Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” That opening line of Psalm 122 seemed especially fitting for our call to worship today as we gathered in our sanctuary again after such a long time away. I’ve heard our at-home worshipers are grateful, too, for new camera angles that allow you to see more of this space that means so much to you. In early March of last year, we couldn’t have imagined as many as two Sundays in a row when this building would have remained empty. Yet here we are, coming back together for the first time after nearly a year and a half apart. I don’t know how you felt when you heard the news a few weeks ago that Session had decided to resume in person worship today. But “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Amen?
Psalm 27, which Jeff just read for us, contains a similar verse: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
There’s a back story to each of these psalms, of course. Psalm 122 is identified as a song of ascent which means it was likely sung on pilgrimages to the holy city and to its temple. So “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1) is immediately followed by “our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:2) Meanwhile Psalm 27 seems to be the song of a particular individual in distress who’s in the temple praying for deliverance. So that reference to the house of the Lord is sandwiched between verses like these: “when evildoers assail me … they shall stumble and fall” (Psalm 27:2) and “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” (Psalm 27:7)
Of course, the psalms wouldn’t have become a prayer book for Jews and Christians alike over the centuries if they didn’t resonate well beyond their original contexts. And as you may recall, this summer we’ve stepped away from historical readings a bit and taken a different approach. We’ve been trying out an ancient spiritual practice called lectio divina. Sacred reading. Reading through a biblical text several times and simply noticing what we notice. Watching where our eye lingers. Paying attention to where we are stopped or summoned by God’s Spirit as we read. As I prepared for us to return to our sanctuary today and had Psalm 27 before me, the phrase that stood out to me was: “to live in the house of the Lord.”
We often use the word sanctuary to refer to the house of the Lord and a space like this one. Sanctuary conveys not only a holy space but a place of refuge, of safety and comfort, and this church building might well be those things for you. It’s not for nothing we feel a sense of relief today to have finally reopened our doors today. I remember saying early on during the pandemic we should pull out our Easter Alleluia wands as soon as we got back here to celebrate this momentous occasion. For it ismomentous. It’s cause for great celebration. “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4) We’ve been missing this building, this sanctuary, these people. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1)
At the same time, a few other texts kept coming to mind this week, asking to be brought into conversation with today’s psalms. The first comes from King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple in Jerusalem, the very house of the Lord of which the psalmists spoke. Here’s what Solomon has to say: “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!” (I Kings 8:27) We find the same sentiment in the opening verses of Isaiah 66: “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool;what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made.” (Isaiah 66:1-2) And just last week I was talking with the children about Psalm 139 with its memorable lines about God’s nearness in all places: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10) So, when we hear a phrase like “the house of the Lord” we might well picture a sanctuary like this one, but we know we’re invited to pan back and see the bigger picture, too. The whole earth as God’s footstool. A God heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain much less this or any other physical building.
We’ve missed this holy space, because here in this room we’ve gathered with our sisters and brothers in Christ over the years, and we may feel God’s presence here in a particularly meaningful way. But the last 18 months have offered powerful reminders that God doesn’t reside only or even primarily here. And neither does the body of Christ. In the span of a few short weeks in early 2020, almost the entire global Church pivoted completely to remote forms of worship. Sanctuary doors were locked, church buildings left eerily empty, and sure, there were some hiccups as we all adjusted to new forms of technology. But the Holy Spirit – a big fan of movement and disruption and transformation – has clearly been at work in the Church, bringing surprising gifts and opportunities out of this whole unsettling season. God’s also used this pandemic to draw our attention to deep and longstanding injustices, pushing us to really look, and see them, and respond, rather than staying tucked away inside these walls where our own safety makes it all too easy not to notice or to engage.
It seems to me the challenge before us as we reopen this space is to appreciate it, certainly, but not to allow ourselves to get overly comfortable here. Can we celebrate having this sanctuary available to us again without forgetting what we learned outside these walls? Or even what’s happening right now outside these walls?
Safe in our own little bubbles both here and at home, we find ourselves celebrating and giving thanks today. But we’re too familiar with this week’s top news stories to make the mistake of thinking all is well in God’s world. Not as we watch heartbreaking situations unfold both in Haiti and in Afghanistan on top of wildfires and flooding and staggering COVID numbers both here in the US and worldwide.
There’s so much more to the story of God’s children this week than our own congregation being allowed to return to our lovely church home. I find I simultaneously want to wave my Alleluia wand today for our MPC family, and to weep loud and long for our human family and what so many other children of God are enduring right now. Tears of relief mingling with tears of lament. For we know we’re the fortunate ones. We who have made it this far through COVID, and who still have enough to live on, and whose homes remain intact. We who are not fleeing for our lives, or fighting for our next meal, or desperately seeking the safety of our children. We who are privileged. Those of us who are white. What does it mean for us to find sanctuary here “in the house of the Lord” when others don’t have that luxury right now?
But of course, this building, much as we may treasure it, was only ever a rest stop along our way. A place to touch down together and gird ourselves up for the next leg of our journey. A place to offer praise to the God of all creation, to lift up prayers for our fellow creatures, and to encourage one another to use our privilege to make a meaningful difference in God’s world.
We can enjoy being back, as long as we promise one another we won’t get stuck here. Because it seems to me most of the action is happening outside these walls. Where God’s Spirit continues to move and breathe and blow, bringing both disruption and transformation. Where the God of creation has charged us with caring for that creation. Where the God of justice calls us to fight for justice for all God’s children. It’s not a question of whether God is here or there. We sing it every week: God is here, there, and everywhere. And it’s not a question of us and them. When it comes to our fellow children of God, we have to know: there is only us - all of us.
So if we’re going to “live in the house of the Lord” for whom the whole earth is his footstool, we’ll need to settle into our pews a little less and get out a whole lot more. The Rev. Tali Hairston, one of our presbytery staff members, reminds us Jesus was most often out on the road. He taught and healed and ministered not in a sanctuary somewhere but out in the community, along the way. So we’ll need to be people on the move too. We may even need to become comfortable with discomfort if that’s what’s required to engage more deeply with the world around us.
Still - “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1) “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” (Psalm 27:4)
Can we celebrate being back “in the house of the Lord” today? Absolutely. As long as we also remember we never really left. For the Lord’s house is bigger than this building, bigger than this safe little corner of our city. And as God’s people we’re called to live bigger too.
Let’s enjoy reconnecting with one another and with this holy space today. And then let’s get back out there “to live in the [great big] house of the Lord!” Amen.