Saturday, October 28, 2017

We Are God's House of Living Stones

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Parkers Prairie, MN
October 29, 2017—Reformation Sunday
I Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 (Narrative Lectionary)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If I were to utter the word “church” what image would pop into your head first?

If I said “church,” your Pavlov’s-dog-reaction would be to imagine a building….perhaps the building that we’re in right now, or maybe the first church you belonged to, wherever that might be.

It’s entirely natural for us to hear the word “church” and immediately conjure up in our minds the image of a building.

And, frankly, that speaks volumes about us, our place in the world and our time in human history.  It is hard, if not impossible, to think “church” without picturing a building, a house, God’s house, to be specific.

In my time as bishop I have read scores of congregational histories, and almost without fail these records of local church history have emphasized two things:   the church buildings they erected and the pastors they called….as if those particular “markers” were the main things in the story of our churches.

But isn’t that what we’re taught growing up?   Didn’t our parents or whoever nurtured our faith—didn’t they say to us:  “Get up—get dressed--we’re going to God’s house this Sunday morning?”

I say “church,” you picture a building:  it’s the most natural, understandable reaction…

….even though we do know better!

For in the same breath that we teach our little ones to call this building “God’s house”—equating “church” with “building”--we also teach them songs that convey a different message….

….a message that goes like this: 

“The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!”[1]

Truth be told, there are competing, even conflicting messages we give our kids about the church….and this fact exposes a longer, deeper debate we find right in the Bible itself.  

There’s an argument, a back-and-forth debate right within the scriptures, about whether God wants, let along needs any sort of dwelling or building.   

In short:  how can God be “located”?

There are traces of that long debate right here in this morning’s lesson from the book of I Kings.   A transition has taken place within Israel’s royal family, the throne having passed from King David to his son, the newly crowned King Solomon, who immediately sets out to do something his famous father was not allowed to do:  “…  my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.  But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God….”

But was good King David forbidden to build a temple solely because he had too much “blood on his hands?”  

In the seventh chapter of II Samuel God himself offers a different answer to that question:  “Are you [David]  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?’” (II Samuel 7:4-7)

Here we encounter a God who is extremely reluctant to have any permanent structure, or temple, or “church building,” if you will.   

It’s as if God realizes—and he wants his people to realize—that a temple like the temples other ancient peoples built, would always be a mixed blessing.  Certainly, a Temple could provide a focal point, a point of contact between God and God’s people…..but it could also convey other, less flattering, less faithful realities.

A Temple, after all, could represent an attempt to “contain” God, to lock up God in a box, to put God at the beck and call of God’s people.

By erecting a temple where people could find God, Israel was simultaneously flirting with the possibility of trying to restrict God’s fierce, wild freedom to travel wherever his people might go, to constantly encounter them in all their meanderings—in the sheer dailiness of their lives—and to arrive at their destination always, always ahead of them.

In other words:  is our God a God who can be pinned down, hemmed in, put in his place?

Or is our God a “traveling God,” who always accompanies and guides his people on their pilgrimage through life?

In short, is the church a place or a people?
Centuries after King Solomon built Israel’s first Temple, in the midst of the Reformation of the church that Martin Luther started 500 years ago this week, the Great Reformer himself had this to say about the church:   “Thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”[2]

In other words, while the church might be a building, it is always a people!

So what shall we make of this Old Testament story of Solomon’s building of the Temple?

I believe it reflects a heartfelt desire to honor God, to glorify God for all of God’s goodness.

The Temple would be a point of contact for people—both the people of Israel but also foreigners who would hear about the God of Israel—a location on earth to which people could turn and pray to God who fills all time and space.

One thing Solomon’s Temple could never be, though, was a “container” for God.   The people of Israel could never “contain” God or keep God under wraps in the Temple. 

God is too wild, too fierce, too free for anything like that.

Notice again what happened when Solomon’s temple was “open for business:”    “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”  (vv. 10-11)

God may meet us in our holy places, to be sure, but God’s freedom can never be circumscribed by whatever walls or “boundaries” we erect.    God will always, always, always be bigger….wilder…and freer than any structures that we construct.

And there is powerfully good news in that fact, because even though we crave holy places where  God is accessible to us, holy places like this lovely church building...the temples we put up are never our final destination.   

Rather, I invite us to consider the buildings we call churches not so much as resting places or destinations as they are mission outposts, way-stations on our pilgrimage through life.

When all is said and done, it’s what happens in spaces like this that matters the most. 

It’s our gathering together, our baptizing, our remembering of our baptisms, our eating and drinking at the Lord’s table, our praying and pleading and praising, our hearing of the Word, our speaking with one another, our fellowshipping together, our planning and dreaming for mission and ministry in the world, it’s in all those things happening that God is made known and that God’s true church becomes visible---not in brick or mortar, but in lives transformed by the freedom, forgiveness and a new future through which God is always beckoning us forward toward the day when God in Christ will be our all in all.

Today we sing two great Reformation hymns.  
We’ve already sung A Mighty Fortress….which isn’t a hymn of praise for a building, mind you, but a poetic confession that God is our refuge, our sanctuary, our place of safety and nurture and sending….

And then, in a few moments, we will sing these words, which truly put this morning’s lesson in proper, faith-engendering, future-opening perspective:

“Christ builds a house of living stones:
We are his own habitation;
He fills our hearts, his humble thrones,
Granting us life and Salvation.
Where two or three will seek his face,
He in their midst will show his grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.”[3]

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[2] Smalcald Articles, Part Three, Article XII.
[3] Build on a Rock, ELW #652, stanza 3.