This is the message that I gave on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 20 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30-34, 53 – 56.
It is one of those little bits of trivia that even though I claim Memphis, Tennessee as my home, I have only been to Graceland when forced to go or by accident. If you were to ask me how to get there, I honestly could not tell you. Similarly, even though I have ties to Iowa, I have no idea where the “Field of Dreams” is located. It does exist and it is in Iowa but that is all I know.
The problem with certain locations or certain phrases is that they become a part of our lives whether we want them to or without any encouragement on our part. The phrase “build it and they will come” was the cornerstone of the movie to build a ball field in the cornfields of Iowa so ball players of the past could come back to life and play baseball. It is now a phrase that is used to justify almost any project in which we want people to come.
David wanted to build a temple for God, a place to house the Ark of the Covenant. There is, to some extent, some logic to David’s thoughts and desires. After all, he was living in a fine palace while the Ark was still housed in a tent. And if you are a leader whose position is ordained by God, shouldn’t God’s house be a better place to live than the one you live in?
But God, through Nathan, indicated that He was quite satisfied with the arrangements. After all, over the past years, the Ark had been housed in a tent among the people and nothing had been said then. So why worry about it now? God, again through Nathan, points out that the only house that really matters is the house of David and God promised to insure that house would live for a long time.
God wasn’t so much interested in the physical building as much as He was in those who live there. And I think that is a most important idea. It is not where the message of the Gospel is heard but if the message is heard. We need to know that when the Methodist revival was in its infancy, the Anglican Church barred its leaders, including Wesley, from preaching in the Anglican churches of the time. So they moved to the fields and preached to the people there. And because the laws barred them from meeting in churches, they created meeting houses and had class meetings rather than worship services to get around the law. There is a need to send the presence of God during worship and that comes from within the people, not from within the building.
There is no doubt that we need to have some place to worship. As soon as stable congregations formed, Methodists built houses of worship. These early meeting houses were simple structures, without ornamentation and designed to accommodate as many people as possible. The Book of Discipline from the first conference of 1784 stated, “Let all our chapels be built plain and decent; but not more expensive than is absolutely unavoidable: otherwise the necessity of raising money will make rich men necessary to us. But if so, we must be dependent upon them, yea; and governed by them. And then farewell to the Methodist discipline, if not doctrine too.”
The rationale for this approach was that expensive churches required money that could be used for better purposes. And early Methodists also feared that extravagantly constructed churches would lead to pride and vanity and lower the spiritual tone of the church. In addition, many of the early Methodists were poor and could not afford nor would they feel at home in elaborate buildings.
From my own experience, I know that when a church is more concerned with its appearance and its physical plant, its concern for the people comes second. Now, there is no doubt that we need to have a good building to hold our services in but we need to focus on what transpires in the meeting, not where the meeting is held. I have preached at the Stone Church over in Cragsmoor, near Ellenville, and it is a lovely old stone church built in the late 1800’s. It had fallen on hard times and had begun to fall apart. Even the Episcopal Church had written it off, saying it was not worth the time and effort to assign a pastor to that area. But a number of people felt that its heritage and beauty were too great to let go and have worked diligently over the years to bring it back. And they have succeeded.
Regular services are held with pastors of the local churches providing the worship leadership. And they have opened the church to couples seeking a spot for a wedding. The couples must do everything including providing for the preacher to hold the service. A reasonable fee is charged to hold the service on the grounds of the church. But having the wedding in the Stone Church is no guarantee that the marriage will be successful. The success of a marriage is found not in where the marriage is held but what is in the marriage. Just because a marriage ceremony was performed in a beautiful old church or the expanse of a broad field in a park will not make the marriage work; it will be the desires of those in the marriage who make it work. The setting will make it that much better.
It is not the building that makes a church successful; it is the people inside the church. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus are meant as a reminder that there was a time when members of the church would not have been welcome in the tabernacle. He wanted people to remember that there was a time of exclusion and discrimination in the church. There was a time when those called the “uncircumcised” were derided and ridiculed.
This was in part because there was a membership requirement to enter the temple or the tabernacle. And that membership requirement separated you from God. But through Jesus, that membership requirement was removed and there was no separation between individuals, no barrier preventing you from coming to Christ.
Unfortunately, despite this message of inclusion, there are many churches in this country today who forget that all who believe in Christ have equal access to Christ and that there is no membership requirement. I have seen too many churches that are more of a country club than a church. Membership is dictated by what you have, not who you are. And the members are quick to remind you, perhaps in unstated ways, that you are not welcome.
People come to a church because they are searching, searching for that something that will bring peace to their lives. They will not come to places were they are not welcome or where barriers are placed in their way.
The people came to Jesus no matter where he was. As it stated in Mark, wherever Jesus went, the people brought their sick friends so that they could be healed. Jesus did not establish barriers; He broke them down. He extended God’s mercy to all the people, not just a select few.
The saying goes that if we build it they will come and that is certainly true. But if the people are not made to feel wanted, they will not come a second time. I think that one of the reasons that many of the main-line denominations have shown a loss in membership over the past years is that they no longer make people welcome. They no longer remember the days when they were the ones on the outside looking in. It is not what we did that brought us to Christ but rather what God did for us.
If in building our church, we put up barriers we will most certainly keep people out. And that is not what the church, whether a fancy building or simple shack, is about. It is about bringing the people in, of being able to give the Gospel message to all whom would here it. The barriers may not be that visible; they may be in the way we greet someone or talk with someone. It may be in how we react to what someone says to us.
The people will come but will they stay? The people came to hear Jesus, to be in his presence no matter where He was that day. And God is quite content to be among the people, no matter where that might be. But we should remember what Paul wrote, that once we were the ones on the outside and barred from ever coming in. Shall we put up barriers that keep people away or shall we extend the spirit of Christ, just as it once was extended to us?