Monday, July 20, 2009

Spiritual Blueprints: Sermon on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22

Some of my favorite summer memories, as a very little girl, had to do with weekend visits from our city cousins. This was a family of boys on my mom’s side, all in their early twenties who regularly took a break from working construction in hot Philadelphia to stay at a little bungalow on the water, just a few blocks from where I grew up. The boys seemed to bring the fun with them, and that bungalow holds memories of “firsts” for me—everything from the first time I heard the voice of Janis Joplin belting out “Me and Bobby McGee” (that was during a twilight barbecue; the memory of her voice echoing across the water is mingled with the aroma of sizzling hamburgers) to the first time I ever went swimming at night in the ocean (because my big, strong cousins were there to protect me! Years later I found out that, at six, I could have out swum any one of them). These memories have a special charm for me because that bungalow is no longer there. That bungalow fell to a great building project.

Also from the time I was a very little girl, my parents were planning to build their dream house. We lived in a big, comfortable apartment over the family business, but from the moment they discovered that bungalow, the waterfront location enchanted them. They had a vision, they could see it: our family, living on the water.

As early as fifth grade I remember the blueprints spread across our kitchen table, and the conversations about the permits my parents would need to enlarge the footprint of the house, to drill pilings into the water so that a deck could be added and docks for boats. When I was in high school my mother and father attended hearings for those permits, some of which they returned home from tight-lipped and angry. The permits for the pilings were the hardest to get—the house was on the inland waterway, a federally protected area, and for a time it seemed the project was, in fact, dead in the water. But the summer before I left for college they finally broke ground to begin construction. A decorator was hanging blinds in the bedrooms the same month I received my bachelors’ degree. To my parents’ everlasting chagrin, only a part of their vision came true: I lived in the house exactly one summer, the summer before I got married, at age 21, to my college sweetheart.

Building plans are notorious for the hitches, the glitches, the stopping and starting again. I have never met a person who built a house who didn’t have some story to tell of the hurdles they had to overcome, the unforeseen problems with the site, the permits, the neighbors, the financing. Building is a tricky business. The one who wants to build has to have a firmness of purpose and intention that is almost religious in nature: they have to be able to see it, that long dreamed-of home, they have to have the determination and the vision to see the project through to its completion.

David has a building project in mind in this week’s passage from 2 Samuel. All claims to the throne but his have been swept aside. “The king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him.” It’s at that point that he turns to his chief advisor, the prophet Nathan, and muses, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Remember those cedars of Lebanon, symbols of God’s strength and blessing? David has built himself a royal castle, and his conscience is gnawing at him: perhaps the ark of God deserves at least as royal a dwelling as the king?

Understand: the ark held the tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God. God’s handwriting! But it held much more than that: the ark was believed to house what in Hebrew is called the Shekhina, the very presence of God. There was nothing holier than the ark in all the history of God’s people Israel. Even the temple priests (once there was a temple) were forbidden to look directly at it. David’s concern about the ark’s housing, if genuine, was certainly understandable.

Truth be told, there was probably more to it than that. The kings of the ancient near east saw in temples and palaces opportunities to enshrine their achievements in ways that would live forever. David had what one writer calls “an edifice complex”: the idea that, ‘long after he was gone, people would look at his temple and say, "King David built that!”’ David had acquired the throne: now he wanted his acquisition to be remembered when he himself was no more than dust. He had already built his castle. Now he wanted to build Yahweh’s temple.

Initially, Nathan says, “Go to it!” But that night—in a dream?—the Lord speaks to Nathan and says, Hold on. This construction project will have to wait. Through Nathan, God challenges David:
Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word … saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” ~ 2 Samuel 7:5b-7

In other words, I think God catches on pretty well to David’s real motives here: to build something that reflects on himself, not on God. And God’s unequivocal reaction is: Don’t do it. Don’t fence me in. I have another plan for you, a set of spiritual blueprints. You say you want to build me a house? I am going to make you a house, and it isn’t going to be made out of cedar. It’s going to be your flesh and blood.

If there’s one issue that continues to appear and reappear in my work with the larger church, it’s this: an ongoing concern about buildings. And please… don’t misunderstand me: my heart is as moved by a beautiful sanctuary as the next person. I love our church… just last week you heard me waxing lyrical about the stunning beauty of our ceiling. But we make a grave error when we mistake “the building” for “the church.” A sanctuary can be beautiful, and it can be a wonderful space in which to worship, and it can contain in its walls and windows and pews a multitude of memories of those whose hard work brought it into being. But a building is not a church. A church is a thing of flesh and blood. We tend to think we go to church. We forget that we are the church.

Our reading from Ephesians brings this home:

…you are… members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. ~ Ephesians 2:19b-22

We are the church. The people of God, being built… but into what? What are God’s spiritual blueprints for us? One writer tells this story:
Sometime in the early 1970s, the president of AT&T called all his managers into a large room for an emergency meeting. Attendance was mandatory. Speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made. Perhaps a breakthrough in technology. Perhaps a downsizing. Perhaps ...... They could tell by the grim look on his face that something extremely serious was about to be revealed. When all were seated, the president went to the podium and said, "The telephone as you know it no longer exists." Muffled giggles rippled through the room. What game was this? They all knew he was wrong. They had used phones that morning. He continued: "Anyone who does not believe that statement can leave this room right now and pick up your final paycheck on the way out of the building." Sober silence prevailed. No one left. They all just stared. "Your job today is to invent one." He broke the group up into small teams and they spent the rest of the time coming up with a new phone. Some people wanted one with no cord...... in the car, or to carry around.... to know when another call was coming be able to forward calls to another number, to see the person on the other end, to send other kinds of messages on it. About 60 items distinguished the telephone they invented. Many are now the features that we take for granted, from call-waiting to [cell] phones, and the list has not yet been completed.

We are the church. The people of God, being built, according to God’s spiritual blueprints, into something we can’t even imagine yet. But it is precisely our job to begin imagining! I think the first step in imagining how God might want to build us into the church is to recognize that, like David trying to box God into a temple, we tend to box the church into these walls. But the church is so much more than that, because the church is you, going about your lives, outside these walls. The church is you, working at your computer or sawing lumber for wheelchair ramps or taking a pot of soup to someone’s house. The church is you, coaching Little League or soccer or synchronized swimming. The church is you, as you care for your aging or dying parents or spouses. The church is you, as you raise your children, sit with them as they do their homework, take them to camp. The church is you, celebrating your anniversary with your beloved. The church is you, apologizing to someone whom you have hurt, and you, accepting that apology. In everything we do, at work, at play, in and out of our homes, in and out of this building, we are the church.

The one who wants to build has to have vision. He or she has to have the burning desire to see the project through to completion. We know that God has that vision: God can already see, already does see us as the raw materials for God’s dwelling place. We are God’s long-dreamed-of home. Our task is to open our minds and hearts so that we can simply—cooperate. Be the good materials, give God the permits, sweep away all other considerations so that we can, finally, together, allow God to create in us that long dreamed-of dwelling place. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Jim Taylor, Opening Comments for Sunday July 19, 2009, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, Midrash Discussion List.

Chuck Meyers, Dying Church, Living God: A Call to Begin Again (Kelowna, British Columbia: Northstone Publishing, 200) 37-39.

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