Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 2: Your kingdom come, your will be done

Scripture can be found here...

We are praying. We are praying together in slow motion, if you will, our core, unifying prayer. And this week, we pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done.

So let’s talk about kingdoms, a particularly appropriate subject just a few days prior to the 237th anniversary of the date on which the original thirteen colonies threw off the shackles of one particular kingdom. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Here, probably the most famous sentence from the preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In a few short sentences, it becomes clear that the king whose rule is being overthrown is guilty of denying these “unalienable rights”. The longest part of the Declaration is the part known as the “indictment,” which lays out offense after offense on the part of the King of England against the people of the now United States.

All of which leads me to this conclusion: as US citizens, we come well-supplied with a deep suspicion of “kingdoms,” and with good reason.

Isn’t it odd, then, that as children, we Americans are regularly plied with the stories of kings and queens and princes and princesses, and that these stories offer reassurance that somewhere, even if only in the imaginary castles of our storybooks or animated Disney films, there are kings who are just, or, at the very least, harmless?

Then we grow up, and we discover shows like Game of Thrones a fantasy about medieval-type kingdoms filled with HBO’s usual dose of extreme violence, nudity and blue language, (so don’t tune in unless you can live with all those). One central icon of Game of Thrones is the Iron Throne itself, constructed from the swords of one powerful king’s defeated enemies. For any watcher of the series, it soon becomes clear that concepts such as “unalienable” or innate rights for non-royal people don’t even exist in the world inhabited by these characters.

They don’t exist in most Biblical kingdoms either. I have shared with you before God’s scathing indictment of the ways of kings in 1 Samuel 8.  God tells a prophet (this is a paraphrase), “here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i] And the people to whom Jesus is talking this day, on this hillside, when he teaches them this prayer we are praying together over these many weeks, they know all too well the ways of kings, whether we are talking about their own corrupt and murderous king-for-rent Herod Antipas, or Caesar and all his minions of the brutal occupying Roman Empire.

Which is why it is so stunning to have Jesus, not only use, but embrace; not only embrace, but proclaim the concept of kingdom and kingship when it comes to God, every chance he gets. And here, he says, “Your kingdom come.” Which, of course, is what sets this kingdom apart from those of the human kings. It’s God who is king now. But even that’s not quite right. The Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic words translated into the word “kingdom,” don’t quite mean that. They mean, “reign” or “rule”, or even, “way of ruling.”

If you’re anything like me, if you have a deep-seated mistrust of kings and kingdoms and anything that smacks of people getting stuff just because of who they’re related to, you probably feel better already. Still, just in case we’re not sure of what God’s “way of ruling” might be, let’s turn to the thousand times (or so) Jesus mentions “the kingdom of heaven,” i.e., God’s way of ruling, in Matthew’s gospel.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 8:11)

“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…” (Matthew 13:31)

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind…” (Matthew 13:47)

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  (Matthew 13:52)

In looking at the God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom we are praying to come—as soon as possible!—we find something that bears no resemblance to the kingdoms we know, whether in our storybooks, or TV shows, or 18th century Great Britain, or 1st century Rome. This is a kingdom best represented not by thrones made of swords, but a seed. This is a kingdom that has to do, not with armies, but with that delicious yeast smell while the bread rises, and searching diligently for something so beautiful it catches your breath. This is a kingdom you will recognize by the banquets—hey! That’s something like those other kingdoms! Oh, wait. To get into this banquet, it helps if you’re actually poor and hungry, or maybe really grieving and in need of consolation. (Sorry, completely different banquet situation.) This is a kingdom you can identify by the fact that people are being healed and released from the demons that haunt them, and not slain in brutal displays of royal power unchecked.

“Your kingdom come,” Jesus has us pray, but this is a kingdom that is already within us and among us, because Jesus himself is the sign it has come. So to pray “your kingdom come” is to pray that our eyes and ears and hands and hearts are ready to take part in Jesus’ work, what someone has called “the great Divine clean-up of the world.” To pray “Your kingdom come” is to pray, “Help me find and plant that seed.” To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to pray, “I am ready to share your healing.” To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to be ready to give all for this priceless treasure of God’s vision for humanity. To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to yearn to serve and be served at that banquet. One writer has summarized it like this: “To pray that God’s kingdom will come is to ask that God’s power to create will prevail over forces that destroy, and that [God’s] power to redeem will bring release from bondage.”[ii]

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

My first instinct about God’s will was simply to wonder, isn’t God’s will inextricably tied up with God’s kingdom? By which I mean, if we understand God’s kingdom to be the radical vision of God preached and lived in the work of Jesus, the ministry of healing, of table, of justice and care for all God’s most vulnerable… If we understand all that to be the hallmark of God’s already inaugurated kingdom, isn’t saying “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” sort of like saying the same thing twice? And the answer to that is “Yes. But there’s more.”

