Home-making with God

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A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.  The lectionary readings are Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, and John 14:23-29.

I love the Easter tradition of replacing the usual Old Testament reading with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  This practice should not be understood as any kind of displacement of the Hebrew Scriptures, of God’s love story with God’s first Chosen People.  But instead, the Church reads from Acts during Eastertide to try to catch a little of the spirit of those first followers of Jesus.  At the Crucifixion, the dream seemed to have died.  The disciples scattered and were afraid.  But soon after the Resurrection, they got new life.  They become energized, and filled with joy.  They spread out and preach, teach, heal, and do everything they can to convey the power of the Risen Christ.

This book of the Bible we call The Acts of the Apostles is thought to have been written very early, in the second part of the 1st Century.  Many believe it was written Luke the Physician, who also wrote the Gospel.  Acts is a rambling story, especially full of stories about the ministry of Peter and of Paul, stories of conversion and growth, of setbacks, imprisonments, and persecutions.  Today’s reading, especially, gives us a glimpse into the radical way the Gospel went wild in the world.

Today we have a story about a woman named Lydia.  Though it’s rare that a woman’s name is even given in scripture, the name Lydia was probably not her actual name, but refers to where she was from—the area of Lydia, in Thyatira, today part of Turkey.

Lydia was a dealer in purple dye, a profession that would have been lucrative.  There’s no mention of a husband, but mention of a household, one that Lydia seems to have at her command. And so, Lydia seems like a smart, successful businesswoman.  Then, as now, I doubt that was an easy social position to be in.

We’re told that Lydia is already a “worshipper of God,” and, in fact, the reason Paul meets her in the first place is because she and others are at what is described as “a place of prayer.”  Lydia is seeking.  She’s curious.  She’s looking for something and listening for God.  She meets Paul and hears the full story of Jesus Christ.  And, as Fred Craddock describes it, “A woman most likely decisive in other respects is also decisive in responding to a good thing when she sees it.”

Lydia and her whole household are baptized and then she opens her household to Paul and his companions.  Later on in Acts, after Paul and Silas have been put in prison and released, they go again to Lydia’s house where other Christians are meeting.  Lydia’s home becomes a place of warmth, a place of welcome, and a place of refuge.  It becomes a house-church, the backbone and sort of home-plate for early Christians. Lydia had a house, and probably a big one.  But with the reception of God’s love in Christ and the willingness to share it, her house becomes a home.

The Gospel we hear today, as we hear it in English, has a wonderful phrase in it.  Jesus continues with last week’s words about love, but in today’s section he says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  Again, “We will come to them and make our home with them.”  If we open the door of our heart, God walks in and makes himself at home.  If we just crack the window a little, God sweeps in like a Holy Homemaker, sweeping out the dirt, putting the junk on the street, and filling the kitchen with the smell of really good stuff.  God wants to make a home with us.  The word in this verse is the same word used early in John’s Gospel, in that section often used in funerals, “In my father’s house there are many rooms, many dwelling-places, many mansions, even.”

Yesterday, some of us were at the Burial Mass for Father Jack Owens.  They used a different Gospel, but I was thinking about how they could have used John 14… “In my father’s house there are many rooms…”  Because Father Owens, for 29 years was headmaster of the St. James School out in Western Maryland.  For 29 years, Father Owens made a home for kids who came from all over and for teachers and administrators.  As headmaster, he made it a home by opening his heart so fully to God, so that God could then be met by so many who came through that school over the years.  God could make a home with those young people so that homes and towns and cities could be filled with God’s love into the future.

Another word for home-making, for making home for and with another, is the common word, “hospitality.”  But hospitality can mean many different things.  Hospitality can be offered as payback, as a social quid pro quo, as a means of gaining favor or paving the way for success.  It can be offered by way of apology, or regret; for by way of celebration and joy.  Hospitality can be offered begrudgingly, or sparingly, or lavishly, and wildly.  It sometimes comes with pretense.  It often comes through absolute simplicity. 

I love Henri Nouwen’s understanding of hospitality.  In his little book, Reaching Out, he defines hospitality as the “creation of free space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”  He goes on to say, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer space where change can take place… The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free to leave and follow their own vocations.”

That’s the sort of hospitality God offers as God attempts to make a home with us.  And that’s how we’re called to make a home with others.  We have holy homework to do—both as individuals and as a church.

As individuals, God wants to make a home with us, and also for us to make a home with others, to be hospitable to others. This is not so much about inviting people into our physical homes, though many of you do that in such a way that Henri Nouwen would feel most welcome.  You have God in your heart, and so it’s obvious when you invite me or others into your homes—whether those be studio apartments or something larger.

But hospitality – the ability to invite others into a home where they can meet God—happens wherever we go—at work, with family, in a car or a Metro car, on a field, in a classroom.  Wherever we are, if we’re open to God and open to sharing the Christ who is in us, then we allow for the possibility of welcome.  And in a homey space of welcome, people can be transformed.  They can find new life.  They can find themselves.

God makes a home with us as a parish family, as well, and we’re especially called to welcome others into this home.  I can think of at least three areas in which we are looking at our home-making, but need to grow.

The first is with accessibility.  We’re doing well with the capital campaign, though we need more support.  We plan to break ground late summer or early fall, and we’re going to build this new addition.  It will be finished sometime in the next year. But that doesn’t mean we’re done with accessibility and welcome—that’s just the first, major, obvious piece.

The second area I think we’re called to be more hospitable is with our worship.  As much as we may try to make formal, liturgical worship accessible, beautiful, inspiring, and friendly, we have to face the reality that in the coming years, there will be more and more people who have absolutely no religious background.  Elizabethan English does not resonate with them.  Music and chant from the ages is a high hurdle.  And so, I want us to be open to the Spirit about some additional service of prayer or worship to offer that in no way sacrifices tradition, beauty, or awe—but nonetheless invites those who are looking for a spiritual home and for whom our worship is simply too strange.

And the final and third area in which I know God is pulling us to make a better home is for children and their families.  Though we will continue to do our best to structure Sundays so that families can draw some kind of strength and nurture from this place, we will need to be more creative.  On Easter Sunday, after the Easter egg hunt, during the down time before the 11 a.m. Mass, there was a table of parents downstairs enjoying each other.  They were together in an informal way, but drawing obvious strength and faith from sharing stories, problems, pains, and joys with each other.  It might be that we focus more energy on strengthening and sustaining parents.  It might be that we try to do more in terms of email and virtual community.  Maybe a house-church ministry for parents with kids would be more useful than something here in the building.  I don’t know the answer.  But I’m going to keep answer the question, praying for parents and with parents, as we all discern how God might want us to be more of a home for the youngest of God’s children.

These are just my top three- your list might be different, and if so, then great—God is calling you to expand your heart in this place, to open up a few doors and windows and make a home—for your idea, your project, your mission, your dream.

In just two more weeks we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, that day when we give thanks for coming of God in the Holy Spirit.  With Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, (and each other), we’ve got an incredibly full house.  But there’s always room for more.  In that God has come to make a home with us, may we be inspired with Lydia to make a home for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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