In the lectionary today, one of the most common themes is HOUSE. Like so many of these Lenten images, it’s a value-laden word. It’s strong. It promises shelter and safety. It aspires to intimacy and relationship. It suggests belonging. It brings up questions about hospitality and neighbors. It anchors our identities.
Sometimes we distinguish the structure of the building, the architectural existence of the house, from the emotional center of our lives, ie, our heart-centered home. In contemporary terms, the house can be considered bricks-and-mortar: a physical location. Or it might be understood as a metaphorical place where our hearts and spirits dwell.
For a list of cultural references to house and home, try some of these sites:
I struggle with the themes of oppression, subjugation, and exclusion that arise in the Bible around houses and homes. Ultimately I believe in the most expansive invitation into the kingdom of God and a broad welcome to the common table. I want everyone to have a room in the ‘house.’ Yet I have learned, through painful experience, that boundaries are important, too.
At least in the last lines of today’s Gospel text, Jesus suggests that the most vulnerable people will be welcomed into the kingdom of God. Nowadays, it sure feels like the door is narrow, and some people want to slam it shut and others want to tear it off the hinges.
Ow. This has real ethical, political, and cultural implications for all of us. We’re voting for political candidates who reflect our values. Policies and practices will be shaped by what we believe. This is a real question … and here we are, supposedly on our Lenten journey into the wilderness, far from home and getting lost. Yet we’re focused, quite often, on the politics of our own homes and the un-homed people who seek safety among us.
We’re reminded, for instance, in debates like this, about the Biblical definition of neighbors.Who is our neighbor? It’s one of the great questions in the Bible.
We construct many ideas about houses, and they bear real consequences. Being homeless or un-homed carries a social stigma, and a real loss of power and resources. So to gain access to services or identity, we often need a street address … a physical location that is acknowledged by official government maps or records. Being housed stamps us with a form of legitimacy, systemic access, and some level of power.
Un-homed … that’s a difficult story. Many local UCC churches shelter families in times of emergency, or as part of their service for organizations such as Family Promise, thus providing temporary refuges. And organizations such as Family Promise coordinate their un-homed clients’ mobile lives, becoming the headquarters that families use as an interim address and gathering place.
So what do we think about the mobility of people who couch surf? Sometimes it’s by choice. Some are people who travel and live – temporarily — at someone else’s address, sleeping on the sofa, remaining on-the-move and off-the-grid? Our own children do it from time to time, in the way that youth once used hostels.
In one senses, welcoming wanderers, couch-surfers, is a form of radical hospitality. In a more formal arrangement, it’s also a way to capitalize on your own stability as a form of business. Plenty of online platforms allow people to rent a room in someone’s house, thereby saving money while finding accommodations, either short-term or long-term. It eliminates some of the fuss of hotel reservations or apartment leases. Social media has its own way of regulating this system, through ratings and feedback, although I wouldn’t claim it’s secure and safe.
Off-the-grid! This transactional, cloud-based and fluid model of finding shelter seems like a potentially anti-establishment, cultural response to institutions, perceived government control, and monitoring. It resists traditional ideas about rootedness, identity, and belonging. Perhaps it echoes the way people are spiritual-but-not religious and won’t label themselves as members of organizations like … well, churches.
It’s also an economic reality. We live in a time when many people are not making a living wage in expensive places where they can find jobs, but cannot afford the security of a place of their own. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing rather than shrinking. Even a couch in someone else’s place may be a luxury!
Let’s go global. Let’s consider the nation of Israel, its great religious narrative of exodus and wandering until the people of God reached their promised land. Centuries later, that idea, now made into a geopolitical reality in the middle of a contested land, is a polarizing site fraught with internal and external struggles.
It’s also an example of a troubling equation. When one group acquires land, it often means someone else is displaced. Yet our own histories repeat this cycle over and over, and those who were once exiled become the ones who occupy another’s house. To create and hold a homeland, who else’s ‘place of origin’ is overturned? It’s the story of North and South America, as we consider the ongoing legacy of First Peoples. It’s the story on every continent, really.
And in other parts of the world, it’s not just history. It’s happening now.
Read facts and findings from the UN about displaced people and refugees:
Once we consider displaced people, the whole conversation about contemporary times becomes even more tense. Refugees are fleeing their countries, without safe destinations or certain welcomes. Borders are closing or warded. Nations struggle to absorb and support the people they do allow into their lands.
And many people are displaced within their own nations, and yet they’re just as powerless as those who have been exiled … they have left behind their houses, their resources, their access to funds, shelter, education, food, healthcare, water and so much more.
One of the rare things some refugees seem to hold onto is the capacity to communicate and document their circumstances. Many have devices like cell phones: these are lifelines, ways to reconnect, or simply to be heard, and acknowledged as real people with a story to share.
In today’s Hebrew scriptures, ‘house’ is used to refer to the temple or a sacred tent or place where God resides. It can also refer to the name of a family, tribe or clan, usually defined through a male ancestor or patriarch.
In the Gospel, ‘house’ is part of the parable. It is, in its most straightforward use, the private residence where Jesus gathers to eat and teach and work among his followers in different towns and villages. Interestingly, the homes of women (which may indicate women of some independence, with resources and property) often became the places for this movement that formed around Jesus’ ministry. The homes of other outsiders, outcasts, and marginalized people, such as tax collectors who were powerful but ostracized, were sometimes used for the same purpose.
‘House’ is also used metaphorically to describe the kingdom of God. This arises in Jesus’ lesson about entering the house through a narrow door which has been closed. At least we’re consoled that the last shall be first, the least shall be welcomed into God’s keeping and God’s kingdom.
So then, I stop and earnestly wonder as I read passages like this, am I one of the last? One of the least? Will I be saved and walk through the narrow door?
Do I want to be one of the last or least, in this life? That sounds awfully uncomfortable and inconvenient. What does that really mean? Ummm … on second thought, do I want to go through that narrow door?
Except, wow, it sure sounds like there’s quite a party … quite a celebration … on the other side. Hmmm, do I need an invitation? If so, where is it? Who do I see about acquiring an invitation? Can I buy it at ticketmaster.com or boxoffice.com?
Oh, wait, just knock … At least that’s the first step.
Then ask the host or hostess, the one who wields authority in the house, if you can come inside. And hope. And wait.
Remember what this feels like: waiting and wanting to be asked inside. Remember this position, someday, when you’re the one who opens the door, and has to answer the same question. Trust me, it will happen.
Selections from today’s scriptures from the daily lectionary:
- 2 Chronicles 20: 5-6 — Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?”
- 2 Chronicles 20: 9 — If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment,or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save.’
- Luke 13:22 –Jesuswent through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.
- Luke 13:25 — When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’
- Luke 13:29-30 — Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”