There is a story about a church organist who was subbing one Sunday. The minister was planning to share with the congregation that they needed money for a new roof on the building. “Here’s a copy of the bulletin,” the pastor told the substitute organist. “But you’ll have to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the roof.” During the service, the minister paused and said, “Brothers and sisters, the church roof repairs will be expensive. Any of you who can pledge $100, please stand up.” At that moment, the substitute organist began playing the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” And that’s how the substitute became the regular organist.
We have our own challenges with our leaking roof here in several parts of our building as you may know. There always seems to be something that needs attention in buildings, right? If it’s not one thing to take care of it’s another. But we care here because of how special our church building is. And because caring for it is part of our spirituality.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we thank you for the incredible gift of our sacred space. Help us to be good stewards for our present and future. Amen.
This is always a challenging time of year. It’s cold and dark and gray with weather that makes us spend our time inside. When the elements keep us inside we appreciate the importance of buildings.
Most of us spend much of our life in buildings. Behind a desk or in a cubical. In an office where status is defined by the number of ceiling tiles. Or in a house caring for someone. Some of us travel a lot for work, perhaps we think of an airplane as our work space. And in the D.C. area where we have some of the longest commutes in the nation, our space is often a car surrounded by other cars in stressful traffic jams. Given how much time we spend inside, our spaces matter.
Perhaps my favorite commercial from the Super Bowl last Sunday was the Radio Shack ad where the store’s physical space is totally redone. A Radio Shack employee picks up the phone and listens to an obviously threatening voice and when he hangs up the employee turns to his co-worker and says, “It’s the 1980s’, they want their store back.” And then a series of movie, sports and television stars from the 80s, Marylou Retton, Hulk Hogan, Dee Snider, smash through the front door and destroy all of the outdated furniture, equipment and interior. And then a beautiful newly designed store space appears.
Each of us seeks uplifting physical spaces. Especially in which to worship God. The early churches met in homes. They had no choice but to meet privately as the church was under great public pressure. Some of our most special spiritual discussions are still in homes. But once the early church emerged from persecution it began a centuries-long drive to build great worship spaces. Some of the greatest art of Western Civilization today is housed in churches, or is actually churches themselves.
The qualities of our space impacts our worship and our connections. By being in this place, many of us feel closer to God. Many of us have sat alone in this columbarium and communed with someone we miss. Or sat in a back pew and prayed. Or felt supported when we have had a long week.
Yet this space doesn’t stay special on its own. Much of the same work that goes into maintaining our own homes is needed in our spiritual home. A church requires attention to keep going. It is a community center, a valuable asset, a sacred space if we take care of it.
It is the responsibility of being such a steward which Jesus suggested in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus knew his days on earth were numbered. He withdrew to Caesarea Philippi, northwest of the Sea of Galilee, to talk with his followers. Jesus was struggling with whether they would carry on his work. People had misidentified Jesus as John the Baptist, Elijah or the prophet Jeremiah. Peter correctly identified Jesus as the messiah and then Jesus believed he had found the one who would carry on his traditions. So Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Significantly, Jesus uses a play on words here. The Greek word for Peter is “Petros” and the Greek word for rock is “petra.” So Jesus says, “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” Jesus is saying that the future of Christianity is built on two rocks. First, the personal rock. Petros, Peter, a person, whose faith in Christ leads to future ministry. Secondly, the ministry is built on a physical and spiritual rock. St. Augustine argued that the petras, the physical rocks which would support church structures, were built on the spiritual rock of Christ himself. We sing of this in some of our hymns this morning. Much like Petros and petra have the same root, the physical rocks that build a church are connected to the spiritual rock on which our faith is based. The personal faith through which the church is constructed is built on the personal God who is our rock and our redeemer. In declaring his faith, Peter became the first righteous rock, the first stone of the church Christ was building. When we live out our faith through caring for the church, we too become another stone in its foundation.
I talked a few weeks ago about how the Greeks did not believe the physical world mattered as much as the spiritual world. But the Apostle Paul argued that the physical world mattered a great deal. He argued that in Jesus, God came as a physical being because the physical is connected to the spiritual.
How we care for our physical stones says something about our spiritual well-being. One task of a righteous rock in the church of Jesus Christ, is to steward the physical and spiritual rocks that are Christ’s church. Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” and the authority to bind and loose. This is a Biblical image of responsibility that comes from Isaiah 22 where a man named Eliakim is given the keys to the house of King Hezekiah of Judah and the responsibility to steward his house. To decide who would come in and out of the doors, which is similar to binding and loosing. In our text this morning, Peter is given responsibility to look after his master’s house. We too have responsibility for the physical and spiritual well-being of our house of God.
