“What Would It Take?”
August 15, 2021
Just three weeks ago we were about to have our first worship service with people here. Not the August 1st re-gathering day, but the week before when we had a smaller group that was coming to help clean up the Church, but also to be our test congregation.
We didn’t have our usual platoon of ushers to help us welcome people into the building, and because of this, a certain contest of values began to unfold. I won’t use names, but one staff person walked through the narthex, saw the doors closed and so threw them wide open to communicate welcome and hospitality.
Another staff person would walk through the narthex, see the doors wide open and promptly shut them because an open narthex door is something of a vacuum cleaner sucking every bit of conditioned air right out of the sanctuary and out onto Franklin Street, leaving a mass of sweaty, uncomfortable worshippers inside.
I think those doors were propped open and then shut again about six times before Joey could even begin the prelude.
So often that’s how it is in the church family – different values, all of them good, competing for primacy. Is it good to telegraph a warm welcome – of course it is. Is it good to offer a cool place to worship on an incredibly hot summer day – of course it is. Do our values always play nicely together – eh? Not really.
And yet that is something I fully accept about the Church. It does not change the fact that I feel back here drawn to again and again. There’s something about being in a community – about knowing others and being known by others, about loving others and allowing yourself to be loved in return – that is simply irreplaceable.
Even when it gets complicated, there’s something that happens at Church that does not happen anywhere else in my life. I suspect that whoever wrote the 84th Psalm felt something similar.
1How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
5 Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob!
9 Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.
The Word of the Lord – Thanks Be To God
At risk of returning to the chronicles of my adolescence two sermons in a row, I remember a particular Sunday in worship when I was maybe 15 years old. I was sitting in my usual pew with most of the other youth in the church – 5th row from the front on the left side. It was about mid-way through the sermon when our young ears heard this scratching sound coming from the ceiling above our heads.
If the minister heard it, he ignored it. But then the scratching sound was soon accompanied by a louder chattering noise. It was getting pretty difficult to ignore it, but the minister sermonized on…though by this point the majority of the heads in the congregation were not facing the pulpit but rather scanning the ceiling.
And then, some audible gasps and pointed fingers – a gray bushy tail had been spotted in the rafters.
Sure enough, our quaint little church tucked into the Pines had itself a visitor.
By that point, the sermon was over – but I can remember my friend Wes handing me the Friendship pad where, at the bottom of the page, he had written “Fred the Church Squirrel” and checked the box for “First Time Visitor.” Truth be told, I bet that squirrel would have been over-joyed to get the loaf of bread delivered to first timers.
Maybe a dozen or so year later I was an associate pastor and we were conducting a search for a new organist. A young woman named Elisa came in to interview and audition, but there was a problem. Evidently, a bat had gotten into the sanctuary the night before and it had drowsily perched itself right on some of the organ’s molding.
The committee wasn’t sure what to do – they didn’t want to ask this 26 year old to throw open all the stops and disturb the creature and have it flying around in a panic and…spreading rabies or whatever worst case scenario they could think of. But they had no idea who they were about to interview.
She asked for a step ladder, a rubber glove and a paper bag and she climbed up and removed the bat herself. That and an expertly played piece by Dieterich Buxtehude and the job was hers.
I was so impressed by her comfort with potentially rabid animals that from that time on I hard-wired bat removal into the small print of every contract with a church musician so, Joey, you might want to revisit your terms of employment.
What I mean to say with these stories is that sometimes the Church has some rather unexpected visitors: seekers in search of something, even if they are a bit squirrelly; pilgrims looking for a place to belong, even if they are a bit batty.
Our Psalm this morning seems to be written from the perspective of a pilgrim; a pilgrim who has traveled many long and dusty miles to come to the Temple. The journey does not disappoint, either. The Psalmist begins with the words “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.”
Now I have no doubt that that Temple was a grand, grand building – perhaps like nothing this pilgrim had ever experienced before.
But I find it interesting that – rather than describing the grand architecture, the towering columns, the feat of engineering – the Psalmist instead focuses on who, or perhaps what, is present:
“Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young…”
Undisturbed birds…allowed to nest in the eaves of the Temple. Could there be a better symbol for welcome than that? I confess that neither the Church of my upbringing nor the Church of my first call was too keen on keeping their respective rodents on the rolls. But actual vermin aside, what would it mean for the Church to be a place expressing the widest welcome possible?
