Solomon prayed: “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel … comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.”
LJ was brave.
She didn’t climb a mountain or throw herself in front of a bullet. LJ was brave because she crossed the room.
LJ was a student at the campus ministry I led in Columbia, Missouri in the early 90s. She had long hair with purple streaks in it at a time when more people would think that was weird than cool.
Except LJ was definitely cool.
In that group, she was one of those people that everyone liked. If she suggested doing something, that’s usually what we ended up doing, not because she strong-armed us but because when LJ talked about it, it just seemed like such a great idea. When LJ floated into a room, people moved toward her.
David was different. And there was no hiding it.
David had a profound hearing loss that required hearing aids in both ears. Because of that, his speech was different from everyone else’s. To my ears, it sounded slow and slurred. David had a quirky sense of humor that most of us didn’t get. When he came into a room, people looked and smiled and maybe said “hey” but nobody moved toward him.
Except for LJ. Every time.
Whenever David would come in, LJ would cross the room. She wouldn’t make a big deal about it, but she would make her way over to David, give him a big smile and a hug and listen and talk, and then bring him into other conversations.
I watched her time and time again. She never failed to cross that room.
And so one day, I took her aside and said: “LJ, you’re so good with David. How do you do that?”
For a split second, she looked at me like she didn’t understand the question. Then she just shrugged and said, “I know how it feels.”
I instantly knew what she meant. And I was instantly even more in awe of LJ than I had been before.
Because the truth was, I knew how it felt, too. I had been the guy at the school dance who used to serve the punch because it gave me something to do so I wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone and useless. I knew that feeling in the pit of my stomach of not being included. I knew the excruciating self-consciousness of knowing I didn’t fit in. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, too.
And maybe like me, you also know the fear.
I knew the fear.
I knew the fear of ever being that person again. The person who was on the outside looking in. The “them” instead of the “us.” And so once I found my tribe. Once I found that group where I was accepted, where people crossed the room to greet me, what I feared more than anything was being back out there again. And associating with people who were out there, who were different than the norm, who weren’t accepted, was risking ending up back out there with “them.” Risking ending up a “them” instead of an “us.”
Not only that, showing those pieces of myself that were different … that was risky, too. So while David couldn’t hide the ways he was different, I’d learned to hide mine well.
I looked at LJ, with her quizzical smile and purple streaked hair, and all I could think of was how brave she was to face that fear. But as we talked more, I realized for her it wasn’t courage. Maybe it was at the beginning but it wasn’t now. For her it was genuine compassion and joy.
Compassion that cuts to the heart of that word – com … passio … “suffering with.” Seeing someone else’s pain as holy ground on which they must not stand alone.
But even more than that it was joy. Joy because just as people had recognized in her, whatever made David different was not something to be hid behind a mask – even if he could – but a unique image of God that had his own beauty for anyone who took the time to truly see.
LJ didn’t cross the room because she had to or because it was the right thing to do. She crossed the room because she didn’t see David as a “them.” David was part of us – and she loved us.
In this morning’s reading from 1 Kings, we are at one of the biggest ribbon cutting ceremonies in history. It is the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s not just a huge amazing building. After generations and generations of God’s presence being mobile with the people – captured and returned in battle and carted around from place to place, the ark of the covenant, God’s presence, finally had a permanent home. They were dedicating the holiest place on earth
And Solomon, the great King, stands before the people and prays to God. He prays that God will always keep a successor to David like him on the throne. He prays that God will hear and heed the prayers of the people of Israel. That God will continue that special relationship with his own people his own tribe. “God, look favorably on us.”
And then Solomon prays something remarkable, something unprecedented. Solomon prays:
“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel … comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.”
Solomon asks God to expand that special relationship of hearing and heeding the hearts of the people from just being for the “us” of the people of Israel but to the “them” of the foreigners, all the people who are “not like us.”
Solomon asks God to treat those the people of Israel has always thought of as “them” … to treat them like “us.” To use this temple not to preserve the Kingdom of Israel but to restore the Garden of Eden, where all humankind was created in God’s image and beloved.
At the moment of the height of the power of the people of Israel and their belief of God’s exclusive favor toward them, Solomon is crossing the room and welcoming everyone in. That is Solomon’s vision for that Temple. And that is what we have heard as God’s vision for this Temple, too.
At Christ Church Cathedral we say we seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ, and that we do this through embracing diversity joyfully. What LJ and Solomon teach us is that the only way that happens is when together we dismantle every last remnant of us vs. them. When together we recognize that all are a greater “we” and always have been.
