All that effort, all that expense....
Once, while rector in another parish, I was approached by a family that wanted to make a thank offering of a set of vestments for the church. Because I serve in a denomination that places a high focus on liturgy, vestments and the ornamentation of the sanctuary are important facets of our worship. They set the tone, and (literally) the color of our time with each other before the altar of God. Because they are special, they tend to be expensive, with designs that serve us as visual reminders that we are intentionally entering the holiness of time and space set apart for time with God.
I wear vestments in my sacramental functions, and I am very aware that they are more than just costumes. Daily, I enter the sanctuary and feel my eyes and my heart drawn to that space before the altar with its paraments and am aware that a sanctuary is more than just a collection of expensively ornamented furniture. These things are not the holy in our midst, but they do go a long way in reminding us that when we draw near to God, those elements tell our senses it is time to worship.
That made the design of those vestments a challenge. What shade of the liturgical color is best? What kind of fabric? How can the elements that hang from the altar, the vessels and the lectern blend together? Who gets to choose, the worship committee? Perhaps the design group in charge of the parish? The sacramentalists? The Altar Guild? Or, is it left entirely to the donor? Or maybe the person crafting the vestments has some ideas? Don't forget the people in the pews...they will have to look at those ornaments for a long, long time! It is a daunting thing, to take on the execution of a project like this one!
As I read the passage from Exodus, I find myself feeling a mix of awe and relief. Awe, in that the incredibly specific demands that God places on Israel seem so overwhelming and costly. The place of meeting must look just like this, and be made in just such a way. This is the kind of wood, the manner of ornament, the formulation and design of the ornaments, the constitution of the weaves of the fabrics...all are VERY specific. I wonder where Israel will find all those bits, how they will manage all that expense during their sojourn in the desert wastes. O how daunting, and how magnificent it must have been to see that sacred place finally completed!
No less, what a shock to witness the exception that the disciples took when that woman entered into the Passover meal with the jar of expensive ointment. She breaks it and anoints Jesus with costly scent that could have fed so many poor!
It isn't easy balancing the desire to provide the best we can offer for the ornaments of worship while at the same time providing for the demands that our communities have for justice and outreach. Going "over the top" in that manner risks twisting a noble desire to give praise to God with beautiful ornaments into a wedge of controversy.
Designing that vestment set was a teaching moment for the whole church, for the committees and ministries charged with the care of the sanctuary, for the donors and for me as pastor. We learned a lot along the way about ourselves and our neighbors, some of it challenging and some of it quite grace-filled. Reading the passages today reminds me that when that task again falls to any church I serve, I will be going back to the delicate balance we need to strike between "going all out" on the ornament while at the same time being mindful that what we choose to decorate our sanctuary with says a lot about how we live out the mission of our church. Even as we go all out, we need to go "all in" on being the type of community that does not forget those who need bread first, before design can be appreciated. Beauty is not only in the design...it is also found in the way the community comes together to celebrate God's mercy while caring for those in need.