Before long, King David made himself at home and God gave him peace before all his enemies. Then one day, King David said to Nathan the prophet, "Look at this: Here I am, comfortable in a luxurious house of cedar, and the Ark of God sits in a plain tent."
Nathan told the King, "Whatever is in your heart, go and do it. God is with you." But that night, the word of God came to Nathan saying, "Go and tell my servant David: THIS is God's word on the matter: YOU'RE going to build a 'house' for ME to live in? Why, I haven't lived in a 'house' from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now! All that time, I've moved around with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, "Why haven't you built me a house of cedar? No! Say to my servant David, 'I've been with you everywhere you went. I took you from the pasture, tagging along after sheep, and made you prince over my people Israel. I'm going to set aside a place for my people, and plant them there so they'll have their own home and not be knocked around any more. I'm going to give you peace from all your enemies.' "
A reading from the New Testament, Ephesians 2:11-22:
It was only yesterday that you were outsiders to God's ways and didn't know the first thing about the way God works, hadn't the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God's covenants and promises in Israel, hadn't a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. But now because of Christ, you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything. The Messiah has made things up between us so we're now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders, peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. That's plain enough, isn't it? You're no longer wondering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You're no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name 'Christian' as anyone! God is building a home. He's using us ALL. . . all of us are built into it, a holy temple, in which God is quite at home.
I’m wondering, for starters: what associations come to mind for you when it comes to the use of tents?
Most of us have, at one time or another, slept, or at least tried to get some sleep in tents, either during road trips or backpacking or just for fun once in a while in the backyard with kids or grandkids, maybe worrying that neighborhood alley cats and raccoons will, before morning, leave behind a tent scent. A former parishioner, Giselle, French Canadian by background, remembers being greeted as a child in Alberta, Canada each summer by itinerant First Nation families residing in teepees; another, Judy, told me of the big tent circuses that would arrive and set up each Spring on the outskirts of her home town; back in my early childhood, I looked forward to the same. I also remember the tents of seasonally-arriving hoboes and whole migrant farmworker families, following the cherry and apple harvest. My own father and grandfather shared with me their memories of old fashioned evangelical tent revivals too- I’ve inherited old photos of the same. Then too: tent cities and war refugee camps may come to mind. Not all memories of tenting are happily romantic and nostalgic.
As a church, some of our congregations go outside under tarps and canopies once every year at about this time for an outdoor service, not only because we enjoy and have deep respect for God's glorious outdoors, but also because we want to show the world that we don’t intend to put God inside a little box. We don’t want to stay hidden behind walls that may separate us from others. We DO want to let neighbors, strangers, and passers-by know that should they so choose it, they have as much right to the name 'Christian' here as anyone, and that the holy temple in which GOD feels most at home is the one that re-creates us as equals, that makes peace between us, that has ALL of us built into it. Both our readings from scripture this morning, and the stories behind them remind us of these things. Would that we all be able to proudly and courageously announce that God’s Spirit is in this place AND that this “place” moves about with the people, just as God does. This ‘place’ is mobile. We have, or mean to have, as The Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago nicely put it in his ucc.org interview on "How to reach new generations", a carry-it-with-you I-Pod kind of theology. He’s saying that if we are to reach new generations of people of faith, we have to find ways to define “church” as more than just a building we go to once a week. We need to carry it out with us, to take church out into the streets. And under the night sky.
There are good reasons to believe that God likes being out in the open, where all the creatures are welcome, where no barriers tend to divide the 'in' crowd and the 'out of it'. God seems to be saying in 2 Samuel 7 to the then-brand new king, “Hey! 'Don't Fence Me In'. Don’t even try. God PREFERS a canvas tent to solid steel or mahogany- no heavy walls, no closed doors- just a canopy, a semi-permeable tarp, please. That’s all God asks for. A tent city is, at best, a temporary solution for homeless human residents and refugees. But wherever, whenever home is an accessible reality for all, where even strangers and outsiders belong, there God is quite at home.
