Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: The Lord Will Make You a House

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Lord Will Make You a House
2 Samuel 7:1-16, NRSV

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:
     Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: 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 of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
           Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 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. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
           When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
           Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

           One: The word of God for us, the people of God.

           Many: Thanks be to God! Amen. 

           Ecclesiology. This is the term we use to describe the nature of the church. Of course, the thing we think of first when we hear the word “church” is the physical building in which we sit. In that case, then this is the very first recorded conversation with God about the church as we know it. In this passage, David has taken on his role as king, has danced before the Lord with humility and reverence, and settled into his house built of cedar. God has granted David rest from his pursuing enemies, and in this moment of Sabbath quiet, David kicks his feet up on his cushioned ottoman and suddenly realizes the injustice of their dwellings. David says to the prophet Nathan, “See, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent!”
            The implication here, of course, is that David believes it is his job to build a magnificent house for the Lord. Nathan, previously unknown to us, stands by to hear David’s wish and encourages him to do “all you have in mind” because, notably, “The Lord is with you.” (I wonder if this was spoken with a hint of irony, knowing that God would decline the invitation to establish a permanent address.)
            That night, the Lord speaks to Nathan, and declares that David will not be the one to build the Lord’s temple. God, always surprising, shows a passive aggressive side when Nathan is reminded, “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribes of Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not build me a house of cedar?’” The answer, of course, is no.
            The Lord instructs Nathan to tell David that it was God who took him from the pasture, to be the prince over the people Israel. It is God who will appoint a place for the people, and there, they will be safe. Judges will be appointed, and there will be rest from all of his enemies. It is there, in that place, that the Lord will make you a house. The Lord will bless him with offspring, and it is that child who will build a house for God’s name, and God will establish his kingdom. God will love him as a father, and David’s house and kingdom will be established forever.
            This passage tells us that the Temple is built for the future; THIS is Nathan’s message to David. The temple is not necessary for the current generation to worship God. God will permit David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple, elaborate and gilded, but this is not the promise that matters. God tells Nathan, “He shall build a house for my name (not God’s presence, but God’s very name), and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. As it has always been understood, God does not “reside” in an earthly abode, but the Lord’s name is localized at one sanctuary as a manifestation of divine presence.[1]
            Perhaps God has promised the same for us. The temple is not built for our benefit, but for the benefit of our children, our grandchildren. The temple is not ours. That means our task is to instill the gift of faith in the generations to come. Our expectations cannot be contained in the walls of a building, because our God cannot be contained there.
           Previous generations have built a temple for their children to maintain. Now, these temples have become our idols. We strive to fill them, we take on debt to repair them and we force temples to meet the needs of an ever-changing congregation. It is virtually impossible to fulfill our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” when our primary responsibility is paying the insurance bill on time. We have become disciples of our physical plants, rather than disciples of Christ, the cornerstone.
           The same is true for our churches as an institution. More and more, it is evident that the denomination exists to maintain itself. What does this mean for the UMC? Are we building a temple that is too unwieldy to maintain, or are we building a home, that is adaptable and accepting? If our God cannot be contained in one place, how can we expect the disciples to be? As we look ahead to the conversations happening at the General Conference of the UMC in May 2016, we know that a schism is possible There are two sides, who cannot seem to agree. But, my prayer is that the Spirit of God will be able to move amongst us, doing exactly what Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians:
           “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it… In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”[2]
           We have a particular challenge in this modern era of church, in that we have the privilege of re-defining how we understand ecclesiology. We know that the numbers are changing. There are fewer people in worship on Sunday mornings, and a smaller percentage of those people are in their 20s and 30s every year. This means that the church cannot be about the institutions that we’ve built. Our temples are decaying, but despite any evidence to the contrary, the body of Christ is not. As we look back, we know that "The apostles saw Christ in the flesh, but they did not see the church. We, on the other hand, see the church, but not the incarnate Christ. For both the Apostles and later Christians, that which is visible leads to faith in the invisible."[3]
           The church is changing.
           People are changing.
           Our fear is that the church is dying.
           With all that I have, I promise you that the church is not going to die. The Body of Christ is much stronger and vital than any of our institutional attempts to enliven it.
          A few weeks ago, Matt and I had the opportunity to go to the Beer and Hymns OC Gathering in Costa Mesa. This is not a denominational movement, it's not a non-denominational gathering. It is simply excellent music, traditional hymns and young people packed wall to wall.
          Friends, they're out there. The millennials are out there, finding church in a bar in Costa Mesa. Singing hymns that your grandmother sang. Singing with vigor, with spirit, with a pint of IPA. They are becoming the body of Christ, praising the name of the Lord.
          So, we don't have to fret about the church's death. It's not dying. It's changing. The metamorphosis of the church and the way in which we gather and worship means that we have to adapt to how we do our sacred work, because God cannot be contained in a box or a tent or a temple. And, neither can the body of Christ.
           In talking with the people who organize and provide the music for Beer and Hymns, I have heard that they are having a similar problem. The Spirit is moving, and they don't have anywhere to send the people whose hearts are being strangely warmed. There are plenty of choices, plenty of churches. But, we offer something special here. We offer a church that embodies what the whole of the UMC proclaims to be: a church with Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors. We offer a place to question, doubt and struggle. We offer faith formation, and fellowship. We offer kindness and compassion. We offer acceptance and an open welcome to all. We offer the sacraments as a means of grace. We offer Christ, crucified and risen.
            It is not our duty to build a temple for God! It is not even our duty to maintain the temples that were built before us. It is our job to receive the kingdom that God has built for US. We do not make the house… God does (v. 11). This is the true nature of our ecclesiology, the church – God has built it for us, and we are the good stewards of God’s name. Who we are is church. So, let us be the surprising signs of God’s presence in the world. Let us be the place where God’s name is being proclaimed! Let us share it and shout it and sing it with gusto. God’s presence cannot be contained, and so we must continue to look for God in the myriad of places in which God may appear. For, we are not stewards of the temple. We are the temple, which God has built. Paul writes that, “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit!” So, let us go and share that Spirit with all who seek to know the loving and ever-present God.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] Deuteronomy 12:5, “You shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as God’s habitation to put God’s name there.”
[2] Ephesians 2:11-21, NRSV
[3] Adam Ployd, Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church: A Reading of the Anti-Donatist Sermons.

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