording. 

But the more I sat with this question, the more I began to think that it wasn’t quite there yet, that Parker would probably say that there could be potential for something even more transformational.  Cultivating community and deepening relationships are great, but are they disputable?  On their own, do they offer anything that a coffee shop, a neighborhood cookout, or a local community center don’t? 

For this worship series, we weren’t beholden to the scripture texts in the lectionary, but it just so happened that the Hebrew scripture passage for today is the text that contains Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the completion of the Temple.  What a fitting text for us as we contemplate what it means to cultivate community, to bring people together, and to worship God in new spaces (or spaces that might feel new once more).  As we heard last week, Solomon is not always a good example for us to follow, yet as a person who is known for seeking God’s wisdom, we too can listen for the wisdom that breaks through Solomon’s words. 

When I was in undergrad at Bluffton, I was introduced to the phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi, which translates from the Latin as, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”  This phrase has a deeper history in the life of the Church, but the professor introduced it to us as a way of telling us that if you want to know what someone believes, pay attention to what they pray. 

So what is Solomon’s prayer in this moment of such great importance and what wisdom does it offer us? 

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Temple in Jewish tradition.  No longer nomads wandering in the desert, the dedication of the Temple marks a huge shift in the life of the Israelites.  The chapters leading up to our passage for today speak of the years it took to construct the Temple and all of the finest building materials that were used and the best crafts-people called upon to create its splendor.  It was truly a sight to behold. 

And yet, the thing that immediately sticks out to me about Solomon’s prayer is the way he rhetorically asks in verse 27, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  Even in the face of all the gold and silver and fine artistic touches that could be found, the idea that God would dwell in the Temple is treated as a joke.  Not even heaven or even the highest heaven (whatever that means) can contain God, so let’s get it out of the way right now that this big ol’ building is not God’s house.  Even as he is dedicating the masterpiece of architectural triumph, he makes sure the people remember that God cannot be contained within those magnificent walls. 

Instead, Solomon’s prayer is that the Temple would be a place where “God’s name shall be there.”  God can be found equally within and beyond the walls of the Temple, yet what makes the Temple special is that it is a place where God’s name is invoked, where God’s name is called upon in the midst of the joys and concerns of life.  It is a place where the people give name to the Holiness and dare to claim that there is more to life beyond what they can fully understand. 

Solomon prays, “O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.”

God’s name shall be there.

The prayer continues for quite awhile, and our reading for today omitted some passages for brevity.  As Solomon continues, he mentions various situations that people might find themselves in calling out toward the Temple, invoking the name of God.  He identifies famine, plague, locusts, besieged cities, and sickness.  The context: very different from our own, and yet feeling strangely familiar.  He calls out these very real life situations and  invites people to find comfort by turning toward the Temple, the place where God’s name is there. 

And the surprising part of the prayer comes at the end of our passage when Solomon prays that when the foreigner who has heard of God’s name calls out, God will hear and respond so that all may know God’s name.  In a moment that is so meaningful for the Israelite people, Solomon makes sure the people know that a God who cannot be contained within the Temple also cannot be contained within a nation. 

The concept of God’s name has a very specific meaning in Jewish theology that would be a whole other topic to unpack.  But as I sat with my questions this week alongside Solomon’s prayer, I kept coming back to the idea that the Temple is the place where God’s name is.  God can be known and experienced anywhere, but what makes the Temple special is that it is a place where those revelations are given name, where those experiences are spoken of together in community and claimed as holy. 

I believe that this is what makes our purpose as a gathering disputable and, thus, opens the possibility for greater transformation.  We don’t just cultivate community, we cultivate beloved community, naming the God who has created us in love and called us to love.  We don’t just deepen relationships, we nurture each other’s roots by sharing and naming the holiness we find in the middle of both the famines and the feasts, the mourning and the dancing.  We tend to the soul by helping each other recognize the sacredness that is inextricably mixed in with all the profane and the mundane. 

As we continue to transition back to in-person worship, something for which many of us have been yearning for a long time, we must continue to insist that God does not only dwell inside these walls or inside the walls of the Zoom screen.  It is good for us to gather together as the Church wherever that may be, but only as much as we dare to name together the God we meet within and beyond these spaces. 

And so, my wish for us, is:

  • That we would have hearts open to notice the God who dwells not just in temples or churches or places already marked as holy, but in every moment.
  • That in all our gathering we would dare to name the Divine that is being revealed to us, using whatever language we need to give voice to the Spirit moving in us.
  • And finally, that our time together, whether in person, on Zoom, or any of the other ways we gather, would serve to help us nurture this awareness and create a world where the sacred shines through all things.