While We Were Yet Strangers

August 02, 2015

by Rev. Henry A. Schoenfield

May Wisdom be in my heart in yours. May she dwell in this time and space, bringing comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable. Amen.

So right from the beginning, I will say that this is unlike any sermon that I have ever preached, here at Judson or beyond. For better or worse, over the years, I have developed a template of sorts for preaching. It usually goes something like this: I have one basic point that I want to make based on the scripture reading for the day. There’s some engaging story at the beginning that goes into the scripture reading and my main point. Then there’s some tie into justice near the middle before a thunderous call to action at the end. This has, been just about every sermon for the last fifteen years, for better or worse.

There may be some elements of that here, but I also want to risk trying something a bit different.

Basically, I am approaching this sermon as a conversation strand…a connected way of knowing. The conversation started with Holly and the idea of liturgy for Protestants. Donna continued the conversation in reflecting on the murders in South Carolina and the idea of Sanctuary and leading into the notions of unity, what it means to be church, and spiritual maturity.

At heart, these all seem to have some thing or things in common. And I hope to get to that. But it’s not a thesis or a straight path.

So I invite you to wander with me a bit.

The first stop on this wandering path of a sermon is about liturgy and Protestants. I love this idea, especially as a not-so-closet case liturgist. You can take the man out of the Roman tradition, but you can’t take the Roman tradition out of the man.

Sort of.

Let’s start with this word “Liturgy.” It comes to us from two Greek words, leitos and ergos. Leitos meaning public, ergos meaning working, the combined word leitourgia means public service or work of the people. In Ancient Greece, this referred to the worship of the gods. Like many ideas and terms, this idea was “baptized”, as Christianity spread. By the mid 16th century, the word liturgy was in common parlance.

But what does it mean today?

If you look it up, you are bound to find definitions like “customary public worship” and “a communal response to the salvific actions of God.” That’s my favorite, by the way. Liturgy is ritual that we create together and as ritual, it reminds us and teaches us who we are. This is the real power of public ritual, for every time that we participate in public ritual, we create its meaning anew.

Every celebration of liturgy is an opening to live its meaning more deeply in our lives.

So, yes… liturgy IS important. Even for Protestants. Maybe even especially for Protestants. After all, if we have only retained two sacraments, they must have something pretty important to teach us.

What do liturgy and sanctuary have to do with each other?

Quite simply, everything. Everything. In liturgy, we enact the world that we want to inhabit. I like to think of Zucotti Park for a few short months in the fall of 2011 and the occupiers creating the world that they wanted to live in. The same thing is true here, in the sanctuary that we create together. This raises another Greek term that Christianity made its own, basiliah. This term is translated as dominion or rule and is generally understood as the kind of authority that shall be used in God’s Kingdom. Interestingly enough, in Greek, basiliah is a feminine noun, but that’s another sermon for another day. For our purposes here, our public work, our communal response to God is a snapshot of the kind of authority that we are called to embody—both here within the walls of this particular sanctuary of Judson Memorial Church, and outside of this sacred place.

We are sanctuary for each other. And we create this sanctuary together.

This is also where is starts to get sticky. Because we don’t all agree. We say it in our communal statement of faith every time that we welcome new members into this congregation: “We gladly differ” here at Judson. “Gladly differ.” That may not cost a lot to say a few times a year, but once we start to live it, once it becomes about whether nudity is appropriate on Easter Sunday or about how our physical structures and plant out to be used, cared for and with who’s funding, for example, it becomes a bit more challenging.

To diverge for just a moment, a couple weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of you about Gregorian chant. I prefaced it in one of my bombastic, almost throwaway lines that goes—the two biggest mistakes that the Roman Church ever made were limiting the sacraments to seven and abandoning polyphony for Gregorian chant. I’m still sticking by the first of those statements, by the way.

And…I’m delighted to say that the person with whom I was speaking gently helped me to see how I have misunderstood something about Gregorian chant. Harmony is great. And there’s theological value in the blending of voices, of perspectives. At the same time, something happens on a vibrational, energetic level when we are all singing the same notes. My meditation teacher gets at this quite often with the chants that we do together as a community of meditators. “It’s not singing,” he reminds us. “Chant softly enough that you can feel the vibration in your body and connect to the vibration around you.”

