Kathryn Matthews shared the following story. “Many years ago,” she writes, “I belonged to a parish that built a beautiful new stone and glass church across the parking lot from our “old” church, a simple, box-like structure that had been designed ahead of time to be converted into a gymnasium for the attached school. My feelings about the move were mixed, at best.
As we prepared for our move into the new church and our final days in the old one, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that humble space: late at night, alone in the sanctuary, during a weekend retreat, with only candlelight to see the shadowy lines of cross and statues; at my son’s First Communion service, listening to him sweetly sing a song he had learned in school about God being always near at hand; in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear straight while they sang carols as only children can.
It didn’t seem to me that one needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” I loved that simple, humble space as much as I ever loved the newer, grander one we moved into.”[I]
This story, I think, expresses the feelings that our Hebrew ancestors experienced many centuries ago as they looked at their Temple. It wasn’t just a well-worn-out but beloved building; it was a destroyed one, ruins that seemed to symbolize their own crushed and broken hopes. They could look back, of course, to a more glorious and happier time; a time when Solomon had dedicated the Temple and celebrated the arrival of the ark of the covenant. And that’s what we humans sometimes do in difficult times; we look back and fondly remember the “glory days.”
And this is where Psalm 84 resides. It’s a joyful song about the glory days, about being in the “dwelling place of God,” in the very presence of God. And as I read this Psalm, I couldn’t help but notice that, according to the psalmist, God’s dwelling place was both within the Temple and beyond it. The author says that his “heart and body” rejoice out loud to the Living God! And that rejoicing is both within God’s “courtyards” and out in God’s beautiful creation.
But this Psalm also picks up on another, albeit related, theme: Pilgrimage. He writes, “as they pass through the Baca Valley (Baca literally means ‘tears’) so, as “they pass through the valley of tears, they make it a spring of water. Yes, the early rain,” the author says, “covers it with blessings.” So, how do these two themes, the presence of God within and beyond the Temple and Pilgrimage, have in common?
I read a quote this week that might help us our here. It went like this: “…the fact that these paths are in the heart points not only to the orientation of one’s body on a journey, but to the orientation of a way of life. Both physically and metaphorically such a person is turned toward [God’s] dwelling place.”[ii]
My friends, faith isn’t a static thing; we’re all on a journey; we’re all on a pilgrimage of faith. And the blessing in all this is that God is on this journey with us, calling us, challenging us, inviting us home. A home that’s not necessarily tied to a building but exists within community; a home that’s not necessarily a house, but rather, a state of being. A state of being that causes our hearts and minds to rejoice out loud to the Living God.
And that’s the crux of this text. Maybe we’re wandering. Maybe we’re lost. Maybe we have to find our way home or make a home wherever we are. I mean, that was the message to God’s people when they found themselves in exile. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Jeremiah preached, “plant crops, take wives, have children, because you’re going to be here for a while.” Because sometimes a pilgrimage, even a forced exile, can lead us back to God. That’s the message, I think, that the church ought to try and communicate to the wider culture. The message that we are a people who attempt to extend a wide welcome to all, opening our hearts and doors to all, creating a place for all to come.[iii] My friends, this is where we are planted but the pilgrimage into the presence of God; the task of realizing that God is with us, that God is Still-Speaking in the world today, is unending.
One final thought. The author of this psalm says that he would “prefer to stand outside the entrance of God’s house,” (some versions of the Bible say ‘gatekeeper’) – he says, “I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of God, than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!” As we extend our wide welcome, as we expand who may be included in our faith community, as we redefine what it means to be a “gatekeeper” of God’s house, the temptation is to “live comfortably in the tents of the wicked.” In other words, to revert back to what was comfortable for so long, even if that comfort comes at a price; the alienation of others; the rejection of those who, for whatever reason, are different.
But, if God is love, and we know this to be true, if God is inclusive and unconditional love, then shouldn’t we, to the best of our ability anyway, reflect that love to all people and all of creation?
My friends, as we go forth today, (and as we embark on this important vote in our annual meeting today) and as we continue this pilgrimage, hand in hand, and stride for stride with God, should we not let love be the guidepost that points us toward God and inclusiveness be the threshold we cross as we come home to God.
This is my hope for the church. This is my prayer. Amen & amen.
[ii] Lorraine Parkinson, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.