An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on August 23, 2009.

I Kings 8:1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

In September 1877 at a meeting held under the flag of truce at Fort Robinson Nebraska, a foot soldier unexpectedly and mercilessly rammed a bayonet into the back of one of the greatest Indian chiefs to ever live on the vast American plains. Crazy Horse, the great leader of the Sioux died from his fatal wound. A few years after his death, Black Elk, a medicine man, told an interviewer Crazy Horse had spoken to him in a dream predicting, “I will return to you in stone.” Whatever you think of Black Elk’s prediction, Crazy Horse is returning by being carved out of a large granite mountain in South Dakota, just a few miles from Mount Rushmore.
 
            Seventy years ago the federal government finished its silent tribute to four of our greatest Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The tribute was meant to honor them and to symbolize the spirit that made America great. Carved out of the face of a mountain like three-dimensional cameos, each of them pointed outwardly as if they were sentinels standing shoulder to shoulder. At Mount Rushmore’s dedication, creator and master carver John Borglum said, “Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the works of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”
 
            In the fall of the same year Mt. Rushmore was finished, Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote an appeal to a Connecticut sculptor who had worked alongside Borglum. In his letter he wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, also.” With that, those chiefs started a letter writing campaign that resulted in them meeting the sculptor face-to-face to explore another mountain carving project. Thus, more than six decades ago and nearly ten million tons of rock later, Korczak Ziolkowski launched what became his life’s work. There is nothing like it in the world … if the sculpture is finished, it will be the world’s largest mountain carving. Crazy Horse sitting astride his stallion is almost mind-boggling as all four Presidents on Mount Rushmore could fit in the 9-story face of Crazy Horse. His outstretched arm will be longer than a football field and his finger, pointing over the Black Hills at the end of that arm will be larger than a city bus. The horse’s nostril alone will be large enough to hold a 5-room house.
 
            Ziolkowski, a Polish immigrant and self-taught sculptor, gave 35 years to this project before his death – now his family (his wife Ruth and ten children) continue the work and there is no active timeline projection for its completion. What kind of vision inspired a man to give his whole life to this project? It’s been twenty years now since Korczak died and the work continues depending completely upon non-governmental donations.
I
 
            I thought of Korczak as I thought about Solomon standing on the portal of his grand monument to God on the morning they dedicated the Temple. It was the vision of his father David that inspired Solomon to complete the Temple as a permanent house where God would reside.
 
            History tells us that for magnificence, splendor and cost, Solomon’s Temple has never been equaled. It occupied three quarters of a square mile, and cost over a billion dollars in today’s currency, and yet, not one piece of it survives to this day. Most archaeologists agree that most of it was plundered before it was destroyed in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. After their return from exile, the beleaguered Israelites began the slow work of rebuilding, but the second Temple never achieved the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple. Surely all those present on the day of dedication could feel it in the air as Solomon uttered the prayer of dedication. All of them must have felt the communal sense of pride in their great achievement sensing they had been a part of some collective greatness in the unified efforts expended for the house of God.
 
            Interestingly though, today’s text is a part of the larger group of scriptures that have come to be known as the collective writings of a group of historians commissioned to gather the history of their people while they were still huddled in exile. That’s not hard for us to imagine: The severity of the exile bringing the need for a consistent history made all too clear because of what they had lost and how they had suffered.
 
            Maybe that gives us this history lesson meaning when we understand that the writer’s first audience was the Jews in Babylonian exile needing a fresh reminder of who they were. The words of this prayer and Solomon’s sermon preached on that auspicious day could be remembered in exile by a people who had lost their land, their holy city, and had seen their precious memories of the throne of God go down in ashes and utter destruction. They needed to remember they were the people of God and that they had a wonderful life in their own land until they had given themselves to outside deities and had let the uniqueness of being God’s children make them lazy and spoiled. Maybe this part of their history had added meaning knowing they were remembering this important day like a prisoner remembers his or her best day in freedom.
 
 
II
 
            That’s our task today … to remember that God lives among us and has an untouchable place of reverence. Obviously we don’t attach the same meanings and holy reverence to our Sanctuary that the Jews did to Solomon’s Temple, but symbolically we still understand this is the place where God meets with the gathered believers who are here to worship. Gathered in this room where so many times the presence of God has been sensed, we need to remember God is truly with us and among us as the people of God. Maybe it’s important to remember God is with us not because of this place, but because of these people. For you see, we are the church … the church is not this building. It’s one of our earliest lessons as people of faith: That this building is just the place where we meet because God lives in each one of us … inside our hearts and souls. But at the same time we claim these buildings to are our church buildings, it’s hard not to recognize it’s still more than just a place.
 
            We love this place; many of you have spent a major part of your lifetime worshiping here and others of you are just getting acquainted here. We love it enough to seek to renew it. But the reality is that God has been here because we have been here. God lives among us when we’re here but then goes out with every one of us to all the places we go each week.
 
            I love that old prayer adapted from a simple prayer of St. Patrick that is occasionally heard as a benediction following worship:

May the Lord Christ …
Walk ahead of you to prepare and plan your way
May the Lord Christ …
Walk beside you, companion on your journey as you go
May the Lord Christ …
Be under you, to support and sustain you when you fall – for you and I will
May the Lord Christ …
Walk behind you, to complete and finish what you leave undone
May the Lord Christ …
Be within you, to give you peace and comfort on the journey
But above all…
may the Lord Christ be over you, watching, calling
and guiding, challenging now and forever more
 
            It’s a fitting way to end worship because it reminds us no matter where we are, God is with us, in the Temple of our hearts. No matter whether we feel we are in exile for having forgotten who we are, God is with us. No matter whether we are aware of God’s presence at all, God is with us. In every way and in every circumstance, God is with God’s children, wanting to shower them with grace and forgiveness and the power to continue even under the direst circumstances. For you see, the presence of God among us is the symbol of heaven reaching down and touching earth … a place where the people of God and the outsiders are all welcome!

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