2 Samuel 7:1-16
7Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 3Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Ephesians 2:19b - 22
....members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
(On this particular Sunday we pause in silence to share the sorrows of the people of Aurora.)
The great and fabled King David of ancient Israel had, after years of guerrilla warfare and battles against war like neighbours, finally consolidated his kingdom. The borders were relatively secure. He lived in his fine cedar wood house in the newly established “City of David” – Jerusalem. One of his greatest triumphs had had nothing to do with territory. It had to do with an object.
The object was that magnificent bronze casket known as the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was supposed to contain Aaron’s rod that budded, the tablets of the law, and a piece of manna. As far as the ancient Israelites were concerned that Ark was not merely a symbol of God’s presence - it was God’s very presence itself.
The Ark had fallen into the hands of the old enemy the Philistines, who had found it too hot to handle. The story goes that they became afflicted with tumours because of their illicit possession of the Sacred Ark.
As we enter the story today the Ark is back where it belongs, with the people of Israel, and in the new Royal City. It rested under a tent like structure called the tabernacle (which means dwelling place).
David muses. “I live in a fine cedar house. Surely God deserves something better. I will build a great house for the Ark”.
The wise old prophet Nathan comes to David with a message from God. God says “I never asked for a house, and I don’t want you to build one. That will be a task for your successor. But I will make a house for you”.
There’s a lovely play on words.
Far from David building a house for God, God will establish a house for David.
The house that God will make will be a royal dynasty. Every subsequent King would be able to trace his ancestry back to King David.
[There are important undertones in the story. They reflect the tensions which will play out in the life of Israel, tensions which arise from the question “what institutions will make our nation great and secure?”
Will it be a wise and strong monarchy as exemplified by David?
Will it be the role and authority of the Priests who will minister in and from the Temple which David’s son will build?
Or will it be from those outside the power structures, the prophets such as Nathan who will speak their truth to Kings and Priests without fear, calling each back to fidelity to the Lord God?]
The two great institutions of monarchy and temple failed.
After David came Solomon.
After Solomon the kingdom divided.
The subsequent nation of the northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians; and the southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians, at which time the Temple was destroyed and the Ark was carried off to Babylon, never to be seen again.
The historians would have it that the two Kingdoms were the victims of expansionist empires.
The prophets had it that they failed because they were unfaithful to the faithful God
Perhaps those are two side of the same truth. Nonetheless the two great Institutions failed.
Humans love to create Institutions. They help us to give shape and purpose to our common endeavours.
And the human tendency is to keep those institutions on life support long after they have served their purposes.
We are in an institutional Church
That is made manifest in various ways.
There are the ways in which we call Rectors, have committee meetings, elect Vestry members, have committee meetings, call men and women to ordained ministry, take care of buildings, and hold Diocesan and General Conventions, elect Bishops, have committee meetings etc, etc.
We convince ourselves that it is all terribly important, and maybe it is.
But we are in deadly peril if we believe that our most important task is to uphold the institution of the Church. We must always be reminded that all of our Churchly institutions are our servants and not our masters. And oh so many of them are on life support.
And unless we live in cloud cuckoo land we must be aware that institutional religion is fading in these United States. It is not only the Episcopal Church. All the major protestant denominations are recording lower attendances, including the once invincible Southern Baptists, and also including some of the mega-Churches.
The Roman Catholic Church shows some growth, but most of this is because of immigration. In the former Catholic heartlands of states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, and cities such as Chicago parish after parish has been closed.
* I served four Episcopalian congregations in Massachusetts between 1976 and 2000. One of them has closed, and another is barely hanging on.
* I have been privileged to minister in six Episcopal parishes in south west Florida. One thing is clear to me. We are an aging Church.
We will be faced by a demographic time bomb, since the next generations of retirees, the baby boomers and the one which followed are not natural church goers.
Many of our congregations will fold – perhaps even this one.
That will not be a bad thing if we believe that our primary task is to keep the institutional Church chugging along as a society for the preservation of polite religion.
But I dare to believe that our myriad institutions will have to die so that there can be new life, and fresh expressions of faith.
It happened in the history of Israel. For you see, after the failures of their institutions, the twin monarchies and the Temple, (with a minor blip when a puppet monarchy was established under Rome and the Temple was rebuilt, only to be destroyed yet again by those same Romans) the people of Israel lived into a new vision of what it meant to be God’s Holy people. This new way of thinking, believing and acting led to the emergence of what we call Rabbinic Judaism, a lively and vital faith.
( Editorial note: here for times’ sake I related a very potted history).
The death of our own institutions could be a marvellous opportunity to re-think and re-live what it means to be Christians, to be the people of God.
When we begin to think of Church as the people of God, then we will begin to understand that the primary reason for our existence is to give shape and witness to our relationships with the head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Church is not a building or an institution. It is not a forum for power plays or turf wars. It is not an open space for whining and complaining.
Church is learning to be a disciple of Jesus, and with him having and a commitment to the others welfare before our own. It is the community where the stranger is made welcome without question, for that stranger may be Christ.
It is a body for trust, for forgiveness, for encouragement. It is a body where we delight in the success of others, and weep with the sorrows of all. It is a body where we learn to love the poor, to pray for our enemies, to bless those who are mean or cruel to us.
It is a body where we acknowledge that we are sinners, and then, in repentance seek the mercy and forgiveness of God - which we do not deserve.
Above all, a fresh expression of faith will be to discover the dwelling place of God, not in an Ark nor in a Temple, but as the writer to the Ephesians puts it: (to be a part of the Church is to be) “members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God”.
N.B. I edited this sermon for style (but not for substance) following its preaching this morning jmp)