This past Sunday I spoke at Growing in Grace, the evening service at All Saints’. For those not familiar with GiG, as it’s known, the service features a different speaker each week. Each of the speakers tries to provide a reflection that draws on her life and work, the Gospel of the day, and the theme. This semester’s theme, Thresholds, offered me the opportunity to reflect on my home and family, the Benedictine life of Prayer and Work, and God’s presence in our world. What follows is a revised version of the “spomimony”—that’s a speech/homily/testimony for those of you needing to spend more time with David Prehn— I gave there. Before going any further, I recommend reading Matthew 22:1-14. I hope you enjoy, and God bless.
Let’s begin with silence and prayer…
Lord, we ask that you dwell with us and we with you. Please, draw us into your family. Bring us home to you, unite us with you. Be our God, and we shall be your people. We pray in your name, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I met with Rob McAlister a few weeks back to discuss being here tonight , we started talking about thresholds. For a few minutes, it seemed (to me, at least) as if we were talking past each other; each using the same words, but not understanding what the other was trying to say. Finally, I realized that when I heard the word ‘threshold,’ my thoughts turned immediately to my home and to my family. For Rob, however, the word seemed to conjure up impressions of transitions and journeys, of changes and steps along the way. While each of our associations captures part of the meaning of the word, I want to focus primarily on thresholds as an image of entering into a home. That is, I want to ask: What does it mean to be at home? And what connection exists between our earthly and heavenly homes?
In speaking of thresholds and homes, I remember in particular coming home for Christmas Break one year. It was late by the time I got home, dark out, and the family had already started eating dinner without me. I could see them through the window, and walked straight to door without even pretending to start unloading the car. I opened the front door and called out “Hello, the Family!” I heard Elizabeth yell, “DANIEL!!”, and Rosie started stammering in her excited attempt to call out as well, and our dog Kate sprinted barking to the door. I barely made it inside before being overwhelmed by a surge of sisters, brothers, parents, and dog, happily huggin’ and hollerin’ at each other.
I wanted to share this story because it (and others like it) color my understanding of thresholds. To stand on a doorstep and see the ones you love rejoicing at your coming home is just about the best feeling I can imagine. To step out of the darkness into a well-lit home after a long trip brings such happiness. This feeling of being “home at last,” of being back where you belong, with the people who matter most, tells us quite a bit about our human and Christian experience, I think. In order to really get at it though, I’m first going to sidetrack briefly into two schools of thought that I’ve been engaging with quite a bit lately: Existentialist philosophy and Benedictine spirituality.
Martin Heidegger, a German existentialist, wrote an essay called “Building Dwelling Thinking” in which he argued that we cannot understand what it means to be human until we consider what it means to dwell. For Heidegger, dwelling refers to our investment in the things, situations, and circumstances that constantly confront us; that is, our way of living in relation with our place and its people. When we are home, I think, is when we most fully experience this intimate sense of connection, this feeling of being inseparable from our surroundings. Or, perhaps I ought to say that when we feel this sense of connection to a place and its people, we are home. Being at home—that is, dwelling at its finest—then, is being in a place in which we are fulfilled, uplifted, made happy—in and by that specific context.
Remember this idea of dwelling, as I’ll be coming back to it in a minute, but now I want to turn to the Benedictines. I’m living, working, and praying with the Sisters of St. Mary’s, a Benedictine Episcopal order of nuns. For Benedictines, the meaning and purpose of our life is captured by their motto: Ora et Labora. Pray and Work, Work and Pray. As best I can understand it, Benedictine spirituality seeks, above all, to turn our hearts and minds toward God by investing our hearts and minds in the people, places, and tasks that are around us. It is in our work that we really pray; in planting the carrots that we affirm our faith in Christ; in picking the crabapples that we offer Him thanks and praise; in the small tasks that fill our days that we come to know and love God.
This attitude of prayerful work, of praying without ceasing, as Paul says, reminds us that we live each and everyday on a threshold. Even in our most mundane circumstances, we are perched on the doorstep of Heaven, with Christ eagerly waiting for us to accept his invitation to come on in! One way to express our human situation, in which we are constantly living both in the world and in heaven, is to say that it is by making our home here that we prepare ourselves for our heavenly home. It is in the thoroughfares that we accept our invitation to the wedding feast.
Now, thus far I’ve presented a pretty rosy picture of our life, highlighting intimate connections between people, places, and God; however, each of us often has a bit more of the attitude of the original guests. We often ignore God’s invitation. It is interesting to see the reasons that Christ offers in the parable for these people’s refusals. “But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” At least on its face, this contradicts what I said before about finding God in the farm. How can it be that, in going to the farm, we both find God and run away from Him?
I think one way to understand this apparent contradiction is by returning to my family. As you may have gathered, both from my story of coming home and from the fact that I decided to talk about “home” for this talk at all, I absolutely adore my family. Two wonderful parents, three brothers/best friends, and three unbelievably, inconceivably, incomprehensibly loving, lovable, and lovely sisters, not to mention my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. So, yea, I love my family.
Ok, so all that being said, I want to point out one way that I’ve often sought to avoid God’s invitation. For me, it can be very tempting to idolize my family, to assume that what my family does is life and Christianity at its finest, that everyone else who does anything else is missing out or messing up. Now, obviously, that’s not the case. We are just as human, just as weak and fragile, just as wounded and troubled as everyone else. But my tendency to put my family up on a pedestal shows how our farms and businesses can be both the lure away from God and the road towards him. It all depends on how we approach them.
Let me clarify that last point briefly, as I think it’s important. On the one hand, my family is absolutely my road to God, instructing me formally and informally in the faith and life of a Christian, showing me dimly and haltingly and imperfectly what it means to enter into the family of the Father. On the other hand, however, I have to resist the urge to make this beautiful image of God into a god. It is because my family is a mirror of the life of God to me, because my dwelling with them opens me up to dwell with God, because I find God in my life with them, that I run the risk of confusing some idealized conception of “Family” for “that Being, than which no greater can be conceived,” to use Anselm’s phrase. Although it is through our dwelling here on earth that we come to God, we need to be careful to avoid turning that dwelling—be it farm, business, or family—into God.
Now, before closing, I want to look quickly at the close of this gospel, at the man without wedding garments. This is a puzzling passage, one that I’ve long had trouble understanding. What did the man do wrong? What is Jesus trying to tell us? I think one way to understand it is by reflecting on dwelling as I defined it earlier. We dwell, we find our home, by connecting appropriately with the situations that confront us. It is this connection that the man lacks. Even though he shows up at the feast, he is still at home elsewhere, back at his farm or business. This point is emphasized by his speechlessness. Language, that great unifier (think the Tower of Babel and Pentecost here), escapes him. He is completely divorced from his surroundings, disconnected from the family and home offered him.
So where does all this talk of homes and connections, of family and place, leave us? How does it help us better understand what it means to live on the threshold of heaven?
First of all, we know that we must avoid being disconnected from our surroundings. We have to dwell, to make a home, to work and pray here on earth. We are people in a place—let’s live like it! However, we can’t let that to which we are most connected and which we care about most become our God. We find God in our dwelling, but that doesn’t mean our dwelling is God.
Bearing these two pitfalls in mind, we strive to make our home in God by making sure that God is in our home, in all it’s mundane, everyday, humble glory. We are standing on the threshold of heaven, dwelling in the presence of God, now and always. Let us rejoice and be glad! Amen.