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The congregation that we served in Boise, Idaho, had suffered two major building fires prior to our time as their minister. The first, in 1942, completely destroyed the church building. Rebuilding a new, more fire resistant church during the Second World War was a daunting challenge. Then, just a decade later, in 1952, another fire struck, this one burning the roof off of their new brick-faced building. Again the congregation rose to the task and not only repaired the fire-damaged building, but also expanded and added an education wing. Those years of intense focus upon the building and fundraising for new building needs produced a lot of fond memories for the members of the congregation and there were plenty of stories that still inspired the congregation when we arrived as pastors more than three decades later.

We often say that the church is more than a building and that if the building that houses our congregation is destroyed, the congregation would continue to thrive and minister. The truth, however, is that I have never served a church without a building. Perhaps the closest I have come was during the final three months before my retirement when we were nearly shut down because of the pandemic. In those days, I went to the church building every day, but it was usually empty. The focus of our ministry was outside of the building in many ways. We developed telephone trees and special mailings and expanded our social media profile significantly. I offered a special online prayer every morning. It is interesting, in retrospect, how those prayers had their own sense of focus upon the building. Each day I would select a different place within our church building as a background for the prayer I was offering. It was a kind of tour of the building for those who could not come to the building. And all during that time, our congregation continued its generous ways supporting the building with their donations. We did a lot of cleaning. We took care of some needed repairs to the building. We kept up with the yard work.

As our relationship with our new congregation here in Washington grows, we have found definite challenges with remote worship. It just doesn’t feel the same as worshiping in a face to face setting. Virtual coffee hours just aren’t the same kind of fellowship for those of us who don’t know the other members of the community. Small group activities are a bit better. I am enjoying a Zoom Lenten study and getting to know the other members of the group. We have been honored with telephone conversations with the pastors that have been helpful. Slowly, we are becoming connected to the congregation. As we have done so, we have also learned that although the congregation is not currently meeting face to face and the building is mostly empty during the pandemic, the trustees are still working hard on keeping the building repaired and ready. A list of major projects looms, including replacing part of the roofing, updating heating and air conditioning systems, and other projects that remind us of the final capital funds campaign of our careers as ministers.

We say that the church is more than a building, but we form attachments to the building. While it is literally true that the destruction of the building is not the same as the end of the congregation - something our Idaho church proved - buildings are important to congregations.

Israel has fully explored that relationship between the community and the building for millennia. Two temples in Jerusalem were constructed with a vision of making a single worship place for the entire world. Both were destroyed. The people of Israel have long struggled with their name which both indicates a place and also a wider community of believers that find themselves spread out all over the world. One faithful Jewish leader once commented that the faith is threatened by the confusion: “Too many people think of Israel as a place when in reality Israel is a people.” Clearly, however, passion for the country of Israel extends around the world. You don’t have to live there to have intense feelings about the country.

Those mixed feelings about buildings and places are important to remember as we recall the events of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The report in the Gospel of John that is the lectionary selection for today is perhaps the most clear. It reports that Jesus refers to the destruction of the temple while himself being within the temple. But John’s Gospel also makes it clear that Jesus words are metaphoric: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

It is interesting that the lectionary places this reading on the same Sunday as the reading of the ten commandments from the 20th chapter of Exodus. The struggle to become a free people is a major theme of our Hebrew scriptures. As our people adjusted to the freedom of the exodus from Egypt, they kept engaging in behaviors that made them less, not more free. It seemed at times as if they were running away from freedom, turning to idol worship when God had so clearly demonstrated the divine commitment to human freedom. The commandments are granted as a simple guide to a life of freedom. We remember those commandments as having come at a time when our people had no land - during the years of wandering in the wilderness.

Our story teaches us that we are a people of history, not a people of place, but our emotions keep connecting us to specific places. Sometimes we sacrifice our freedom in an attempt to connect ourselves to a place. Again and again we have to learn that while we become temporary custodians of place, we can never own a single place. Our time passes and others come to be the custodians of the places we call home.

Moving to a new home more than a thousand miles away at the time of our retirement reminds us once again of the truth of the opening of Psalm 90: “Lord, thou hast ben our dwelling place in all generations.” Indeed we do have a home. It just isn’t a place.