Psalm 137 and 2 Timothy 1-14
Some churches function as a sanctuary,
a hideout, really,
where saints seek safety
from the dangers of the world.
I remember a pentecostal pastor
from the church down the street
from the congregation I served in East Harlem.
We were having coffee,
— much as I had lunch this week
with my colleagues from the Methodist and Catholic parishes–
up 4th Street.
I remarked to the spirited minister,
how impressed I was that
his congregation had a service or bible study, or some gathering
almost every night of the week,
and on Saturday
and again Sunday,
morning and evening.
I had young kids at the time,
and I couldn’t figure out how
any of the school age children in his church ever got their homework done,
much less how their parents got food on the table
or the laundry washed.
But I decided it was safer to simply ask humbly,
“Do most of your church members come out that often.”
He assured me they did;
“Porque tenemos miedo del diablo.”
“Because we fear the devil.”
He went on to explain that at church they were safe,
— in the streets or even in their own homes —
they’d be vulnerable.
I wonder still —
how they had no experience of the devil showing up
…much less reaking havoc…
in the church?
My point this morning is that most of us
don’t see ourselves
as that kind of church.
We tend to be more comfortable in the world.
In our tradition
I don’t think,
we’re naive about the existence of or damage wrought by evil.
There’s a profound albeit tragic
insightfulness to Hannah Arendt’s phrase
“the banality of evil.”
But we’re not of the side of the church aisle
whose strategy is to sequester ourselves away…
There’s no where in all creation
where we’re guaranteed to be free of evil’s reach.
Perhaps, more threatening, none of us can claim immunity either.
That’s the negative reflection
— or the shadow side —
of the opposite promise,
articulated just two Psalms later than this morning’s:
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast…”
Our tradition doesn’t deny evil.
Neither does it locate in one separate place,
and good in another.
Likewise, neither are conveniently segregated
in this or that people.
Maybe THAT’s why we only meet once a week?:
We believe evil and good are always and everywhere prevalent…
So what makes a difference isn’t so much where we are most of the time,
or who we relate to…
No, isn’t the difference between saint and sinner
is more about recognizing good and evil
moment by moment,
and then opting for the former.
It’s more of a sorting through,
winnowing maybe even,
than some blanket coverage.
So, sometimes, I admit,
I wish more of us got here each Sunday.
But I also know and am proud of your busy lives,
all you do in the world.
It’s my prayer that
over hill and dale lives
are some direct extension
of who and how
church helps you understand yourself and God and creation to be.
Because believing God will go with us,
trusting that we can also find God in the world,
we understand ourselves thrust into the world
not as a punishment like Adam and Eve
or to face temptations like Jesus in the wilderness,
but instead, to seek, sort out, and struggle for good.
But in our reading today,
in Psalm 137,
by the waters of Babylon,
well, admittedly, finding the good in some places is admittedly tough…
The Israelites find themselves captives in Babylon.
A defeated nation.
Away from everything that is known and comforting.
Even worse, the Israelites find their situation
beyond any understanding of how this turn of events
could be on the way to God’s promise.
They’ve lost touch with even the most distant hope
that has run
— out of reach but before them — for generations.
What they always expected,
cast their hopes on,
would work out…
now plain as day it’s an unconquerable impossibility.
They can’t help but recognize they’re strangers in a strange land.
I wonder, do we recognize our exile often enough?
Remember enough God’s vision for us and our world?
See the heartbreaking distance between the two?
Recognize the parts of our world that are not as God means for us?
You see, faithfulness is to sing the Lord’s song despite of,
one finds oneself a foreigner in a strange land.
An illegal alien according to the rules by which our world works.
Undocumented before the world as we know it.
Without standing before all its powers that be.
In fact, so understood, we are to,
despite our challenges,
in spite of the evil that surrounds us,
we are to be THE GOOD
in as much as we can keep singing the Lord’s song.
Which leaves us with two crucial questions.
1st) do we even see the evil prevalent enough in this world of ours
as to appear banal?
Do you recognize the ways we are captive?
The ways we are far from where and how God means for us to live.
Do we know what to cry over?
And 2nd), do we know the Lord’s song?
By heart, because the world’s not providing any cheat sheets.
Do we remember the holy city God means for us?
Can we even envision,
much less turn towards what would be our highest joy?
The answers to both questions,
they revolve around the difference between
the world we know all too well,
and what we encounter — at least through a glass darkly — here at church
and in our prayers,
and in our interactions…
the glimpses we catch of the Reign of God.
Perhaps just a still small voice that promises another way.
Where the hungry are fed.
And the inconsolate lifted up.
Where no one is hurt or used or passed by.
But each is valued and respected
for who they are
and who they can become
and loved the long, arduous way between those two opposite poles…
Where there’s place at the Table for everyone, the whole world.
You say, “Ah yes, Michael, would that it were so,
but our world is far harder, harsher
than all that religious poetry.”
But, beloved, our faith responds,
doesn’t back down:
“All the religious poetry and vision and promise and hope,
that’s the Lord’s Song
that must be sung
because it’s so foreign to the world we inhabit and participate in.”
We must sing for our supper,
or, better, sing for a Table where everyone has a place
and a meal
and a second chance
and a future…
Ah, suddenly, even us liberal Protestants,
often so comfortable in our privileges in the world as we know it,
when we hear and remember the ancient song,
when we are reminded, even in a barely audible echo, of God’s song,
haunting, challenging, drifting, promising, calling over the ages…
Suddenly, we the consummate insiders,
start to feel a bit strange,
A bit out of step,
Even out of place.
we find ourselves among the ones
needing a place at that holy Table.
Not the abundant Tables of our North America,
but God’s table…
Today, when you circle this Sanctuary,
it’s as close as we usually come to God’s table.
And it’s a circle, and fellowship
that extends beyond these four walls.
beyond the lives of people who have enough.
Beyond the places where Christians are safe to live out their faith.
Stretching to include people who are taking risks to follow Jesus.
Those who step out differently.
To risk being disciples.
To sing a different song.
To find their place at God’s table.
At the Table.
Next to a loud, crying hurting child
and a naked man
and a woman people talk bad about.
And directly across from the enemy you can’t imagine letting this close.
Farther from all the false insulations
promised by comfortable world.
But nearer to God…