It is impossible to talk about God’s will without taking note of the only other place that phrase occurs in the gospel.

Twenty chapters later, after his work has led him on a path to Jerusalem where he is spending the Passover with his friends, Jesus again uses the phrase “Your will be done” in prayer to God. Only, this time, he is not in the midst of a teaching moment with his disciples. He is praying in deep anguish, in agony for what he knows he is about to face: his own death. Here is the passage, beginning at Matthew 26:39:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”   ~Matthew 26:39-42

I want to be very careful about equating God’s will with Jesus’ death. I struggle with the notion of an all-powerful God who sees the only way of salvation for God’s people as being a dreadful, bloody sacrifice of this Beloved Child Jesus, a God who, in theory, when asked about it later, could say, “My hands were tied! It was the only thing that would work!” That to me is a mockery of the power of God, as well as a mockery of the character of God, whom scripture tells us again and again… are you sick of it yet?... is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. It does not make sense to me.

Here is what does make sense: A God who is so committed to healing the breach created by the effects of sin, that this God would accept the life freely given by that Beloved Child… this is not a substitution; it’s a gift, like the gift made by the man who died last week because he dove into a shallow creek to save a little kid he didn’t even know. This gift is given from one who is so utterly in harmony with the will of God, with God’s kingdom-vision for humanity, that he would not raise a hand in resistance even when faced with torture and death. “Your will be done…” not in the sense that God wills Jesus’ death, but in the sense that God wills Jesus’ lifelong demonstration of God’s vision, the whole thing, even if this is the consequence.

To pray “Your will be done,” is to add our prayer to the one who made his life a gift to the world, and to ask that our own life might be a gift.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

We are praying. We are praying together in slow motion, our core, unifying prayer. And we come to the end of the God-half of the prayer, the parts of the prayer having to do with our asking God to help us to participate with the “great Divine clean-up of the world”, just as Jesus participated in it. And we pray that all these things may be as true, boots on the ground, as they are in God’s clear and gorgeous vision, that heaven and earth may be indistinguishable, the earth holding a mirror up to heaven. “Your kingdom come,” we pray. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, Podcast: “Narrative Lectionary 051, Solomon,” October 21, 2012,
[ii] Craig R. Koester, “Commentary on Matthew 6:9-13,” May 26, 3013,

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 1: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name...

Beginning today the folks at Union Presbyterian Church will be spending 5 weeks engaging in a close reading of the Lord's Prayer, as inspired by the folks at and the Narrative Lectionary. Much of what informs the sermon is also thanks to John Dominic Crossan and his book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2010).

Scripture can be found here...

It’s the prayer we know so well, we can recite it without even thinking about it. If we’re churchgoers, it’s the prayer we say, at the very least, every Sunday, if not every day. It is probably one of the first prayers we ever learned as children; it may be… who knows?... the first prayer C. and T. will teach J. (who will be baptized later in this service); and it will be, even for those of us who walk into the long twilight of dementia, something we remember, long after we’ve forgotten the names of our own children.

We call it the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ (because Jesus taught it to us), or, perhaps, the ‘Our Father’ (because of its opening phrase). And one of the problems with being able to recite something without thinking about it, is that we do just that: we recite it without thinking about it. Not every time, but often enough that we become dulled, we drift off, we are on auto-pilot while we pray. So beginning today, and for five weeks, we are going to take ourselves off auto-pilot where the Lord’s Prayer is concerned. My hope for all of us in this exercise is this: that we will be awakened to the deep meaning and beauty of this prayer we know like we know our Social Security numbers. My hope is that our praying this prayer will no longer be rote—at least not every time—but that we will experience it as Jesus meant us to experience it: as a means for deep connection and communication with God. My hope is that, in the end, our knowledge of this prayer will be surpassed by our love for it.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares the prayer as part of a larger body of teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon, which takes up three whole chapters, is the longest teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. It is so fundamental to Jesus’ message that some have called it the Magna Carta of Christianity. The prayer is found in just about the exact center, the very heart of the Sermon, and that is no accident. It’s the prayer we need to pray if we have any hope of following the rest of the teachings.

