The 140th Anniversary of the Consecration of the Church, Grace Church, Spring Hill

“Listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:30).

A couple of years ago I participated in an ecumenical pilgrimage to the city of Rome, to the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City. The church stands at the traditional burial site of the Apostle Peter, who is supposed to have been crucified not too far away from where the church stands now. Underneath the high altar in this vast church is the Tomb of St. Peter, part of an ancient burial ground where the remains of St. Peter and several other early popes are thought to rest. Not too many years ago modern archaeological excavations uncovered remains, perhaps those of St. Peter himself, in the long-forgotten space beneath the publicly accessible crypt.

Whatever the case with St. Peter, when we entered the more constricted space of the tomb, after the vastness of the church above, I was struck with the long history of Christian presence and prayer in that particular place. Like many pilgrims before me, I could feel the draw of a holy place where (in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot) “prayer had been valid” over many years. This was the site of Christian martyrdom that had been remembered and which had become the site of a great church, the destination of many pilgrims seeking God. I have not been to the Holy Land and visited the sites of Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection, but I imagine that the experience is something like this. There is no doubt in my mind that there are holy places; places where we can encounter God.

Our reading from the First Book of Kings, however, connects us to an ancient debate about holy places: a debate that took place over centuries among the people of Israel. After King David had captured Jerusalem and established his capitol in the city, there was a move afoot to build a permanent temple near the royal palace, a dwelling place fit for God. Until then the Ark of the Covenant, the locus of the People’s worship, had been housed in a tent, the sort of dwelling fit for the nomadic God of a nomadic People.

Instead of David’s construction plan, however, a vision came to Nathan the prophet, who told the king that he was not to build a dwelling place for God. God says, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle” (2 Sam. 7:6). Instead of a temple, a house to dwell in, God would raise up the family of David to be his own possession. David’s not going to build God a house; God himself is calling the shots, and will take action to make David and his descendants into a mighty house themselves.

It’s only in the reign of Solomon his son that the time comes for the building of a temple in Jerusalem. The back and forth about the temple, from the time of David to Solomon, reveals a fundamental uneasiness in Israel about the dwelling place of God. Can God be tied down to a place or not? Is he not better tied to the People of God and to the family of David?

Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the Temple (our reading today) reflects this back and forth debate in Israel. Though the building and consecration of the Temple might seem to resolve the question, Solomon’s prayer focuses on God’s covenant with the People and with the family of David. If they will keep the covenant then God will be with them. In other words, the Temple won’t guarantee God’s presence: only faithfulness can do that.

Then Solomon prays, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). This is a hard note to sound at the consecration of the house of God! Again, Solomon knows that God is not constrained by an earthly dwelling place. Even a vast temple cannot contain him. Yet for all that, the consecration of the Temple ends with a prayer that God will hear the People when they appear in the house to pray. “Listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:30).

This evening, let us make Solomon’s prayer our own. We know that God is not limited in any way by this holy place. Yet for all that, we also know that Grace Church, Spring Hill, has been the place where God has made himself powerfully present for generations of faithful Christians.

It’s the place where Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist have been celebrated again and again over the years: means of grace, outward and visible signs of the mighty and invisible God. In these sacraments we have recalled the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the means of our salvation. Grace Church is also the place where generation after generation of folk have been joined in Holy Matrimony. Finally, it’s also the place from which the Burial of the Dead has been celebrated and the faithful departed commemorated. This too is a holy place where “prayer has been valid”, for one hundred and forty years. It connects us to the past and stretches us out toward the future. It connects us to God.

Tonight, let us like Solomon rededicate ourselves to the service of God at Grace Church. Let us give thanks for God’s mighty action in our lives. And may the Lord who has blessed us in the past continue to hear our prayers, and the prayers of those who follow us, as we worship in this holy place.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee