Sermon Seeds: Wherever You Are
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 11
2 Samuel 7:1-14a with Psalm 89:20-37 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 23
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Wherever You Are
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
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 God deserves a house, too. No doubt, a splendid house and home for the presence of God in their midst.
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 “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 said…” (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.
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’re 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” (An Introduction to the Old Testament). 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” (Texts for Preaching Year B). The 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.
So God’s approval is not only upon David but 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 him….” 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Anyone reading the stories of David’s successors knows how well that worked out.
I majored in English history, and remember well 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). It seems to me that, as our theme reminds us, 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.” 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”?
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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). 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?
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 come….and (b) as a pivotal commitment of unconditional grace by the covenanting God of Israel” (An Introduction to the Old Testament).
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, trumps “the law’s ability to make qualitative appraisals between different kinds of people” (New Proclamation 2006 Year B). 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.
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 the Stillspeaking 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 just saw a post about a church made entirely of trees in New Zealand; that sounds pretty wonderful to me.)
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 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 in his interview on ucc.org, about “iPod theology” that is on the move: “How to reach new generations” at http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/video/otis-moss.html.) No matter how beautiful and sacred the space of our churches may be, the church is 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.)
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. It means good schools and care for the elderly, nourishing food and clean water for all, not just some, clean 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. It 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” (Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2). What is the long journey that your church has taken; from where did you come, and where are you now? Where are you going? Who are the people who may be effectively kept out by the walls of your church, both physical and metaphorical? What walls have come down in your life together, in your personal life, in the greater community and the world? 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?
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:
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.”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the 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.
“I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
“my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
“The enemy shall not outwit him,
the wicked shall not humble him.
“I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
“My faithfulness and steadfast love
shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted.
“I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
“He shall cry to me,
‘You are my Father and Mother,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’
“I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the rulers of the earth.
“Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
“I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.
“If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
“if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
“then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
“but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness.
“I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
“Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
“His line shall continue forever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
“It shall be established forever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies.”
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
God is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul,
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
my whole life long.
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.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
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.