What is Truly Sacred About our Houses of Worship Cannot be Violated

by Amy Lignitz Harken


A fifth-grader at church thinks it weird that I lock the door to my office.

A few weeks ago, in the course of trying to explain why a pastor might lock his or her office door, I revealed that on two occasions, once here in Massachusetts and once in Missouri, somebody broke into my church office.

Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he asked, “Who would do that?” I confessed I didn’t know. He bounced his hands in the air, palms up. “Who steals from church? I mean, first all, it’s breaking a commandment, ‘thou shall not steal.’ And…” his eyes narrowed, “…this is God’s house! Who steals from God’s house?”

His point, of course, wasn’t the valueless nature of my office things, the boring Bible commentaries and file drawers of old sermons. No, this boy’s indignation sprang from his unshakable view of the inherent sacredness of church, and the brazen nature of the violation. Breaking one of God’s thou-shalt-nots in God’s very own house. Who does that? What could possibly be worse?

On Sunday, I shared that story with the congregation, attempting to illuminate Jesus’ question, Which is greater: The gold in the sanctuary or the sanctuary itself? The gift on the altar or the altar itself? (Mt 23:17-19) This boy fathomed the inherent sacredness of God’s house, which bestows unique value upon all therein. The good is sanctified into holiness; any wrongness is multiplied beyond comprehension.

That same Sunday, about the time we were wrapping up our coffee fellowship, turning off lights and, yes, locking doors, worshipers at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, were just getting started with their worship. There was a guest preacher who had brought his family. What text had he chosen? Did he stick to the first part of Matthew 23, not fudging the lectionary as I had? How far had the congregation gotten into the service when it happened?

If my fifth-grader’s tender spirit could not reconcile the thought of stealing with the thought of a boring church office, how can his tender spirit possibly reconcile the fact of senseless slaughter with the fact of people worshiping God in church pews?
And how will my fifth-grader’s parents explain to him what did happen? How somebody went into another of God’s houses and broke the first of God’s commandments, and broke it many, many times over, and broke it against babies, and children, and old people, and ministers, and parents? If my fifth-grader’s tender spirit could not reconcile the thought of stealing with the thought of a boring church office, how can his tender spirit possibly reconcile the fact of senseless slaughter with the fact of people worshiping God in church pews? What words could any parent use? Words about mental illness or mistakes in not complying with gun-control measures might, perhaps, explain, but can they reconcile? Can they retrieve the sense of sacred? Can they repair the breach between sanctuary and safety?

Along with the grief we all feel over the massacre in Sutherland Springs, I find myself grieving over what else was lost among all of us who worship the Divine at a special time, on a special day, at a special place, with the same special people, week after week, year after year, generation after generation. I grieve over that precious piece of innocence irretrievably lost to my fifth grader, and all the other children of this congregation, and of every congregation: that church is a place of reverence and right intention.

But I’ve been grieving that loss, or something like it, for a while now. I grieve when popular late-night talk-show hosts portray the Christian faith as led by the goofiest, weirdest-looking, and most extremely view-pointed of pastors. I grieve when popular television characters blithely shout “Jesus Christ!” as the ultimate of expression of disgust. I grieve when opinion-shapers ridicule prayer as a coward’s do-nothing response to tragedy, and reverence as an indicator of a feeble mind. I grieve when mainstream news media fail to seek comment on religious matters from moderate, intelligent leaders of Protestant churches, gravitating toward the usual activist Catholic priests or outspoken conservative fundamentalist leaders (either way, inevitably male).

Which is greater, Jesus asks, the sanctuary or the stuff in the sanctuary? The altar or the stuff on the altar? It’s the presence of God that gives everything its ultimate value.

One definition of sacred is “secured by reverence against violation.”  This makes me think that whatever is truly sacred about our houses of worship cannot be violated by any human act, no matter how egregious, violent, or unthinkable -- as long as we are reverent. Or, maybe even as long as some of us are reverent. Or  at least one of us is reverent. It makes me see how important my own reverence is, and how important it is we teach reverence, and demonstrate reverence.

 At the same time, while our houses of worship are sacred, they are not cut off from the world.

If nothing else, the crosses that adorn our sanctuaries and altars should remind us of our connection to the world, in all its beauty and in all its brutality.
Our faith has never been about safety, or removal, or even innocence, save Jesus’ innocence.  

Perhaps my fifth-grader has a head-start when it comes to instinctive reverence, as we all seek to balance ourselves on that wobbly wire stretching toward the holy.

Amy Lignitz Harken

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