Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church of Harvard Univerdsity, May 10, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
When I read the assigned Scripture readings from the lectionary for today they threw me for a loop. The shockingly violent reading from the Acts of the Apostles details the gruesome martyrdom of the first deacon, Stephen, which is typically read the day after Christmas, Saint Stephen’s Day. Meanwhile, the Gospel reading is a portion of what is often referred to as the Farewell Discourse, in which Jesus offered his goodbyes to the disciples before his death. A bit odd to be reading Jesus’ goodbyes in the context of Easter, when he is, well, back. Perhaps the lectionary is also participating in our isolation-imposed time-warp.
In Jesus’ farewell to his disciples we find verses often read at memorial services and funerals, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…And I go to prepare a place for you; I will come again and take you to myself.” This passage lends itself to an image of an expansive heavenly abode for our departed loved ones and for ourselves. The promised “rooms” or “dwelling places” always catch my attention. The Greek word monai, gets translated as “room” and “dwelling place.” Monai can also mean to “stay” and to “abide.” Jesus holds a space for us to stay with God; a spot where we can abide alongside God. This is an invitation for us to live with and among our Creator.
Thanks to Zoom, I’m sure many of us have seen the homes of our colleagues, classmates, and even complete strangers. We really gain some context to peoples’ lives as we look into our screens. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we also get to hear a child giggle in the background, watch a pet saunter past the camera, or see a cozy houseplant. We are getting to know our earthly homes better than we ever imagined.
For some, these months at home have been a time of trial. Homes are often shared with our family members, housemates, or a partner. Parents are having to learn how to simultaneously work, teach their children, referee disputes, and prepare dinner. This becomes exceedingly difficult for single parents. Home, sadly, isn’t always a safe place for people; it can be a nightmare for someone who lives with their abuser. Home, for others, however is the only place where they are free from the threat of a modern-day lynching.
Many people during this time have found home to be a vast isolation chamber. Jill Lepore, in her piece “The Isolation Ward,” notes that more than one in four people in the United States lives alone. Loneliness is an unwelcomed guest in our homes, bringing with it increased anxiety, depression, and polarization.
For young LGBTQ people there might not be a home in which to isolate. LGBTQ youth are at a greater risk of becoming homeless than their non-LGBTQ classmates.
Overall, the number of people living without a home continues to grow in the United States. In 2019 Massachusetts alone reported an estimated 18,000 plus people experiencing homelessness.
Home is complicated. Home, this virus is teaching us, is essential. Although, I believe we’ve known the importance of home all along.
Jesus says that in his Father’s house there are many rooms and that he is going there to prepare a dwelling place for us. I wonder what a room in God’s house is like? We can let our imaginations run down a path of divine home décor. Does God really prefer the Gothic and Neo Gothic designs that influence so much of church architecture? With so many people living there I bet there’s a quiet hour, or as we called it at church camp, “flat on back time.” As a fastidious cleaner, I pray God is an immaculate housekeeper.
God wants to abide with us; for us to have a place to stay, a place to be and a place to be loved. In the same essay, Jill Lepore goes on to say that “To belong is to feel at home.” This is what God wants for us: to belong and to be loved. Jesus is preparing that place for us in God’s house. God wants us to know that all three persons of the Trinity are excited to sit alongside us. I think of the famous 15th century icon of the Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev, depicting the three persons of the Trinity sitting at a round table with one open spot, and that spot is meant for you and for me. A place to belong and to be loved. God is serious about this welcome. This dwelling place is not exclusive and there is no such thing as reservations. Jesus doesn’t say that there are only rooms for a few people, but rather, many rooms. Jesus is making space for all of us to abide with God, space for us to belong and to be loved. We may not be able to know much about the details of God’s home, but we do know that it is spacious.
We get many glimpses of God’s spaciousness in Scripture. At the very beginning of the Bible we learn how God rearranged space to accommodate dry land, deep waters, and endless flora and fauna, whose beauty we are enjoying now as it blossoms outside our windows. The Psalms tell of God’s roominess; that God has enough room under her wings for all of us to take refuge there. Gospel stories show that Jesus invited people of all moods and professions into the house and around the table. Our reading from Acts tells of the Church’s first deacon, Stephen, who was steadfast in ensuring people knew that God abided with them, even to the point of death.
When I think of the Memorial Church I catch sight of God’s spaciousness. We are now in final exam period, so today would normally be when we celebrate the various student groups in the church who help to make MemChurch a home. Like our own student deacons, led by Alex and Maggie, who welcome us into the church building each Sunday morning, assuring us of our belonging by placing a bulletin in our hand and pointing visitors in the direction of the bathrooms. Every Sunday the endlessly talented Church School teachers show us that there is room in God’s house for the smallest among us; that sticky hands, princess dresses, and tough theological questions belong here and are loved. In the Student Oasis, the front desk attendants greet their peers and people from all walks of life as they venture to a couch for a nap. The students in the choir let us know that deep voices and high voices and all the voices in-between have a dwelling place in God’s house.
Jesus prepares a place for you in God’s spacious house because God wants to abide with you, to stay with you no matter what. You belong with and are loved by God. However, by now, many of us are tired of our homes and even more of us are still looking for a home, a place to belong and to be loved.
What might happen if we begin to reciprocate Jesus’ hospitality? What could it look like to prepare a place for God in our lonely apartments or in our hardened hearts? I know God wouldn’t mind the frazzled space, after all he was born in a feeding trough. In the 17th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about God’s spaciousness; he said that God’s dwelling place can’t be contained by the heavens so it stretches down and is among us, right here where we are. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled [you belong and you are loved],” Jesus said.