If I could have a soundtrack for this sermon, I think it would start with one of the beautiful pieces from Brahms’ requiem—“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place.” In it, the composer takes the words found in Psalm 84 to paint a soaring picture in sound of our eternal home with God. “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! For my soul, it longeth, yea fainteth, for the courts of the Lord: my soul and body crieth out, yea for the living God. Blest are they, that dwell within Thy house: they praise Thy name evermore.”
This dwelling place, this lovely dwelling place, is far off in the heavens, used as a comfort for those of us left bereft, to know that our dearly departed has made it to their mansion in the sky. But even as we imagine the dwelling place of God, up there, today we are prompted to bring our gaze down, to the earth below. Our Scripture readings also talk about God’s dwelling place, but it is right here.
We recognize the impulse to “build” a house, a dwelling place, for those we love. Think of the springtime busyness of birds as they gather sticks and stuff to weave a nest. Think of the way that mather cats find an out-of-the-way place to have their kittens. Think of the countless athletes who having “made it big”—having signed that contract, talk about wanting to buy a house for mom and dad. Think of the end of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the Father of the Bride (in a public show of finally accepting a non-Greek son-in-law) gives them a gift of a house (and, of course, it is right next door to Mom and Dad!).
So, it is understandable that David, who was building a beautiful palace for himself—thought that it was high time for God to have a house as well. Remember that God has shown up in tangible form to Moses in a burning bush, and had protected the Israelites as they escaped Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and had taken to meeting with Moses first on Sinai, and then in the tent that housed the tabernacle. The ark of the covenant had just been moved and placed inside—a new tent. So if David was getting a new house, how about God?
And it isn’t just David that has had this thought. Surely that desire to provide God a dwelling place has continued throughout the ages—inspiring the design and work on great cathedrals—with soaring, vaulted ceilings, beautiful stained glass, gold plated statues and magnificently carved altars, impressive, lasting, monuments to building a house for God.
And what does God say? Well, Nathan, the prophet (who in those days spoke for God), says, “Oh what a nice gesture. ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’” The equivalent of handing David the bejeweled AmEx card. But sometimes prophets speak out of turn—or don’t quite hear God correctly. And so, that night, God has to step in and tell Nathan, the prophet, that he had gotten it wrong.
The word to go back to David from God is— “Did I ask for a different dwelling place? No. I’ve been very happy dwelling in my tent so that I could be where my people were. Just because you have stopped being nomads, wandering in the wilderness, and have settled down to an agrarian lifestyle, doesn’t mean that I have to settle down. Don’t make me a house, I’ll make you a house.” God was not speaking of the palace David was already building, but was referring to a line of leaders for Israel from David onward—putting a stamp of approval on David’s blood line. And that is what happened, through Solomon (who did get to build a house for God), and through Solomon, on--if we are to believe the genealogies in Matthew and Luke—on to Jesus himself.
As we move into the New Testament, I see an arc of thought about not solidifying the dwelling place of God. The Apostle Paul, who calls himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees, is schooled and steeped in Jewish thought and words and ideas. But he gets the call (along the Damascus road) to bring the good news of Jesus to non-Jews. Even though the temple (the impressive house of God, built and rebuilt over the centuries) is still intact for a few more years, Paul, in an echo of Nathan so many years before, imagines a different type of dwelling of place for God.
Maybe this starts with the idea of the coming of “Emmanuel,” God with us—as the gospel of John puts it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” Paul, in trying to describe what is happening as the gospel sweeps through the known world, moves the dwelling place of God, from the temple in Jerusalem, to the church (as small, and as disjointed, and as divided as it was). Because in Paul’s mind the dwelling place of God, the continuing presence of God in our world, the image for that was the body of Christ.
And Paul uses this image not only as a glorious image meant to filter the heavenly light onto our drab existence, but also as a way of talking about the difficult problems of his day. Because this body of Christ, was the church. And the church had all these different people. So, in 1 Corinthians 12, (among other places) Paul talks about how we, as church, are like a body—which has many members—all different, and all necessary. Hands and feet, and eyes and ears, and as he delicately put it “and our unpresentable parts are treated with special modesty.” We are supposed to see ourselves as members of that body. Although we might have suggestions for who might be those “unpresentable parts” in the body of Christ—the point is, that WE, the people of the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make up the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God (Eph. 2:22).
