13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 16) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 22 August 2021

2 Kings 8:1,6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 6:10-20 | John 6:56-69

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who makes a house for the sparrow.

“The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars O Lord.” This Psalm moves me because I love the image of these little birds finding a home in a holy place. And it reminds me of the times in my life where I’ve found a home even when I didn’t expect to, the times when God and God’s people took me in and gave me shelter. I wonder if you’ve had those times too. And I wonder what it means for you to find a home, a house, a nest.

There’s a Robert Frost poem I really like where two characters are talking about what home means. One of them takes a bit of a cynical approach and says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And the character is being a bit sarcastic, but there’s something to that—defining home in terms of need and obligation and relationship. The other character in the poem has a slightly different idea about it. She says that home is “Something you somehow don’t have to deserve.” In this understanding, home is just there for you to come home to, no matter what, even when you have nowhere else to go.

I hear this a little in the Gospel reading where a lot of people are leaving Jesus, but the disciples ask, “Where else would we go?” Of course they’re going to stay with Jesus. Jesus is their home. They abide in him. They’ve found a home in their relationship with Jesus even though they don’t have one stable place to stay physically.

Sometimes for us, like for the disciples, home is more about relationships than it is about location. Brian and I have been married for six years, and in that time we’ve lived in five different homes together. This is fairly common for people in our generation who’ve had to move a lot for education or jobs. And in those moves, we’ve done some thinking about what it means to make a home intentionally. When does a new apartment or house go from being a place where we happen to sleep and keep our stuff to being our home? One turning point we look for that makes us feel at home in a new place is that first time when we have enough people over to pull up extra chairs and squeeze them in at our table.

For us, part of what home means is a place where you can invite other people, where you can build relationships around a table full of food. That’s been tricky in COVID, but still we’ve found that there’s a connection, even a synergy, between offering hospitality to others and experiencing the rootedness of home for ourselves. We’re learning how to make a place feel like home for us by inviting others in.

I think this can be true in church too, when we talk about what it means to have a spiritual home. There’s a connection between making a home and practicing hospitality with all kinds of neighbors and newcomers. The kind of place where committed followers of Jesus practice love and faith and service is the same kind of place that welcomes strangers—those values can strengthen each other. Inviting others in is how we make a home for ourselves. Being at home ourselves, living our identity and integrity fully, is how we invite others into something real.

And we can only do any of this because God has invited us in first. The Spirit of God has made the church a home for those of us who are here every Sunday, a home for those of us here for the first time, a home for those who desperately long for a home, a home for some who are wandering and don’t yet even know what home would look like.

One of our hymns puts it beautifully: “This is the Lord’s house, home of all God’s people, school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary; all find a welcome.” This is our home because it is the Lord’s house. This is our home because it’s a home for all the people God loves and calls. In the Psalm, the house of God is a home for even the little birds that need a place to nest.

In our story from the book of Kings, the Temple is a home for God’s glorious presence, a home for the faithful, and also a home for the stranger. We read this beautiful stunning scene where God’s glory fills the temple, and then we hear the wise king Solomon’s prayer, his hopes for this place. Solomon knows that this Temple isn’t going to contain God—God is everywhere, and not even the vast expanse of heaven is big enough to contain the whole mystery of God.

Yet, Solomon asks that God’s name will dwell in the Temple. He asks that God will pay attention to this temple. Solomon asks that when people pray in this temple, God will hear them, God will meet them. And Solomon specifically asks that foreigners will also be able to call on God and be heard in this house.

The invitation to the outsider is not something extra added on to the work of the Temple—this hospitality toward foreigners and strangers is how God makes a home among God’s people. You might know the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming and feeding three strangers and finding that somehow these strangers were the Lord appearing to them. This is part of a consistent teaching in the Old Testament that God’s people need to care for immigrants and refugees and unknown travelers because God loves all those who wander, all those who are vulnerable. God not only loves these folks, but God is so closely identified with them that when we offer strangers hospitality, it’s our God that we welcome.

This teaching feels especially important now when we see refugees from Afghanistan looking for a safe place to live. And I’m hearing a lot of compassion and support for refugees right now, but I’m also hearing about some anti-immigrant fear and hate and defensiveness bubbling up too. And this is where we need that connection between finding home and offering hospitality. In our country and our communities as well as in our church, I believe we make a thriving home by the way we welcome people to the table. Because if we define home by the ways we invite people in rather than the ways we keep people out, I have faith that we’ll find what we need make a home with room for all of us, and we may find we’ve opened the door for God.

We personally may not be able to do very much about the global troubles that cause people to become refugees. We don’t have an immediate solution for the violence and imperialism and climate crises and economic despair that make leaving home the best option that some folks have to live in safety. But we can work together little by little toward a world where people don’t have to be refugees, a world that values the dignity of every human being enough to handle our conflicts and our resources differently. And until that happens, we can work together little by little toward a world where anyone who does have to leave their home finds a welcome with open arms. We can move together toward a world where even the sparrow finds shelter by the side of God’s altar.   

I hear a call to action in today’s scriptures, a call to open our doors and open our hearts in hospitality. Maybe for you this means welcoming refugees—by opening your home, by giving to organizations that help, or by advocating for policies that make our country and our community a place of welcome.

Or maybe for you in this moment, the call to hospitality is something as simple as finding someone who’s new in your school or workplace or neighborhood and asking them how they’re doing. Sometimes a little word of welcome can make all the difference. Maybe it means getting to know your unhoused neighbor; maybe it means working to make Evansville a place where everyone has a safe place to sleep at night. Maybe it means talking with someone in your life about the nourishment you’ve found in your life of faith and inviting that person to come with you and see. Maybe this call to hospitality means making space for deep listening with someone you care about. I hope you’ll pray about how you might be called this week and try out some practice of hospitality.

Friends, right beside this call to practice hospitality, I also hear an invitation to us all today to accept hospitality from each other and from God. For some of us, it’s easier to take action than it is to simply receive something that’s given as a gift, “something we somehow don’t have to deserve.” But today I hear God calling us to come home, to claim a nesting place beside God’s altar. We have all been the sinner in need of refuge, the pilgrim in need of rest, the weary one in need of safe haven. And if that’s you today, I want to say to you, welcome home. Come on in. Stay awhile. Rest here. Eat the bread of life here, and may it give your strength for your journey. Make your nest by the altar, because that’s what it’s for.

You don’t have to earn this; you don’t have to be certain; you don’t even have to know why you’re here. If you feel like a stranger, this house of God is for you. This church community is more whole and more at home because you’re here today. Your creator delights to welcome you exactly as you are. Jesus offers his body and blood for you. The Spirit has led you here to take shelter today. Welcome.

Know that you are a blessing, and receive God’s blessing:

Your Creator who makes a house for the sparrow be your dwelling forever;

Christ the bread of life feed you wherever you journey;

and the Holy Spirit always kindle your love for the wanderer and always lead you home.


A Song Sparrow from plate 25 of John James Audubon’s beautiful Birds of America series published in the 1820s and 30s.