So, before we get to pulling this prayer apart, word by word, a word about language. Each Sunday in our church we pray the Lord’s Prayer exactly as it is found in the King James Version of the Bible. Word for word. The King James Version is known for its beauty, its poetry, its grandeur. But it’s good to remember that this 17th century translation was the vernacular of its day, just as the original Greek was the vernacular of its day. When folks prayed this in church in the year 1615, this language didn’t sound any different than the language folks spoke in the 17th century equivalent of coffee hour afterwards. The translation in our pew bibles is more like the common language of our day. It sounds less formal. But it isn’t. It is, for us, the equivalent the King James translation was for 17th century England: our ordinary, every day way of talking.

And now, let’s pull back the camera, and look at the prayer from a small distance, as if we were looking at a map or a puzzle with some pieces still missing. One of the first things we notice about it is that it seems to be divided roughly in half. The first half of the prayer is dominated by the words “you” and “your,” and the second half by the words “our” and “us.” Our first glance at the map tells us that the first half of the prayer is focused on the one being prayed to, and the second half is focused on the ones who are praying. In other words, the first half of the prayer is focused on God, and the second half, on humans—us.

And there’s more the structure of the prayer can tell us. Each half of the prayer can be divided into three petitions: On the God side, the petitions are about God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will. On the human side, the petitions are about our bread, our debts, and our trials. Listen to the sound of the Greek, Matthew’s original language, for the three petitions in the God half of the prayer:

…hagiastheto to onoma sou;
eltheto he basileia sou;
genetheto to thelema sou…

This is poetry. There is a rhyme scheme, there is meter, there may—for all we know—even have been a melody. The Lord’s Prayer may have been meant, like the psalms, to be sung.

So now, we allow our camera to zoom in, so that we can examine the details of the landscape. Even though the first half of the prayer is dominated by language about God, you and your, there is an exception to this in the very first word: “Our.” As in, “Our Father.”

So imagine with me, the first hearers of this prayer. The people gathered around Jesus on a hillside. He begins to speak: Our Father. In this case, “our” is composed of Jesus’ friends and followers, so far, the fishermen, Peter and Andrew, John and James. “Our” would also have included the crowds who had followed him there because he was healing them… other fishermen, subsistence farmers, the occasional tax collector, maybe some shepherds whose hillside had been invaded by the crowd, many of them people who’d been healed of diseases, pains, paralysis, epilepsy, possession. And today? “Our” includes all those present here… schoolteachers and administrators, engineers and mechanics, salespeople and crossing guards, retirees and medical professionals, children and grandparents and great grandparents. And “our” includes those outside our particular walls… other Christians… Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, Lutherans and Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians. “Our” includes people in 12-step groups who use this prayer as part of their program of recovery. The first word of this prayer reminds us: When we pray this prayer, we are not alone. We pray it as a part of a community. We pray as a part of a great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space, the dozens, hundreds, millions of others whose prayer always encircles us and holds us, whose hearts and voices join with ours.

“Our Father.” Jesus encourages us, teaches us, to call God “Father.” It’s important to understand what we mean when we use that word to speak of God, and to speak to God. There are dozens of different words used throughout scripture to refer to God. God is occasionally called “father,” yes. God is also called “rock,” and “fortress,” and “redeemer.” God is called “creator,” and “king,” and “lord.” God is called “shepherd,” and “God-who-sees,” and “healer.” God is called “judge,” and “messiah,” and “peace.” God is even, in Isaiah, referred to as “mother,” and in the gospel of Luke, as “mother hen.” Each and every one of these names for God is a metaphor. None of them is literal. There is only one name for God that can be understood literally, and that is “God.” When Moses asks for the divine name, God answers, “I am who I am.” We name God so that we can begin to approach God, so that our human experience can provide the language for us to begin to understand who God is, and what is the relationship that binds us together.

