Sermon February 24, 2013


“A Home for Holiness”


February 24, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson


Luke 13:31–35

The Lament over Jerusalem

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me[a], ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.’  34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  35See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[b] you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”


Today the YG mission trip buses roll up in front of the church, and we welcome home our kids!

Some things will be the same.  Piles of pungent laundry, sleep-deprived brains and those adorable one-syllable answers to our questions (Well, what was it like? Cool.  What did you do?  Stuff.  Was it religious? Ohmom!)  So, some things will be exactly the same – like they never left.  But some things will be different – the most important things.

For many of our kids, this mission trip will be a peak experience, a mountaintop moment Skip spoke about two weeks ago.  Skip preached about Jesus’s own mountaintop moment, the transfiguration.  These mountaintop moments reveal the power of God.  Our own kids will have witnessed the power of God in new and riveting ways – women from Hogar Posada La Victoria resisting the grip of addiction, sacrificial serving alongside La Senda Antigua’s members.  Spirit-filled worship, with ecstatic singing, altar calls and dramatic testimony.  Our kids will have witnessed and shared holiness in a way that defies description – so maybe one-syllable answers are the best anyone could do.

And our kids will have discovered holiness in each other.  They will see that they are vessels of grace, bearers of God’s love.  They will have a bond that is more than just being in the same youth group or from the same town – they will know that God is in this bond.

Are we ready for them?  Are we ready to hold and to sustain this peak experience?  I know YG is.  Our YG program, has, in a sense, taken this miracle and created a method for it – from building commitment through each Covenant Event, to celebrating this life-changing trip on Youth Sunday.  For YG, this miracle has, in a sense, been routinized.  Or, should we say, YG routinely expects God to create miracles among our kids?  YG is ready.

But, beyond YG, are we ready?  Are our homes ready to hold and help develop transformed lives?  That’s what I’d like us to think about today.  And even if you don’t have teens returning home, we all have a stake in this.  Our homes are challenged to be places where holiness can flourish.  Holiness is coming home to New Canaan – are we ready?  Let’s begin with prayer.

Lord, prepare our hearts, homes and our church to receive these transformed lives.  May we be changed, too, by what our children have experienced, in the light of Your holiness.  Amen.

This morning’s scripture warns of crisis for Jerusalem and its Temple.  But, it’s important for us to grasp that, for most Jews, religious life revolved not around the Jerusalem Temple.  Rather, religious life centered at the synagogue but, especially, the home.  And this wasn’t simply because, for many Jews, the Temple was far off, in the distant city of Jerusalem.  Rather, home was commanded to be the focal point of holiness.  In the book of Deuteronomy, we read: “Hear, O Israel!…you shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions…Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home…when you lie down and when you get up…Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Indeed, every devout home had these very words posted at the door – these very words, calling the home to holiness.  For our Jewish brethren, past and present, this holiness is marked with a mezuzah, a small cylinder fixed to the top of the right-hand doorpost.  The mezuzah contains a piece of parchment on which is written the Shema – those words I just recited.  The homes of believers became a sort of temple, a focal point for holiness, right in the midst of domestic chaos: daily prayers recited before bread was rolled out; ritual meals interrupted by crying babies; rushing to prepare for Sabbath, while tending fields and animals.

Now, how about our homes?

I raise this point because many of our children will be fresh off the high of their mission trip. How can our homes care for them?  Will they find a home that can hold the holiness of their experience?  Will they find a home that is a temple? Today’s scripture offers us both a negative and a positive lesson about this.

First, the negative lesson.  This scripture holds an ominous warning.  And, we can’t smooth it over, or defang with some demythologizing.

Jesus looks out over this sacred city and its looming temple, and laments that holiness is rejected right here, in this sacred zone.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.”

Holiness, according to Jesus, draws opposition.  Holiness, according to the testimony of Scripture, ignites adversarial energy.  Where holiness emerges, so too do forces opposed to it.  Jesus begins his ministry with a holy retreat of 40 days, and at its conclusion?  The devil visits and tempts him.  John the Baptist, a prophet, announces the coming Messiah, and Herod beheads him.  Jesus teaches his followers The Lord’s Prayer, a prayer that expects both God’s kingdom and the Evil One.  In today’s scripture, opposing Jesus, the mother-hen, is Herod, the predatory fox.  This is a recurring dynamic of the religious life – just at moments of great holiness and progress, in flows adversity!

The Protestant reformation leader John Calvin, commenting on this passage, writes:  “We know that the more brightly the light…shines,…the more (the wicked) are driven to (blow it out).”[1]

The more brightly the light shines, the more darkness gathers to extinguish it.

“So, welcome home, kids!  Welcome home to adversity!  Welcome home to spiritual danger because your light shines so brightly.”

