At an earlier moment in my life, when I was learning the art of counseling, I remember being taught that laughter and tears often serve as signs that we’re getting close to our truth. I appreciated learning that. In an odd way, it took pressure off of either act — whether I was laughing or crying, I became more curious about what truth those emotions were pointing me toward.
If you were in worship this past Sunday you saw me weeping at the altar. Depending on where you were sitting yourself and what you could see, that might have made more or less sense to you. I want to tell you what I saw and why it moved me to tears.
The texts for this past Sunday were full of visions: Peter sees a sheet descending from heaven filled with “unclean” animals, which he comes to understand as a sign that God is breaking down the dividing walls we erect to hold each other at bay. John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, describes a vision in which a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem come down from heaven and hears a voice declare, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3)
Attempting to make sense of these scriptures with the children, I asked them if they’ve ever had guests come to stay with them in their home. They talked about play dates and babysitters and grandparents who’ve come for shorter and longer stays. We wondered if God might be like that, not walled off behind a distant future, but making a home with us here and now.
As we sang the psalmody, one of our first time guests caught my eye. I’d never seen her before and only interacted with her briefly to welcome her when she came through the door right before worship. She was a middle-aged African-American woman and she seemed to me to be living with developmental delays, like my sister. I remember hoping that she would feel comfortable. Once we began to sing I watched as she turned in her seat to focus her attention on those of you playing instruments. Soon she was clapping her hands and swaying in time to the music, fully engaged and delighted by our worship.
Later, as Jossy led the Prayers of the People, I watched as our guest mimicked Jossy, lifting her arms in prayer. With each petition she took one step closer to the ambo (the stand from which I preach and the lessons are read) until, at the end, she was nearly face to face with Jossy, who never lost her composure as she continued to lead our prayers. Finally, the woman laid her arms across the front of the ambo and rested her head on her arms, gazing up at Jossy with a look of open-hearted gentleness.
When we passed the peace, you could feel the charge in the air. After a moving testimony by Gretchen Burch on the power of listening and presence to transform a brief encounter between her father and her husband into an opportunity for healing, followed by those prayers, there was an extra energy to the way you greeted one another, sharing hugs and handshakes. I had to almost yell to be heard over you, and you showed no sign of wanting to return to your seats.
Then we began the service of the table and once again the mood shifted from almost raucous to quietly reverent. I was offering prayer over the elements at the altar when it happened. I remember looking at the words on the page,
“We thank you for Jesus, in whom you have made your home among us and loved us as you would have us love…”
Then I looked up and saw our guest seated in the front row, while everyone else was standing. It took me a second to understand what was going on, but I soon realized that she was taking the ring off of her finger and slipping it onto Cynthia’s finger. Immediately I remembered the parable of the prodigal:
“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24)
Immediately I was flooded with a sense of understanding and almost unbearable humility. How often have I stood behind the altar imagining myself to be the host of this ritual, our sanctuary as the home with doors flung open? But it was this woman putting the ring on our fingers, revealing us to be the guests, the prodigals, the wanderers, and this ordinary feast as our heavenly homecoming. A new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, here and now. “See, the home of God is among mortals.”
I wonder if this is something like what Peter felt, when he saw images from familiar scripture broken open and understood in a new way, on a new level, in his gut and his heart, and not just his head. All I know is that I could barely breathe, much less speak. All I could do is weep as I felt the truth of the gospel pour over me.
And you held me just as you had held the visitor among us during the prayers, with open hearts and soft eyes and steady attention. One of you called out, “take your time” and another “we’re with you, Pastor.” Jossy laid her hands on my shoulders and took up the work of praying so that it was not just the elements being blessed, but me as well.
Eventually I caught my breath and could continue,
“…and loved us as you would have us love; in whom you are preparing a new heaven and earth, where all will drink from your spring of the water of life.”
Then we ate and celebrated God’s home among us.
Afterwards you were so kind, checking in to make sure I was okay. Some of you seemed to intuit exactly what had been going on. It reminded me of the explanation of glossolalia my dad had given me when I was young. He told me that when the Spirit moves one to speak in tongues, another is sometimes gifted with a word of translation. It felt, to me, like that kind of experience — the Holy Spirit overflowing my ability to wrap words around it, and you translating what was seen and heard into words of love and compassion.
That is the truth to which my tears were pointing. That God is love, and makes a home among us here and now. It wasn’t any more true this past Sunday than it is on any other given Sunday. I just perceived clearly for a moment a truth that on most days is so much harder to see and to remember. We are all that guest, and she is us, and together we are being made new.