That means those of us who have the power in this Cathedral community … those of us who for nearly 200 years have defined the culture, the worship, the budget and every other aspect of life here. That those of us get to share that power knowing that it will mean profound changes. Knowing as Solomon did that whenever we ask God to answer the prayers of foreigners, a lot of those prayers will be about changing us.
It means living a life of compassion, reaching across every barrier that could divide an “us” from a “them” and learning each other’s names and stories and sharing our sufferings and standing with one another in them.
For those of us who have power in this community right now because of our class or age or charisma or or race or social standing or length of time here, it means we get to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus and not seeing that power as something to be grasped but emptying ourselves into the form of a servant and giving up that power and sharing it broadly.
It means dedicating a temple where everyone can see themselves at this altar leading the people of God – young and old, black and white, gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender, rich and poor and everywhere in between.
Perhaps most profoundly, it means changing the whole way we think together about mission – from the model of an “us” who have addresses in the directory helping out a “them” who have no addresses, an “us” who are older helping out a “them” who are younger … to instead asking what does it look like for all of us together to be a community of equity and justice. From mission being a series of programs to mission being building a community where all are fed, clothed, housed, educated and all live in safety, dignity and with a deep, abiding sense of God’s love.
And for those of us who walk into this space and are immediately self conscious of how different we are, those of us who in this space feel like a guest in someone else’s home … not a bad thing but not the same as being in a place we can call home ourselves. It means those of us who feel like foreigners in this place have prayers that are heard by God, too. In fact, Jesus teaches us time and again, the prayers of those who feel like foreigners are indispensable as the prophetic voice that makes the difference between a church being a concert hall and museum and being the home and launching pad of the living God.
This opportunity is nothing new for us. Just by coming here this morning some of us are crossing over one of our biggest us and them boundaries – coming into downtown St. Louis. Many of us found Christ Church Cathedral because we were rejected in other places, and certainly as Gentiles we are all those foreigners of whom Solomon speaks.
This is not charting a new course, this is rededicating ourselves to the historic mission of this incredible community. And together we are making wonderful, courageous first steps toward this vision of community. Small steps that make a huge difference as long as they aren’t our final steps.
Some of us have been crossing that room and breaking down us and them by offering everyone a name tag. Others of us have been crossing that room by leading and attending sessions in how to have cross-class conversations and trying out what we are learning. Others of us have been crossing that room in the other direction by being doggedly faithful week after week and even year after year in continuing to show up even though we still have quite a ways to go in treating everyone as an equal part of the Body of Christ.
These small steps are important and life-changing. And there are bigger steps and bigger opportunities approaching. We are facing huge challenges here at Christ Church Cathedral, deficits and deferred maintenance and an increasingly outdated Bishop Tuttle Building that call the future of these buildings into real question. How will we address this crisis and opportunity?
Our temptation will be in fear and familiarity to run to the methods that have worked in the past, methods that lean heavily on the prayers and wishes of those who already have money and power and social standing because we are trusting not in God but in that money, power and status to save us.
And yet if we join Solomon in his prayer of dedication we chart a course for a different and more joyous future.
If we join Solomon in his prayer, we get to use this incredible moment in history as a chance to rededicate this great temple as a place where there is no us and them, where the prayers of Israel and the prayers of Philistines are heard and answered without distinction.
If we join Solomon in his prayer, we get to bring to the table not just who we have in the past – not just the white men with big wallets and wonderful hearts who have sustained this Cathedral and this city in the past – but also people across every us and them divide we have and say “what are your prayers for this place, speak for God is listening.”
If we join Solomon in his prayer, together we can harness our fear of difference and rejection and giving up control and let God gather broadly and dream deeply through us, and if we do that, can you imagine the temple that will be restored and built anew on this corner of 13th and Locust?
Can you imagine the witness it will be to the nations?
Can you imagine the joy it will be for us all?
Like that great Temple that Solomon built, God is calling this Cathedral to be a house of prayer for all nations and people. God is calling us to gather in unity, knowing that true unity can only come with the suffering with of compassion and the dismantling of systems of inequity and injustice. God is calling us to show forth God’s power among all the people so that all may look at what is happening here and see and know the power of the love of the divine.
These are big visions worthy of a holy people. And we are a holy people – each of us and all of us.
These are big visions worthy of a holy people. And like all visions they start small. They start with a nametag. They start with a conversation.
They start by crossing the room. Amen.