This Psalm is perhaps best known by that line “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” What would it take for you and me to say that without batting an eye? What would it take for us to say “There are a dozen places I could be on a Sunday, but I want to be right here and I wouldn’t miss this for anything?”
No matter the times there are plenty of reasons why people stay away.
The obvious one being that we’re still not out of the woods on this whole pandemic thing. If I may speak for a moment to those who choose to join us virtually:
Absolutely – I get it. Stay safe. Use the live stream. We still cherish you as a part of this family of faith.
But, Covid aside, there have been plenty of other reasons folks steer clear of a church on Sunday morning.
Some can’t stomach the theology. Some have big questions and they fear those questions won’t be welcome here.
To that, I would say “Try us…I know people here who ask big questions all the time, I might be one of them myself. I know people here who read together and study together and who would absolutely honor whatever question you could think to ask.”
Some cannot make sense of Christians themselves – they’re perplexed by people who profess faith in a God of love, yet who are as cruel and mean-spirited as the day is long. “Absolute Hypocrites,” they might say.
I confess that every Reformed Theology bone in my body would want to say “Of course we’re hypocrites – and we have room for one more, too. See you on Sunday.”
I wouldn’t say that of course – but I would say “I know those people you’re talking about…AND that’s not the Christians that I hang out with. Let me introduce you to some people that I know and see if that still holds true for you.”
(In case it wasn’t clear – I’m talking about you…)
All of this to say, if I were to come across a modern pilgrim, somebody searching for a connection to God and to a caring community, like that Psalm-writer, I wouldn’t show them our building. I wouldn’t show them the columns out front of the Church – especially now because there’s a big gaping hole in one of them awaiting repair.
And though I know you labored long and hard to bring it into being, I wouldn’t even show them the blueprints to Dunham Hall.
You know what I’d show them? I would show them you.
I would introduce them to you, trusting that anyone would find welcome here, no matter how squirrelly or batty they might be.
Maybe you noticed but there’s been a slight uptick in activity round these parts the past few days. Cars packed to the gills with everything from bed comforters to shower caddies. Foot traffic on Franklin the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite some time. The sororities over here have been “doing rush” – if that’s even how you say it – I don’t know – rushing?
It’s that time of year when the students collectively announce
I bet you a Ben n Jerry’s cone there are more than a few pilgrims among them – seekers in search of something sacred.
As I noticed our new friends out and about on Franklin Street this week it got me thinking about what it was like to be a student – especially a first year – stepping into this new beginning with that mixture of excitement and terror – wondering what these next years might hold.
I started thinking about how important it is to find your people – and how that doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone right away.
I started thinking about how important it is to…belong.
And as I thought about being a student my mind drifted back to a young woman named Marina Keegan – Yale, class of 2012. She came to my attention nearly a decade ago because of these beautiful words she wrote for the campus newspaper – words written on the eve of her graduation; and words written just a week before she was tragically killed in a car accident.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.
More than finding the right job or city or spouse – I’m scared of losing this web we’re in.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.
An abundance of people who are on your team…those who, like a pack of pilgrims, are in pursuit of God together.
Yes, Church, we can be that for the ones who seek it.
No, we do not have to lose that – no matter what gets thrown at us.
COVID can’t take that away from us.
Neither bad theology nor big questions nor even a whole heap of hypocrites can take that away from us.
No, Church, nothing can take that away from us.
The opposite of loneliness
the widest welcome
the source of our soul’s longing
It’s here, friends.
Better is one day in God’s presence – in this place, among you people –
than a thousand elsewhere…than a thousand elsewhere.
Good morning. So last week we said goodbye to Rob who helped us provide hospitality here at Church by keeping the building clean and ready for us to use.
This week we are saying hello to some other folks who are here to help us in our worship. So I’m going to invite Joey to come around – we said hello to Joey over a year ago but some of you may not have seen him before. And Joey has some new friends that he’d like to introduce you to.
Joey Joey Joey
Dear God – thank you for music.
Thank you for giving us songs to sing.
Tune our hearts to sing your praise,
And may everything we do glorify you. Amen.
Psalm 84 is a pilgrim’s psalm. It speaks of our sincere search for God.
I imagine that you pursuing God might describe some seasons of your life – but likely not all.
It’s important to remember that Scripture as often speaks of God’s pursuit of us.
Whether we are the seekers or the sought, the important thing is to remember that more than anything else, God wants to be with you.
So may the Lord hold us close in care and in courage. Amen.