Sermon Seeds: At Home with God
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 16
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 with Psalm 84 or
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 with Psalm 34:15-22
Additional reflection on 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
At Home with God
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Many years ago, I belonged to a parish that built an impressive new stone and glass church across the parking lot from our “old” church, a simple, box-like structure that had been designed ahead of time to be converted into a gymnasium for the attached school. As we prepared for our move into the new church and our final days in the old one, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that humble space: late at night, alone in the sanctuary, during a weekend retreat, with only candlelight to see the shadowy lines of cross and statues; at my son’s First Communion service, listening to him sweetly sing a song he had learned in school about God being always near at hand; in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear straight while they sang carols as only children can. It didn’t seem to me that one needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.”
Our readings this week express the feelings that our ancestors in faith experienced many centuries ago, looking at their Temple not as a well-worn-out building but as a destroyed one, as ruins that seemed to symbolize their own crushed and broken hopes. They looked back, in the reading from 1 Kings, to a glorious and happier time, when Solomon dedicated the beautiful new Temple and celebrated the arrival of the ark of the covenant with a long prayer that combines praise of God with ominous reminders of what would happen if the people strayed from faithfulness to God. The reading from 1 Kings obviously goes well with Psalm 84, a joyful song praising God, not a building, although God’s presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced there.
It is a “lovely” thing
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). The psalmist begins by calling the Temple God’s “dwelling place,” but of course “dwelling” in a place doesn’t have to mean being contained by it. Some of the language of the psalm reminds us of romantic literature, with a soul that longs and faints, and a heart and flesh itself singing for joy: an embodied, whole-self experience of love. Joel LeMon observes that this is the only time in the Old Testament that the word translated as “lovely” is used to “modify an inanimate object” rather than a person; there, he says, it’s usually translated “beloved” (Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary).
Psalm 84 is one of the “Songs of Zion” which, Walter Brueggemann explains, “serve to celebrate, legitimate, and enhance Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city,” thereby making the people feel safe – after all, God is in their city. Could there be a better source of security? However, Brueggemann seems to see a tension between the Temple as a place for “the practice of alternative imagination” and its role as “part of the urban-political-economic establishment.” I think he’s talking about a place where we can imagine how things should and could be, rather than how they actually are. Brueggemann compares the latter role to that of the National Cathedral in Washington, which provides a religious backdrop that can enhance the power and prestige, for example, of political leaders as they address the nation (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church). Is your church a place that offers “alternative imagination”?
Establishment religion or sacred ground?
The Songs of Zion, including Psalm 84, could express “establishment” religion, then, and the memory of glory days, of power and of feeling important and safe in the eyes and care of God. This seems to be true for people of faith in every age, not just in ancient Jerusalem. Brueggemann cautions us against the “self-congratulation” that Psalm 84 risks, and warns us that our own tendency toward identifying the church so closely with the building itself is our own form of idolatry. Seriously: idolatry is not something ancient or “primitive.” We have plenty of idols today in our own culture, and even in the church itself! However, Brueggemann says that there is help here in the psalm and in the faithful practice of those ancient ancestors, because they kept coming back to God: “the celebration of the Temple regularly points beyond itself to the reality of God, who is the real source of life and the real focus of trust” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
That’s the key, isn’t it? Keeping God at the heart of everything: I think of the concept of “sanctuary” as safe haven for those fleeing other powers, something that was perhaps better understood before our own time, and in places far away. In the movie Romero, there is a heartbreaking scene where a church is destroyed, and another scene where the Archbishop, Oscar Romero, is shot dead while saying Mass. The awful things – murders, “disappearances,” suppression – that happened in El Salvador were somehow depicted even more compellingly when they occurred on “sacred ground.” Today, we are still shaken and grieved by the horror of nine people killed in a mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of a Bible study where they had offered warm hospitality and kindness to the man who then shot them – for being Black, he told the police. It jars us to realize that even church can’t offer safe space, sanctuary, when such a thing can happen even on sacred ground.
Where does God live?
Why is the sanctuary of a Temple or a church “sacred ground”? Some would say, with the psalmist, that it’s God’s “dwelling place,” the place where God lives. Brueggemann observes that the Temple as dwelling place wasn’t God’s permanent home but just the “place of God’s sojourning” (Texts for Preaching Year B). While they wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites had the ark with them, a mobile experience of God’s presence. But God was also up on that mountain with Moses, and God is with us, up on the mountaintops of our lives, and down on the low places as well. The psalmist remembers the hard part of the journey, in the dry and barren valley of Baca, a place, Joel M. LeMon suggests, that draws its name from the Hebrew word that means “to weep”: it represents, therefore, the kind of “valley of tears” that all of us experience one time or another. But the psalmist reminds us, that even in the wilderness, in the dry places, in the worst of times, God is good and will provide (Psalms for Preaching and Worship).
