Sunday, July 12, 2015

It's only a closet

Psalm 85: 8-13 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
July 12, 2015 
Build-a-Block, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake

        It was 1988. I was in Baltimore, MD for my first mission trip. I was a seminarian at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, MA. Each year the youth group traveled to a different destination and worked with a variety of mission partners during their April break. This year it was Habitat for Humanity, before they changed the age limits of volunteers. We were assigned to work on a row house in one of the poorest sections of Baltimore. Many of the row houses were empty and condemned. Habitat had purchased a number of them to gut and renovate. Our task? Sheetrock the interior of the house.

        Did we know what we were doing? Sort of. We had some direction and guidance but we were pretty much left to ourselves. The only power tools we had were electric drills to fasten the sheetrock to the wall studs. We cut the sheetrock with X-Acto knives. Let’s just say our technique was not always so precise.

        One group was given the job of putting sheetrock in a closet. The trouble was, the closet was on the second floor, over the stairs. The floor of the closet was sloped upward to the back wall. It made for some interesting angles to measure and cut, let alone then put into place. We also had a limited supply of sheetrock and had to make due, even with mistakes.

        The left back corner of this closet was cut just a bit too large for the space and shattered the bottom corner of the sheetrock when it was shoved into place. A finger-sized piece of sheet rock broke off and with it, dashed the morale of the group. Their hearts were in this full-weight. They knew this would be a warm, safe home for a family. They wanted to leave their mark on this house but not in this way.

        One of the group ventured, “You know, it’s only a closet. Once it gets painted and someone starts hanging stuff in here, no one will even notice it.” So the piece was put into place with a light layer of joint compound and that was that.

         But then other small mishaps would happen, none of which I can recall. But I do remember the same wisdom applied to the closet would be used on whatever inconvenience or frustration at the moment. Again and again the refrain was used, “It’s only a…”. It’s only a sandwich. It’s only a t-shirt. It’s only a dollar. It’s only a traffic jam.

         We realized that we could apply this wisdom to many disappointments and add some levity and detachment to just about any situation. And that it was our privilege that allowed us to do this. The only exception was God. We found we couldn’t say “It’s only God” or “It’s only the Holy Spirit” or “It’s only Jesus”. It would be like saying “It’s only love” or “It’s only justice” or grace or peace or righteousness or faithfulness. The word “only” can mean “merely” or “barely” or “no more than”. But God’s grace is extravagant, unconditional, infinite. God can’t be contained in box or a closet.

         What we don’t hear in the reading from Psalm 85 are the beginning verses, words of longing and despair over the plight of God’s people, interpreted as God’s anger. What we do hear is that, despite the despair and longing, God’s people still have hope that what was lost will be found: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss. They trust that God will make a way out of no way: God will give what is good. They know it to be true, that no matter what they have done that caused them to feel separate from God, God is not separate from them: righteousness goes before God and makes a path for God’s steps—God’s steps toward God’s people.

         God’s people were always and still are on a mission trip. God leads, we follow. Sometimes we get lost. It’s not always easy working together. Not everything goes the way we hope it will. But God’s hopes are full because we’re still together at the end of the day. For God will never say, “They’re only my people”. Thanks be to God. Amen.