Sunday, August 23, 2009

Proper 16

1 Kings 8
27 ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. 30Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.
41 ‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, 43then 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.

The highlights of my work usually involve eating. This past week it was lunch with York Weston Community Services Centre, located just up the street. The meal was a lovely melange of wraps, salad and samosas, served with a very tangy sauce. I’m embarrassed to say it was my first samosa (I had two, so samosas), and I can definitely say I am a fan. Barbara and my new colleague Douglas were there too, but you will need to quiz them yourself on the meal, because I was too preoccupied with my samosas.

York Weston Community Services Centre is a new agency, involved primarily in settlement services and language instruction to new Canadians. They began working with the Sudanese community, and have now expanded their mandate to the many people who call Weston home. I was most impressed by their work with area youth, offering training, encouragement and a safe place to gather.

The massage that come through the presentation was sense of accomplishment, building a agency from the ground up, receiving community support and eventually federal government support. And there was also that understated joy—a most Canadian response—at helping others find a home here in Canada.

It occurred to me that the York Weston Community Services Centre is engaged in work that our congregations did in the early years. For Methodists and Presbyterians, we served the same function in the early part of the nineteenth century, providing a religious and cultural home for legions of newcomers, offering community and guidance to those starting a new life in Canada.

In the last century this meant ethnic congregations, as the welcoming ministry of our denominations shifted to specific language and nationality based churches. Newcomers could find a Korean or Cantonese or even Welsh speaking church, worship in their mother tongue, and receive the same support that agencies such as York Weston Community Services provide.

In this century, young as it is, there is another shift under way, from ethnic ministry churches to intercultural churches: the recognition that we are called to a new kind of diversity based on mutual respect and intentional dialogue about what we hold in common and what makes us different. It means no longer adopting the culture of the dominant group in a congregation but trying to be diverse. It means confronting our own assumptions about other people and trying to understand how they perceive us.

It is hard work. But here in Weston, it is vital work. And it comes with the biblical mandate that Jim read for us this morning. Let me read it again:

‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name, comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.

A minute of background. These words belong to Solomon, part of his prayer of dedication for the new temple: the culmination of his life’s work and the fulfillment of his family’s legacy. And for most of the extended prayer, we hear words that we might expect to go with royal pageantry and more than a little royal pride. Solomon has honoured the covenant first made with his father David, remained faithful, and earned the right to construct the temple. He has given God a magnificent house, and acknowledged the blessing of God’s presence.

And then he does two more things, one theological and one unexpected. The first is to pose a completely rhetorical question: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” His words point out a conundrum. Claim that God lives in the innermost temple, a God becomes very small. Acknowledge that even the universe cannot contain God, and suddenly a house of stone becomes superfluous. The solution: Solomon remembers God’s specific promise that “my name shall be there,” solving a theological problem and providing a descriptor that Rabbis and teachers still use: “The Name.”

The unexpected thing Solomon does is to honour the foreigner. One of the cardinal rules of biblical interpretation is look for the unexpected and pay close attention. The bible has been edited and reedited through the ages, and any idea or story that seems out of place and remains in the text has special value. In a religion under siege throughout most of its history, and a religion based on a strong sense of clan and identity, words such as ‘honour the foreigner’ have special import.

On the face of it, we could assume that Solomon is being polite. Jerusalem was a trading centre, an international crossroads, and acknowledging the foreigner was good for business. We might even extend this to an early form of pluralism, recognizing that some might be curious about the Most High and seek to approach the new temple. But Solomon seems to have a deeper understanding: beyond curiosity and tasting each other’s food, Solomon wants to acknowledge that other nations have a unique relationship to God, and that the words they pray find a home in heaven too.

When he comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.

Solomon could just as easily asked that God hear only the prayers that fit the royal agenda, or the nascent religion, or the people of the city, but he prayed for more: he prayed that God hear the prayer, answer the prayer, and honour the foreigner in the midst of Israel.

What does this mean for us? In many ways, Solomon is making an early appear for an intercultural community. We have to assume that the prayer of a foreigner in a foreign land would sometimes be in conflict with the dominant culture. It would sometimes be a prayer for justice against the very people to set up this temple and call themselves the ‘chosen people.’ And yet Solomon prays that God hear these prayers too: even if his kingdom the source of lament.

Solomon, in his wisdom, has decided that honouring the foreigner (as a command) is more important that controlling the prayer life of others or trying to bar them from the temple itself. His prayer is intercultural because it truly honours the other and names their prayer legitimate, even if it is uncomfortable or may force some kind of change.


My morning began at about 4:20 when I woke from a deep sleep to have sounded like shouting outside. There is nothing like people on the street shouting “fire” to get the blood flowing. Over the next hour we watched the fire department put out the neighbour’s garage, and had an impromptu meeting with our neighbours. Once the crisis passed, the conversation turned to the early hour and broken sleep. My neighbour, Mohammed, said he was up anyway, having his meal, as Ramadan began yesterday. Somehow this led to a conversation about Sharia Law, and eventually taxation in Muslim countries. And it wasn’t yet 5 am.

It seems to me that any week that serves up Ramadan, the good work of York Weston Community Services, and Solomon’s unique prayer is filled with the Holy Spirit. Add the story of Suaad Mohamud, a Canadian stranded by her own government for three months in Kenya, and I begin to see the outline of a theme: In the years to come, here in Weston but across Canada, we are facing change. We will need to rethink assumptions, question longstanding patterns and honestly reassess how we have operated to date. We need to move from mono-culture and multi-culture to inter-culture: a place where we honour the hopes and prayers of everyone we meet, and give thanks to God for the gift of difference. And we need to pray for open minds, open hearts and open churches, and trust that God will answer.


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