It’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but once again Bev has selected a set of hymns and songs that complement the scriptures assigned for the day so well that it occurred to me that if all we did this morning was sing the songs, the gospel would be preached in its fullness by all of us.
Following five short verses from the 8th chapter of 1st Kings in which King Solomon is overheard praying at the dedication of the new temple, we heard a setting of Psalm 96, which begins “O Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.” (Ps. 96:1)
And how did we begin our worship this morning — gathering with “Sing a New Church.” If the tune sounded familiar to you, you probably remember Robert Robinson’s 18th century text, “Come, thou Font of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace, streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.” It was, in its day, a new song to the Lord (it’s day was somewhere in the mid-to-late 1700s). The text we sang this morning, “Let us bring the gifts that differ and, in splendid varied ways, sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and praise” were written by Dolores Dufner the year I graduated from high school, which was 25 years ago this week, in 1991.
Consider how much has changed, or not, in our our world in the last quarter century. 1991 began with the United Nations Security Council voting unanimously to condemn Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The United States was embroiled in the first Gulf War against Iraq in response to the invasion of Kuwait. The IRA set off bombs in London in its campaign for Irish independence. We saw Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers as he lay on the road. Germany regained complete independence following the fall of the Berlin Wall only two years before. The first Starbucks coffee outlet opened in California. South Africa finally repealed the last of its apartheid laws. Clarence Thomas was nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. The Soviet Union dissolved. Bill Clinton announced he’d be running for president in 1992. Magic Johnson announced he was living with HIV and Freddie Mercury died from AIDS-related illness.
That was the news back in 1991, as Delores Dufner put new words to an old tune, inviting us to “bring the hopes of every nation; bring the art of every race. Weave a song of peace and justice; Let it sound through time and space.” For those of us who were alive that year, and not all of us were, it seemed like the bedrock givens, the unchangeable norms, were crumbling beneath our feet. The end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Realities that had defined our national identity and the international order shifted so quickly we could barely keep up. We needed our artists, our poets, our musicians, to give us new words we could sing to familiar tunes to help us bridge the gap between what we had known and what we could not yet see.
Paul writes a letter to the Galatians, skipping his usual opening compliments to launch into his complaint, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Gal. 1:6-7)
At issue is how the budding church will handle Gentile converts. Paul argues that, in Christ, all have been made right with God through the grace shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through adherence to any law. Yet others have come after Paul, insisting that the Gentiles being drawn to the growing community must submit to being circumcised, being cut, as a condition of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul reframes the relationship between God and Abraham, writing, “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’” (Gal. 3:6-8)
In this new church, will people be accepted as they are, joined to this new body by faith that they are children of the same God, or will they be required to deny their lived experience, their customs, their traditions, their history, their ways of naming themselves, their songs, their food, their preferred pronouns, their accents, their instruments, their lovers, all their “gifts that differ” in “splendid, varied ways.”
Which of your gifts have you been asked to leave outside so that you could be allowed in? What has it cost you to cut off parts of yourself? What did that feel like?
Which of your neighbors’ gifts have you barred from entry — into your home, this neighborhood, our worship, our schools and cities and nations? What has it cost us to cut off members of the body we share? What has been the result?
After Jesus preaches his great sermon on the plain, offering his vision for a world of radical equality, he enters Capernaum — a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. By the time Jesus arrives there, it’s already been occupied by one foreign power or another for two hundred years, so it’s not surprising that he encounters a Centurion, a representative of the Roman empire. The Centurion has a slave whom he “values highly,” who is “ill and close to death,” (Luke 7:2) and he has heard about Jesus, so he sends some Jewish elders to appeal to Jesus on his behalf. In their appeal they say, “he is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” (v. 4-5) But when Jesus arrives the Roman says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” (v. 6)
Which is it? Is this Roman worthy or unworthy? He is the enemy we’ve all gotten used to. He is the agent of power and wealth. He is a slaveowner. But he shows great love for the oppressed people among whom he lives. He knows and respects their customs, not inviting them into his home because he understands their religion forbids it. Committing his own resources to the construction of a place of worship for those his nation has conquered. What parts of his story would you prefer to cut out in order to make it acceptable to you that Jesus does, in fact, heal the sick person held in slavery by the Centurion?
What parts of your own story seem incompatible with the truth that God continues to love you, to heal you, to listen to your prayers?
As most of you know, we’ve adapted the hymn we’ll sing as our hymn of the day, “All are Welcome,” as the greeting song for our Sunday School class, which has now wrapped up for the summer. We want our children to know, from the earliest of ages, that they and everyone they know are welcome here in God’s house. What we sometimes miss as we sing the full hymn are the first five words of each verse, “let us build a house…”
Living in our world of imported foods, boutique hotels, and curated experiences we are always being told, over and over again, that life is about finding the perfect home, the perfect school, the perfect church, the perfect neighborhood, the perfect place for imperfect people like us. And which parts of ourselves would we have to hide, or cut off, to be accepted there?
The Centurion has it right, he is not worthy in the same ways that none of us are worthy, yet he calls on Jesus for healing and the slave is healed. Jesus declares, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (v. 9) such trust, such confidence that God’s healing purposes are not intended for a chosen few, but for all people, just as we are, here and now.
We are still building the temple that Solomon dedicated, a house of prayer for all people, a sanctuary for the foreigner that comes to us as a stranger and the foreigner that is we ourselves. We are still building the house where a slave and Centurion are both welcome under the same roof, “where the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face.” We are still building that place crafted by the words and tunes of artists and poets and musicians that warp the wood of our walls, bending them ever-outward, so that you might know that you are welcome in this place, all of you — not just this place, this room, this altar and table — but this place, this world, this cosmic home. So that you know that you belong in the world, just as you are, nothing left out.
And if the words of our scriptures, or the texts of our hymns still don’t get it right — as they never fully will — it is only evidence that your gifts, splendid and varied as they are, are all the more necessary as we try to bridge the gap between what we have known and what we cannot yet see. Where will we be in another twenty-five years? What new song will we be singing to the Lord? The only way we’ll know is by building it together.