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?
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