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1 Kings 8:1-11 (New Revised Standard translation)
Ephesians 6:10-18 (New Revised Standard translation)
When I did my preparation for today, I must admit that I thought about the last few weeks and I wondered how you all might be processing what I am putting out. I’m a little worried about what message you are hearing when we have a set of services in July changing location and style followed by a worship service merging ourselves with two other churches and then you come today to see the front of the bulletin – a picture of a church with a “For Sale” sign in front of it. So, let me set your minds at ease. That picture isn’t ourchurch. And just because we’re thinking about what we do, how we worship and what our sanctuary looks like…just because we reach out to some other congregations of similar peculiarity in these parts, with similar numbers on a Sunday morning, doesn’t mean that I thinkanythingis going to happen to our church. But I do think that something is happening to THE Church, and we’d best pay attention to that.
At the beginning of chapter 6 of 1 Kings, the story of Israel after King David, Solomon tries to move forward by reinvesting in the things of the past. He calls the priests and has them bring forth rivers of oil for anointing, they set out the Ark of the Covenant in full and proud display, on giant poles to elevate it higher than ever, as if it were a military parade down main street, and they sacrifice so many sheep and oxen that they could not be numbered. It’s a double-down approach we are familiar with – create the future by evoking the past…even if the past is not necessarily worthy of evoking.
And yet, what Solomon finds is that when they do all this, the opposite of what they expect happens. They fill the temple with all the accouterments of power and wealth and a cloud fills the place – a symbol of God’s glory – and, the text says, they can’t minister because of it. If the church chases after the same things that the world does, the text seems to tell us, it will miss the glory of God. Could it be that the “good ol’ days” are not the target, but the warning? Maybe what we should be focusing on is whowe are, not howwe are.
Let me suggest to you that in the wake of Christianity being modeled in giant buildings with competitions for the biggest cross on the outside, televangelists stealing money from the sick and the old and the repeated horror of a priesthood preying upon children in demonic fashion that people are tired of the “good ol’ days”, me included. What seems to pass today as a faithful expression of the Way of Jesus is the cruel treatment of people deemed “sinners” by a narrow reading of scripture, parents condemning and denying their own children because they have been taught a conditional love that bears no resemblance to Christ and a mean-spirited, judgmental wrath supposedly representing the one who taught us to look at the plank in our own eye before focusing on the splinter in our neighbor’s. More innocuously, I have seen churches split over the color of the carpet and division occur because we can’t remember that if we don’t like something in worship we ought to treat that with some humility because we’re not the ones being worshipped. I have borne witness to churches that fed the hungry and tended to the sick until they moved into a new building, and then the sermons shifted to the completely cultural philosophy of Jesus helping you be a better spouse, or how the way of Christ helps you to run your 401K.
So, please excuse me if I don’t want to bring back the “good ol’ days” but instead long to reach for something else, to help create the kin-dom which I see glimpses of, but which falls victim to old bigotry, hatred, fear and dogma. Please understand me when I say that given the Christianity I have seen, I’m ready for the post-Christian era. I’m ready to move into the Way of Jesus, not the way of the church under the guise of Jesus.
Of course the trick is that I don’t know how to do this. I’m not yet sure how to separate the Way of Jesus from the way of the church, as I’ve learned to treat them as the same things. I that’s where I think that Paul’s suggestions help me. Paul, using the analogy of war, suggests that it’s not enough to just wish something was different. It’s not even enough to be angry about things – we have to be prepared for the struggle, not a fight against one another, but instead against the spiritual forces that pull us in different directions. As followers of Christ in our context, we must resist the pull of an “American ethos” every bit as much as Paul tried to warn his churches against the “adversary” of his time that tried to pull them away from responding to the world with love, kindness and compassion while seeking justice.
When I think about how much I need to stay focused on truth these days, or how I need to hold onto a sense of morality, what the Bible calls “righteousness,” or the need to walk in peace as if it were the shoes on my feet, then I understand this metaphor of armor, wearing something that is heavy enough for me to know it’s there, reminding me to embody those values, even shielding me from temptation to set them aside for things that seem easier or quicker. The armor, you see, is really meant for us, as defense, not for use against the world, as offense. We are meant to feel it’s weight, to understand that peace is a responsibility, truth and righteousness a discipline, for as soon as we think that we possess them, that we are the proprietors of truth or morality, we are something else indeed.
The armor is meant to keep us shielded from the temptation to think that there is one right way, or, more specifically, to think that God can only do certain things in certain ways and we know exactly how She works. Our shield, in Paul’s analogy, is faith. That ought to tell us something, for faith, the most uncertain and intangible of things on this list, seems an unlikely shield if you are thinking this is conventional armor. Faith – or trust if you’d rather – allows us to move forward, to understand that our sacraments, our traditions, our “good ol’ days” are not where God resides. Rather God lives on the far horizon, in the places we aren’t yet – beckoning us to grow and change and expand our hearts…to feel the weight of this armor giving us confidence to step into whatever fear we might have about what’s ahead. After all, no one puts on armor to watch TV on the couch…we armor ourselves for the challenge, for the bold and brave steps ahead.
It has been a long week and a short one at the same time. Several among us have had to face tough decisions and deal with hard consequences, and our city and nation continue to wrestle with the most basic questions – who are we and what will we become? We gather here, in the wake of newness and of a unity expressed in worshipping together – a new kind of together that we haven’t experienced before. We gather as people who have been here for a long time and people who have just been to a few services at Fellowship. We gather wishing safe travels for those who are not here and with our grief at the loss of one of our own this week. Soon we will sit down over some pizza in our fellowship hall and talk about planning for our death, which seems to make as much sense as talking about wearing armor to wage a war for peace. But it’s the important work of planning and imagining – we need both.
These moments are all pieces, my friends, not items on a carefully engineered set of instructions, but individual pieces of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle – a Hubble photo of the Milky Way, the most challenging one you can imagine. All we do here is put another piece in place. We might not even be sure it’s in the right spot yet, because we constantly have to see what relationship it has to the other stars on the other pieces, perpetually feeling our way towards a complete picture. That is how we do church. Our puzzle is far from complete We may have a whole corner in place, which can be pretty satisfying, but we have so many more pieces left to place, so much more of the picture to assemble. And if you’ve ever worked a big puzzle you know this feeling – sometimes you have to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective, because you can’t assemble all 10,000 pieces by doing the same thing over and over, just as we can’t reach for a new horizon with the tools of the “good ol’ days.”
The kin-dom awaits. So dress the part and let’s step forward together, setting our sights on whatever God has in store for us beyond what has been called “Christianity” thus far, knowing that the Holy awaits us there, with open arms to be present for that moment that seems so far off now when we snap that last piece into place and the picture is complete.