The dedication of the temple of Solomon is a very big deal. The beautiful temple has been built by the king, just as the nation has reached its pinnacle of power, prestige, wealth, and influence: its golden age. This is the dedication of a national cathedral. Here the sacrifices, oblations, and prayers of the people would be offered. Here the nation would cement its relationship to God. Here the people would worship the Lord of the universe. This would become the focus of national identity and purpose.
And so with great flourish the king in royal splendor leads the high liturgy of the dedication ceremony. And at the heart of this prayer of dedication, we have this reading this morning. It is a strange reading. For the prayer is that this temple, this worship, these people would be so sacred; that foreigners, outsiders, non-believers, and strangers would come here to pray and their prayers would be heard and answered.
A sanctuary so sacred that those on the edges can be heard. Occasionally that happens here. A few years ago one October at St. Johns, we decided to have an evening service to commemorate National Coming-Out Day: a day important for the LBGT community. It was a good service in many ways. But what I remember is that a musician came who that week had been fired from his job in a church because he was gay. He wondered if he could sing and play something in the service. And so he did.
He needed to sing in a sacred space and within a community that accepted him for who he was. He needed the reassurance that God still loved him even though he had lost his job. It was moving and healing for him and for us. As he was packing his keyboard to go and headed out the door, he apologized to me because he at first thought that I was the custodian. Only about half way through the service did he sense that I might be the pastor. We talked some more and then he decided that his mistake was actually not a mistake at all. A few months later I heard that he was working in another congregation in a different denomination.
Church is for those on the margins, the edges, the outcasts, the outsiders, the foreigners and strangers. It is their prayers God seeks. At least that is the point of Paul in the second reading as we open the book of Galatians. Paul will burn with anger in these pages because he has started this church in Galatia. It is a church that was dedicated to welcoming the Gentiles, welcoming the outsiders, the non-Jews, welcoming those who were different into the Way of Jesus. But in the meantime, some people had convinced the Galatians that in order to be a Christian one must be a Jew and follow the Jewish laws. For Paul the church was for all who believed in Jesus, regardless of their background, way of life, or ethnic identity. God sought the prayers of the outsiders and strangers. God wanted the church to open itself to the Gentiles of Galatia. And Paul is, as we shall see in the coming weeks as we read this letter, well, upset.
He was traveling as one might say in the homeless business. He stopped by St. Johns for financial assistance and then he wondered if I could open the sanctuary so that he could pray. He was on his way from Seattle to some place in Tennessee. And it was hard for him to explain why. Something about a lost love, and family, and the need now to move south. He was not old, but there is an aging that comes with this life, that etched his face. And in some ways he was just ready to move on. I asked if he had a faith, and he said no. He just wanted to pray. And as we sat in the sanctuary, he wondered if I would say a prayer with him. And so I did. Something about the safety of travelers and those on the move. And then he sat quietly shaping one of those wordless prayers that are so moving that I felt God giving him strength for the journey. For the mission we do here sometimes makes this place, this worship, these people so quietly sacred, that wayfarers, foreigners, outsiders, non-believers, and strangers come here to pray and their prayers are heard and answered.
God wants to hear and to answer the prayers of those on the edges, the outsiders, and strangers. Luke today remembers an encounter between Jesus and a Roman centurion in Capernaum. The Romans were the hated and feared rulers, and this army officer was the leader of the detachment charged with enforcing Roman law in this province. The Romans of the occupation were hated. But this man was not. Instead of using brute force, he won the respect of the people and assisted people in building up their community. And with this leadership style he won the cooperation of those who should have hated him. Even his servants are dear to him. And when one is ill, he asks his Jewish friends about Jesus. And they, out of mutual regard arrange for a meeting. The Romans are more hated than anyone else. Sometimes the powerful, the wealthy, or those in leadership are the ones on the margins of acceptability. Leadership can be a lonely thing. A Roman centurion would always be an outsider in Judea. That’s just the way the world works.
But God in Christ seeks the prayers of the foreigners, the outsiders, the Gentiles, those often not considered religious enough to ever darken a church door, even this Roman who goes to great pains to let Jesus know this is a request and not a command. And the prayer of the outsider is answered. The servant is healed.
One busy morning a middle aged African American woman stopped by the church to as they say “talk with the pastor.” And so we decided to talk in the gathering space this side of those glass doors. She was an evangelical Christian in her perspective, and she was wondering what to do about her family with whom she had become separated. Walls of hard feelings had built up over the years. And she was at that point in life when she wanted to work on that.
I genuinely felt sorry for her because she had to talk with me. She really would have been better served by an African American pastor, but she got me. She would have been better served by a female pastor more sensitive to the nuances of family life and mothering, but she got me. She needed someone who could focus on just her problem, and instead she got someone like me who ends up handling thirty or so issues every day. She needed someone who understood the conservative evangelical mindset, and instead she ended up with me. God could not have selected a worse pastor for her on her journey.
But after talking completely past each other several times, we decided to talk about prayer. And we decided that God was better at listening than talking. And she decided that this place was a good place to pray. And I suggested that she be the one to pray and I be the one to listen as she prayed to God.
And so it began. It was the most un-Lutheran thing I had ever heard. And the words just kept wandering around and around and around. I was beginning to think that God would run out of time before she ever finished.
But then something shifted in me and in the room. Slowly what seemed at times almost incoherent, was actually a woman in prayer, moving in a circular way around the presence of God, one revolution at a time, closer and closer to the heart of the matter. And as she prayed out her soul, creating a profound spiritual circle, it became clear to her what she should do about her family and the first steps she should take. And with that and a Thank You, Jesus and an Amen the prayer ended. And so God answered the prayer of this woman on the edge, on the margin, the prayer of the stranger to Lutheran ways, the prayer of a sister in our faith in the Jesus who can heal and restore.
The temple, the sacred space, and we, the people of God have been and continue to be called to elicit and honor the prayers of the lonely, the forsaken, the stranger, and those on the margins. May we attempt like Solomon, Paul, and Jesus, to live into that calling.