United Church of Christ

Household of God

Sunday, July 22, 2018
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 11)

Focus Theme:
Household of God

Focus Prayer:
Holy God of Israel, ever present and moving among your people, draw us near you, that in place of hostility there may be peace; in place of loneliness, compassion; in place of aimlessness, direction; and in place of sickness, healing; through Christ Jesus, in whom you draw near to us. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Ephesians 2:11-22 (with 2 Samuel 7:1-14a)

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"--a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

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, 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. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then 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.

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 7:1-14a with Psalm 89:20-37 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Focus Questions:

1. What is the long journey that your church has taken; from where did you come, and where are you now? How have you sensed God's presence with you along the way?

2. What is the "foundation" of your church?

3. What does it mean to a "household of God"?

4. Who are the people who may be effectively kept out by the walls of your church, both physical and metaphorical?

5. How does a church (a house, a people) stay mobile when it's closely identified with massive, solid structures?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Our focus reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, which uses the image of a household of God, goes well with the ancient story of King David and his desire, his dream, to build a house for God. Both readings, from Ephesians and 2 Samuel, provide rich material for our reflections.

David's journey has been long and difficult, from pasture to palace, from shepherd boy to prince, from tenacious warrior to powerful king whose reign promises peace for the people at last, peace, and a place of their own. However long and however difficult the journey, David must have sensed God's presence and approval with him every step of the way, wherever he was. How else would a youngest son, a shepherd, rise to such heights? He must have felt very, very special, for God had obviously set him apart, chosen him from among many, anointed him with power and promise.

Now David, King of Israel by the grace of God, sits safely enthroned in Jerusalem and comfortable in a house of his own. And he finally has time to compare his beautiful cedar home with the tent that has sheltered the ark of God. The ark represented the presence of God among the people, and David realizes, or rather, decides, that, like David, God also deserves a house of God's own. No doubt, a splendid house and home for the presence of God in their midst.

Along comes the prophet

Don't they say that "We make plans, and God laughs"? Onto the scene for the first time in the story strides the prophet Nathan, whose name may be familiar to us because of the later, perhaps more cinematic, story about Uriah the Hittite and his wife Bathsheba. Remember those words, "You are the man!" in 12:7a? David may have been great, but he certainly wasn't perfect, and his sin in stealing Uriah's wife (and even sending Uriah to a certain death) is a grave and memorable mark on his record.

No wonder a figure this great needs to stay in close communication with God, for the power to do "big" things also provides the opportunity to sin "big." It's curious that David communicates here with God through a prophet, while only a chapter or so earlier he seems to be able to speak directly with God: "When David inquired of the Lord, he saidÖ" (5:23a). Perhaps a prophet was the messenger then, too, but it is a small and interesting difference in the way the story's told.

An answer from God

God, through the prophet Nathan, responds to David's construction plans by asking, in a sense, "Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place."

God then turns the tables on David and says, "You think you are going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'm going to build you a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'" God promises to establish David and his line "forever," and this is a "no matter what" promise, even if the descendants of David sin, even if "evildoers" threaten.

God the punster

God turns the tables on David and uses, of all things, a pun to do so, using "house" to mean more than one thing. This is a very important moment, a golden moment in David's life but also in the story of Israel and, theologically, in our lives, too. Walter Brueggemann says that this story provides us a way to "imagine David having established himself."

A people who understood themselves as living in covenant with God now received, James Newsome writes, "a new covenant," a better, a renewed or newly reconfigured version of the covenant their ancient ancestors had received. This was validation for David and an endorsement both political and theological; if you weren't "for"--and obedient to--David and his heirs, you weren't just a bad citizen, you were both "rebellious and apostate." The modern concept of the separation of "church" and state is irrelevant here, of course, but we need to recognize that lens through which we might read this text.

God's love persists

So God's approval is not only upon David but also upon his descendants, and even when one of his offspring strays, or "commits iniquity" (v. 14b: the lectionary passage stops just before this part), God will punish him, but will not "take my steadfast love from himÖ."

There are at least two important points to examine here. Patricia Dutcher-Walls agrees that this text asserts that God established the line of David but she expands on the significance of the validation being extended to David's descendants, instead of "special" individuals being chosen and anointed in each generation, as David had been.

