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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/29/2012

I’m going to talk about Sacred Space and holy ground, but first the Super Bowl.

Next Sunday is the Super Bowl.  I don’t suppose too many people around here are real excited about it since the beloved team in green and gold three hours to the south was upset a couple of weeks ago.  Even I’m not that interested having long ago grown tired of the Patriots and their arrogance.  It is a big deal though, regardless of what any of us may think.  The Super Bowl is the only sporting event that makes this calendar that Thrivent sends to all the pastors, thus raising it to liturgical status.  Well, not really I guess; I suppose the makers of the calendar include it as a caution to be careful about scheduling much on that evening but it still makes me think about the religious status that sports has taken on in our world.

I first really thought about this when I took the first worship class at seminary and aspects of what makes up religious worship were discussed.  For the sixteen years prior to going to seminary I had Boston Celtics season tickets, which included all the Larry Bird glory years, and as the professor was talking about what constitutes worship I was thinking, “Everything he’s saying could be applied to my Celtics experience. 

The first thing he talked about was sacred space.  At their best, churches are sacred space, space that is set aside for the rituals that make up our worship.  It’s space that is rarely used for anything but worship and that’s as it should be. It holds memories, there is history, there are symbols that you don’t see in many other places.  In some churches, especially where incense is used, there are even smells that are associated with it.  Time is different; we’re not on the clock during worship.  I don’t think it was part of the design of this building but I like the fact that the only clock in here only has one arm and it doesn’t work.   This is a space set apart, such that it has a sense of sacredness so that when you walk through those doors it feels like holy ground.  Walking into church should be different than walking into any other place that you go; it should be.

Again though, as the professor talked about sacred space, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s what Boston Garden was to me.”  It was sacred space and the parquet floor was the altar.  All those things about history and memories and a different feeling were there.  At Boston Garden there were smells too, some of them not terribly pleasant especially after the circus had been in town but that was part of the experience.  For most of the years I was going to Celtics games I was going to church too, but Boston Garden was my sacred space, the players were the high priests and there was even a pantheon of saints with their numbers hanging from the rafters.  I still have this picture up in my office.  It’s hard to find me, but I’m in here.  We were back there when they were knocking the Garden down in the late 90’s and half of it was gone and the rest if it was gutted but I could look in and see where I used to sit and it was kind of sad; a violation of my sacred space.  I’ve been in the new building in Boston a couple of times and it just isn’t the same. 

For Packer fans Lambeau Field might conjure up the same feelings of a holy ground set apart.  When you’re there I suspect there’s the sense of being in something of a different realm.  If you haven’t been there, you’d like to go and take a tour.  That’s another thing about places like Lambeau Field and Fenway Park and Wrigley Field; they offer tours even when there’s nothing going on, because those places have that sense of being sacred; even empty you still get that feeling of awe and reverence.

None of this is bad except for the fact that it seems that these shrines of sport have seemingly become more holy than church spaces and there are many factors involved in that.  The age of the building is a factor; like I said the new Boston Garden just doesn’t have the same feel of setapartedness as the old one.  Churches like this one that have been around for a long time are often no longer in the same building and it’s hard to transfer the memories and history when you move to new space.  You can try, you note that for quite a few years the trend in new baseball stadiums has been to try and make them look old; but try as you might, you can’t take the memories and feel of Tiger Stadium and move them to Comerica Park, you pretty much have to start over.

With churches though, another thing that has caused them to lose the sense of being sacred space or holy ground is that we have become much more casual about church and worship.  In part that’s the price we pay for trying to be more friendly and welcoming, more contemporary.  Church has become “come as you are” and that’s not all bad, but you lose something in the process.  Going to church winds up feeling not all that different from going anyplace else.  You lose the sense of sacred space and holy ground.  I read about trendy churches that have coffee bars and you’re invited to bring your coffee in to worship.  Another trend is the worship space as flexible space that can be rearranged for other activities; set up the basketball hoops after worship and have at it.  That’s fine (I guess) but don’t for a moment think you’re not losing something in the process; what you’re losing is holiness.

The Lord said to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  We need those places, those spaces that remind us of what is holy, spaces that draw us closer to and make us more aware of the presence of God.  At its best, that what this space is.  What we do obviously plays a role too as we sing and hear scripture readings and celebrate Holy Communion but the space and the attitude we bring to it also makes a difference.  Holiness is hard to put your finger on but you know it when it’s present.  Still it’s easy to be fooled into perceiving as holy that which is not.  I loved all my years in Boston Garden and I was worshiping something when I was there and it wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t holy.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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