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Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, "God in a Box"

(Sermon 7/19/09, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a)

God in a Box

I told you last week that in the midst of this transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to say, “welcome.” Another thing that has been on my mind these days is the idea of “home.” Since I left for Ohio Wesleyan University a dozen years ago to begin college, I haven’t really had a lot of input over the place I called home. I lived in dorms through college, where I had a choice of roommates and a preference form for which dorm, but there were many limitations on where I lived. I lived in campus housing all through seminary. And in my first two pastoral appointments, I lived in parsonages. Lovely parsonages, for sure, but they were homes that were chosen for me, not by me. And of course, before I left for college, I was always living in my family home. When I was appointed here, and realized I would be receiving a housing allowance that would allow me to choose where to live for the first time in my life, I was excited and anxious and overwhelmed all at once. I found it hard to wade through all the possibilities and figure out exactly what I wanted, but exciting to choose a neighborhood and location, a kind of place to live, to visit apartments and make the ultimate decision for myself. It’s so nice to find a place to call home, and to settle in, unpack, and have a place really start to feel like it is home where you belong.

And yet, this week as my brother Tim packed up his car and drove to Portland, Oregon, I’ve also been thinking about people who live life in transition all the time, never really settling, always on the go. Tim drove to Portland with not much of a plan, I’ll admit, other than staying with some friends and looking for a job. My brother Todd, who is an actor, once had a six month job that toured from city to city, and required Todd to pack a bag and live out of hotels. He was very happy when that particular job was over, but he just has a career of short-term situations ahead of him as a stage actor, where it is unusual to have a show last more than sixth months to a year. He has a home base, but more often than not, he’s on the road. I’m not sure I could do it. I like to travel, but I like to be home – in my own space, and in my own community, and near my family, which is one of main things that drove me to leave New Jersey and come back to Central New York. I wanted to be home.

I’ve been thinking about these things – being at home, and being on the road – as I read the scripture lessons for this week. Last Sunday, we read about one of Jesus’ brief stops at home. But more often than not, Jesus was always travelling, always in motion, always going somewhere. He even commented once about the “Son of Man [having] no place to lay his head.” Jesus never really stayed in one place. He certainly didn’t seem to have a house of his own – just parents and siblings he visited from time to time. In our text today, Jesus is simply seeking a quiet place to rest with his disciples for a few hours, because so many people were moving in and out of Jesus’ sphere that he and the disciples had no time even to eat. But as they cross the lake for some peace and quiet, the crowds follow them and are waiting when Jesus steps off the boat. Now most of us, looking for a bit of rest, would see the crowds and be bowed down with fatigue. But Jesus looks at them and has compassion for them. This phrase, Jesus looking at the crowds with compassion, is repeated in the gospels, and it means that Jesus’ insides are literally turned over with feeling for the people – it’s a gut thing, he’s moved to the core when he sees their need. He sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd, and so he begins to teach them. Afterwards, they again cross the water in the boat, and again, people recognize him, meet him, and ask for healing. “Wherever he went,” we read, people seek healing from Jesus, and all who touched him found themselves made whole. But for Jesus himself, there is little time for rest and relaxation. No comforts of home. Jesus in ministry means Jesus always on the move.

Our lesson from 2 Samuel also deals with being at home verses being on the move, but this time, we’re talking about whether God is at home or on the move. Our passage opens with a newly-installed King David in Jerusalem speaking with his spiritual guide, the prophet Nathan. David is living in the palace in Jerusalem, and comments, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” The ark carried the Ten Commandments, and symbolized God dwelling in the midst of the Israelites. David wonders if it looks good for him to be living in a cushy royal estate while God, essentially, lives in a tent. Nathan encourages him to pursue building a home for God – a temple. But then God speaks to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell my servant David: 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 . . . Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel . . . saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” In other words, God wants to know why David suddenly thinks God needs a house. God isn’t asking for a house. That’s all David’s idea. God continues speaking through Nathan, turning the tables: “I have been with you wherever you went . . . I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” We don’t need to build a place for God – we need to have God build a place for us – plant us.

