Encounters with God are sending moments

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One of the things that attracted me to The Episcopal Church is the lectionary, the schedule of readings that, over a cycle of years, takes us through the Bible. In particular it was the focus on these texts in the service that seem to anchor and ground everything we do when we come together as a community.

But I can’t help it. I love Bible stories. Maybe it’s because of how I grew up. When I would stay with my grandparents, my grandmother wouldn’t read me Goodnight Moon, but the story of David and Goliath. I had my own illustrated children’s story bible that she kept for me and when asked I would always request those Bible stories. There was so much of my church and faith identity that was formed in that house as my grandmother, in her throaty voice, told me once again . . . about how David cut off the giant’s head. This was not exactly a Disney version of the story.

But it was formative. . . . And central.

I continued to grow up in traditions that stressed precise Bible memorization as a defense against, well, everything from heresy to demon possession, and it was a practice that also led you definitively toward your own salvation. And I was pretty good at it. (I had memorized whole chapters, my favorites were in Paul’s letter to the Romans).

And we would also have sword drills where a verse is called out at random from anywhere (maybe even Habakkuk) and you and your opponent would draw your swords and the first person to turn to the right verse and begin reading would survive that round and continue the competition.

But in the middle of this focus on individual verses, I couldn’t let go of these stories, these many strands of narrative that work together to reveal the story of God-and-us. If all we have is an alphabet soup of verses it is easy to construct a narrative for any purpose. But we often ignore the details that communities of faith have struggled with in their search for God, in their attempt to record that central story of God-and-us.

These stories talk back and forth. If you imagine, as the Jews do, that the Word of God (capital W) is alive, if you see with the Gospel of John, that the Word of God is beyond time and physics and language, you can almost hear those voices talking.

We can not only listen to the characters in the histories, the David’s and the Michal’s and the Disciples and the Paul’s, but the whole lively raucous arc of our history is in dialogue with itself.

I think that was what was pulling at me when I walked through the doors of an Episcopal Church.

And the lectionary embraces that dance. Sometimes it is a harmony of the texts and sometimes it is a tension that highlights these interwoven narratives that hold the stories of our faith.

It is that type of dialogue that is at work in today’s readings, especially in 2 Samuel and Psalm 89. These texts are in deep conversation.

Beginning with the Psalm we see a spiritual coronation. The language is so striking and eternity-focused many assume it goes beyond a covenant with David and the people of Israel to include a description of the Messiah. If we begin just one verse earlier than we did this morning:

“I have set the crown on one who is mighty, / I have exalted one chosen from the people. / I have found my servant David; / with my holy oil I have anointed him; / my hand shall always remain with him; / my arm also shall strengthen him.”

and later: “Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; / I will not lie to David. / His line shall continue for ever, / and his throne endure before me like the sun. / It shall be established for ever like the moon, / an enduring witness in the skies.”

By the end of the passage, David seems to be only the beginning of something that God is doing that will last for ever. David’s own musician is attributed as the author, so this could simply be Kingly embellishment. But in the light of 2 Samuel, it seems that David is the starting point, that God’s relationship continues beyond David’s understanding, that this incredibly regal understanding of God’s rich blessing is available to all, is available to more than we would assume.

In Samuel, we see the aftermath of this coronation moment. David is riding high after bringing the ark to Jerusalem. In establishing the kingdom, he has built his palace and his kingdom. The wars have been fought and settled. There is nothing left to do. This is when David thinks of the temple. It would be something nice for God, who has to sleep in a tent.

I call this moment for David, his Temple crisis, where his understanding of God has shifted to an incorrect understanding of where God lives and moves. I think the church is in another Temple crisis. Where we have impulses to secure, lock down, what we know as Church. But we also have an opportunity to sense God’s movement outside these walls.

And it is not the first time. We’ve been making houses to God or gods from the beginning. In another time, a stack of rocks might mark the boundary of holy land. A cairn, a rock pillar, would be crafted from local stones to represent the house of a deity.

Remember Jacob? And his dream of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth? When he woke up he said “Surely God is here. In this place.” and he took the stone from under his head and heaved it over, stood it on its end, and anointed it with oil. He did not make a home for God, but created a marker of God’s presence in his life and in the world.

As part of his prayer, he asked God to “be with me and keep me in the way I go . . . .” God’s house is a sending place.

But we humans are a little too fond of memorials. Instead of sending places, we make the places that God shows up into a static painting that marks only a single moment. We turn the lively stories into a memorized potluck of truths.

We construct a house to hold God rather than to be a place to go out from.

Even the disciples didn’t always get it. Remember the transfiguration, that moment when heavenly glory descended on the earthly Jesus and Peter said. “stop. this is the moment we can capture, this is it. Let’s put up a tent and just stay here.”

Jesus said “No.”

Encounters with God are sending moments. Houses of God are sending places.

Even places like this, like this house. It is not a house for God, not really. It has always been a house for God’s people. A place where we sojourn and encounter God in each other and gain wisdom and strength to go out again. We come in, like the disciples returning from their paired journeys . . . we arrive sometimes tired, sometimes energized. We come together to hear again the stories of faith that show us who we are, who God is.

In this place (and beyond) we are not separate from each other. We are bound in community to one another. These bonds might be loose or tight, suffocating or liberating, they are strong or weak, but do not be confused or misled. There are bonds that connect you and me and even the person on the other side of that window.

Today, the disciples are returning from their journey into the power of God set loose on the world. Remember? A couple of weeks ago, Jesus sent them out, stripped of the comforts that would insulate them from depending on others. Last week Cynthia gave us that powerful image in her sermon of the three-legged race.

I can’t get that out of my head. And it has everything to do with this place. We come into this place and instead of someplace where we encounter God on our own terms, we enter a community. We find ourselves tied to each other.

And just like with the disciples, our comforts, the things that keep us in our own experience are stripped away. We pray and sometimes sing together. We kneel together to receive communion. We serve one another. And we all go out. This place is not the pinnacle and point of our faith, but rather, it is ground zero. It is the space from which we go.

When we go beyond those doors, into the world in which we are amazingly, still, the people of God, we are still connected, tied to one another. And, equally amazingly, we are tied to the strangers we encounter as co-created of God, co-caretakers of Creation.

But it is this place, and this community, that informs us. When we view this place as the start rather than the end of a week, we realize the relationships that exist out there matter.The matter because because they, like us, are formed in the context of our worship here.

As David had forgotten and the Disciples discovered, God’s love always expands our view. And moves through and beyond us. What will we do with the new territory of community that is mapped out as we discover God beyond the walls? How will our encounter with God’s love expand our view? How will we see this house as the starting point of our life in the world, rather than a memorial of our piety?

Our faith is not a solitary faith in a solitary God, but a relationship with a God who is made of and who is making relationships. This has a certain demand on how we relate with the rest of Creation.

The Rev. Alan B. Cowart
19 July 2015
Year B, Proper 11

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