When Jesus encourages us to call God “father,” I would suggest we understand it this way: like all the other metaphors, the name “father” is not a name God needs, but a name we need. In the biblical era, the word “father” incorporated about four main functions: the father was the one who gave life (along with the mother); the one who provided food and shelter (along with the mother); the one who provided protection (along with the mother); and the one who served as a role model and teacher (along with the mother). To call God either father or mother is to speak to God who is not far off in another realm, completely unreachable and unknowable, but who comes close, who is right here, and whom we can approach with intimacy and gratitude, even love.

“Our father in heaven,” or, as the Greek puts it, in the heavens. In other words, ignore everything I just said about approaching God with intimacy. No, don’t. Instead, hold it in tension with this: God is far off in another realm. We do not see God as God is… thus all the metaphors. And yet we do encounter God. God’s realm is far away and yet it is right here. God is unknowable, and yet we feel we can call God “father,” or “rock,” or “shepherd,” or “mother.” God is completely other than us, yet in us and with us.

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Finally, we come to the first petition in the God-half of the prayer: We pray to God that God’s name would be holy. I’ve just spoken about naming God, about why Jesus might choose to call God “father,” and encourage us to do the same. But that’s just one meaning of the word “name.” There’s another meaning: name as reputation, name as character. This is the sense we mean when we talk about not wanting someone to ruin good our name. “Name,” in this sense, has to do with all we know about a person, good and bad.

We pray to God that God’s name might be kept holy. That’s not because we expect God to do something to ruin it. It’s because we’re afraid we might. So we pray that all we do might keep God’s name holy, that all we do would reflect well on God, that all we would do would be to God’s honor. And not the opposite.

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God, whom we know as part of a community of faith more vast than we can imagine; God, who comes close as our creator, protector, provider and role model; God, who is yet mysterious and unknowable: Help us to do only what honors you, only what reflects well on you, and never the opposite. Let our words and actions give your name honor and not shame. If we are parents, let our parenting be done in the light of the amazing generosity of you, our great parent; and let none of us ever forget what it is to be your beloved children. Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs: A Meditation for Music Celebration Sunday

 Scripture can be found here...

Do you have a favorite hymn? One that tunes your heart to sing God’s praise, that greets the one who is your sure redeemer, that gives thanks for the sweet sound of God’s Amazing grace?

I do. Or, to be more accurate, I have a number of favorite hymns. You most likely already know what some of them are, because, though try not to be too repetitive in my selections, well, sometimes I just can’t help myself. If it were up to me, and if I thought it wouldn’t drive you crazy, we would probably sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” a couple of times a month, not to mention “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” And there are others.

If you were to ask me why these particular hymns are my favorites, I would have a plethora of reasons. I might tell you I love the melody. I might tell you it is because I associate the hymn with a particular event, or person, or time in my life. It might be a hymn I’ve known a long time, but which took on new meaning after I heard it used in a film. (That happened twice: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” took on new and powerful meaning for me after the release of the new version of “True Grit,” and the film “Crimson Tide” introduced me to the real meaning behind “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”) But the reason I think overrides them all is this: In every hymn I call my “favorite” there is at least one line of poetry that speaks to me some powerful truth about God, a truth that I don’t want to ever forget.

Herewith, just a few of those lines:

“I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?”

“No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”

“Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, the hymns, psalms and spiritual songs we sing every Sunday are teaching us about God.  The music in our times of worship does not function simply as adornment, something to make it beautiful, though it does that, too. The music in our worship is an integral part of our connection with God. It influences how we understand who God is, and what God has done for us, and it affords us opportunities to pray and give praise to God with our whole selves, lips and breath, body and spirit.

Our passage from the letter to the Colossians is a wonderful little compendium on the subject of music in the church. It starts with what God has done for us: God has chosen us to be a part of this beloved community. And if we are members of a beloved community, there are ways, not simply that we should behave, but that we will want to behave. As God’s chosen beloveds, we will want to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” And because God is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love… a God of streams of mercy, never ceasing… well, of course, we will want to be loving and forgiving people.

And because God has done all of these things for us, we will want to continue to let God do good things for us. Let Christ’s peace dwell in us. Let our hearts be filled with gratitude. Let ourselves be bearers of the good news to one another.

And we will want to sing. We will not just want to sing, we will want to sing to God. About God. With God. With one another. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.

Today is about our taking an entire service of worship to see, to recognize, to acknowledge this: God has been so good to us, we are so blessed to be a part of God’s beloved community, that we can only respond with music. Today is about tuning our hearts to sing God’s grace, about letting God teach us some melodious sonnet that we will be able to return with hearts full of gratitude.

