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A Day in the Safe House

August 27, 2012

“A Day in the Safe House” Psalm 84 © 8/26/12 Ordinary 21B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Like you I’ve seen my fair share of bird nests, whether in person or in pictures. Some of them are neat, some sloppy and ill-constructed; some smaller, like the hummingbird’s, some very large, like the hawk’s or the eagle’s. Some are in trees or thick bushes; others in houses or a hole in a wall. But whatever their differences, every one of them has been someplace the birds considered safe.

So a couple of years ago I had to wonder what a little wren couple was thinking when they build a nest in the grill of an old truck my brother-in-law Warren was working on. He had it up on blocks under a shed outside his home in Birmingham. For awhile, he worked on it a great deal. But then he got occupied with renovating his bathroom, all by himself. A huge project that no doubt took him away from the truck long enough for the wrens to figure he wasn’t coming back. So, they could build their nest with no worries. No cat or dog or rat or predator bird could get to them up under the hood and behind the slats of the grill. Warren wasn’t going to bother them. So, they could raise their babies in peace. It turns out the truck was a safe place after all.

When the psalmist writes that “even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord…,” he’s no doubt thinking of this instinctive insistence of birds on safety for their young. The house of God is a safe place. And not only for birds. As a hymn-writer paraphrases: “Beneath your care the sparrow finds place for peaceful rest/to keep her young in safety the swallow finds a nest./So, Lord, my King Almighty, your love will shelter me/beneath your wings of mercy my dwelling place will be” (“How Lovely is Your Dwelling,” Psalter Hymnal). Its safety is one thing, an important thing, that makes the house of God such a good place to be.

So let’s talk for a bit about whether or not the Church is safe and, if not, how to make it secure, a place of rest and trust. And let’s consider the Church in two ways. First, as a building. Yes, we all know God doesn’t live in a building. Nothing human beings construct, whether of stone or words, can hold him, can keep him from being free and sovereign. But in a very real sense we come here to this particular place in Amory, MS to meet God. We expect to experience him here in Word and sacrament, in prayer and fellowship, in ways we can’t express, but know intuitively, deep down. So, this building is the house of God for us. And it needs to have the character of a house of God.

Is, then, this place safe in the literal, physical sense of free of danger? Before we figure that out, let me give you some examples of churches that were not safe, both of which I served and know about first-hand. In Montevallo, AL, back in the day, the Presbyterian church had only one restroom, down a steep flight of stairs into the basement. One Sunday the choir director’s elderly mother fell on the stairs. The church fortunately has now converted a Sunday school room on the main level into a restroom. In Owensboro, KY, we had a child development center that occupied a substantial portion of the building during the week. Days usually passed without incident, but one day the director’s little daughter pulled a shelf unit over on herself. That accident sent her to the emergency room. Another day, she stuck her finger in an electrical outlet outside the church office door. After that, we bolted the shelves to the walls and put covers on all the outlets.

My point is that neither church was proactive in assessing whether its building was safe. There ought not be an accident, crime or injury before we take action to secure our structures. Fortunately, this session and congregation have taken preventative steps. When the sidewalk outside the fellowship hall buckled and posed a hazard, that was fixed. The ramp going into the Annex is sturdy with plenty of traction and even a little guard rail or bumper on the side opposite the handrails. We have followed the advice of law enforcement and the fire department on securing the building during worship. A power strip that was within easy reach of kids in the nursery was mounted on the wall, away from little fingers. We have plenty of lighting, that’s kept on outside at night. The only thing I could think of we might still do is have parents of young children walk around and give their thoughts on what they would like to see done. And likewise a diverse group of adults, with an eye to everyone’s safety. And of course we carry appropriate insurance, which is essential in these litigious days.

But if the church as a building needs to be a safe house, so does the church as a community of faith. We collectively and individually are the dwelling, the house of God. Remember what Scripture says: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

What then does a safe community of faith do? What does it feel like? Certainly it is first of all free of violence. It’s sad even to have to mention something these days that used to go without saying. Perhaps this issue is really one to include under the church as building, but I guess I put it here because people commit violence. Even a gathered community of faith is not free from such threats. You may remember a few years back the shooting of six people attending a funeral at a Chicago church in a neighborhood marked by gang violence. People inside the building were so afraid for their safety that it took three hours to get everybody out. In a TV report, the pastor said “If the church isn’t safe, where is?” Of course, very recently, the white supremacist gunman killed a number of people at a Sikh temple.

Some pastors and churches seem to think they can prevent such violence by endorsing and being prepared to do violence. A Baptist pastor in Georgia, for example, had argued that church members should have the right to carry guns into worship services to protect the congregation, a practice Georgia law prohibits. A Federal court upheld the ban in late July. At the other end of the spectrum, the Episcopal General Convention a week before the ruling adopted a resolution that asked “every parish and every diocesan workplace to declare their establishments as Gun Free Zones” (“Court upholds Georgia ban on guns in church,” The Christian Century, August 22, 2012: 15).

The Episcopal Church focused last month on one potential instrument of violence. But gunshots are not the only way to wound and hurt. The church also needs to be free of abuse, whether physical abuse, emotional abuse or spiritual abuse. That’s why churches, including this congregation have in place policies to protect children and youth from the possibility of abuse by adult leaders. It’s also why we adopted, as mandated by our Book of Order, an extensive sexual misconduct policy. But, in addition, councils from the session on up, and all church members, need to commit to such documents as “Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement,” so we aren’t calling each other names or making personal attacks or using dirty tactics. That kind of behavior ratchets conflict up to levels that cannot but result in deep and lasting hurt. Believe me, I know from personal experience. Even the use of Robert’s Rules of Order is important. You may know it was first written to keep members of Parliament from getting into fistfights.