This is one way of looking at unity and what it means to be church.

Being in the same space, doing the same thing.

Much like liturgy and sanctuary. And there’s more.

Returning to the image of Gregorian chant, the more is that when we are all singing the same notes, we have to listen even more to be in tune with each other. I offer this well aware of the apparent contradiction with the notion of being “gladly different.” And I maintain that this is not really a contradiction so much as it is a paradox.

Same space, same notes, same communal response to the salvific actions of the Divine, and yet - not. And yet - gladly different.

Offering sanctuary to each other and the world around us and having friction in our common life.

These are not exceptions to our common lives of faith, to our working out of what it means to be church.

This is church.

It was just over a year ago that Rabbi Raphael Goldstein was offering Spiritual Care Grand Rounds to all of the chaplains in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. The text of the 23rd Psalm that we read today was the core of his teaching. His presentation was about using the psalms with people who are sick and suffering in the hospital.

I was glad to hear it because, while I was not sick and in the hospital, I was suffering. Even though I didn’t totally understand why at the time, the truth of my suffering was as clear to me as to those around me.

For as many times as I’ve heard the 23rd Psalm, something new occurred to me that day in the line, “You spread a table before me in full view of my enemies.” When David invoked his enemies, he was primarily referring to the enemies within. We have this tendency to want to make our enemies outside of us: The Koch Brothers, Donald Trump, Monsanto… when really, our most pernicious enemies lie within.

Those strange, exiled, and alienated places within; those broken fragments of our bodies and crumbs that gather under the table of our communion, crying out for healing.

One other point about this psalm: if you look in the penultimate phrase, you will notice something different about this translation. Rabbi Goldstein offered that this contains the single worst translation in the Psalmody from Hebrew into English. For nearly every English translation has “goodness and kindness following us.”

As if we were the shepherds. And we are not. God is the shepherd. And because God is the shepherd, only goodness and kindness will pursue us—will chase after us all the days of our lives.

This psalms enjoin us this single most important, even if difficult act of faith—to love our enemies, beginning with the enemies within. Because when we can start to have compassion for ourselves, then compassion for those outside becomes a lot easier. Funny that many of us were taught the other way around—love your neighbor, your spouse, your partner, your children, your parents first. And then if there love left to give, you might keep some for you.

But this is not the Gospel message. Love your enemies. Within. Pray for those who persecute you. From within.

And that is what this central act of worship in the Christian faith is all about: the body of Jesus, freely given. Broken for us who are broken. Fractured for us who long for healing. We may not want to see it, but in reality, our enemies are in this bread. Monsanto is in this bread. Literally. And if we cannot begin to have compassion for the enemies within, then the power of this bread-turned-body of Christ remains limited. However, if we can embrace our enemies from the inside out, then this bread becomes the action of reminding us who we are in the world and how we want to live together.

So in a moment, together we will consecrate these elements of communion along with our lives. Proclaiming that we stand together in this sanctuary, in the basiliah of God, gladly differing, even as we are one. We bring to this act of consecration the awareness that in this liturgy, in our communal response to the saving actions of the Divine that our lives of faith come down to loving our enemies…beginning with the enemies within.

I am reminded of one of my spiritual directors from the seminary, Sr. Noël Toomey. Shows you how committed to rebellion I was even then because as Roman Catholic seminarians we were required to have a priest as our Spiritual Director. I managed to find a way around that.

Anyway, one day while I was struggling with moralism and self-judgment, as was often the case in those days of being in the church’s closet as well as my own, Noël turned to me and said this:

“When it comes to the day of judgment, there will be only one question.

“Did you love much?

Did you love much?”


Psalm 23, translation by Rabbi Dr. Raphael Goldstein, BCC

A psalm of David

The Holy One is my shepherd;

I lack nothing.

God makes me lie down in green pastures;

God leads me beside still waters.

God renews my life.

God guides me in circles of justice

As befits God’s name.

Though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death,

I will not be afraid of anything.

for You are with me.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in full view of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup is overflowing.

Only goodness and steadfast love

will pursue me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy One forever.

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