Having a house is a good thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying or renting, whether it’s big or small, it’s good to have a roof over your head. Soon we’ll be hosting SOS, and I expect that during that week many of us will pause to give thanks for our homes. Home ownership has its challenges, but it is good to have a home.
We can give thanks that as a congregation we have a roof over our heads and a fairly comfortable space to gather for worship, for fellowship, and for study. Since this building has been around for more than thirty years, it’s easy to take this blessing for granted, forgetting that it takes a lot of resources to keep up the place.
This morning’s reading from 1 Kings forms part of a story about a house built for God. We meet up again with Solomon, that wise king whom Susan introduced last week. He’s standing before the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, getting ready to deliver his prayer of dedication for the house he built for God. Maybe he did this because he was feeling guilty about living in a big house while God’s Ark rested in a tent. He had permanent lodgings, but God had to make do with an impermanent abode. So he built a Temple and now it’s time to dedicate it. Solomon stands before the altar and invites God to take notice of the building. I expect that Solomon was proud of his achievement and he hoped God would be pleased.
Our building might not be as big or magnificent as the cathedral Edgar Dewitt Jones built on Woodward Avenue in the 1920s, but it’s still a pretty nice house. We have an organ, a piano, a pulpit, and a table. Surely God is happy with this home we’ve built as a place to worship God. Yes, “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” But in his dedication prayer, Solomon raises an important question: Does God need a house? Does God even want a house?
Maybe you learned a little Sunday school exercise when you were a child. Remember how the teacher asked us to put our hands together with fingers intermingled, except the index fingers, which served as a steeple, while the thumbs served as doors. Here is the church, and when you open the doors you can see all the people. What message do you hear in that little exercise?
What I hear is that people come and go, but the buildings live on. If you’ve been to Europe you know what I’m talking about. There are lots of big churches, very old churches, that have been there for centuries. They’ll be there long after we’ve left the scene. But is this the church? Or is the church the people whom God calls to God’s self?
As I read this prayer this week, I noticed an interesting thing. Solomon isn’t quite sure whether he did the right thing. What I heard in this prayer was a plea to God to bless what Solomon believed was a “gift” he had offered to God. He thanked God for being a loving and covenant keeping God. After all, he stands there as a sign of God’s blessing. God had promised David an heir so that his dynasty could continue, and Solomon was the fulfillment of that promise. And while David, the warrior king, couldn’t build a house for God, Solomon was in a different position. Things in the neighborhood had quieted down. He didn’t have to go into battle like his father. Because he was a peace-time king, he could invest the “peace-dividends” to build a home for God. That’s one explanation, but I think there’s another part to the answer.
Did Solomon build God a house because God needed a home, or did Solomon decide to build a monument for himself? He knew that his father never got to build a lasting monument, but he could. Palaces are imposing, but Temples and Cathedrals are always a more important legacy. And so Solomon had a Temple built for God, but perhaps also for himself.
In reading the sermons and letters of Dr. Jones I get the feeling that part of him wanted to build a lasting monument in Detroit that would reflect his own importance to the community and the denomination. He’s not alone. I think all preachers want to leave a legacy, and that includes me. I hope that years from now people will look back to my ministry with fondness and appreciation. I may not have built a building, but I did have a pulpit built!
Still, there’s this nagging question that keeps popping up in this passage. Does God really need a house? Solomon knew the answer to that question. He says to God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” He knew that no house could contain God, no matter how magnificent it was, but perhaps God would take note of the Temple anyway and bless it. I hear Solomon crying out to God: Won’t you at least take a look? Won’t you own it, even if you don’t live in it? When your people gather in this space or pray toward this space, won’t you hear their prayers? Yes, will you place your name in this place?
When I was in England, I got to worship in two cathedrals. One was large and magnificent and the other was relatively small and intimate. And even though I believe I experienced God’s presence in both spaces, I know that God can’t be contained in these sacred spaces. Still, as Choon-Leong Seow suggests of the Temple:
“It is a place at which the needs of the petitioner coincide with the willingness of the deity to respond. The Temple is not the place where the person of God is; rather it is merely the place where God’s presence may be known, where the authority of God is proclaimed” [New Interpreter's Bible Volume III, p. 75].
God doesn’t live in the Temple or in this building, but God is willing to meet us wherever we gather in the name of Jesus.
In today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus concludes a lengthy conversation about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This conversation follows the feeding of the 5000. He tells the people that if they eat his body and drink his blood – in the signs of bread and wine – he will abide in them and they will abide in him. In answer to the question of where God is present, Jesus points to himself. If we have communion with Jesus by ingesting the elements of bread and wine, then God will abide in us (John 6:56-69).
I don’t believe that the body and blood of Jesus are literally present in the elements of bread and wine, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Lord’s Table and its importance to our faith. Some of you may have heard that we have a task force working on a worship grant proposal. The theme we’re working with has to do with the connection of our experience of God at the Lord’s Table with our missional calling. In a recent meeting of the task force we came up with the idea of the Table being a crossroads where worship and mission come together. I see that message present in this prayer.
Solomon not only asks God to hear the prayers of Israel, but also the prayers of the foreigner, the immigrant, the person who isn’t from Israel but who seeks God by praying toward the Temple. Solomon asks God to hear these prayers and act on them so that the peoples of the earth “may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (Vs. 41-43). I like what Ron Allen and Clark Williamson say about this part of the prayer. They write that “it assumes that God is the God of all peoples everywhere. Israel’s faith gave it to understand that Israel and the Gentiles were to be a blessing to each other.” (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 179). This building, this Table, is not dedicated to the comforts of its inhabitants. Rather, it is a place of blessing to all, especially those who live outside the building.
The message of Scripture is that God can’t be contained in buildings, idols, or even the earth itself. God is the God of all peoples, not just our people. And so mission and the Table intersect. For some the Table is a place of spiritual sustenance. For others it is a place of grace. For all it is a place of blessing.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 23, 2015