Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Will Make of You a House

Readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

As ancient as the temple in Jerusalem may be, a grand-daddy among human edifices, there was a time when it was just a spark in the imagination of King David. We hear about that time today.

David, establishing Jerusalem as his headquarters, builds himself a palace of cedar. The ark of the covenant stands in his front yard, the ultimate legitimation of his rule. It didn’t hurt that he could also dance, and that on the battlefield he had slain his tens of thousands (if we are to believe the hype). But without God’s approval registered through Nathan the prophet, David’s grip on Israel’s tribal federation would weaken.

Nathan approves. Go, King, go, he replies, when David proposes a proper shrine to house the ark.

But that very night, God upbraids Nathan: Cancel your enthusiasm, Nathan, and make sure that David cancels his. Who has asked for the opening of a real estate division in the house of Israel? Not I! Have you ever imagined me housed in a temple made by human hands? I go forth with my people: I lead them, they follow. Has it ever been otherwise? Did you ever overhear me asking tribal leaders to build me a house of cedar? No! A tent and a tabernacle suffice for me. It was in a pasture that I found David, tending his sheep. It has been always on the front lines of battle that I have steered Israel’s success. I am placing Israel among the nations. I will make YOU a house! Tell that to David: I will raise up your offspring, Solomon, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. If HE wants to build me a house, well, we’ll see…

I’m sorry if I sound a bit flip, but I have to chuckle at what I’m hearing. Isn’t this Israel trying to have it both ways? Solomon’s temple would come to symbolize the nationhood of Israel—but here’s at least a nod to the good old days, the pioneer spirit on the wild west frontier, when men were men and God rode in the saddle, and rules were few, and we didn’t need to pay architects’ fees.

The more advanced and sophisticated Israel became, the more citified and hierarchical a society, the sharper the edge on stories and divine monologues like this one, urging a kind of Protestant attitude within Judaism, sweeping aside the spiderwebs of institutional bureaucracy and theology in order to seek direct spiritual encounter with God (the way it SHOULD be), and a resulting renewal of ethics (the way it OUGHT to be).

“The Lord will make you a house.” That theme is heard again in a New Testament voice, from the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also 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.” Wow!

“You also are built together spiritually…” What’s resonant in those few words is what the writer to the Ephesians labors over in those dense early verses. This existential temple not made with hands is revolutionary in that Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised are built into it. Its timbers and beams—or, if you like, its stones and its steel—include the in-crowd and the aliens, those who carry the title People of God and the many who, until meeting God in Jesus Christ, were without God in this world. This holy temple is like nothing the earth had ever seen: a first-century forerunner of the United Nations, but more, for the dividing walls of hostility have been torn down. This temple is a place of transformation, a melting pot, a crucible, but more, one new humanity being created, all having access to God in one Spirit. Wow!

That is one transcendent vision of Church, brought to you by the New Testament. Alongside this dynamic transformative image, the most sublimely beautiful cathedral falls to dust. Which is, of course, what real estate is constantly doing.

Location, location, location: the primary asset in real estate, and in matters of religion some justification for the Church’s involvement with bricks and mortar: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear upon our world, local missionary stations are useful for nurturing the community and pursuing the mission.

But the Church’s involvement with bricks and mortar becomes too easily an edifice complex. What was meant to localize mission and build community instead consumes the community, and insinuates itself into the place of mission, and may even tempt people to break the second commandment, not to worship graven images. Church buildings also contribute to ghettoizing denominations (Episcopalians here, Congregationalists there, Roman Catholics down the road).

In the short three years of his public ministry, our Lord seems not to have felt at home in temples made by human hands. Today he crosses the Sea of Galilee to take his disciples on retreat. They are exhausted from taking care of people, crowds of people. And even while they cross, they’re being watched by those crowds who figure out the disciples’ destination and take the land route to arrive before they do.

How does the saying go? Life is what happens while you’re making plans.

The little apostolic boat is beached, and instantly Jesus postpones the retreat in order to compassionately follow the demands of his heart. The setting for his mission is the open beach, the marketplaces, wherever he went in villages, cities, or farms.

These were the pioneer days of Christianity, when men were men (and women were apostles, too), and for a time nothing could separate Israel’s men and women and children from at least touching the fringe of Jesus’s prayer shawl.

In this post-Christian 21st century, we need to write the script of nurture and mission in the blood and sweat of Jesus’s engagement with the world, not in the ink of denominational compromises or in the red ink of church budgets.

He wants to make of us a house: one that will shelter the homeless, set a table for many and for all, raise its rafters in joy, and throw open its windows to God’s light, its doors off the hinges to leave room for dancing in and out of God’s world.

If I read the times rightly, the chapter of church history we’ve entered will require a pioneering spirit. Will we welcome that as blessing? Will we recognize how God has already gifted us with what will be needed?