Year B Proper 16: Will God Indeed Dwell on Earth?
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84 or 84:1-6; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Last week we encountered Solomon at the beginning of his reign—embracing his littleness before God and his not-knowing how to go out or come in. We talked about how this littleness and not-knowing was not a source of shame, something to be covered up with a show of braggadocio and strength, but a sign for us of the openness, receptivity, and poverty of spirit that shows us what it means to walk the path to love. Like Solomon and the people of Israel, we are called to be a listening people, a people whose ears are tuned to something other than the same-old stories we tell ourselves about self, other, and God, that that new song, which we hear most clearly sung in the person of Jesus, might be the music that dances us out into the world as oil to heal, bread to feed, and water to wash.
This week, we jump to a later installment in the1 Kings epic—the placing of the Ark of the Covenant in the temple. Solomon asks, with awe-struck wonder, hope, and joy, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” On this occasion of Davison’s baptism, on a day when we as a community renew our baptismal covenant, that’s a powerful question. “Will God indeed dwell on earth?” One of the ways to translate God’s pronouncement of the great “I AM THAT I AM” to Moses on Mount Sinai is as, “I will be what I will be.” God is what God is, that’s not going to change, but whether God will dwell on earth is, in a certain way, up for grabs. The covenant with Israel is a two-way dialogue—the call to walk in love, and the response (not only with their lips but with their lives) to live out the consequences of that call to be a people of justice, mercy, and loving-kindness in the messy hurly-burly of daily life. Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation is the icon of this consent to the presence and action of God for Christians. She turns away from her book, from her spool and her weaving, to the sacred interruption, to the irruption of the sacred, that appears in the form of the Angel Gabriel. Her consent, her yes, is the icon of discipleship—to co-operate with God’s prevenient grace in the bringing to full flowering the life of Christ in our lives.
“Will God indeed dwell on earth?” is question that sums up what it means to be baptized. When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are saying that the primary focus of our lives will be to become an open place in which God can happen, an instance of God living God’s life in and through us. Like the smoke that fills temple when the ark is placed inside, our lives are to be permeated, soaked-through, saturated with God’s love. We renounce all that gets in the way of love, which means not that we aren’t going to have obstacles to grace in our life, but that we consent to God’s presence and action in our lives that He, in His own time, might chip way at everything that obscures God’s image in us as we journey in Him and through Him into the land of likeness, Christ-likeness. We give ourselves away in the same manner that St. Francis was often heard praying through the night, “Deus Meus et Omnia,” “My God, My All.” We open ourselves, and receive the freely given gift of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit that has been poured into our hearts.
When we practice walking the way of love, when we make God the center and consent to His presence and action in our lives, there’s the possibility for God indeed to dwell on earth. And our Baptismal Covenant gives us some pretty clear guidelines for what that will look like. It looks like being people of prayer who receive the body and blood of Christ that we might be the body and blood broken open and poured out for the whole world. It looks like turning to God when we fall down and grasping His outstretched hand, like proclaiming by word and deed what it means to be beloved, like seeking and serving Christ in all people, like caring for God’s good creation, like striving for justice and peace, and respecting all people as beautifully made in God’s image.
Sometimes, we get the mistaken impression that being baptized makes us members of a privileged elite, a group of insiders who are in the know and set over against those dirty, benighted, outsiders. Baptism isn’t, however, a badge of honor that separates us, but a pledge to go where Jesus goes—to the margins, to the disenfranchised, to the hopeless, the homeless, and hurting. If anything baptism, far from being a rather staid and antiseptic affair with white gowns and lacy bonnets that never stay on the baby’s head, is a messy business. As Rowan Williams writes, “You can’t be baptized into the River Jordan without kicking up a whole lot of mud!”
Baptism sets before us the fact that our truest identity as the Church is to continually journey away from ourselves, beyond the walls of the Church as participants in Jesus’ mission to the margins that one day God’s dream for the world—a margin-less community of loving fellowship with one another and with God—might be realized. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” exclaims Solomon. Baptism is a reminder that so often the Church has tried to contain God, to tell God how He is, to privilege the rigid enforcement of human-made correctness, over connection and relationship with the living God who refuses to play by our human-all-too-human rules. I love that little detail in the opening of our passage from 1 Kings where it says, “…a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud.” The actual presence of God—truly God is in this place—is too much for the priests. A cautionary detail for whole Church if there ever was one!
The Church is most the Church when it is journeying beyond itself, listening to the voices of those who have been silenced, attending to those rendering invisible. The Church is most the Church when it acknowledges that we have protected and armored ourselves in the name of Christ against the Christ stranger, against Christ the widow, against Christ the orphan, against Christ the foreigner. The Church is most the Church when it lives from its identity not as a fortress with God under lock and key, but as always on the way, journeying into love, and displaying the same kind of indiscriminate welcome and radical hospitality we see enacted in the life of Jesus.
Solomon, too, give us a taste of what it might be like to be a house for all people when he prays, “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name.” Solomon knows that God is not a private possession, that God cannot be contained, that God doesn’t just belong to him and his tribe of insiders. Solomon’s temple encompasses the whole earth—with every tribe, nation, and family invited to the banquet.
We Protestants are sometimes so scandalized by Jesus’ words “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” that we miss what comes next—"abide in me.” Jesus is issuing an invitation to dwell with Him, to root ourselves in Him, to be consumed by Him that we might finally come home and live without fear. The disciples—homeless, wandering, at the mercy of the authorities and hostile crowds—yearn for home, for safety, and security. And Jesus offers it to them. They are at the doorstep of Divine Welcome, and yet we hear that many of the disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. They see that the abiding that Jesus offers requires giving up control, predictability, and order. They prefer their version of how things should be, what following Jesus should entail, to the lived reality of following after Jesus, the Jesus who listens to those we’d rather ignore, touches those we habitually recoil from, who eats with all the wrong people, and doesn’t stay on script.
We too find abiding in Jesus a teaching that’s difficult to accept. Baptism is rightly seen as a rather scary business and that’s why we renew our baptismal vows regularly (it was Martin Luther who is reputed to have looked himself in the mirror each morning and said, “Martin! Remember you are baptized!”). The counter-intuitive thing about this giving up of control and predictability, however, is that it is in that letting go, the surrender to things as they are, the giving ourselves over to “My God, My All” we taste the true freedom to which Jesus invites each us. Our sham versions of security always fail to deliver, but the seductive attraction remains.
It’s our task to simply keep opening, keep listening, keep journeying through the land of likeness, being gentle with ourselves when our resistances come up, and keep tripping along the path of love after the one we call love. “Will God indeed dwell on earth?” May your life and the life of this community, be a whole-hearted yes in answer to that question.