So what does that mean to us as we begin to come out of our pandemic ways, as we continue forward in our process of becoming even more United Presbyterian Church of West Orange? There was an interesting Instagram post by Sonya Renee Taylor that spoke about the talk of “returning to normal.” She said,
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return to normal, my friends. We have been given the opportunity to stitch together a new garment—one that fits all of humanity and nature.”
That is what Paul is saying too—in Christ, we have been given an opportunity to stitch together a new garment, to be stitched together in new ways. Now, I think our Scripture for today reminds us that being stitched together doesn’t mean we all have to be the same, or to have the same ways. What is important is that we find a way to work together, or more honestly, to allow God to work through us.
Let’s not forget the lesson of David—thinking that we are going to build this great thing for God. That is looking at it all wrong. God is already here—we just need to make is more clear to others what GOD is building. It’s like that quote about sculpture—you just chip away at the rock to let the already beautiful masterpiece out.
The body of Christ becomes the way to hold all these different members together. As Ephesians puts it, “[Christ] 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.” I’m always amazed at how timely the Bible is. How could the Bible know to use words like that? It seems like it could have been written yesterday.
The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that human beings haven’t changed that much. Human beings always seem to like to divide into groups where there is an US and a THEM. In Paul’s time there were many us/them divisions—like male/female, or enslaved/free, or Jew/Gentile. And as we talked about last week, Paul will not let us forget that we, as Gentiles, were not born into the chosen people, but were adopted in—and there was still a lot of conversation and passion around the topic. Did Gentile men have to be circumcised before they were baptized? Did Gentiles have to follow the dietary food laws that set Jewish people apart? I’m sure it spilled over into what worship looked like, and who got to lead, and a million other little micro-environmental things you never knew meant something to you, until you have to try to change them. In our world, we barely think about how you got to be a Christian—we might chafe a little at “high” and “low” forms of worship; we might not understand why some people call it the “Lord’s table” and others call it an “altar;” we might like our music with drums and keyboard, or in 4 part harmony. But in our world we are dealing with the split that has become too horrible for anyone to ignore—white/black.
We would do well to remember Paul’s image—the equality of respect, without necessitating the equality of function. For Paul, it is absolutely essential to make sure that people know ALL members of the body of Christ are important, ALL members of the body of Christ are needed, you can’t decide to lop off some and think that you are better off. In Christ, we are made one.
We also would do well to hear from our lesson today that God is the architect. We should give ourselves permission to not have to get it right the first time, not have all the answers before we start the journey, not to think that WE are the ones who will figure this out on our own. The dwelling place of God is with God’s people. And in Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord…
This is not to suggest that being a body together is an easy thing. But this is where Paul lifts up the image of the cross, as an image of sacrifice. Our own sacrifice, for the sake of the whole, is not so we can boast, but so we participate in the footsteps of the One who was the dwelling of God with 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 (for Paul Jew and Gentile), 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.
Peace, Shalom, Justice, newness, that is what we are called to. Not that we do it on our own. We live into what has already been set in motion. We have a blueprint from the master architect when we go astray, or when we get lost, or when we feel weary. God is building the house. God is building us. And the amazing thing is that we have been called to be the dwelling place of God. For God is on the move, just as God was in the “old days” when there was a tabernacle. God is on the move, poking at us and our divisions, and our hostilities, and our thinking we are the high and mighty ones.
As our beginning hymn intoned, the church is meant to be a place where all are welcome. That doesn’t mean we have to fully understand each other, doesn’t mean we have to always agree with each other, doesn’t mean we have to be carbon copies of each other. It does mean we need to see ourselves as a WE. WE is created through Christ, and is the space, the place, for the most important thing of all—the dwelling of God, here and now, creating an US.
We have work to do. Work that has Christ as the cornerstone; work that is building on the foundation of apostles and prophets; work that means building brick upon brick, layer upon layer, until in [Christ] the whole structure is joined together. So let us do our work diligently, and joyfully, and prayerfully. So we might become what has already been dreamed and planned and sketched out and worked on, a dwelling place for God.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.