As we have said, no place or structure or the whole earth itself can contain God (permanently or temporarily), but we humans need a focus point, a base camp, a reminder, a haven, founded in God’s name. The Temple (or church) may provide that “thin place” that Celtic spirituality describes, a place where the veil between heaven and earth lifts even momentarily and we taste the presence of God, but God is always and everywhere with us. Our very lives, then, are sacred ground, holy ground. Thus, we too can “go from strength to strength” (v. 7), for wherever we are, we are “at home with God.”
Birdsong as counterpoint to our songs of praise
So are the sparrow and the swallow, of course: the psalmist sings of their good fortune in finding a home in the sacred precincts of the Temple. Perhaps there is irony in this location, Joel LeMon writes, for the sweet and delicate little swallows nest with their babies next to the fearsome fire where sacrifices are burnt, and they are safe there under God’s watchful eye (Psalms for Preaching and Worship). We can’t help recalling Jesus’ own words about God’s eye being on the sparrow. One wonders at the repeated image of tiny sparrows in the Bible, one of the smallest of God’s creatures. Throughout the Bible, we hear that God cares for the ones we might easily overlook: the small ones, the humble ones, the ones on the edges. Sometimes, we feel that we are counted among those “smallest” of God’s creatures ourselves, and we yearn to find safety and peace in God’s care.
(Photo by Sue Powers McKeon)
The swallows and the sparrows, all of creation then, join with humans in a song of praise to God, according to the psalmist – just think of Psalm 104, for instance. LeMon vividly imagines the “continuous birdsongs” in the Temple “[playing] counterpoint to the pilgrims’ hymns” (Psalms for Preaching and Worship). What a lovely image, for a Temple long ago and the sacred spaces of our lives today, too. Brueggemann expands the metaphor of “nesting” to cover both birds and humans whose worship experience encompasses “serenity, innocence, and trusting delight” in the presence of the God who loves them (Texts for Preaching Year B). Of course, the image of “nest” suggests a place of safety, nurture, and home; how does the image of church as “nest” connect with your spiritual life? Do you find a “nest” in other places where you experience being “at home with God”?
Prayers of longing for God’s presence
The scholars provide several other interesting insights: Brueggemann reminds us that the term “God of gods” in verse 7b is not only “a formula for majesty,” but recalls an ancient time of polytheism, during which this God ruled over all other gods. Brueggemann also observes that this prayer doesn’t ask for the usual list of petitions and requests; it simply expresses the deep “yearning for communion and presence, which are ends in themselves”; this prayer is really not so much about the place (the Temple) as it is about God (Texts for Preaching Year B). When you examine your own prayer life and the worship life of your congregation, do you find prayers of praise, and prayers of longing just to be in the presence of God, to be with God?
Finally, Joel LeMon draws our attention to the way that priorities are clarified here: it’s better to be low in status and close to God than high in status but far from God. He seems to be saying that no matter how powerful, how privileged and how well-placed we may seem, the sparrows are much better off than we are (Psalms for Preaching and Worship). Do you agree? Why or why not?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as 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 on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century
“People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.”
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to [God], being attentive to [God], requires a lot of courage and know-how.”
Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, 21st century
“When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of twenty-first-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God’s love.”
Brother Lawrence, 17th century
“I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD.”
David Brazzeal, Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul, 21st century
“Praise is the portal to the presence of God.”
Pico Iyer, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, 20th century
“Finding a sanctuary, a place apart from time, is not so different from finding a faith.”
In a way, much of the story of Israel is contained in this brief glimpse of the community at one historic and joyful moment: the procession bringing the ark of the covenant into the magnificent new Temple built by Solomon, just as God had promised. The Philistines (during their long wars with Israel) had captured the ark sometime before but then returned it to an Israelite settlement when they attributed a plague to its power, or at least to the power of the God it represented. While King David had wanted to build the ark a new home, he was informed by the prophet Nathan that God would not permit him to do so, but instead that God promised to build David “a house.” By “house,” of course, God meant a family, a household, a dynasty that would always have one of his descendants on the throne of Israel.
This interesting play on the word “house” reminds us of the way Francis of Assisi would much later interpret God’s command, “Francis, rebuild my church” as a literal one, rebuilding the ruins of San Damiano, stone upon stone, when God was actually calling Francis to inspire the institutional church into a new age of renewal and vibrant mission, to rebuild it spiritually. (Francis, as we know, said yes, but took a little while to figure out what God wanted him to do. By the way, if you haven’t seen Franco Zeffirelli’s film about Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon – or even if you have – it would be great sermon prep for this passage!)
Looking back for explanations
Our text from 1 Kings was actually written long after the glorious event it describes, in the days of the Babylonian exile, when the throne was in effect empty. The people saw their magnificent city Jerusalem, and its wonderful Temple, in ruins. What happened to the promises of this God, stretching way back past Solomon and David, to Abraham and Moses, assuring them of a bright and secure future? This text serves as one way of explaining the disaster, for contained in Solomon’s prayer is a foreshadowing of what went wrong: God promised, Solomon said, that there would be successors to David on the throne “if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me” (verse 25c).
