Sunday, August 23, 2009

At Home in the Shalom of God

A Sermon by The Rev. Greg Ledbetter | August 23, 2009 | 12th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture: Psalm 84

Do you love a good adventure? A time of excitement and challenge?

For me a good adventure often centers around camping in the “great outdoors” ... hunkering down among the sparks and cinders of a campfire, slapping at a few friendly flying critters, bathing daily in SPF 70 sunscreen as Jan insists should be my custom, staggering up and down mountain trails while the dogs chase varmints. THAT is really living.

Now I know, there are among us gentle souls who find that stepping from the shower onto the bare tile of a strange motel room to be wild and woolly enough for their refined sensibilities. If they’ll allow me to show them REAL living, I’ll drag them along to Mexico sometime where we stand barefoot (and often in the “all together”) on uneven and muddy concrete floors and luxuriate under one and a half gallons of drizzling, luke-warm water ... SUCH LUXURY! When I come home after such an experience and realize—after the fact—that I’ve just used ten gallons of water to rinse my hair ... well.

Showers were few and far between in our campgrounds this summer, but Jan and I were amused by one camper’s determination to not altogether forsake the comforts of home. This tent camper, camping in a rustic high altitude campground, brought along his satellite TV dish, a television and a portable generator for powering up the whole mess. We walked around the campground one evening and while everyone else sat around their campfires talking and roasting marshmallows, this camper sat in front of his bear box where he’d placed his TV and watched the evening news.

For those of us for whom camping is appealing and meaningful, we might well puzzle, as I have this summer, over this rather odd enjoyment we get out of choosing to live for a time as nomads ... as those without permanent homes ... to live lightly and with fewer possessions and attachments ... to live, as so many do all around us, as though we were ... homeless.

I think for many, the simplicity of life lived out of a tent and over a Coleman stove is such a refreshing contrast to their work-a-day lives burdened with cramped schedules, multiple obligations and all of the “stuff” that we accumulate so easily in this acquisitive age. When Jan and I travelled to Vermont four summers ago to share in our old church’s bicentennial celebration, we travelled with two small suitcases. In one suitcase we took a few clothes and our toiletries. In the other suitcase we carried a small tent, an inflatable mattress and a few blankets. And except for food, we needed nothing else. We continue to look back on that time of paring things back to ONLY the essentials as a kind of golden time ... a time remarkably special in ways we still have trouble explaining.

And by contrast, for those of us who are blessed to have homes—and we know that’s not all of us ... but for those who are, do we not know of times when, in spite of a roof over our heads, we felt strangely “away from home”, without belonging, rootless and placeless ... ? Could it be that our “homes” and all that go with them can keep us from understanding what it means to “be at home”?

What does “home” mean for us? What does it mean to “be at home”? Is “home” a matter of “bricks and mortar”, a roof over the head? Or will we consider that “home” is a far deeper matter than that?

Be sure that this is not a modern matter, a modern anxiety, these questions and concerns about “home”. Even in the Hebrew scriptures there appears to be consternation and differing opinions about where and how one is most at home ... and even the questions of God’s home ... God’s dwelling ... God’s abiding place.

Today’s text, Psalm 84, is understood to be a song of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem and the Temple where God’s presence is thought to have dwelled. We have sung the song with the pilgrims already, but let me read the opening phrases once again:

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O God of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

for the courts of God;

my heart and my flesh

sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may lay her young, at your altars,

O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house,

ever singing your praise.

The Temple as God’s home.

I saw a tiny clip the other night of Jay Leno doing an embarrassing interview with a young woman. Jay asked the woman “Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” She puzzles for a moment and then says: “I have NO idea.” Jay then asks: “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” On the woman’s face is immediate recognition and she cries out: “Sponge Bob!” Yikes.

No pilgrim in the time of the Psalmist would have been stumped by the question: “Where does God live?” Of COURSE God lives in the Temple. The Temple is God’s home ... the Temple is God’s throne from which God rules God’s people. The psalm reflects the belief that of all the places in the world that God could choose to dwell, God chooses to live in the Temple and there to be served and worshipped and adored by God’s chosen people.

And God’s dwelling place, as depicted in this psalm, is a place of great and gentle welcome. Even the tiny feathered beings of creation can nest and find rest in the precincts of God. Even strangers and foreigners who reach out to God’s presence, as the psalm goes on to say, even they will find a gracious and hospitable place and a gracious and hospitable God.

It’s too bad that this ancient sense of the hospitality of God and God’s dwelling place doesn’t receive the same rigorous attention as, say, the Ten Commandments. If those who think of themselves as “Judeo-Christian” believed that any place God dwelt should be a place of gracious hospitality and kindly welcome, what a different world this would be. What a WONDERFUL world this would be.

This psalm of pilgrimage contains echoes of one of this summer’s themes from Peace Camp. Our resident theologian, Rita Nakashima Brock, reminded us that for the first thousand years of the church’s existence, “paradise” was not so much a place beyond sight or a place beyond time, but an earthly dream that sought embodiment in the here and now. The Temple for the Hebrew pilgrim in the time of the psalmist was a kind of earthly paradise ... a place where one’s whole being could co-mingle with the heart and being and goodness of the Creator of the Universe. Imagine joining with that pilgrimage toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple, toward paradise ... and imagine feeling that yearning to simply be in the presence of God where prayers and songs flowed as naturally from the center of your soul as breath did from your lungs. To be at home in God’s home: PARADISE. And to know that in God’s presence, in God’s home, you are fully welcome, fully safe, fully embraced: PARADISE.

