Note from the editor: the following meditation on the lectionary readings was given on Sunday morning. We had four Muslim women guests, and one of them, Maha Elgenaidi, later addressed the congregation. We believe this was a first, but it is part of our continuing effort to talk about matters of faith with people of other faiths.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! (Psalm 84:1)
This psalm is a pilgrim song, a song for the highway, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a tired but happy throng of men, women, and children on their way to Jerusalem. They’re coming up the road from Jericho, and the older ones who have made this pilgrimage before know that soon they’ll come to the turn where suddenly Mount Zion comes into view and they can see the temple from a distance – how beautiful! How lovely is your dwelling place! They sing, they sing all the way, they sing until all of them are close enough to see the nest the swallow has built for her young near the altar.
My body and soul shout for joy to the living God! Happy are those who live in your house, O God, ever singing your praise! Line after line gives voice to the joy of going to the place where God may be found and the pilgrims are at home: Your dwelling place, O Lord; your house; the courts of the Lord where the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest; better one day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. This psalm is all about the place where God dwells; the pilgrims say they’d gladly trade a thousand days elsewhere for one day there. Think about that for a moment. Summer is just coming to an end, and for those of us who’ve been on vacation the memories are still fresh. Think of those precious days of fullness and rest and joy; days on the beach, in the mountains, on the river, or by the lake – a thousand days there for one day in God’s house. What a day! What a house!
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been a holy place for many hundreds of years, for generation after generation of the children of Abraham, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Suddenly we don’t feel like singing anymore, or only a very different song. Suddenly we realize that we can only take turns singing our laments about destruction, suspicion, and jealousy, about pogroms, crusades, and other terrors. We children of Abraham don’t know how to live together at the same address. It’s like we’re singing, “your house, your courts, your dwelling place,” but what we’re really saying is, “our house, not yours.” But we – and by we I mean all of us, Jews, Christians, and Muslims – we can’t sing the beautiful words of Moses, David, Jesus, or Mohammed to the ugly tune of mutual exclusion or colonization and pretend that it’s still the same song. It’s not.
In John 14, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” I believe that is a good place for Christians to start thinking about sharing God’s address with neighbors of other faiths. For some of us that will be a much easier task than for others, but I consider it the call of God for this generation.
And I believe that it’s not just a matter of learning to be tolerant, civil, and respectful or of being nice. Tolerance, civility and respect are all important and good, but they still allow us to continue to live side by side behind thick walls without ever getting to know each other. Prejudice thrives in the shadow of those walls; therefore, whenever the opportunity offers itself to us anywhere to take out a few stones for a window or a door, we need to embrace it and use it well.
The psalm for this day sings of God’s house, and how lovely a place it is where God abides. Now to abide also is a key word in the Gospel of John, and one of the more than forty times this word occurs there, is in today’s passage from chapter 6 where Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
We know John is sailing to the very edge here of what language can convey. In Jesus, the word of God became flesh and blood, a human being, and yes, we are to listen to his teachings and follow his instruction, but he gives his whole self to us, and what he intends for us is the most intimate relationship imaginable, a relationship of mutual abiding – he in us and we in him. This is the house that love builds, not with walls, never with coercion, but with hospitality and grace. It’s God’s house for us and our house for God.
I want to close by going back to Psalm 84. The translation we commonly use in worship reads in v10, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Now doorkeeper sounds a little like an entry-level job in the temple hierarchy, and the whole phrase conveys a holy humility: it is indeed better to be a lowly servant in God’s house than master of the house in the tents of wickedness.
The verse can also be translated, “I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a long history of mutual suspicion and violence, with but a few periods when we lived together like brothers and sisters. We are still only beginning to see and understand that the “tents of wickedness” are not necessarily places where only the others ever dwell. Sometimes our very conviction that we are in God’s house, turns that house into a tent of wickedness and we end up living in the most ungodly ways.
“I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the ents of wickedness.” I find the image of standing at the threshold very moving. It speaks of a willingness to stand in the door of what we know and love as the dwelling place of God, and to keep the door open, to say our prayers and sing our songs and preach our sermons within earshot of each other. The image of standing at the threshold reminds us that the peace and reconciliation we seek and find inside the house cannot be separated from the peace and reconciliation outside. The image invites us to think of the house of God as an open courtyard with many dwelling places.