“A Place of Welcome for All”

Pentecost 13

August 23, 2015

 

Text: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84

         

          Our lesson from 1 Kings today is a portion of the prayer King Solomon prayed as part of the ceremony dedicating the temple he had built to God. You may recall that Solomon’s father, King David, had wanted to build a temple, but through the prophet Nathan God told David that he was not the one who was to build God a temple—his son who would follow him as king would be the one to do that. So Solomon built the temple.

In our time, it may be hard for some people to understand what the big deal was about having a temple. There are many people who don’t think they need to go to a building designated as a church, temple, or syangogue to worship God. They argue that God is everywhere and can be worshipped anywhere. Fair enough. Even Solomon said as much when he prayed, “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you?” Solomon understood that God cannot be confined to a building, or even the earth as a whole. Yet at the same time, Solomon also understood that God had chosen to give his people a distinct place set aside to worship him. The worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has never been strictly a private affair. Worship of the God we serve and to whom we belong has always included gathering as a faith community. Thus it is that for most of its 2000 year history, the vast majority of Christians have gathered to worship in buildings and spaces specifically set aside for that purpose.

We often refer to such buildings as “God’s house” or the “house of the Lord.” The temple that Solomon had built also was referred to in that way. Our psalm today sings of the goodness of God’s dwelling place, saying “Better is a single day in your courtyards than a thousand days anywhere else! I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!” To be in the presence of the Lord in his house is the best thing there is.

More specifically, it is good for everyone to be in the house of the Lord. The psalmist sings, “Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there; the swallow has found herself a nest where she can lay her young beside your altars, Lord of heavenly forces, my king, my God!” Sparrows and swallows are welcome in God’s house. Those of us who have had experience with sparrows and swallows know that the nesting habits of these birds can be downright annoying.

Sparrows prefer to build their nests under the eaves or in the walls of buildings, in street lamps, or in other human-made structures rather than in trees. They sometimes evict other species of birds from nest boxes and take them over. You might say they are the bullies among small birds.

The most familiar type of swallow to most of us is probably the barn swallow. The barn swallow builds its nests by daubing mud on the rafters of buildings.

Although both of these birds are useful in that they eat insects, they also are rather messy in their nesting habits. And need I add that I don’t imagine any of us would be thrilled with having birds fly around inside our church relieving themselves everywhere. And I don’t think that is what the psalmist is telling us we should do. But I do think the idea of sparrows and swallows being welcome in God’s house does encourage us to ask the question about who are the people we find undesirable and want to keep out that God would welcome.

Returning to 1 Kings, I find that Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the temple invites us to consider that question as well. Solomon first prays at considerable length that God will hear the prayers of his people Israel when they pray toward the temple. This prayer is not surprising at all. Solomon lived at a time when gods were considered to be territorial. Israel had its own God, and all of the nations that surrounded Israel had their own gods--in most cases each of the surrounding nations had many gods they worshipped. Of course the God of Israel would be expected to listen to the prayers of his own people, just as the gods of other peoples would be expected to listen to their people.

But Solomon continues his prayer, “Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation—because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, then listen from heaven, where you live, and do everything the immigrant asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I have built bears your name.”

This is the surprising part of the prayer. Israel did not really expect that their God would pay positive attention to the prayers of other peoples. It is quite remarkable that Solomon understood enough about the God of Israel being the God of all peoples that he asked God to listen to the prayers of foreigners. After all, what if those foreigners came and prayed for Israel’s destruction? Of course, that would be coming to pray under false pretenses, and that is not what Solomon was referring to. He was referring to outsiders who came to pray because they had heard of the greatness of Israel’s God and needed his help. Someone coming with that motive would be unlikely to pray against the people claimed by that God.

The message of Solomon’s prayer and today’s psalm, it seems to me, is pretty clear. God’s house is open to all, including outsiders. It is to be a place of welcome for people who are not like us, even for the ones who may make a mess of the tidy little world we like to think we have constructed. I imagine each of us has ideas of who the outsiders and mess-makers might be for us. I invite you to prayerfully consider who those people are, and ask God what he is calling you to do to help make this house of God a place of welcome for all.

                                                                   Amen.

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