The second century Jewish thinker, Ben Sira, wisely wrote:  “My child, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”[2]  One way our kids might be tested is to begin to second-guess what they’ve experienced, to discount what they saw and felt in these holy moments.  To mock its relevance, “Well, that was great, but now back to school, back to real life!”  As though what they experienced was not real, not relevant for their lives back here.  On this point, I am reminded of Chris Delmar’s explanation, last Sunday, of the New Testament term “Diabolos,” a term we typically translate as “devil.”  Chris explained that “devil” is more richly translated as “the slander-er”[3] for this slanderer belittles the truth, ridicules and mocks it.  So, if our teens hear that voice, belittling the power and reality of what they saw and felt, they are being tested. “My child, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

Does this warning sound a bit phobic, even fanciful, like some billowing cloud of evil in a movie, swelling up to envelop the hero?  (I am reminded of that billowing cloud of evil in Ghostbusters, swallowing up Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd.) But there’s another way to see this.  Evelyn Underhill, the 20th century Anglo-Catholic mystic, put it this way:

We have had a glimpse . . . of the Holy,

have worshipped before (its) veils of beauty and sacrifice;

and that throws into vivid relief

the poverty, the anarchy, the unreality in which we live,

the resistance of the world (to God), the (resistance of the ) creature to God…”[4]

As Underhill put it, our kids may see now what was always there – the spiritual poverty, the anarchy of too-busy lives, the unreal idols that control our hearts.  It may seem, as our kids come down from their mountain, that spiritual adversity suddenly looms.  But perhaps, it was always there, only they could not yet see it.

That’s the negative lesson of this morning’s scripture – holiness spurs opposition and our teens must be prepared.

But now, the positive lesson.

The temple was a place of disciplined, daily focus on God.  Prayers and Torah study happened on an hourly basis.  Sacrifice was made daily, in response to life’s joys or contrition.  The temple pulsed with the regular beat of prayer, study and sacrifice.

But, the regularity of religion needs disruption – the disruption of religious experience.  Daily classes, weekly worship, the liturgical seasons, yearly traditions need the disruption of profound encounter with God.  The orienting, ordering dimensions of faith need unpredictable, disruptive encounters with holiness.  We need both. We need this balance.

One day after an Adult Bible study class, members were talking about a religious author I’d never heard of.  It seemed everyone knew of this writer, Sarah Young, and loved her devotional books – the most famous of which is, Jesus Calling.  Since that day, two members have given me her books – beautifully bound, small and pleasing to hold, designed to enhance the experience of opening them each day for prayer.

In a sense, they are the perfect temple book – a disciplined daily approach to faith.  Yet, each daily entry in these books came to Sarah Young from a mystical vision, an extraordinary communication from God, that broke into her life with upheaval.  She would then write down these messages, supplement them with scripture readings, and then each of these would be assigned as a meditation for one day of the year.  These books, thus, embody this balance of faith, where daily discipline is balanced by mystical experience.  The mountaintop needs the prairie.  The vertical needs the horizontal.  The church needs mystics at its meetings and prophets on its boards.  We need, even, ecstatics in our pews.

Thus Jesus pronounces, the temple is desolate, the temple is wrecked, because the prophets are gone.  The prophets, the mystics, the ecstatics, the people of religious experience are gone!  Faith needs both – the temple and religious experience.

Well, our prophets are coming home.  Our mystics, our ecstatics, our teens.  And they’ll need a temple.  Is our home ready?  This is our moment, our temple moment.  Now is the time, if we haven’t already, to adopt some disciplines of faith.  Now is the time, as our children come home, as we move into Lent, to start simple disciplines of faith.  A supper prayer each night – whether that prayer is said at the table, or eating in the car, or joined through a cell phone.  Bibles cracked open, for some daily reading.  A chair in a quiet, uncluttered place, where we keep a family prayer list.  Some families play religious music in their homes on Sundays.  Some families, every month, share a service activity.  During Advent many of our families lit Advent wreath candles each night, saying prayers and reading scripture.  One mother told me that this was the highlight of her little children’s December – this trumped even Santa!  This family is building its temple, setting foundations long before their kids go off on a mission trip.

Evelyn Underhill wrote, “If the transforming power of religion is to be felt, its discipline must be accepted.”  A mountaintop moment needs this discipline, to sustain its transformation.[5]

This morning we welcome home our teens.  Let’s welcome them home to our temples.  A temple of strength against opposition.  A temple that honors what these kids have experienced and says, “It’s real, it’s true.”  Temples of lovely rituals, that bring God into each day.  Temples that model the discipline of faith, that can bear spiritual fruit for a lifetime.  A temple that is grateful for these prophets and mystics, and knows, without them, it stands desolate.

Let’s welcome our teens to the temple.  Let’s welcome our teens back home.  Amen.

[a] Gk lacks for me

[b] Other ancient authorities lack the time comes when

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2

[2] Quoted in The Lord and His Prayer (Eerdman’s, 1997), pg. 73, by N. T. Wright

[3] From Greek diabolos “slanderer.”

[4] Evelyn Underhill, ABBA – Meditations based upon the Lord’s Prayer. by Evelyn Underhill hon. D.D. Aberdeen Fellow of King’s College, London (1940 Longmans, Green & Co Ltd.)

[5] Ibid

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