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August 30th, 2009

“The Beauty of Holiness” (Psalm 96:9)

August 30, 2009 – Corinth’s 50th Building Anniversary

“We are here to exlaim a collective ‘Wow!’ to God.”

Angels in the architecture

The inspiration for this evening’s sermon begins with a phrase in our anniversary booklet.  It’s on the last page, titled “Corinth Today.” 

Step through the narthex and enter the Sanctuary.  Look up, and take a breath of air.  Be still for a moment of worship and look for angels in the architecture.

“Angels in the architecture.”  Most of the copy for this booklet was written by our summer intern, Chris Van Allsburg.  I asked Chris where this phrase came from, and he pointed me to a book by Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, titled, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth.  I immediately ordered the book.

Chris had warned me that the book is not really about architecture.  Come to think of it, the book is not about angels either.  It’s about what the medieval church had going for it that the modern church is missing.  We tend to cast a condescending eye toward what we like to call “the dark ages,” as if color and even light itself were not invented until much closer to our own time.

There are parts of the book that are definitely overstated.  I do not believe the medieval church was the standard by which ours or any other should be judged.  But the book and its contents are thought-provoking.  That makes a book worth reading.

Holy, Holy, Holy

Chapter 2 of Angels in the Architecture is subtitled, “returning to the love of beauty.”  The authors make the case that medieval Christians far exceeded our modern ability not only to appreciate beauty but to create beauty in literature, music, architecture, and art. 

How did this happen?  “Our problem,” Douglas Wilson writes, “is that we have deified ourselves and have assumed, contrary to the visible results, that whatever proceeds from us must be beautiful.”  Self-esteem is our highest value, and we condition our children from earliest years to think that anything they do is worthy just because they did it.

No one is suggesting that a child’s crayon creations do not belong on the refrigerator door.  But have we made beauty so subjective that we can no longer recognize it?  Our medieval spiritual ancestors understood in a way we do not the biblical phrase, “the beauty of holiness.”

Psalm 96 is one of four places in the King James Version of the Bible where this phrase occurs.  Wilson notes that the Bible never speaks of “the kindness of holiness” or “the goodness of holiness.”   Beauty and holiness are intertwined, and the very essence of beauty is a reflection of the nature of God.

Do you think the moon is beautiful?  On a clear night when the moon is full, it is gorgeous.  But would it be beautiful without the sun?  If it does not reflect light, the moon is cold, dark, dusty, even ugly.  It is only beautiful when it is revealing the light of the sun.  True beauty is only beautiful when it mirrors God’s holiness.

In Psalm 96, the writer expresses what one commentator calls “irrepressible excitement” about the Lord’s coming.  Those who are conditioned to believe that worship is never supposed to be loud or enthusiastic or spontaneous are missing something.  (I would say the same about those who believe worship is never supposed to be quiet or planned, but that’s a different point.)

This psalm writer is pumped.  “Sing, sing, sing,” he calls out in verses 1 and 2.  His worship-verbs are filled with energy and emotion: proclaim, declare, ascribe, tremble, rejoice, resound.  His reasons for worship evoke awe:

Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;

he is to be feared above all gods. 

For all the gods of the nations are idols,

but the LORD made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before him;

strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

 

The phrase that captures my attention is in verse 9 (KJV),

O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness:

fear before him, all the earth.

Ha!

I remember vividly the first time Linda and I stepped foot into this sanctuary.  We were serving a semi-rural church on the outskirts of Thomasville, North Carolina.  Content to serve a church of 250-300 members, we loved that setting and those people.  But “the ring of destiny” came our way as well, and we had opened ourselves to the possibility that we might consider a move.  This building had nothing to do with our initial interest.  I remember, in fact, that Martha Lineberger asked me during the search process if we had ever seen the building.  The answer was no.  She had asked the question in a way that made me realize she thought we would be impressed if we did see it.

We thought we were coming by to visit on the sly.  It was a Friday afternoon.  Without a GPS in those antiquated times, we stopped by the Chamber of Commerce to find out where the church was located.  At the time the chamber was located where Fourth Street intersects with 70.  All they had to do was point us north up Fourth Street.  As we drove toward Viewmont, I remember catching a glimpse of the spire and saying to Linda, “I think that might be the place.”  No way!  It might as well have been Notre Dame. 

We stopped in and told Sheila, the Office Manager, that we were just passing through and wanted to see the building.  Partly true.  She later said she knew exactly who we were and why we were there.  I might have given it away when I stepped into the pulpit!

We first walked in the northwest door, and I’ll never forget Linda’s one-syllable reaction.  “Ha!”  In other words, we will never fit in here.  This is not for us.  Too “high brow.”  That was seventeen years ago next month, and here we still are.

Gothic architecture is designed for a “Wow!” factor.  (Or the “Ha!” factor.)  The distinctive characteristics include large, open spaces (made possible by architectural advances in about the year 1200), flying buttresses (the supporting structures that extend past the exterior walls), limestone and rock exteriors, a series of ceiling vaults separated by the trusses, ribbed vertical columns, tall spires, high windows, and pointed arches.  Gothic is the “big and tall” department of architecture, particularly church architecture.

Dr. and Mrs. Althouse, along with their daughter, Rosemary, had taken a Mediterranean and European trip in 1952 as a gift from the congregation.  There they had seen what Gothic architecture looks like and experienced what it does for the soul, in the same way that Linda and I experienced in 2006 when we traveled to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.  Still today, it’s easy to see in every town on the countryside where the church is.  “Big and tall.”

Walking into a Gothic church should leave you feeling weak as you remember that God is strong, feeling small as you remember that God is big, feeling transient as you remember that God is eternal.  Everything about the building, inside and outside, should point your attention up, up, up. 

And yes, it’s beautiful, because God is holy.  Translucent windows convey memorable scenes and symbols.  At dawn and dusk, radiant splashes of rainbow colors paint the walls with light.  Hand-carved wooden patterns and figures offer our best to God.  The pipe organ’s chimes, trumpets, swells, and violones capture your imagination and overpower you with majesty.  A child’s innocent voice or a chorale sung by two hundred voices in the crossing and accompanied by full orchestra echo across this space to magnify the beauty of God’s holiness.

Those of us who worship here week by week or step into this space even more often are in danger of losing the sense of wonder – if about the building, perhaps even more so about God.

The danger is always that the message gets lost in the messenger.  This structure is not about showing off what a great building we have.  It is, as Pastor Paul Cummings said this morning, significant in its insignificance.  It’s just rock and wood and glass – stuff, incidentally, of which idols are made.

This not the church.  It is the shell where the church meets.  Whether it is a place of welcome, a base for evangelism, a tool for service, or a stimulus to worship is really up to us.  Priding ourselves on being a great church because of a fine building is like an NFL team thinking they will win the Super Bowl because they have the best uniforms.

So let us on this fiftieth anniversary of a building determine together that as we relive memories, celebrate this gift, and remember with thanks those who gave it to us, we are here primarilye to declare and rejoice that the church of Jesus Christ is alive and well in Hickory, North Carolina. 

And the main reason we have any building, but especially a building like this one, is to point us up, further up, and higher still – beyond our moment, past our fascination with our own accomplishments and wisdom, out of our preoccupation with our own happiness and self-fulfillment. 

We have a building for a reason no greater or nobler than the reason our forebears built an outdoor stand of branches and brush.  It’s to bring us together in one place in order that we might exclaim our collective “Wow!” at the greatness of God’s majesty and the beauty of his holiness.  That’s all that matters.  Amen.

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