Matthew 23:16-22

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?

And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.” Matthew 23:16-22

Yesterday morning we met with an architect at church. We’ll meet with another one on Thursday. We have long had problems with the stained glass wall that runs down one whole side of our sanctuary. It is chockful of holes and cracks. The caulking is full of the asbestos that no one used to worry about when our church building was constructed. So now we’re studying our options for restoring or replacing the stained glass wall. As you can imagine, it will be expensive. It will also evoke strong emotions as we decide what we are going to do.

I’m keeping all of that in mind as I hear Jesus speak this morning. He attacks us in our “edifice complexes.”

I get it. The church is not the building, the church is the people. I think we all understand that. As a matter of fact, I think we often get confused on this very point. Listen closely to those who defend their building at all costs and you could very well be hearing an entirely different message – often people aren’t so much defending the building as they are their memories and their aspirations for what happened and will happen to the people who gather there.

Few public structures evoke the kind of feelings that religious structures evoke. Maybe it has always been that way.

The problems come when we forget that we baptize people, but we don’t baptize buildings. The problem comes when we over-identify what we hope to see happen in the lives of people with the structures and the traditions and “the way we do things around here.” How else would the ancients come up with the idea that swearing by their altar has some sort of mystical magical power compared to their barbeque pits back home? Not to mention the idea that gold is somehow more godly than wood or stone?

What is the corrective here? Maybe it is as simple as looking a little deeper. Maybe it means looking through everything from the stained glass to the walls to the pews to the candles and all of the rest of it, to see the deeper reality going on. God is calling his people together like a mother calls her family to the dinner table. Why?

To spend time together. To share our lives together. To pray and praise God, in the best and the worst times of our lives. To be gathered…and then to be sent. To be sent back into the world where we live, the jobs we do, the friends and family and neighbors who count on us. To be salt and light. To live in faith, hope, and love.

That really is the real deal, isn’t it? And if stained glass helps us toward that, bring it on. As long as we keep the main thing, the main thing.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, we know you don’t live in houses built with human hands…but we trust that you are present when we gather in such houses. And we know that all holiness comes only as a reflection of you. Help us see that. Help us always keep the main thing, the main thing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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