Jul 18th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 2 Samuel 7:1-14
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Sitting on the banks of the River Wear is the lovely English city of Durham. Its university is world renowned. The city is ancient and beautiful.
But the real draw in Durham is Durham Cathedral. The first stones were laid in 1093 CE and the cathedral that grew from the ground is astounding. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. It is still a working cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Durham. It is the burial site of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. The Norman/Romanesque cathedral is a living place of worship and the music that fills that enormous space will nearly lift you from your pew.
Younger than Durham, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is, perhaps, the most well-known cathedral in the world. The groundbreaking took place in 1163 and it was not completed until 1345. The stained glass of Notre Dame is exquisite. The organ in Notre Dame was considered priceless. Yet, a little over two years ago, a fire broke out that caused indescribable damage to the cathedral, which continues to undergo renovations to this day.
Washington Nation Cathedral, officially consecrated as “the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington,” is a young pup of a cathedral compared to Durham and Notre Dame. Groundbreaking for the cathedral took place in 1908 and the building was formally considered complete in 1988. The main aisle of the cathedral is nearly a quarter-or-a-mile long and is trimmed with the flags of the fifty states. The stained glass is beautiful, including one window that contains a rock from the surface of the moon. In the church are the final resting places of President Woodrow Wilson, Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller, Leo Sowerby, and Matthew Shepard.
Those are just three examples of buildings that were erected to celebrate the glory and wonder of God. When you enter them, you grasp a sense of the holy. You sense that there is something different – something “other” – about the place. Some of it the sheer size and voluminous space of these places. Some of it is the architecture that draws you into the space and focuses and directs your attention. But these places give you the sense that God is near – that God is present – even, that God is real.
We are told that David was ensconced in this new palace, comfortable, and at peace. David was comfortable. David was living large.
But the Ark of God was still in a tent. David lived in a house of cedar. The Ark lived in a cloth house. David lived in what was opulence in his time. The Ark lived in conditions like the poorest of the people.
David takes a notion to build the Lord a house – a place where the Ark could be placed – a house of cedar, like David’s own, where God could be comfortable. Nathan the prophet “green lights” the project.
Yet, that night the word of the Lord comes to Nathan and stops the project from moving forward.
“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 with any of the tribal leaders…saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”
God has a lot more to say, including that David and his household will always remain in God’s favor and that a descendant of David will, one day, build a house for God’s name.
But I have to wonder what David thought. Maybe, “well, that’s gratitude for you. I try to do something nice and this is the thanks I get?” (Okay, that may be too Presbyterian.) Still, wouldn’t you be a little put out if you tried to do something nice for God – or anyone – and you are told, “no, thank you?”
Still, it seems that God is avoiding becoming too “domesticated.” God has been “on the move” – “moving about in a tent and a tabernacle” – going hither and yon. Build one place for God to live and it seems God is going to feel a little cramped – a bit confined – just a tad restricted. After all, God told Moses, when asked for God’s name, “I will be who I will be” or “I will be there as I will be there.” As the bluegrass song says, “ain’t nobody gonna tie me down.” God will not be controlled by any human being – or any group of human beings. That’s one possibility.
Add to that another thing God says:
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.
As Johanna W. H. Van Wijk Bos reminds us in her new commentary, The Road to Kingship:
Since the years of the early Israelite invasion and settlement of the land, rest from enemies has been an important marker of divine approval and blessing.1
Just as David “was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,” so the people receive rest. Again, Bos writes:
It is not God who needs a house but rather it is David who is in need of a house provided by God as a guarantee of rest and stability not only for the monarchy but also for the people.2
God is not satisfied until the people live in a condition in which they can rest – be released from their anxieties about enemies and having enough – and enjoy the world and the life that God has gifted them.
Too often, we think that temples and mosques and churches are the place where God lives – where God is known – where God can be found. One television preacher, now long gone, used to begin each of his services by intoning in his baritone voice, “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” You got the distinct impression that the “Lord’s holy temple” was his church building.
For those of who have been entrusted with church buildings, we feel a special measure of responsibility for their care and upkeep. They are the places where our faith was formed and where it hopefully grew. They are the places where God became real for us. And we are connected to them in profound ways.
Yet, we must always remember that the church is not a building. The church is the community of people in whom God dwells. The church is God’s agent on earth to accomplish that which God has called and commissioned us to do. As Bridget Willard reminds us:
Church isn’t where you meet. Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. Church is who you are. Church is the human outworking of the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s not go to Church, let’s be the Church.3
And there is the tension in which we live. We see the needs of buildings – some, like ours, old and in need of care – and we want to take care of them. We also see the needs of those who cannot find relief, or rest, from the problems that plague their lives. We see the need for safe housing, safe neighborhoods, the assurance of food, some peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety, and we want to address those needs.
For us, the choice cannot be either/or. The choice must be both/and. We must care for the building entrusted to our care and we must care for the world entrusted to our care.
In a few minutes we will again affirm our faith and calling with words from the Confession of 1967. We will say together:
The arts, especially music and architecture, contribute to the praise and prayer of a Christian congregation when they help people to look beyond themselves to God and to the world which is the object of God’s love.
Even the Confession sees our work as “both/and.” The building we have received “contributes to the praise and prayer of a Christian congregation when they help people to look beyond themselves to God” and we are reminded to look “to the world which is the object of God’s love.”
Lots of congregations are proud of their buildings. That’s okay. As long as those building do not become idols – or worse, God forbid: museums – there is a certain “pride of place” that is understandable and even proper.
But it is equally critical that the neighborhoods in which churches are found, the towns and cities, are places where people are cared for, provided for, housed, nourished, and healed. That is just as important – and perhaps even more important – than our own comfort within these walls. We need to find our “pride of place” in our communities and in our world as more and more people are given the guarantee of rest and stability and freedom from fear and worry.
Our God cannot be tamed. Our God cannot be controlled. Our God cannot be restrained.
Our God will be as God will be. Our God will be there as God will be there.
God cannot be contained inside a house – small or grand.
God will not be provided for – for God is the Provider.
Do not offer God that which God does not want.
Offer God that which God desires: love for God and love for neighbor.
For now and evermore. Amen.
1) Bos, Road to Kingship, p. 257