Rededicating a Place of Radical Hospitality – September 12

A sermon based on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 12, 2021*

by Rev. Scott Elliott

I chose today’s Lesson because it is about the radical hospitality and   dedication of the Temple in Old Testament times and today we are rededicating this hospitable sanctuary which was renovated last year during the height of the pandemic.   We set this day earlier this year when it looked like the pandemic would mostly be over and the church would be returning to normal.  Obviously looks can be deceiving, the pandemic is still going on and we are not ready to return to normal. We decided to go ahead and do the re-dedication anyway since we’ve waited a year–and the re-dedication seems overdue.

A lot of work was done up here last year. The walls and ceiling were patched and painted. A new sound system was put in including special headphones for those with hearing issues. We re-did the choir loft and all the pews were repositioned. We also put in some new lighting, and a great new heating system.  Oh, and this may be the coolest thing of all, for the first time since 1868 there is air conditioning up here. As they say nowadays: Woo-Hoo!

This space was very holy and sacred before the renovations, but, it does feel extra special to have it so nice and sparkling.  Along with responsible care for this historic building, hospitality was a motivating factor in all the fixes and upgrades, making it welcoming and pleasant and practical.   A lot of folks worked to make it all happen, and a lot of folks helped finance it too.  We are blessed with such good resources.

At one point somebody else was going to be in charge of overseeing it all – and I am not quite sure how he was talked into it, but Brad Kaylor ended up taking on that monumental task. And we can thank Brad for his overseeing the renovations with some applause. And thanks to everyone else who helped, lets applaud for them too.  There’s reception in the courtyard afterwards to celebrate the renovations.

By now you may have figured out I like history and I am particularly enamored with local history and our own church history.  I went back and dug around in the church achieves. Some records on the original construction of this building in the 1860s exist.  The records indicate a construction committee was formed in 1866 and the building was completed in the middle of the Advent and Christmas season of 1868. The first services occurred on December 12th  and 13th. On Saturday the 12th our fourth pastor, Rev. Leonard  was invited back to preach at the dedication service. I was tickled to learn he chose as his text one that I often lift up Acts 17:29 about how we live and move and have our being in God.  On Sunday the 13th  our third pastor, Rev. Strieby, was invited to preach in the first Sunday worship service in this building. By then Rev Strieby was pretty famous with a national reputation as an anti-slavery and civil rights leader. He was quite a hero.  His scripture choice for that dedication Sunday was the text before us today–and get this,  I found that out after I chose the text and wrote the first draft of this sermon (which also pleased me to discover).

In a little bit we are going to have a formal re-dedication in this service. Before we do that I’m going to talk about the lesson on hospitality in that first dedication of the Temple.  The scripture reading for today was likely written around the time of the Babylonian Exile. Babylon destroyed the  Temple,  conquered the Israelites, and force marched its leading citizens to captivity in Babylon. After the attack on the Temple and the Exile it would have been easy to hate on foreigners and to claim God hated them.  We’ve seen some of that sort of approach in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of 9.11 in our country.   But that’s not what the Israelites took away from it, at least not in our reading from 1 Kings,  which has this great message about hospitality and treating foreigners– strangers–  well– not hating and blaming them all and thinking God does too.

The words the Exilic writers put on Solomon’s lips form a prayer for what modern theologians call “radical hospitality.”  It really is quite remarkable that those who suffered the Babylonian Exile imagined Solomon (who lived many years before) had prayed not only that foreigners be welcome into the temple, but that God answer the foreigners’ prayers! Aliens were respected, as those in Exile wished to be respected.  So, the prayer includes these words of radical hospitality:

when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name  —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner 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, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

This is a model approach toward aliens for any nation and any religion. It’s a prayer for tolerance and inclusiveness in worship, and for an honoring of strangers. It’s a model attitude for all houses of worship and worshipers of  God.  It is a solid theological claim that God embraces all of humanity.

Just as there are no bounds to God’s love, there are to be no bounds to access to God and God’s house of worship.  This amounts to such radical hospitality that the Temple was opened to everyone.  This amounts to such radical hospitality, that following suit,  worship in this sanctuary is open to everyone. We can and do hope that everyone’s heartfelt prayers for well-being are heard and answered.  Claiming and living the truth that there are no strings attached to God’s presence or God’s love is an expression of radical hospitality.

I hear from time to time how the Old Testament seems irrelevant, but the radical hospitality we try to follow every Sunday in this Holy space, that hospitality is a constant theme in the Hebrew texts.  It’s clearly relevant.  Strangers are not just welcomed, but treated well and treated equally. Again, it’s supposed to be like that in all nations and religions.  A command in Leviticus 19(34) sums up God’s desire in this regard well  “The alien who resides with you SHALL be to you as the citizen among you; you SHALL love the alien as yourself.”  The most famous words of Jesus about love actually come directly from the Old Testament, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is also found in Leviticus 19(18) Jesus, a very Jewish Rabbi,  derived his theology from Sacred Jewish texts.

Solomon’s prayer was written well after Solomon lived. It was written while the Jews were in Exile, strangers in a strange land. And the part of the prayer that we are looking at today can be heard as an earlier Exilic version of “do to strangers in our temple what WE want done to ourselves.”  And to ask God to “do to their prayers as we’d want to done to our prayers.”  Jesus’ wisdom of course leads to this as well. His second most famous teaching is do to others what we want done to us.   Here in this space, we have worked to offer that radical hospitality since 1868.

The repairs, updating and sprucing up we did was to take good care of the space and continue that hospitality.   But as wonderful as it is, this building is only a small part that hospitality.  It takes all of us in here, all of us who make up the church, to provide the hospitably to one another and equally to foreigners and strangers. We must take actions to be loving and to do to others as we would want done for ourselves.  The work on the building is great, looks great, sounds great. Now with the work done in this updated and renovated sanctuary it needs to be a place where we all continue to provide radical hospitality!  AMEN

ENDNOTES:* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2018