Instead of hearing "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" as a mark of God's choosing, this is a dynastic approach to choosing a ruler, Dutcher-Walls writes, one who is "designated not by God but...by the will and political power of the previous king and his advisors [who] choose a successor among his sons." Anyone reading the stories of David's successors knows how well that worked out.

The perils of hereditary monarchy

I majored in English history and remember well learning about the perils of a hereditary monarchy: you could never be sure that the next person in line was really qualified for, or worthy of, the power and responsibility of the throne. Once enthroned, kings (like David himself) often made mistakes and even sinned greatly. It must have been helpful to monarchs to be able to turn to this passage for "no matter what" validation of their rule.

However, there are conflicting understandings of how God works in this situation; Dutcher-Walls observes that there are many times in the Bible when the people are warned that they still have to keep the commandments in order to "live a blessed life as God indeed intends for humanity."

If we stay with the story long enough, we'll have the opportunity to hear about occasions where the rulers of God's people misunderstand the meaning of this assurance and assume that God blesses whatever they do. It seems to me that God's presence is indeed always with us, wherever we are, but assuming God's blessing upon our every idea and desire is something quite different.

Using God to validate our actions and choices

In ancient times and for many centuries thereafter, religion has been used to justify and validate the actions and indeed the reign of many a ruler of empires and nations (think of the divine right of kings in European history, for example). Such confidence may explain, then, why David later thought he could not only take Bathsheba for his own but also arrange to have her husband fall in battle. He may have thought, on some level, that he was "golden," that he was "above the law."

What are the vestiges of such claims of God's approval that endure today? Do they come with a "no matter what" clause, or do they include the condition of keeping the commandments, in order to "live a blessed life as God indeed intends for humanity"?

A dangerous assumption

Dutcher-Walls uses the phrase "the common but dangerous assumption" to describe not only the notion of God's unconditional approval for a leader but also the belief "that God's presence is automatically assured to any particular place." Are there such places in your own life, where you are sure God is "more" present than others?

Do we, as a community, assume that God is somehow more present in a church than in the world beyond its walls? What sort of power does a church building have in the minds of both members and the people on the outside of its walls?

Unconditional v. conditional

Walter Brueggemann has also written about the tension between unconditional and conditional promises by God in the Old Testament. However, the "sweeping" promise that God makes here to David and his descendants is indeed something new, at least compared to the "conditional character of the Sinai covenant" (which tied blessing to obedience to the commandments).

Our passage from 2 Samuel certainly undergirded ancient royal claims, but Brueggemann explains its enduring theological importance for two reasons: "both (a) as the taproot of messianic thought in the OT, which became a hope for an ideal Davidic king yet to comeÖ.and (b) as a pivotal commitment of unconditional grace by the covenanting God of Israel."

Belonging to the household of Christ

The reading from 2 Samuel goes very nicely with the Epistle reading from Ephesians (2:11-22) if we think about the power and promises of God to build us a house of our own, a dwelling place of peace and reconciliation. Just as the victory and security and unity at last of the people of Israel are amazing, so is the vision of bringing together Gentiles and Jews, the uncircumcised and the circumcised, across a barrier that seems not so important to us today but was nevertheless formidable in that day.

Strangers and aliens become citizens with the saints when they come home to the house that God builds in Christ, whose cross, Matthew L. Skinner observes, surpasses "the law's ability to make qualitative appraisals between different kinds of people." We too become with them members of a household built on a Cornerstone who is the fulfillment of God's promise of peace and healing and reconciliation for all of God's children.

Drawing many together into a household of God

The Gospel reading from Mark (6:30-34, 53-56) illustrates just what this Cornerstone is about, drawing great crowds of desperate people to himself, people hungry for healing, for food, for forgiveness, for hope. In Christ, the dividing walls that we have built (instead of a sacred dwelling place for God!) are torn down, all of our paltry attempts to build barriers falling short of God's power to create community not out of stone and wood, gold and silver, stained glass and soaring ceilings, but out of people and the promise that shapes them into a community that says yes to the call to follow Jesus, to love one another and the world.

Can you imagine God promising to build us a house? Do we really think it would be made of glass and stone and wood, like our church buildings, or would it be something different, something more, something lasting? (I once saw a post about a church made entirely of trees in New Zealand; that sounds pretty wonderful to me, and what an image for our day of raised consciousness about the environment we live in.)