Even people of faith struggle sometimes with why things go wrong; think of the inevitable series of responses to every natural disaster, in which some religious folks can’t resist blaming the “sinners” in our midst (or at least, certain of them). In moments of unspeakable pain, people wonder where God is, and how such terrible things can happen to them. The people of Israel in a time of exile needed to find a reason for their suffering, and they found it in their sense of sin.
When is it our own fault, we wonder?
We might ask if calamity befalls us, individually or communally, because of our sins. There’s no doubt that our actions can bring on suffering and disaster, for example, when a person drives while intoxicated or texts while driving and injures another. The “sinner” can certainly link the terrible event to their own mistake. Do you feel that a nation can bring on its downfall, or that God punishes a nation or a people for straying from “the right path”? Knowing that this text was written in light of the utter destruction of the Temple, and yet with faith in a God who, unlike other gods, keeps promises, how do you think the people of ancient Israel saw their spiritual life?
The greater part of today’s reading is the prayer of Solomon before the altar of God in the new Temple, and it’s the longest prayer of its kind, situated within a story (the Psalms, of course, are prayers, but in a different setting). James Newsome suggests that we may notice similarities between it and the prayer of Jesus in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John (Texts for Preaching Year B). Jesus prayed “that they may all be one,” and Solomon, among his seven prayers, asks God to hear the prayers of foreigners and strangers – even foreigners and strangers! When we experience so much diversity in our churches, and recognize the many different paths to God, we might remember Solomon’s request of God to hear and answer the prayers even of those so different from ourselves. What would the world look like, can you imagine, if we prayed that God would hear the prayers even of strangers and foreigners, especially those of other faiths? We might find ourselves transformed by such an orientation of the heart.
Is God at home here?
There seems to be a tension within the Hebrew Scriptures about the Temple and the priestly cult that tended it: could it really be said that God “dwells” in the Temple, as other ancient peoples claimed their gods “lived” in their places of worship? This text makes it clear that no building made of human hands, no matter how magnificent, can contain the glory of God. According to verse 27, even heaven itself cannot contain God! We hear that Solomon stood not before God but before the altar of God and in the presence of the assembly of Israel (v. 22), and yet, a few verses earlier (10-11), we read that the priests couldn’t even go about their duties because a great cloud – a sign of God’s presence – had filled “the holy place.” Of course, in our culture today we are deluged with words, including names, and even the name of God is used casually as an exclamation of many different feelings. Many deeds are done “in the name of God” that we may feel violates the Spirit of God. Clearly the name of God is often taken in vain, but in ancient times the very name of God was both sacred and powerful, so to say that the name of God dwelt in the Temple would have carried great significance.
What does the church building represent to you and your congregation? Is it your home, or God’s home, or both? What does it mean to gather in prayer, as the assembly of Israel did so long ago, and petition and praise the God who cannot be contained even in the whole universe itself? Why do we do that? Many people found their way to churches and other holy places across America (indeed, around the world) in the days following September 11, and pastors felt a particular responsibility to provide a place of prayer for people shaken by world-shattering events. My own pastor left our newly restored sanctuary open all night in our center-city neighborhood, so that “any one who came to Pilgrim Church that night would find a place to pray.” Why did we do that? Why are churches seen as places of sanctuary, where people can find safety? Why are the “ground rules” different there?
Transcendence and stone
Our faithful giving in support of our churches makes it possible for those “holy places” to be there, to be physical, concrete reminders of God’s presence and yet, at the same time, of God’s transcendence. Why else would sunlight glint so beautifully through stained-glass windows, or spires soar into the sky? There is just something different about that space, that configuration of building materials, drawn together and raised up as a witness.
It is poignant, even heartbreaking, to watch churches being turned into condo developments and restaurants. What feelings does that evoke in you? What makes a space sacred to you and your congregation? Perhaps, when we sit in church, we are aware of those who came long before us, whom we will never know, that great cloud of witnesses whose generosity and faithfulness left us this great legacy. Perhaps the beauty of our churches, and the memories they evoke, inspire us to greater generosity, not for ourselves so much as for those who come long after us, searching for a home, seeking refuge, and solace, and peace, seeking inspiration to return to the world and be part of its transformation.
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
(Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion.
Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.
And 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.)
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm — when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O God of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of God;
my heart and my flesh
sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Sovereign God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob!
Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper
in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Sovereign God is a sun and shield;
God bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does God withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O God of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
The eyes of God
are on the righteous,
and God’s ears
are open to their cry.
The face of God
is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them
from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help,
and rescues them
from all their troubles.
God is near
to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions
of the righteous,
but God rescues them
from them all.
God keeps all their bones;
not one of them will be broken.
Evil brings death
to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous
will be condemned.
God redeems the life
of those who serve God;
none of those who take refuge in God
will be condemned.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.