One of the values of Bradley Hills is beauty. We affirm that with our senses we discover God in the beauty of our space. We have a beautiful space here as a church. Our second graders got to explore and experience that this morning in their welcome to worship scavenger hunt. Our church is located on a nature preserve of incredible beauty. We have enough space in this building that we can grow along with our new staff and new families and new opportunities.
In 1956, our founders met in the auditorium at Parklawn Cemetery in Rockville to select the name of this church. There was apparently a snow storm the day they met, so much snow that they had to push one another’s cars out of the drifts, but 90 adults and 24 children braved the weather to come name a church on Bradley Blvd. One member suggested the name Bradley Grove because there were so many trees. Another said, “There are a lot of hills. Let’s call it Bradley Hills.” The name stuck. While there are lots of Westminsters and First Presbyterians, we remain the only Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in the nation. The people who founded this community reflected their environment and the beauty of the surroundings in their name. On this meeting in Rock-ville, they built their church.
They rebuilt this building in the 60’s, adding this sanctuary. In 1967, when Art Hall became pastor here, a member of the nominating committee told him, “We have just completed a beautiful building. We don’t worship the building. But we need to serve the community through the building.” And that is still our calling.
Christ is calling us to be stones in the foundation and care for the foundation of his church. To be like Peter and through our faith, take responsibility for the house of God that is entrusted to us. Our stewardship of the physical and the spiritual go hand in hand. Now is a time when we are being called to discern what the household of God is to look like for our time and beyond.
Within this house are memories and emotions and ministry waiting to happen. This is where our children learned and where we served and worshiped. Where we remember those in the columbarium who went before us in life and death. This is the spiritual home for our young families which is the fastest growing part of our community and for our children and grandchildren. This is the space for our memorial services and weddings. Our youth lounge is safe space for our teens to hang out.
This space provides an opportunity for a dozen men with early stage Alzheimer’s to meet. Where we prepare flowers, prepare a cancel, prepare communion to enhance the sense of the sacred. This is the home for single parents, book groups, recovering addicts and spiritual seekers. Home for a kitchen ministry that brings food to the hungry in Montgomery County. This space is home for a pastoral counselor, a parish nurse and several pastors who counselor people through challenges, when people need an ear or a hug or support. This is home for 204 nursery school students. Two dozen young people with developmental differences. Where we show the world that members of Christian and Jewish and sometimes Muslim communities can get along. This is where we learn about God’s love for each of us and about the values of our faith.
We can reduce our carbon footprint and help green our building to make it a model, to make it more efficient, to save funds and to help secure this space for generations.
The quality of our space impacts our experience of the sacred. When it’s secured and stable we are freed to dream about everything else that’s possible for us. After a Sunday here we can return to our workplaces, care giving responsibilities and lives in other places with a deepened faith that can be the rock of all we do during the week. But for this place to help us do that, we much take responsibility for the rocks that is our spiritual home.
By caring for what is entrusted to us, we practice stewardship. Part of our calling is to be caregivers of what is common to us. We care for our sacred space because, like Peter, we are stones upon which our rock and our redeemer builds his church. Like Peter, it is a great privilege and responsibility to be stewards of the kingdom.
Each year on Christmas Eve I have a similar experience. The candles of Silent Night have been blown out. The final stanzas of Joy to the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, have been sung. The refreshments from the young adult gathering have been put away. The final hug for the evening of a caring community has been hugged. The last sharing of “Merry Christmas!” has been shared. As we begin to close up the building, I feel a calling to return to the sanctuary. I walk up the aisle where that afternoon and evening more than 700 souls have joined in the applause of Heaven at our savior’s birth. About then the clock strikes midnight on December 25 and in the stillness of the spirit, I am drawn in. Drawn to the chancel steps. Drawn to the columbarium, our chapel. Drawn into the presence of the spirit. Drawn into the special feeling of our holy space, our lit lantern, our beautiful building, our sacred stones, our righteous rocks.
And I know you can relate because you have sent me emails and letters and notes which reflect similar experiences through the year.
This sturdy building is a symbol of and inspiration from God, our rock and our redeemer, a dependable presence in the world. This community center is the home for the programs that feed stomachs, minds and souls.
Stewardship of these sacred stones for our and future generations helps us live out our calling to be part of the righteous rocks on which Christ has always built his church. May it be so in our time for you and for me. Amen.