But the community of faith also needs to be a safe place to be who we are. That means the church gathered is and ought to be open to exploration and questions about identity and spirituality, especially by young adults, who are owning their faith. Open to sharing vulnerability, including by the pastor, without fear that what is said will one day be used or interpreted in a negative way. Open to strong emotions, like tears, anger, grief, and loneliness, as well as passion, deep joy, and exuberance. A place to share confidences, with anyone. Conversations with the pastor are generally covered by priest/penitent privilege, but shouldn’t that apply to every priest in the church, meaning any believer? Isn’t it great to know that when we share a secret or a very personal prayer request with someone or a group of someones in church, it won’t end up on Facebook unless we put it there?

So the house of God is and ought to be a safe place. But also it is and ought to be a satisfying place. “Better is one day in your house than a thousand elsewhere.” “Happy is everyone who trusts in you.” “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” All those are statements of serenity and satisfaction, the sense that to be in God’s house is the supreme joy.

Think of the best days you’ve ever had or perhaps mere hours or minutes. Maybe they’ve been spent with a loved one or looking at some incredible sight, getting some well-deserved rest or learning something that changes your life. Even though the time was short, every other day pales in comparison. If you had to choose between living just that one day or years of routine and boredom and humdrum, you’d take the one day. This was a day when you really lived, experienced life, not just breathing in and breathing out, eating, drinking, with brain and heart activity. No. It was a time when you knew what you were made for, namely, the richness of the world around and the world within, the glory of loving relationships, the fulfillment of dreams.

That’s the kind of satisfaction the psalmist experienced in the house of God. What about us?

There’s more. This is a satisfaction that doesn’t depend on our station in life or even having permanence in any one place. It doesn’t come from fancy amenities or lots of possessions. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in God’s house than live in the tents of the wicked,” claimed the poet.

There are two ways to understand that text. One is that the writer means the actual position of doorkeeper. That could be somebody who opens doors and welcomes visitors, like the greeters at Wal-Mart or the doormen at fancy hotels. Or it could be a security guard. In either case, not high on the food chain, up the ladder in authority. Another way to look at it is that the poet means somebody who sleeps on the threshold of the Temple courts. Somebody who has traveled a long way and is waiting to get in or maybe someone homeless. Again, not high up or getting much attention.

In other words, it’s better to live unnoticed and under the radar, in obscurity, than to be famous and have to play the political and business and church games. Better to do a humble task and be able to look at yourself in the mirror and sleep at night than have lots of money and power gained by greed and corruption. A life in which we are not constantly and powerfully tempted is better than anything gained by keeping company with the wicked. Sleeping at the entrance, not even going into the house of God, is better than having a permanent shelter if the latter means compromising values and being away from the Lord. The joy of the experience more than compensates for the lack of prestige and glamour. And simply being near the house, like touching the hem of our Lord’s garment, lifts us up and brings assurance and peace.

The great singer Van Morrison has some fine lyrics that capture the intent of the poet here. “I’m a dweller on the threshold/and I’m waiting at the door/and I’m standing in the darkness/I don’t want to wait no more. I have seen without perceiving/I have been another man/Let me pierce the realm of glamour/so I know just what I am./Feel the angel of the present/in the mighty crystal fire/lift me up and soothe my darkness/let me travel even higher” (“Dweller on the Threshold,” 1982).

Morrison’s lyrics suggest the third aspect of God’s house. Not only is it a safe place and a satisfying place. It is and ought to be a strengthening place. In one translation, the psalmist is addressing God and says “You bless all who depend on you for their strength and all who deeply desire to visit your temple. When they reach Dry Valley, springs start flowing, and the autumn rain fills it with pools of water. Your people grow stronger, and you, the God of gods, will be seen in Zion.” Or as the text we heard has it: “They go from strength to strength.”

The hope, the dream, dare we say the promise of God, is this for his people: Things are good, but they just keeping getting better. I don’t hear this as a promise of financial prosperity or gaining power. Rather, it’s a promise of profound spiritual growth, even or especially through hard experiences. Those who understand gain more insight. Each believer, every pilgrim finds new ways to use his or her spiritual gifts, whatever they may be, and comes to a more profound appreciation for them. Gain builds upon gain exponentially, as we stand on the shoulders of the saints, taking their wisdom and applying it for the next generation. We look at how they learned to wait and be content and keep open to tomorrow and to others. There is a sense in the psalm that there is no stopping the people of God as they grow and learn and exert influence. “To all those who have, more will be given,” said Jesus.

But the strength comes not from our own doing, but from God. It is a blessing to be used for building up, not for destruction. For helping others understand, not for promoting ourselves or erecting walls between and among people. For fighting evil, not for getting glory. For being able to move forward on our hard journeys and lifting up the fallen, not for dominating or getting ahead. When the church is strengthened, the whole world benefits, for we are blessed to be a blessing.

Maybe the best way to end this morning is simply to hear the psalm again, but in the wonderful version by Arlo Duba, Hymn 207 in our blue hymnal. “How lovely, Lord, how lovely, is your abiding place; my soul is longing, fainting, to feast upon your grace. The sparrow finds a shelter, a place to build her nest; as your temple calls us within its walls to rest.

“In your blest courts to worship, O God, a single day is better than a thousand if I from you should stray. I’d rather keep the entrance and claim you as my Lord than revel in the riches the ways of sin afford.

“A sun and shield forever are you, O Lord, Most High; you shower us with blessings; no good will you deny. The saints, your grace receiving, from strength to strength shall go, and from their life shall rivers of blessing overflow.”

Safe. Satisfied. Strengthened. Let it be so, Lord. Let it be.

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