How Many Ways Can You Spell "House"?

Passage: 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Date: July 22, 2018
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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When I worked in construction, I had a front-row seat to the often interminable process of getting a building permit. Satisfying the municipality’s code requirements, easing the neighborhood association’s concerns, working out site-access agreements. It often seemed to take forever. If you witnessed what it took to get the parking-lot upgrade into the ground here at Westminster, you might have some appreciation for the hoops that need to be jumped before a good idea results in any shovels being turned or nails pounded. And here’s King David, with both a great idea and a permit for his project. Until he doesn’t. What’s up with that, God?

God never wanted a king for Israel. Back in 1 Samuel when Israel agitates and whines for a king like all the other kids, God relents, but not without a warning. “A king is gonna take your crops and land and children,” God warns. “A king will use you to support his lifestyle of luxury and that of his rich friends. A king will form alliances with your enemies and pay them tribute using the blood and sweat of poor people. But go ahead. Choose a king. You’ll still be my people.” Israel’s first king was a disaster and now they’ve got David, who wants God to have a house. Anyone in the ancient world knew that’s what kings do. They build a temple (house) for their God, and this legitimates their reign. It says, “This God belongs to us.”

After Nathan says “Go for it!” he has a vision about the building permit. His vision reflects the age-old tension in Israel’s relationship with God. How does Israel balance the absolute freedom of God with God’s presence? This tension wasn’t an issue when they were nomads wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. A portable God works pretty well under those circumstances. But now Israel is settled in the Promised Land, they’ve got a king to unite them, maybe they oughta stake their claim on God. Nathan’s oracle says “No.” Sort of. The building permit is pulled for the temple, but the oracle moves from a house of cedar to a house of another sort as God puns, “You won’t build me a house, I’ll build you a house.” The same Hebrew word means palace, temple, family, and dynasty.

It’s at this delicious point that the story becomes what Walter Brueggemann claims is the most important theological pivot in the Hebrew Bible. It all hinges on the but, or as he prefers to translate it, however. Instead of “if your offspring messes up,” God says “when your offspring behaves badly,”and then adds that consequences will occur, but on a human (not cosmic) scale. And then comes the however. “However,” God says,“I will never take away my love,” promising a throne in perpetuity. A lot of people read this passage as meaning “Jesus is coming.” This was not the gleam in God’s eye. The gleam is this: from now on, Israel is no longer subject to the conditional covenant of keeping the Ten Commandments in order to keep God’s love. This however means Israel (and therefore us) becomes a community of hope. A hope that believes, confesses, and trusts that God will keep the divine promise to right the world within human history. This is huge, mind-bogglingly amazing. Do you realize what this means? It means there is nothing we can do to make God love us (because God already does and will not take that love away). It means that justice doesn’t depend on us (although we are expected to do justice). It means we can trust God to continue to act to save the world, because God has acted and will continue to act through humans. People like us. It means we can act as if God is not disinterested and distant, but that God is—right now—acting for the good of all God’s creation.

I happen to think that every sermon needs to have a “So what?” Something that tells us not only the good news of the gospel, but something that this good news means to us right now and requires of us in order to actually be good news. One “So what?” that comes to mind, for instance, is from the prophet Nathan. In this contentious and polarized world in which we spend so much political energy trying to change each other’s minds (as if we’re not right unless everyone believes as we do)—in this world, maybe we could learn something from Nathan. Presbyterians characteristically hold strong faith convictions,which we temper with the caveat, “But I could be wrong.” We minister in community because we believe Holy Spirit works through community. To change one’s mind not only reflects a willingness to let God speak, it reflects an openness to being transformed. Maybe minds need to be changed.

The “So what?” from David might ask us to temper our dreams with the knowledge that it is God who plants the dreams, and it is God who works to bring the dreams to fruition. If we really believe and confess that God is working for a world of peace and justice within human history, then that belief gives us the freedom to act as if that dream is real. The structure of power has changed over time, but God’s intentions for how humans should live together have not. Remember those two great commandments—love God, love your neighbor? If you need more detail, go to Matthew 5-7 and read Jesus’ commentary on those commandments, what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Whether we’re living under a capitalist democracy, a constitutional monarchy, a fascist regime, a commune, we are not just called to—we are able—to live those two commandments. Loving neighbors work for the common good (for God’s sake). Which means 100% of the people, not the 1% of the rich and powerful.

If you saw the online sermon tease this week, you may still wonder about my reference to the marriage of politics and religion. Here is what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has to say about that marriage: “The necessary detachment from this ugly and injurious present political climate depends upon our inner attachment to the mystery of God’s unbounded grace and divine, creative love. That is the foundation from which we can witness to truth, nurture community, and build essential bonds of solidarity with those who suffer.” In other words, don’t get sucked in to being right but align yourself with God’s love, the love of neighbor, and the rest are details. The first and most important thing we can do in the face of injustice (this “ugly and injurious political climate”) is so simple, we can all do it. Pray. We forget what a deeply political act prayer is. Prayer is our first protest as we tell God, “This is not right, it is not just, people are suffering!” When you see injustice—any injustice—start by praying. Then pray with others. Pray with people on your side and people you don’t agree with. See what God has to say about it. Maybe you change your mind. Maybe you find yourself called to some action or some vote. But if you start with prayer, it’s easier to find the way of love. Which is, after all, the summary of God’s intentions for the whole human dynasty. Love—for God’s sake.