Texts: Deuteronomy 11:18-21,26-28 ; Psalm 31:1-5,19-24 ; Romans 1:16-17,3:22b-31 ; Matthew 7:21-29
In the name of Jesus, who has claimed us in promise. Amen.
If a stranger came to your home and inspected your front door, what would they learn about you? I’m not asking here what someone would learn by rifling through your mailbox, but if someone came to your home and looked at your front entrance what messages – explicit or implicit – might they receive?
Some homes send very clear messages to passersby and potential intruders: “beware of dog,” or “this home protected by security cameras.” Others, at least when I was younger, placed blue stars or red hands in the front window to let children know it was safe to stop there for help. Some have large glass window panes, others are secured with sturdy woods. Some have doormats, plain or embedded with messages like “welcome” or “remove your shoes.”
Until recently the front door to my condominium carried a house blessing written in yellow chalk: 20 + CMB + 07. It was put there on the Eve of Epiphany over a year ago, the night after I moved into my new home. 20, 07, 2007 – the year ahead, and CMB – an acronym for the Latin Christus Mansionem Benedictus, Christ bless this home. It stayed there well over a year, and then I think the property manager washed it off during routine cleaning.
I spent part of this last week in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. I stayed with two of my dearest friends, Jonna and Ethan. Jonna was raised Jewish and Ethan converted to Judaism before they were married a couple of years ago. Fastened to the front door of their home is a small worked metal mezuzah case. A mezuzah, for those of you who don’t know, is a small piece of parchment inscribed in Hebrew with verses from the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, what most of us were raised to call the Old Testament. On that parchment you’ll find words from the book of Deuteronomy,
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might…” (Deut 6:4-5)
And then these verses that we heard this morning,
“You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…”
“Write them on the doorposts of your house.” And so, taking this to heart, Jewish homes for millennia have fixed these words to their doorposts so that every time they enter their home, every time they walk through a doorway and that mezuzah catches their eye, they are reminded that they have already been claimed by God, that those who live in this home are members of God’s wider household.
That’s a beautiful tradition I think, marking your home with objects – often crafted with love and filled with artistic representation – that remind you that you have been claimed in promise by God. How do we imagine those frequent reminders that we are claimed in promise by God might change how we relate to ourselves and to others?
You may recall that the leadership team at St. Luke’s developed a mission statement for their work as leaders that begins, “Claimed in promise,” and then continues “equip St. Luke’s for loving service.” Beginning each meeting with a reminder that we have already been claimed as children of God, as members of God’s household, by God’s promises to us allows us – we hope – to be more gracious with one another and more bold in our actions. Claimed in promise we can let go of fear and ask purposeful questions about what God is up to in the world and how we can help out. Our mission statement becomes then like a mezuzah. It is a reminder as we enter into our meetings that we are children of God.
We do this in our worship as well. If you open your bulletins you’ll see that the first word at the top of the inside cover, before the prelude, is “gathering.” Lutherans, as Christians worshipping in the liturgical tradition that comes to us from the earliest days of the church, worship in a four-fold pattern of gathering, hearing the word, sharing a meal, and being sent. You can see in your bulletin where each of those portions of the liturgy begins and what rites and prayers and songs we use to highlight those central actions of gathering, listening, sharing and sending. Most often we begin our worship with either a brief order for confession and forgiveness or a remembrance of our baptism. Both of these rituals are designed to remind us that we have been claimed in promise by God – not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Look at your bulletins again and read the note in the margin about our brief order for confession and forgiveness:
“This brief order for confession and forgiveness is used as a reminder of the gift of baptism – wherein we are named and claimed as children of God in a way that cannot be broken by our failings as individuals or groups. We recite these words not in order to set ourselves right with God, which is beyond our power, but so that we can let go of anything standing between our burdened hearts and the good news of God’s mercy and love for all creation!”
“We are named and claimed…” claimed in promise, the promises of baptism. Whether in our confessing and being forgiven, or in the sensation of drops of water hitting our face, we enter into this house of worship by passing through the promises of God that we are God’s, that we are inscribed on God’s very own hands.
And then what do we do? We sing a song, something that declares our confidence in the promises that bind us to God. This morning we sang, “no merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” We reinforce with song the promises we claim by setting foot in this building, and we turn to face the cross – that visual representation of the presence of God in Christ in our assembly. Some of us bow as it passes by as a sign of respect, others may cross themselves, and others may just break into a wide smile as I’ve seen some of you do – because there is deep joy that comes from recognizing that we are able to gather together here in all of our weakness, all of our failings, all of our grief and sorrow and frustration with the world, and each other and ourselves. We are able to gather, to enter this house, because of the promises of God made to each one of us – made to the world.
I hope we see that too when the cross passes by us. When we gather in worship it’s not just us that assemble here, but the whole world gathers with us. We few people, two or three or twenty or thirty, gathered together stand in for the whole church. And when the cross passes by we are reminded that the rest of the world enters with it. Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus imagines a conversation between the righteous and their Creator where they ask of God, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And God answers them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25: 37-40)
So when we welcome that cross into our assembly as we gather, we are welcoming the hungry people who come to our church throughout the week for food, the thirsty people of Myanmar whose own water is unclean and filled with bacteria, the recently arrived immigrant who is a stranger in this land, the homeless person whose clothes are so c
aked with filth that they are practically naked, the mothers and sisters and wives and daughters who are battling breast cancer, those who are in prisons suffering the consequences of their failings, those who are trapped in addictions. When we gather, we welcome the cross and in doing so we welcome all those whom Jesus says that cross represents. They enter the house alongside each of us, claimed in promise by the love of God.
I love our worship. I love our traditions, and how they teach us and form us. I love that before we come to the rail to receive the Lord’s supper we pass by the baptismal font – we remember that the promises made to us in baptism tie us to the whole people of God across time and space. We notice that what happens in this hour of worship once a week doesn’t take place just to feed and nourish each one of us on our own, but that it ties us together.
I love that our worship is ancient and new at the same time. We follow a pattern that goes back to the early church two thousand years ago, and in many cases carries retentions of the worship of our Jewish elder brothers and sisters that go back thousands of years before that, the singing of psalms for instance. We can do that, and then – as we will this morning – we can recite affirmations of faith that tie us to our United Methodist brothers and sisters as we explore what it means to be in full communion with them. We can do this because we belong to one household, a house that is not ours – which would be like a house built on shifting sands – but which is God’s. A house which is built on the solid rock of God’s unfailing promises. Promises that claim us and make us their own.
While I was away this week I met with colleagues who are ministering in very diverse settings all around the country. One of them is my friend Jay, who works with the homeless of San Francisco helping them to secure the proper documents required to access food and shelter and other basic needs. He has been working on a survey to help him quantify and report on the status of the people he serves. This data will be used to generate new resources, both material and spiritual as he develops new programs and new worship services that meet the homeless of that city where they are. One of the questions on his survey asks, “how do you define your housing status?” Reading through the answers he received in the first draft of the survey he found an answer to the question that is true for us all, one that shows us what it means to be claimed in promise. It said, “I consider myself a child in the household of God.”
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.