Today is about lifting up our voices… whether our own or those of our instruments… and singing to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Finding Your Way Home: Sermon on Psalm 84

 Scripture can be found here...

I have been thinking this week of what makes a place “home.” That persistent longing for the place where we belong doesn’t always make sense to us when we first become aware of it, when we first notice that we are actually longing for it.

As a child I never had any doubt that I was home. As an adoptee secure in a loving family, I was confident of my place and my welcome. Home was the air I breathed. Then, when I was 14 years old I went on a retreat with a group of students from my Roman Catholic high school. I was a religious kid to the point of overt nerdiness… remind me to tell you the “rosary on my belt” story sometime. Anyway, on this retreat, we stayed in an old lighthouse keeper’s house on Long Beach Island. About 25 students and two priests, we spent the weekend doing the following: studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; playing our guitars together (those of us who had them… a girl named Judy taught me the chords to “Diamonds and Rust”); walking, running and generally playing on the beach; and (though I doubt any of us could have articulated it this way), living out a new but really very ancient model for Christian community. At the end of the retreat, we had what was called a “love feast,” with bits of bread and juice, in which we took turns going around the room, each of us saying one thing we cherished in each and every other person. It took a long time. It was over in an instant.

By the time the van pulled into the high school parking lot, late Sunday afternoon, I knew I had experienced something completely new, a way of living in my faith I’d never known before. It was out there, ahead of me. It was completely unlike anything I’d known, and yet it felt like home. For years afterward I longed to find it, or to return to it, or maybe even to create it anew, that powerful sense of being home.

A powerful sense of being “home” permeates Psalm 84. This psalm is one of the most well-known and beloved in the entire Book of Psalms. Some of us grew up with this psalm. Some of us know it from its setting in Brahms’ German Requiem; the setting we sang of it this morning is inspired by that music. For some of us, it is brand new. It describes a powerful experience of the temple in Jerusalem as “home.”

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.          ~Psalm 84:1-2

The psalmist sings, How lovely is your dwelling place! And by all accounts, the temple, especially the first one built by Solomon, was truly a beautiful structure. 1 Kings 6 describes a building impressive for its day, though somewhat modest for ours: at approximately 90 feet long and 30 feet wide, it would have fit comfortably inside, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral (which is about 360 feet long and 190 feet wide). It was constructed of stone, inlaid with cedar wood and pure gold, decorated with intricate olivewood carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers in bloom. And clearly, the lavishness, the richness of the temple was meant to convey the absolute power and sovereignty of the God who dwelled therein (and probably, to be completely honest, the power of the king who built it). The temple was believed to be the literal home on earth of the presence of God, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, which it housed. Of course the literal home of God was lovely!

But it is not only God who is at home in the temple. For the composer of this psalm, a song meant to be sung in worship, it is a place of such beauty and power that he feels something akin to physical pain when separated from it. The psalmist describes himself as fainting with desire to be within the temple courts, and his entire being—heart and flesh, in other words, “all of me”—sings for joy to the living God. The temple is God’s home on earth. And the temple is where the psalmist feels utterly at home.  And he’s not the only one.

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.         ~Psalm 84:3

This place, built to convey majesty and power, is so welcoming that even certain wildlife can find or create a home there. Tiny, insignificant birds can build their nests, twig by twig, and lay their eggs, and perch and hover until their babies are hatched, and then shelter them there. The temple is home to God. The temple is home to human beings. The temple is home to the birds of the air.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.    ~Psalm 84:4-7

Happiness is living in the temple. The temple is a source of strength to those who long to be there so deeply, so earnestly, that the maps there are written on their hearts. In fact, the longing for the temple makes even the most arduous journey…the journey through the dry and inhospitable valley… pleasant, easy. They go from strength to strength, and they find themselves, inevitably, joyfully, ecstatically, at home. The temple is home.

Funny omission in all this… it feels like a funny omission to me, anyway. The main activity taking place in the temple is nowhere described in this psalm, though there is a delicate allusion to it. The main activity taking place in the temple is something that is pretty foreign to us, pretty hard to approach in a way that makes sense. I’m going to let novelist Anne Rice do it for us.

