United Church of Christ

Love Is Our Defense

Sunday, August 26, 2018
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

Focus Theme:
Love Is Our Defense

Focus Prayer:
Gracious God, although we once were strangers, you receive us as friends and draw us home to you. Set your living bread before us that, feasting around your table, we may be strengthened to continue the work to which your Son commissioned us. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Psalm 84 (see also 1 Kings 8: [1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43)

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.

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.

O Sovereign God of hosts, hear my prayer;
   give ear, O God of Jacob!

Behold our shield, O God;
   look on the face of your anointed.

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.

For the Sovereign God is a sun and shield;
   God bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does God withhold
   from those who walk uprightly.

O God of hosts,
   happy is everyone who trusts in you.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 with Psalm 84 or
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 with Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Focus Questions:

1. What does it mean for a church to be a place that offers "alternative imagination"?

2. What makes a church "sacred ground"?

3. How do you feel when you see a church building converted, for example, into condos or boutique shops?

4. How does the image of church as "nest" connect with your spiritual life?

5. What memories do you have of feeling close to God in church? In nature?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Many years ago, 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 (halos and such) 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.

Broken buildings and crushed hopes

Our readings this week express the feelings that our ancestors in faith experienced many centuries ago, looking 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, as in the reading from 1 Kings, to a glorious and happier time, when Solomon dedicated the beautiful new Temple and celebrated the arrival of the ark of the covenant with a long prayer that combines praise of God with ominous reminders of what would happen if the people strayed from faithfulness to God. That's what we humans do in difficult times: we look back on "golden days," or perhaps better, on "glory days."

A lovely place

The reading from 1 Kings obviously goes well with Psalm 84, a joyful song praising God, not a building, although God's presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced there. "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!" (1 Kings 8:27). The psalmist begins by calling the Temple God's "dwelling place," but of course "dwelling" in a place doesn't have to mean being contained by it.

Some of the language of the psalm reminds us of romantic literature, with a soul that longs and faints, and a heart and flesh itself singing for joy: an embodied, whole-self experience of love. Joel LeMon observes that this is the only time in the Old Testament that the word translated as "lovely" is used to "modify an inanimate object" rather than a person; there, he says, it's usually translated "beloved."

Singing the songs of Zion

Psalm 84 is one of the "Songs of Zion" which, Walter Brueggemann explains, "serve to celebrate, legitimate, and enhance Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city," thereby making the people feel safe--after all, God is in their city. Could there be a better source of security?

However, Brueggemann seems to see a tension between the Temple as a place for "the practice of alternative imagination" and its role as "part of the urban-political-economic establishment." I think he's talking about a place where we can imagine how things should and could be, rather than how they actually are. A place where we can dream the dream of God.

Brueggemann compares the latter role to that of the National Cathedral in Washington, which provides a religious backdrop that can enhance the power and prestige, for example, of political leaders as they address the nation. Is your church a place that offers "alternative imagination"?

Establishment religion or sacred ground?

The Songs of Zion, including Psalm 84, could express "establishment" religion, then, and the memory of glory days, of power and of feeling important and safe in the eyes and care of God. This seems to be true for people of faith in every age, not just in ancient Jerusalem.

Brueggemann cautions us against the "self-congratulation" that Psalm 84 risks, and warns us that our own tendency toward identifying the church so closely with the building itself is our own form of idolatry. Seriously: idolatry is not something we should dismiss as "ancient" or "primitive." We have plenty of idols today in our own culture, and even in the church itself!

Coming back to God

However, Brueggemann says that there is help here in the psalm and in the faithful practice of those ancient ancestors, because they kept coming back to God: "the celebration of the Temple regularly points beyond itself to the reality of God, who is the real source of life and the real focus of trust."

If God is love, and we know that's the truth, then that "source of life" is also our best home, our best refuge (our best "defense"), our best security and shelter. Love is our best defense, indeed.

What is "sanctuary"?

That's the key, isn't it? Keeping God, and God's love, at the heart of everything: I think of the concept of "sanctuary" as safe haven for those fleeing other powers, something that was perhaps better understood before our own time, and in places far away.

For example, in the movie "Romero," there is a heartbreaking scene where a church is destroyed, and another scene where the Archbishop, Oscar Romero, is shot dead while saying Mass. The awful things--murders, "disappearances," suppression--that happened in El Salvador were somehow depicted even more compellingly when they occurred on "sacred ground."

