Sunday, July 23, 2006

God's Place

2 Samuel 7: 1-14a; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56; Ephesians 2: 11-22
given at a United Church of Christ in southern Fairfield County, CT
July 23, 2006

Last week on a PBS station I watched a program that explained string theory in such a way that even I could understand it. It is yet another extraordinary attempt, in a long line of many, to explain the universe in one unified theory. The narrator began by talking about the four known dimensions: length, width, height, and time. String theory is about the fifth dimension and the possibility of other dimensions. The fifth dimension is thought to be an electromagnetic field or force, a texture running through the tapestry of the other four dimensions. The trouble is there are five different string theories; how do we know which one is true? Also, if there are five ways of conceiving a deeper reality, then there are probably more.

Even though I love to read and hear about the new physics, how poetic and sublime it can be, it still sounds like the same business that King David is attempting in 2 Samuel: trying to put the ineffable in a box. David, once a nomadic shepherd, then a warrior, is now settled in a fine house of cedar while the Ark of the Covenant, thought to be the very real Presence of God, resides in a tent. The prophet Nathan gives God’s blessing to David’s endeavor without first consulting the Almighty. What ensues sounds almost like a prelude to the Book of Job, when God spoke in the whirlwind, asking Job just where was he when God created the heavens and the earth: “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 moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” God then goes on to make promises, everlasting ones, to King David, thus also, to the people of Israel.

But then God declares: “…the Lord will make you a house”. This house is not made of cedar but of descendants, a dynasty, created of flesh and blood, and through them God will establish a kingdom that “…shall be made sure forever…” (v. 16). The house that God would build does not have walls but persons who would serve God and God’s purpose, which cannot be contained by a ruler or nation, or for that matter, Church, denomination, or other entity.

Imagine you are one outside the Church, looking in. You would see differences in structure, organization, worship practices, role of clergy and laypeople, and so on. How would you know which one is the closest to the truth? Usually when ‘church shopping’, persons find one that is comfortable to them.

J.B. Phillips, in his pithy book Your God is Too Small, writes that the most disturbing thing about churches to the outsider is “the spirit of ‘churchiness’ which seems to pervade them all. They all seem to [one outside] to have captured and tamed and trained to their own liking Something that is really far too big ever to be forced into little man-made boxes with neat labels upon them. … ‘If there’s a God at all,’ [the one outside] feels… ‘then [God’s] here in the home and in the street, here in the pub and in the workshop. And if it’s true that [God’s] interested in me and wants me to love and serve Him, then He’s available for me and [everyone else]… If God is God, God’s big, and generous and magnificent…”, unable to be put into any kind of box or label.

If we are looking for God and God’s work of love through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then we also need to allow our church, our community, to be uncomfortable; a church that doesn’t always have all the answers but is willing to wrestle with the questions; a church that acknowledges a God who challenges us as much as comforts us; a God who dies and lives again as well as lives; a God who is unpredictable as well as the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; a God who is poor and homeless, with dusty feet and one set of clothing but rich in compassion.

When we look at Jesus the Christ we see where God’s place is. In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus and his disciples try to get away for a while. The disciples have returned from their mission in two’s of healing the sick and calling for repentance. They have also just heard of the death of John the Baptist. Jesus and his disciples are tired and hungry and he calls them away to a deserted place by boat. But a crowd of people, who had heard what Jesus and his disciples had been doing, recognize them by this and hurry ahead on foot, arriving ahead of them, greeting them as the boat comes ashore to this deserted place. Even though Jesus is tired, he has compassion for them and begins teaching them many things.

When they come to Gennesaret, again people recognize him, not by face, but by his compassion. They come from the whole region, bringing the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was, whether village or city or farm.

God’s place is in the deserted areas, in places where people seek out compassion and guidance. God is where there is suffering, wherever healing is needed. God is in the village, the city, the farm. God is wherever the outsider is; indeed, through Jesus the Christ, God is the outsider, living beyond the system, off the grid. God travels, is on the loose, cannot be pinned down, or as written in the book of Exodus, God will be what God will be.

We take great comfort in knowing that wherever we are, God is; that there is no place we can go, there is no situation we face where God is not. In the 23rd Psalm, the one most favored, most read, we feel at peace when we read the words “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” We cannot escape God’s love and grace. Without a doubt, this is Good News.

Yet the reverse is also true: wherever God is, there we are called to be. This is the flipside of the Good News, the side B that doesn’t get much play. Though we cannot pin God down to any one point of view, to any one political party, to any one side, God calls us to be where God’s people are in need. With God there are no walls to be built, only walls to be torn down. Perhaps we cannot be in Lebanon or Israel, in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Darfur or in Kenya, but we can be where God is with our prayers, with our conscience, with our calls to senators and representatives, with our contributions to Church World Service, Our Church’s Wider Mission, One Great Hour of Sharing, and Neighbors in Need.

We can be where God is when we help those in need in the community and in neighboring towns. We can be where God is when we tell others about our faith and invite them to church. We can be where God is when we welcome strangers in our midst as friends. We can be where God is when we work on a mission trip, when we teach Sunday school, when we serve a hot meal in a soup kitchen, when we hammer nails on a Habitat house. We can be where God is when we work for clean water and nourishing food for all people, good schools, care for the elderly, and health care for everyone. We can be where God is when we recognize and honor the image of God dwelling in every person.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of bringing together the circumcised, the Jewish Christians, and the uncircumcised, the Gentile Christians, which was no small feat; not unlike bringing together Palestine and Israel or Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites; not unlike bringing together opposing sides of passionate people dedicated to their point of view. Through Christ the walls of hostility are brought down and all are reconciled to God, creating a new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.

God is peace; therefore, God’s place is where there is war, violence, discord, and strife. God is justice; therefore, God’s place is where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, hatred, discrimination, and abuse of power. God is love; therefore, God’s place is where there is fear, for love casts out fear. And where God is, we are meant to follow.

Our God is on the move, thus the Church, the people of God, needs to be on the move as well. The Church is the Holy Spirit moving within us; it is the community of faith sent just as much as the community gathered. What walls need to come down in your life together and in your personal life that you and this congregation might be God’s dwelling place in the world? What is the foundation upon which your church is built? How does your congregation make a connection between what happens within the walls of your church and what happens beyond them? Where is God calling this community of faith to give witness to the love and grace of Jesus the Christ?

Thanks be to God that we have been made a house, a dwelling place for God, with hands and feet and hearts and spirits on the move. Thanks be to God for Jesus the Christ, in whom we are a new humanity and reconciled with one another through the cross. Thanks be to God for the Spirit, through whom we have access to God’s power to bring down the walls of hostility, who calls us out of ourselves to be where God is. Amen.

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