In 2005, following her embrace of Christianity, this writer famous for her stories about vampires released her novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Her description of the temple, informed by meticulous research, can fill in the psalm’s glaring omission. In this passage, the narrator is describing his first glimpse of the temple as an eight year old child, when he traveled with extended family and friends to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem:

I could hear the pipes and the cymbals and the deep blended voices of the singers. Never had I heard such rich music, such full music as that of the Levites singing. It wasn’t the gay, broken, and high song of the Psalms we sang on the road, or the happy fast-paced songs of the weddings. It was a dark and almost sad sound that flowed on and on with great power. The Hebrew words melted in the chorus. There was no beginning or end to any part of it.

It caught me up so completely that only slowly did I see what was happening in front of me, in front of the railing.

The priests in their pure white linen with white turbans on their heads moved back and forth with the animals from the crowd in which we stood to the great altar. I saw the little lambs and the goats going to the sacrifice. I saw the birds being carried.

The priests were so thick around the altar I couldn’t see what they did, but only now and then see the splashes of blood high and low. The hands of the priests were covered in blood. Their beautiful linen robes were splashed with blood. A great fire burned on the altar. And the smell of roasting meat was beyond words. I smelled it with every breath I took.[i]

The main activity taking place in the temple is the sacrifice of animals upon the altar, animals that will become burnt offerings to God, most of whose purpose is to atone for sin. The purpose of the temple is, yes, to provide a home to God’s presence on earth. But it is also to make right relationship with God possible by the work of the sacrifices.

And so the temple, about which the psalmist sings with such ineffable beauty, is shown to be home to so much more than we first imagine. It is God’s home on earth. It is home to the humans who wander in and out, hoping to set things right with God. It is home to the flying creatures who nurture their small and growing families. It is home to the rituals of life and the rituals of death, and as such, it is home to the deepest human hopes and aspirations as well.

Home. I have been struggling this week with what makes a place “home.” I think of my 14-year-old self, playing in the sand and sharing in the love feast, and the genesis that weekend nearly forty years ago of some half-formed notions of what kind of spiritual home I would inhabit in the future, meaning, the years after 1975. And I realize that what I found on my weekend at the beach with 24 other teenagers and a couple of middle aged priests is both light years apart from what the psalmist finds at the temple, and strangely similar, too.

My 14-year-old self found a place and a time where God and people were at home together, and the sense of all-encompassing welcome was profound.

I found a place and a time in which I could engage in a ritual of, not simply reconciliation, but affirmation, in loving words and gestures between myself and God and God’s other beloveds.

I found a place and a time in which to focus on the wisdom of the ages in scripture, a spring of living water in the dry valley that was often life as a teenager.

I found a place and a time where the music of my heart could find expression, and even grow.

And, more than anything, I found something I knew was big enough and strong enough and enticing enough to stake a life on. Anne Rice places a prayer in the mouth of her 8-year-old narrator, his response to what he has witnessed in the temple. He prays:

Lord, Lord, whoever I am, whatever I am, whatever I am meant to be, I am part of this, this world that is all of a flowing wonder—like this music. And you are with us. You are here. You have pitched your tent here, among us. This music is your song. This is your house.[ii]

This child has found his way home.

And, yes, my heart is longing, fainting for this, always. Isn’t yours? This sense of welcome, this sense of complete belonging is at the heart of all our searching, our whole life long, whether for a life’s partner, or work we love, or a kitchen whose window looks out on morning glories climbing a trellis. And in all these things, in all these ways we are tantalized by the idea of “home,” what we are really longing for is the very Presence so beautifully described by Augustine of Hippo when he speaks directly to God of his deep and unrestrained longing. He says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This restlessness for the God who is our home is at the heart of all we do. It is the basis of every program and plan we have here at Union Presbyterian Church, whether it is our plan for Christian education or our mission trip to the very same Jersey shore on which I had my teenaged epiphany. It is the reason we want a good roof over our heads and beautiful music to inspire us while we worship and praise the God of our longing. This restlessness for God is what gets us out of bed on a Sunday morning, and puts in our hearts much the same prayer as that eight-year-old boy:

Lord, Lord, whoever we are, whatever we are, whatever we are meant to be, we are part of this, this world that is all of a flowing wonder. And you are with us. You are here. You have pitched your tent here, among us. Our music is your song. Our home is your home. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 271-272.
[ii] Ibid., 273.