You may recall that it was King David who was the youngest son, the one who used to camp out under the stars tending sheep every night. Now he's comfortably living in his own fancy house of cedar. He’s at the very top of his game. And GOD? GOD is still residing in a tent! The irony of it made David feel guilty. So David decides he wants to also get busy designing a place to put God.
And we're not entirely unlike David. At certain times in our lives at least, we get pretty caught up in our own big building plans. As someone once said, we make our plans, and God laughs! We try to keep God in our own pre-fab containers too. God repeatedly bursts free of them, of course, but we keep on somewhat guiltily putting up walls. And though we may not mean them to be so, they become walls of separation, and even of hostility. Walls- between kings in grand palaces and God in a tent, between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, between one kind of Christian too and another too, between insiders and outsiders, between Jew and Gentile, between the US and Mexico, between Israel and Palestine, between 'Christian' and 'Jew' and 'Muslim'. People build up dividing walls, raise high fences, gate our communities to keep certain persons out, even to keep the very God of all creation out, 'we' and 'they', 'us' and 'other', again and again and again!
God doesn’t appear to be all that impressed with the buildings we build and the walls we erect. In a way, you could say that God wants nothing of it.
Now don’t get me wrong. As the husband of a skilled, hard-working architect, I take great delight in seeing cranes doing their work again in my city, new offices and homes and apartment buildings going in all over the place. The biggest Seattle public concern at this point in time is not whether we build new houses and apartments, but whether they’ll be affordable for those who need them most! And of course we want each one of these buildings to be LEED certified platinum green and totally earthquake proof. We want what we build to be sustainable, to last, and to stand long and well.
And yet: according to scripture, nothing we make, nothing we have, none of what we design, is permanent. In the Bible's long span of time, escaped slaves wonder for decades without permanent homes. The presence of God gets cloudy, the carried arc of God gets stolen, ornate temples repeatedly get destroyed! Divisive designs all come to naught, towers of Babel all fall down. Plans and schemes never fully accomplish what they intend to accomplish.
The impermanence of walls, you see, ultimately, eventually, is the way things are supposed to be. Impermanence is creation’s way. Impermanence is what is real and what is good.
David is allowed to pursue his building plans, and so are we. Concessions are made to accommodate our need to settle in. We all deserve to have secure, well-built homes, to dwell in places other than under a bridge somewhere. Even a very well-tended and supplied tent city is an inadequate solution for homeless human refugees- everyone on the planet deserves a real home. God wants that for us all. But as long as any still ARE any under bridges, or in war refugee camps, and there are far too many, God sets up camp in such places, outside all the gated, guarded places. God, in all probability, takes off her shoes and lays down in the broad meadow, basking in the cool breeze and sunshine, and at night, looks up at the stars in the sky, smiling. And why wouldn’t God's favorite places be where creatures and raindrops and bare earth mingle? God never wanted a walled-in, roofed-over residence in the first place. God never wanted walls of separation and hostility, that's for sure!
David doesn’t get the divine right of kings, carte blanc permission to do anything he pleases. He does get a covenant, and so do we, a profound, no matter what kind of covenant: I will be with you; God’s Spirit abiding.
I’m sure that you mean in this place of God’s Spirit abiding to say and to show that same quality of reassurance, that you are here for one another. Here at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, may strangers and aliens continue to become sisters and brothers based on the no-matter-what covenant promises we make to one another before God. It is kind of like a marriage vow, isn’t it, meant to be kept in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. Now because of Christ, you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything. Why? How? Because he tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than helped. Then… God started all over. Christ treated us as equals, and thus made us equals! People who were very different from one another, whose differences mattered more in other settings, came together here and are unified by the power of God into one household, a ‘whole structure joined together’, growing into a holy temple, a temple not made of wood and stone. God gave you and me a fresh start. Christ continues to get us to embrace strangers and outsiders.
Pilgrim Congregational Church: you’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here! Christ is building a home. He’s using you all- all of you are built into it, a holy temple, a movable feast. And in just such a context, yes: God is quite at home.