It is as St. Augustine said in his “Confessions” many years later: “Our souls know no rest until they find their rest in thee.”

Do we not come to this place of worship each Sunday with some of that happy yearning still within us? The yearning of the pilgrim who leaves home to find her or his truest home?

Standing alongside the psalmist’s worshipful certainty that the Temple was God’s true and permanent home are notes of concern and caution ... concern and caution about being overly confident that one could know exactly God’s whereabouts ... concern and caution about whether one could build a home for God and then “keep” God there ... concern and caution that there were even deeper matters than the worship of God that should not be neglected—matters of justice and mercy.

You may remember that earlier this summer one of the texts of the day concerned Nathan the prophet having to puncture King David’s ardent dream of building a home for God—building the Temple. Until the time of David, God had been more or less ... homeless ... God was a vagrant God ... wandering from place to place as the people of Israel wandered toward a home, but not yet in possession of a home. But within the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures there is an awareness that that was not all bad. There was a proximity to God that was rich and altogether different than if God were to be “ensconced” in a temple made of hewn stone.

It’s sort of like the families we saw this summer gathered around campfires, their faces glowing in the flicker of the flames and glowing with the joy of simply being together. When they leave the sacred simplicity of the mountains, will they still come together as they did while camping? Or ... will they return to the many things that continuously draw them apart?

In pilgrimage and with God having no home other than the “tent of meeting”, God was especially close and real. Within the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures there is a legitimate fear of too closely identifying God with any one place ... and a fear that once a “permanent” home has been built for God, God’s people will begin to believe they have captured God ... the majestic wildness of God now somehow contained and channelled and controlled to serve the people who claim to be serving God.

In today’s other lectionary text from the Hebrew scriptures, which I did not read, King Solomon—King David’s son—is offering a prayer of dedication for the newly constructed temple he has been allowed to build. He asks in this prayer: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!"

The Temple may serve as a large and semi-permanent “tent of meeting” where God meets those who call upon God. But let us not think that somehow any temple or any cathedral or any church or any faith or any denomination or any single soul can somehow contain the allness and the fullness of the God of all creation.

That kind of thinking, the “God in a box” kind of thinking, is what provokes the wrath of the prophets who alone, sometimes, seem to understand the “wild, holy and free” nature of the God who will not contained ... or constrained. To imagine that one has boxed up God or imprisoned God with one’s religious edifice is fail to hear God’s cry that the truest worship of God and the fullest experience of dwelling in the presence of God is when justice and righteousness are the ground upon which the worshippers kneel when they pray to God.

Amos the prophet was a simple shepherd from Tekoa. And sometimes it takes the simple ones to see the truth that those who are brighter and wealthier choose to ignore. Amos is looking at the nation of Israel long after the Temple had been built. The walls and ceilings of the Temple were stained dark with the smoke of the fires of sacrifice that the priests were sure that God desired above anything. The people were quite confident that God’s permanent presence in the Temple—and permanent blessing on the people was a given, no matter how far they strayed from the ideals of God’s heart. But Amos, dwelling outside the inner circle of privilege saw the results of a people who went through the motions of the faith, but no longer understood the heart of the faith. And so he declares judgment upon the people of Israel with these words:

because you trample on the poor

and take from them levies of grain,

you have built houses of hewn stone,

but you shall not live in them;

you have planted pleasant vineyards,

but you shall not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your transgressions,

and how great are your sins—

you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,

and push aside the needy in the gate.

Seek good and not evil,

that you may live;

and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,

just as you have said.

Hate evil and love good,

and establish justice in the gate;

it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,

will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

You know with a little counselling and cognitive therapy, Amos could have turned those grim thoughts into happy thoughts.

Where does God live? Where does God dwell? Where can we find the “courts of God”? The Temple in Jerusalem is long gone ... and long gone, I think, is that God is to be too closely identified with any one place ... or any one religious practice or people. The lingering message of Amos is that God is to be found where justice and righteousness are made manifest. The building blocks of this Temple that cannot be built with human hands are: acts of mercy and kindness ... the struggle for fairness ... the work to end oppression and injustice ... the lifelong labor for the fulfilment of the vision of Shalom. And the building blocks are human beings of all places and inclinations who choose every day and in ever thought and action to “seek good and not evil.”

Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”

There’s an ad on TV you may have seen. A camera follows a little boy as he wanders around his neighbourhood in some far off, foreign land. You can see that he’s wandering around with a little tape recorder recording all of the familiar sounds of home. And then you see him playing these sounds over the phone to his homesick sister who is in college in a far off place.

Echoes of home ... echoes of our true home. Our true home is in the heart of God’s being and the sounds and the sights and the tastes and feel that are the essence of the heart of God’s being are the sounds and sights, tastes and feel of Shalom—peace with justice, righteousness mingled with mercy.

We are each, in our own way, pilgrims on a journey from where we are to a place beyond our sight. Not beyond our sight because it is hidden in some heavenly cloud, but because it is a peaceful dream that is yet beyond our reach. And still we journey on, as pilgrims do, journeying toward God, journeying with God, sharing the joy of the dream of Shalom as we travel and sing. And I think it would be a fair revision of today’s psalm to exchange the vision of an earthly Temple for the vision of a temple of justice and righteousness, where all have a place and a purpose, where all may find and make a home in peace:

How lovely is your Shalom,

O God of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

for the Shalom of God;

my heart and my flesh

sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may lay her young, within your Shalom,

O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.

Happy are those who live in your Shalom,

ever singing your praise.


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