Today, we are still shaken and grieved by the horror of nine people killed in a mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of a Bible study where they had offered warm hospitality and kindness to the man who then shot them, for being Black, he told the police. It's jarring to realize that even church itself can't offer safe space, sanctuary, when such a thing can happen on sacred ground.

Where does God live?

Why is the sanctuary of a Temple or a church "sacred ground"? Some would say, with the psalmist, that it's God's "dwelling place," the place where God lives. Brueggemann observes that the Temple as dwelling place wasn't God's permanent home but just the "place of God's sojourning."

While they wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites had the ark with them, a mobile experience of God's presence. But God was also up on that mountain with Moses, and God is with us, up on the mountaintops of our lives, and down on the low places as well.

A place of weeping

The psalmist remembers the hard part of the journey, in the dry and barren valley of Baca, a place, Joel M. LeMon suggests, that draws its name from the Hebrew word that means "to weep": it represents, therefore, the kind of "valley of tears" that all of us experience at one time or another. But the psalmist reminds us that, even in the wilderness, in the dry places, in the worst of times, God is good and will provide.

As we have said, no place or structure or the whole earth itself can contain God (permanently or temporarily), but we humans need a focus point, a base camp, a reminder, a haven, founded in God's name. The Temple (or church) may provide that "thin place" that Celtic spirituality describes, a place where the veil between heaven and earth lifts even momentarily and we taste the presence of God, but God is always and everywhere with us.

Our very lives, then, and all of nature, are sacred ground, holy ground. Thus, we too can "go from strength to strength" (v. 7), for wherever we are, we are "at home with God."

Birdsong as counterpoint to our songs of praise

So are the sparrow and the swallow, of course: the psalmist sings of their good fortune in finding a home in the sacred precincts of the Temple. Perhaps there is irony in this location, LeMon writes, for the sweet and delicate little swallows nest with their babies next to the fearsome fire where sacrifices are burnt, and they are safe there under God's watchful eye.

We can't help recalling Jesus' own words about God's eye being on the sparrow. One wonders at the repeated image of tiny sparrows in the Bible, one of the smallest of God's creatures. Throughout the Bible, we hear that God cares for the ones we might easily overlook: the small ones, the humble ones, the ones on the edges (the margins).

A place to nest

The swallows and the sparrows, all of creation then, join with humans in a song of praise to God, according to the psalmist--just think of Psalm 104, for instance. LeMon vividly imagines the "continuous birdsongs" in the Temple "[playing] counterpoint to the pilgrims' hymns." What a lovely image, for a Temple long ago and the sacred spaces of our lives today, too.

Brueggemann expands the metaphor of "nesting" to cover both birds and humans whose worship experience encompasses "serenity, innocence, and trusting delight" in the presence of the God who loves them. Of course, the image of "nest" suggests a place of safety, nurture, and home; how does the image of church as "nest" connect with your spiritual life? Do you find a "nest" in other places where you experience being "at home with God"?

Prayers of longing for God's presence

The scholars provide several other interesting insights: Brueggemann reminds us that the term "God of gods" in verse 7b is not only "a formula for majesty," but recalls an ancient time of polytheism, during which this God ruled over all other gods.

Brueggemann also observes that this prayer doesn't ask for the usual list of petitions and requests; it simply expresses the deep "yearning for communion and presence, which are ends in themselves"; this prayer is really not so much about the place (the Temple) as it is about God.

Clarifying our priorities in prayer

When you examine your own prayer life and the worship life of your congregation, do you find prayers of praise, and prayers of longing just to be in the presence of God, to be with God?

Finally, Joel LeMon draws our attention to the way that priorities are clarified here: it's better to be low in status and close to God than high in status but far from God. He seems to be saying that no matter how powerful, how privileged and how well-placed we may seem, the sparrows are much better off than we are. Do you agree? Why or why not?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century
"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to [God], being attentive to [God], requires a lot of courage and know-how."

Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, 21st century
"When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of twenty-first-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God's love."

Brother Lawrence, 17th century
"I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD."

David Brazzeal, Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul, 21st century
"Praise is the portal to the presence of God."

Pico Iyer, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, 20th century
"Finding a sanctuary, a place apart from time, is not so different from finding a faith."

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Faith Formation Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.


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