Monday, October 10, 2022 | Trey Comstock
We called our worship spaces sanctuaries for a reason. The church building is not itself the church. The people, bound together by the Holy Spirit, are the church, but the worship space can help tell the story of God’s reality among the people. During the Middle Ages, churches in Britain took this to a near comical degree. Certain specific churches were granted the legal status that fugitives could not be arrested within their walls or grounds. These churches could be like home base in a children’s game of tag. Once you get to the specific correct spot, sometimes a bench, sometimes the altar, sometimes the whole church grounds, you were safe from arrest. This wasn’t a get out of jail free card. After 40 days in the sanctuary, you had to choose either being arrested or going into exile. Still, the sanctuary represented such a sacred, set aside place, that nothing as vulgar as an arrest could occur within its hallowed grounds.
It can feel like a bit much. It’s not like we believe that God exists only within the walls of the church, or that certain things can only happen in a place officially designated a sanctuary. I’ve done weddings in barns, baptisms in creeks, funerals in backyards, communion in a bar, and ordinations in a hotel ballroom. On top of that, as someone often tasked with finding money to maintain a church’s physical plant, I can tell you that a lot of money gets spent sometimes to make a sanctuary feel more sanctuary-like. European Cathedrals are amazing, but to bring back up my favorite quote from Clarence Jerden, there still only God boxes.
The goal of a good God box is a noble one. The majesty or simplicity, the deep history or slick modernity, the shinning perfection or care worn modesty tell a story about God and God’s people. How people build and use sanctuaries expresses something about who they believe God to be and how they relate to God. We erect physical manifestations in brick, mortar, wood, stone, and glass to declare that God is doing something here and among us that’s extraordinary. An ordinary space could not possibly capture the power of what we are experiencing.
That power is at play here in 2 Kings 5. Naaman hails from a different nation and suffers from a disfiguring disease. His ironic name means something like, “pleasing one,” but his disease has robbed him of that and left him without hope of cure. Leprosy is hard enough to cure in the 21st century. Almost 3,000 years ago, the medicine of the time could do essentially nothing, so it’s little wonder why Naaman leaps at the opportunity presented by the servant girls offering that her God could heal him.
It required him to make a leap of faith. At the time, religious affiliation went hand in hand with nation, so to seek out another God constituted a betrayal particularly for one so highly placed in Aram. We also see the King of Israel react less than favorably refusing to help and turning immediately to suspicion. “Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” (2 Kings 5:7b NRSV)
Elisha, the man of God, creates the sanctuary space. “But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’” (2 Kings 5:8 NRSV) In this sense, the welcome matters as much as the healing. Yes, Elisha does use God’s power to cure the man, but that he felt led to care for a foreign general and a leper also speaks to there being something different about God than how humans normally operate. Naaman experienced this differenced directly, and we can too.
Fundamentally, this is the way a sanctuary and a church community feel different than the rest of the world. We, as Christ’s Body, can be the respite of welcome, peace, and healing that Naaman found in the man of God, Elisha. My weird life has taken me to a lot of weird places, so I’ve gone to church in Russia, Paraguay, Kenya, England, Belgium, Peru, Poland, Italy, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, France, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Portugal, Brazil, and cities and town across the United States. I’ve been to church in a lot of different languages – many of which, I did not speak. I’ve been to massive Cathedrals, megachurches, and tiny country chapels. Yet, in all of those places, there was a common feeling of home, of peace, of something very different and equally very good, of sanctuary. It’s not really the building. It’s about being among people who share God’s presence with each other. Satre may said that, “Hell is other people,” but as Naaman saw, when God’s presence is involved, it can also be a piece of Heaven on earth.