Finding a Place in God

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 22, 2021
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43

    “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life,” Simon Peter tells Jesus.  The Bible frequently urges faith or belief in God as a spiritual requirement for salvation.  But this morning, I’d like to unpack for a few minutes what John’s gospel, at least, is talking about when we exhort people to believe.  Because if we remember anything about Peter’s journey, it’s a roller coaster of following Jesus and then lapsing.  In a few weeks in Mark’s gospel, we’ll see Peter’s “aha’ moment, “OH, I get it, you’re the Messiah, Jesus!” only to be chastised pretty quickly by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter still doesn’t quite get what Jesus is all about.  Peter is the rock on whom Jesus builds the church, but Peter is also the disciple who denies Jesus three times.  And there are others in John’s gospel – the sisters Mary and Martha, Nicodemus who comes with a lot of questions to Jesus at night, doubting Thomas, who keep on following Jesus, trusting and believing that he is the Son of God, that he has the words of eternal life, and at the same time still have questions and doubts, who are still scratching their heads at this long sermon of Jesus’ on the bread of life in chapter 6 and wondering what it is all about.  With these faithful disciples who follow Jesus despite their questions and doubts, we ask, “Where can we go? Is there a place for us in God’s house?” And God’s answer to us is, “Yes, there’s a place for you, here.  Follow me!”
    We’re wrapping up our series on the Kings of Israel and we’ll get to the first reading but I wanted to start with the gospel this week because Peter’s question is such a powerful one.  Because faith is not a logical, rational sorting out of everything about Jesus to be able to declare confidently that everything about him makes sense.  People don’t come back to life after they die, generally, for one.  Rather, faith is trusting without everything making sense, that God loves us, every one of us, unconditionally, and wants what is best for us.  We worship and strive to follow a God who is good, who wants to save us, who offers forgiveness, who listens and responds to our prayers, and who also challenges us to try to understand and grow in faith, too.  This is what it means to call ourselves believers or to have faith.  Where else can we go?  To whom (other than Jesus) can we turn?  That rhetorical question of Peter’s is certainly my question of faith, too.
    Many of you know that I had the opportunity to serve on the faculty for Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Camp last week.  Thank you for allowing me that time away, and again to Pastor Nale for being such a great colleague to lead worship and provide pastoral care while I was away!  I had heard about Pinecrest when I came to New York, but it’s one of those things you have to experience to truly understand what it’s all about.  So I’ll try feebly to explain what I was up to all week last week, anyway.  Pinecrest, first of all, is not a place but a community.  It is run completely by volunteers who rent space at an existing camp and bring 15-25 year olds together for just one week, every year for 94 years now, where the campers through a Student Council plan most of the activities themselves, pick courses on Christian leadership, Bible, and life skills they want to study in the mornings, plan worship each evening, and do silly things like talent shows, synchronized swimming and lip syncing contests and relay racing which you would expect from any youth camp.  It was so refreshing to be among solid, quality young people who are the future leaders of the church – not just people who want to be pastors, but nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, lawyers and so on whose faith is informing their life choices.  It was also powerful to hear stories of brokenness and see such resilience in these campers.  Last week I heard, ‘Please pray for my sister who has a cocaine addiction.”  “I’m still angry because my parents asked me to pick which parent to live with when they got divorced. I was 8.”  “I think I want to be a journalist but I’m not 100% sure I’m doing what God wants for my life and I’m scared.”  “I’m a sexual abuse survivor.”  “Pastor, pray for my relationship with my parents.  They haven’t spoken to me in three years since I came out as transgender.”  “My mom died from COVID last year.”  In these stories, I heard Peter’s question, “Where else can we go?  Who can I turn to for words of spirit and life when everything else is crashing down around me?” And it is almost beyond words to try to describe to you how Jesus was the answer to that question for these campers.  I hope and pray the Lord has been the answer for you, too.
    If you’ve ever had the opportunity to go to camp, you probably know that young people are able to share in these settings more deeply the realities of their lives which are complicated and confusing.  And yet over and over again, I also heard how campers met Jesus at Pinecrest.  How they felt that God truly loved them for the first time in this place.  How they realized that  Christians actually could be non-judgmental and accepting of who they truly were, scars and all.  Even I as an adult newbie to camp was warmly welcomed and approached early on by campers asking, “How are you doing? It’s all overwhelming, isn’t it?  We’re glad you’re here.  I’ve been praying for you.”  This welcome was a part of the culture!  This camp experience reignited my dream for our church to be a similar place, where it doesn’t matter who the people are or where you are but the culture of Faith Lutheran Church, like Pinecrest, is one of unconditional welcome and unashamed proclamation that God loves you, and so do I.  You matter to God, you matter to us.  Faith opens doors, because our doors are truly open to all.  And it doesn’t matter if you first meet me as the pastor or Evelyn or Bette or Neal or Fred – this is our attitude, our mission, and our commitment – to preach, teach, and share God’s LOVE in Christ.
    So let’s turn for a minute to our first reading.  This chapter is Solomon’s dedication of the first temple that he has built to honor and worship God.  It is God’s first proper house.  But Solomon’s prayer reminds us of a few important things, most importantly that heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain all of God much less a house or a temple or a church.  We put our faith and trust in a person, not a place – in Jesus who is God’s word made flesh, the infinite God of the universe who comes down to dwell among us.  The building structure simply helps us worship, and gathers us together to unite us as one in the body of Christ, and sends us out once again to be Christ, God’s good news of unconditional love, to others.
    The temple was the holiest place to worship and encounter God, but it was not the only place.  Thousands of years ago, before Christ, people came from all over seeking answers, seeking forgiveness, healing, and love from God.  Solomon reminds us of why we come to any place to worship and praise God – not because we have it all figured out, but because God has covenant and steadfast love, God listens (heeds) our prayers, God forgives, God’s eyes are open day and night, AND, God listens even to foreigners so all the peoples of the earth may know our gracious and amazing God.  The culture, the language, the specifics of the building have changed but our mission remains the same – to share the love of God so that all may know there is a place for them here. There is a place for you in God.  For all who are wondering like Peter, where can I go? To whom can I turn? Sometimes, we turn to Jesus and even find him at summer camp or at church.  May our faith point them and us to Jesus, who has made his home among us. Amen.