I really resonated with King David’s desire to build a house for God. I think his intentions were good – he didn’t want to have for himself what he didn’t offer to God first – but how quickly David’s plan would – and did go wrong. David never built a temple for God, but his son Solomon did, and it seems like even with the best intentions, we are forever trying to build walls around God. In the scripture text, we may be talking about literal walls, but I don’t think our struggle is so much with our church buildings today. While we tend to love and take pride in our church buildings, with all the love and sweat and labor that usually goes into them from the congregation, we generally agree, don’t we, that we haven’t built a place that God has to stay inside of. While we feel God’s presence here, we feel it because God is always everywhere, and because we quiet ourselves enough while we are here to actually take notice of God who is always present. But I’m thinking about the metaphorical walls we are always putting up around God, while we kid ourselves into thinking we’re just creating a nice place for God to stay.

See, I think, despite our best intentions, we tend to try to put God in a box in our lives, while convincing ourselves that we’re just making a nice home for God. It’s been a struggle for me, I can tell you. I’ve always been a person of faith – I never went through a time where I was truly questioning God and my Christian worldview. While my other friends in high-school and college were exploring whether their parents’ faith was truly their own faith, I was already preparing to go into the ministry. And I’ve always been a person who’s liked having the answers. I like knowing the right answers to questions. So imagine my surprise when, in my first year of seminary at Drew, if found myself having a real struggle. See, I’d gotten in a place where I felt like I knew the answers about God. I was going to be a pastor, after all! I could tell you who God was, about how God worked, what God wanted us to be doing. And then all of a sudden, I was confronted, in a theology class, with a whole lot of questions I couldn’t answer. And I was overwhelmed with the realization that I just wouldn’t be able to have all those answers. That I couldn’t pin down God like I wanted, and be sure that I just knew everything about God. Maybe it sounds a bit presumptuous of me anyway, but I have to tell you, to be able to tell myself that God is Mystery and that there are some things I just can’t know – it took a long time for me to get to that place in my spirituality. That’s the box I was trying to put God into. What’s your box for God look like?

Some of us put God in a box because there are areas of our lives where we don’t want God to interfere. We want to be disciples, sort-of, to follow Jesus, but we don’t want to have to change certain things about the way we’re living. We like what our job is, our how our family is, or the lifestyle we have, or the place we live, or the things we own, or the way we spend our time and our money just how it is. We don’t want God to get too involved in certain aspects of our lives and tell us we need to change. And so we tell ourselves that we’re just settling God into a lovely corner of our hearts. But really, we’re just sweet-talking God right into a box. But I warn you, God won’t be held there. Some of us build walls around God when we build walls between ourselves and other people. When we decide that we know who God loves and doesn’t love, or who God accepts and doesn’t accept, or how God judges and measures a person other than our selves, we’re really just trying to box God in, and decide for God how God can be in relationship with other people. It is we, God’s children, who seem to struggle with getting along, with putting up walls between us and our neighbors based on race, sex, nationality, religion, lifestyle – whatever we can think of, really! But God, creator of each one of us, doesn’t have such a hard time with unconditional love as we do.

And sometimes, we find ourselves attempting to box God in when we’re talking about our congregation. One of the biggest struggles churches have is when the pastor and members lose sight of the main thing, and that always results in putting walls around God. When we talk about finances, the main thing, of course, is providing resources to make disciples. When we talk about worship, how we do it and who does it, the main thing is praising God. Whenever we find ourselves struggling with decisions and direction at the church – which we will, of course, as a part of working together as the body of Christ – as long as we remember what we’re about, and who is in charge (that’s God, by the way), we’ll do well. But if we realize we haven’t left a place for God at the table in discussions, or we’re thinking more about which of us gets to make a decision rather than listening for God’s voice, then we’ll get ourselves into trouble, because God won’t stay in a box, and we cannot thrive when we try to put God there.

At the heart of it, we must remember that it is we who are created in God’s image, not God who we create in our own image. And so, as God declared to David, it is God who will be building us a house, planting us, right in the heart of God – if we’re willing to have God lead us. When we’re not, if we can’t led God be God, the results will be as chaotic as children’s time, which may be fun for a while, but will never bring us the abundant life Jesus promises us. But if we just led God be God, while we are God’s precious children – we can’t even imagine the places that God will lead us. No walls, no boxes.



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