A sermon preached
Readings Psalm 84, Luke 18:9-17
“Better….to stand on the threshold of God’s house …” (New Jerusalem Bible)
“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…”(New International Version)
I arrived at Church the other week
just as a big group of people happened to be leaving.
I held the door open for them – but they just seemed to keep on coming –
in the end when it seemed that scores of people had filed out,
and I was still there holding the door, one fellow paused and said –
“Ah well you know what they say,
“‘Tis more blessed to be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord…”
It’s a common phrase and it comes from today’s Psalm – Psalm 84.
It isn’t actually clear from the original Hebrew
whether this verse refers to someone who
actually had the job of opening the door –
or whether it just refers to someone on the edge of the Temple
who hasn’t got any further in than the doorway -
You can find both interpretations –
The NIV for example has
Ps 84.10 I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…”
Whilst the NJV says
Ps 84:10 “Better….to stand on the threshold of God’s house …”
Either way the contrast is clear –
better to have some humble place right on the edge of God’s presence
than to be wined and dined elsewhere. –
Better to be right back by the door of the House of God than
“to dwell in the tents of the wicked” at the heart of a godless community.
As a teenager I attended the Nottingham Methodist Mission –
the Church used to hire the main hall for big concerts –
and I remember the excitement at the Youth Club
when we learnt that one of the supporting acts in the hall
was to be a new group called the Rolling Stones -
I suspect the first and last time they performed on Methodist premises.
We couldn’t afford tickets, and they were all sold anyway –
but we knew the building like the back of our hand –
and we knew how to get into a tiny projection room at the back of the hall
with a small window looking out onto the concert.
So we piled in there and were in seventh heaven.
We weren’t just in the worst seats –
we weren’t on seats at all –
we didn’t just have an obscured view –
we had to take turns to see anything at all –
but what a tale we had to tell at school the next morning –
we were only on the threshold, but the threshold of such an event!
And the Psalmist is thinking perhaps of the pilgrims
making their way to the Temple at Jerusalem –
ordinary humble folk – certainly not offered special seats –
but just to arrive and be there on the edge of the crowd –
was better than being anywhere else!
and pray we never take for granted our place in God’s presence.
I hope and pray we always hold fast to the simple truth
that it is better to be at the gates of heaven than at the heart of hell.
The Empress Helena in the 4th Century had a flight of 28 steps
transported from Jerusalem to Rome –
where they still stand to this day, the Scala Sancta
They were believed to be the stairs in Pilate’s house,
up which he walked to meet with Jesus.
Today pilgrims still come to climb the stairs on their knees.
Like the sinner in the parable,
we need to be deeply aware that we come to God’s house to a Holy Place –
and just to be on the threshold on our knees is a blessed thing.
Of course the verse may actually be extolling the virtue of being a doorkeeper –
someone with the role of opening the door
when the owner of the house or visitors approach.
That is an important role –
I have heard folk talk about their first experience of going to a Church
and commenting on the “Shakers in” –
that all important welcome from the doorkeepers
who offer the handshake of welcome at the door.
When I was on sabbatical two years ago,
Liz and went to a whole series of other Churches on Sunday –
in many places we were welcomed warmly,
and were immediately introduced to other members of the congregation –
we felt among friends in the Church family.
Sadly there was one place – which will remain nameless -
when we were so comprehensively ignored by all and sundry
who were so busy being friendly to each other,
that no one had a word of welcome or farewell
to offer the unknown strangers in their midst.
And I thought –
suppose I had not been a Methodist Minister playing hooky
from my normal Church during my sabbatical –
suppose I’d been a suffering soul coming looking for solace from the Gospel –
what would I have thought, and would I have ever returned?
The blessed role of doorkeepers!
It’s a role which every one of us can share –
you don’t need to be standing by a table with a pile of hymn books –
just search out the newcomers and make them welcome –
for you know not what brings them here.
On The North Door of Durham Cathedral
is a bronze door knocker shaped like a lion’s head.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Durham Cathedral was a place of sanctuary.
A fugitive from the law wishing to claim protection
could use the knocker to attract the attention of two watchmen
in a chamber over the North Door.
He was then admitted to the Monastery and given sanctuary
for a maximum of thirty seven days
during which time he could organize his defence before trial
or opt for voluntary exile.
If he chose exile, he was escorted to a port –
usually the Bishop's port at Hartlepool –
where he was embarked on the next ship that was due to set sail.
In our modern global village,
men and women come to England seeking sanctuary and asylum –
when they knock on the Church’s door, we need to make them welcome.
The Doorkeepers task is to open doors, not to bolt and bar them.
has prompted a rash of comments from Church leaders –
some extremely aggressive towards the gay and lesbian community –
I sometimes wonder whether those making these anti-gay statements
remember our Lord’s willingness
to meet and welcome every section of society –
especially those who were persecuted and marginalized and excluded.
Our Churches should be a place of welcome and acceptance for all –
whatever their colour or creed or sexuality.
There used to be a Church in Southend
which had a sign over the front door saying
“This is the doorway to heaven, enter ye all by this door” -
unfortunately underneath someone had pinned up
a rather smaller notice reading as
”This door kept locked because of draught. Please use side entrance”
This is the House of God – “let the little children come unto me” –
let the wind of the Spirit blow open the doors that all may come in –
that all may be welcome here –
and through the main gate, not the tradesman’s entrance.
And as a Church we are not called to be security guards
defending the Church from attack –
we are called to be doorkeepers ,
servants of our Master waiting to open the doors when visitors arrive.
A story is told of an gentle old man who is poor.
For many years he tries to join
a very affluent and exclusive Church in the town where he lives.
The Church refuses to accept him.
It is a very exclusive church for the “proper” kind of folks,
and they just did not think he
is good enough to be a member.
The old man sits by the church steps with his head on his hands bowed.
As he sits there Jesus comes along and asks him what the matter is.
He tells Jesus his tale.
Jesus sits down next to him and puts his arm on his shoulder.
“It is sad”, he says – “I know just how you feel.
I've been wanting to enter that same church for the past 20 years
and they've never let me in either.”
When we close the doors,
it is not that we risk keeping Christ for ourselves in our holy place –
rather we risk locking him out with those in need beyond our gates.
Michel Quoist has a famous passage in his Prayers of Life
where he complains to God that by opening the doors of his heart
he is being swamped by thousands and needy and demanding people –
to which God replies –
Do not worry my child, for there amidst the crowds of people,
“I your Father, I your God, slipped in among them.”
As a doorkeeper welcoming our sisters and brothers we welcome Christ himself.
And how could we turn away the one who has made us so welcome here??
the end of the day,
we welcome others because Christ has welcomed us,
welcomed us as we crawl up the staircase into his presence,
welcomed us as we approach his table -
Do you recall George Herbert’s wonderful poem
about Christ’s welcoming love which overcomes our every objection -
Love bade me
welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I the’unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat":
So I did sit and eat.
Christ welcomes us to his table -.
we say “No we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs” -
but he insists - indeed he beckons us from our lowly seats saying -
why are you sitting there – come up higher…
so as we are welcomed so let us welcome,
for it is indeed a blessed role to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord,
it is a blessed role to welcome others in the name of the one
who has made us poor sinners welcome in his sight.