Strangers and aliens no more

In our United Church of Christ congregations, strangers and aliens become sisters and brothers because of no-matter-what promises we make to one another. People who are very different from one another, whose differences may matter in other settings but make no difference in the church, come together and are joined together by the power of God into a household, a "whole structure joined together," growing into a holy temple.

If we think about the ark of the covenant, God's dwelling place in the 2 Samuel passage, being mobile and moving about among the people, we may find a better way to think of the church than just buildings. Otis Moss III makes this point beautifully when he speaks of the best ways to "reach new generations," including taking the good news out into the world, being mobile in our witness just as we are "mobile" in so many other facets of life these days.

Cornerstones, structures and foundations

No matter how beautiful and sacred the space of our churches may be, the church is really the people, the Spirit moving among us, the community sent just as much as the community gathered. Remember our reading from Mark's Gospel (6:1-13) only two weeks ago, with the theme, "Sent with Power"? It's ironic that the imagery of cornerstones, structures, and foundations are so familiar and yet all sound rather heavy for a people on the move, a people sent into the world beyond their walls to share the good news.

(There's a scene in the film "Romero," however, that brings home the sacredness of a space: a church has been destroyed by the powers that be, and Romero bravely goes into it to remove the Blessed Sacrament. Even without sharing a Roman Catholic theology of the Eucharist, one can sense the awfulness of the destruction and the power of Romero's response.)

Peace and our public life

The call to peace also has implications for our life beyond the walls of our churches, for our public life in which we have the opportunity and obligation to make sure that all of God's children share in the goods that God has so abundantly provided in creation. In today's world, that means health care and a social safety net, protection for children and the vulnerable, like the widows, orphans, and strangers so long ago.

Today, we are especially mindful of the plight of refugees and immigrants, who are of special concern to God in the Bible: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you: you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34), and in Matthew 25:35, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." The call to peace and justice is clear: there is room in the household of God for all of God's children.

Saving lives, not destroying them

The call to peace, the dream of peace, means good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food and clean water for all, not just some, breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us. It means money for building up instead of money for tearing down and destroying, money for peace and plowshares instead of wasting our precious resources on armaments and war. (We note the example of Jesus in the Gospel reading from Mark 6:34, when his heart was moved to compassion for the suffering of the people before him.)

God's vision of peace means vows, pledges, promises to save lives rather than destroy them. It means that God's house is all of creation and all of it is sacred, that God's place is shared with us but not owned by us, that God's law requires us to recognize and honor the image of God dwelling within each one of us. Rather than presuming that God approves of our political systems, it would be a good thing to look at our public life and wonder if God approves of our systems of sharing and justice.

Within the walls, and beyond

Would God approve of the house we have built for one another, for the whole community to live in? This is just as much the stuff of religion as it is of politics. Bruce Birch remarks on the risk God took in establishing David and making these promises in order to "[bring] the grace of divine promise into close engagement with public and political realities. The church can do no less."

What is the foundation of your church? Who or what decides who is the insider, and who is the stranger and the alien? Does your congregation make a connection between what happens within the walls of your church and what happens beyond them?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Stanley Hauerwas, 20th century
"Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God."

Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love, 20th century
"Let us not forget: we are a pilgrim church, subject to misunderstanding, to persecution, but a church that walks serene, because it bears the force of love."

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 5th century
"There are wolves within, and there are sheep without."

David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters, 21st century
"Fewer than half of churchgoers, including born-again Christians, felt strongly that their church demonstrates unconditional love."

Simone Weil, An Anthology, 20th century
"Existence is not an end in itself but merely the framework upon which all good, both real and imagined, may be built."

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
"[People] are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."

Robert Browning, 19th century
"Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure."

Jean Anouilh, 20th century
"Everyone thinks God is on their side. The rich and powerful know that God is."

Thich Nhat Hanh, 21st century
"Your true home is in the here and the now."

George MacDonald, 19th century
"Doing the will of God leaves me no time for disputing about [God's] plans."

John Ortberg, Jr., 21st century
"The goal of prayer is to live all of my life and speak all of my words in the joyful awareness of the presence of God."

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