I’m somewhat curious to know how many times over the last four or five years that I’ve begun a sermon by making some sort of reference to a milestone in the life of our congregation. As we’ve worked through planning, fundraising, and construction, there have been many moments that have marked another transition in this process—from hiring an architect, to the first presentation of plans, through the revision process, then the fundraising, then more revisions as we shaped our construction project to meet our most important needs and our financial resources. Last July, we celebrated groundbreaking. On the First Sunday of Advent in 2015, we worshiped for the first time in our newly-renovated nave.
Now, today, we will celebrate another milestone—the completion of our years-long project. It’s another opportunity to express our gratitude for all of the people who have participated in this long process over the years—to our architects, fundraising professionals, construction workers, and of course, all of the members of Grace who have participated in the planning, the decision-making, and the work.
But, and I’ve said this before, the work doesn’t end now. We all know that there are things in our building that still need fixing, problems that need to be solved, and so, even as we celebrate what we’ve done, we also have a strong sense that our work isn’t finished, that our stewardship of our buildings and our location will mean continued work as we seek to be God’s people in this place, and seek to use the resources we’ve been given—our location and our beautiful facilities to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to show forth Christ’s love in the world.
Even as we continue to do that work, we also need to pay attention to what our newly renovated spaces are telling us. We need to listen to the building, and allow it to shape us as a community. I’ll just give a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the center of gravity of our congregation has shifted, or perhaps, it would be better to say, that we now have a center of gravity—and it’s the new staircase. It’s not just that it has improved access between the courtyard, the guild hall, and the nave. It’s become the heart of our congregation. It has succeed in its goal of connecting the different parts of our buildings. It has succeeded in connecting our worship life with our fellowship and community life. It has helped to bring us together.
But we’re only now beginning to explore how this central staircase is helping to reshape our common life. I’ve discovered myself rethinking our liturgical focus. In the last two weeks, at a wedding and a funeral, I’ve used this doorway as a major focus of liturgical movement.
But it’s more than that. When I come in the building, instead of going left toward the reception area, I turn to the right. It’s partly because of ease of access. One key will get me in the building and upstairs to the offices, instead of having to unlock four or five doors. I encourage you to pay attention, to take cues from the building, to listen to it and discern how our meetings, our common life, our experience of God might be enhanced by changing our patterns and by looking at our spaces in new ways.
We’ve made some significant changes to our liturgical spaces and I think we are only now beginning to understand the implications of those changes. Moving baptisms to the center of the nave has been an amazing transformation, really quite unexpected and quite unplanned but for this sacrament to take place in the midst of the assembly makes a powerful theological statement. Having more room behind the altar rail has been a blessing, too.
But what about the altar? Is it time for us to begin to explore how we might rearrange the chancel area to enhance our liturgical experience, to deepen our experience of God? I preach from the aisle, we baptize in the center of the nave, I make announcements from down here. We distribute and receive communion here. But our central most important liturgical act, the Eucharist, or communion, the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, that which binds us together as the body of Christ, takes place at a far remove from us. Should we think about the implications of that?
We will be thinking about how we might experience and reshape our spaces in other ways. In the coming weeks, as a group of us will be working together to enhance the chapel, the space to my left, as a space for intimate worship, healing prayer, and private devotion. My hope is that in three or six months, with relatively little expense, the chapel can become a center of Grace’s spiritual life, but, I warn you, it might look very different than it did five or ten years ago. It has been woefully under-used, more often a storage space than a place where we might encounter God’s grace. If you’re interested in being a part of that conversation, join us for a meeting this coming Friday at 2:00 pm.
As we listen, think, talk and pray about this, it’s important to keep in mind the larger goal and overall vision. In today’s reading from Revelation, we catch a glimpse of John’s vision for the future and the ultimate goal of God’s work in the world. He sees a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven. We tend to think of God’s future, the future we will share with God as occurring in another realm, in heaven. But that’s not what John sees. He sees a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. In fact, he sees a new heaven and a new earth. But this new heaven is not God’s dwelling place. Rather, God comes down to earth, to us—the barrier between God and humans is broken once and for all. More than that, in this new Jerusalem, this new city, the pain and suffering that is so much a part of our world and our lives, will be no more. God will wipe away every tear.
But that’s down the road, in the future, at a very uncertain point. And we live in the present, in a city that is beset by all manner of ills-from the homelessness that we witness every day here at Grace, to the hunger and food insecurity that bring hundreds to our pantry each month, to the deep racial and economic divisions that divide us, to the violence that is all too common. We live in a broken, sick city, in a broken, sick world.
On this day, as we celebrate the completion of our renovation project, and as we open our doors to the city of Madison, we need to think about how this place, this church, how we can be agents of God’s healing and transforming love. We need to imagine how we might help to overcome our city’s divisions, how we might help to ease the suffering, how we might wipe away the tears of those who cry or mourn.
As we listen to our building, we must also listen to our city, to our neighborhood, listen to its cries, to its suffering, to its hopes, its passions, its deepest yearnings. As we live into and embody the vision of the people of God with which we have been entrusted, as we live into and experience our new spaces, we must discern and express the ways God is using us and might use us to share God’s healing and comforting love in this city and in the world.