A house of cedar

The readings for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost include David’s desire to build a house for the Ark of the Covenant; the glorious description of the household God is building on the cornerstone of Christ in the letter to the Ephesians; and Jesus’ short-lived attempt to escape the crowds for a quick retreat with his disciples

Nathan the prophet got a little carried away in his initial endorsement of David’s half-spoken thought to build a temple. The next morning, he was forced to walk it back. That happens sometimes when we try to speak or act on behalf of God without asking first; without praying first … but I do not hear anger in God’s redirection of Nathan, and of David. This does not read to me as a rebuke, but as a reminder of God’s tenderness, God’s faithfulness, God’s generosity.

“Wherever you have gone,” God says, “I have gone with you. Whatever trials you have faced, I have faced beside you. Whatever dangers befell you, I stood before you. What makes you think that in order to keep me by your side, you have to build me a cedar box, store me like cloth in mothballs? No: it is I who would build you a house. It is I who sustains you. I am your Father. I am your Mother. I am your God.”

Do you remember the story from the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve found out that they were naked, and they tried to make clothes out of fig leaves, and to hide themselves from God in the cool of the evening? And God’s own self made for them clothing out of animal hides; which was such a sacrifice from one who had only just called those animals to life. God’s mercy, God’s tenderness, God’s faithfulness to the people whom God has called to be God’s children is almost beyond belief.

“Wherever you have gone,” God says, “I have gone with you. Whatever trials you have faced, I have faced beside you. Whatever dangers befell you, I stood before you. I am your Mother. I am your Father. I am your God.”

At this afternoon’s community meal, we will hand out invitations to next month’s 90th anniversary picnic and celebration. In the next couple of weeks, we are going to be asking you to distribute some door-to-door, if you are willing and able, to let our neighbours know that this house is open to them, that after 90 years in the neighbourhood, we are pretty committed to loving them as ourselves. We are pretty determined to share the love of God that we have encountered, which redeems and sustains and informs our life together. We have good news to share, and we shouldn’t, we can’t keep it to ourselves.

Ninety years ago, a group of people gathered in Euclid and decided to build a church. The bishop said, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” Fortunately, they had all prayed first. And of course, they knew that the church is not a cedar box in which to mothball God, only to be taken out on Sundays and special occasions, or worn as an amulet in case of emergency. This church does not need any walking back. Many of you know better than I the trials we have faced, that God has faced beside us; the dangers that befell, when God stood before us. Wherever we are, God is with us. This church does not need walking back. We do need to pay attention to God’s leading questions and sharp-elbowed nudges and tender whispers of encouragement about where we are called to follow Christ next.

Who is seeking Christ? Who is rushing ahead to find a good word? Who is desperate for good news? Who are the ones like sheep without a shepherd? Who needs healing, restoring, sustaining? Who needs grace, mercy, the love of God, the tenderness of a God who would sew clothes for sinners, and build a house for the over-emboldened king, only to show that God’s love is inexhaustible, and indescribable?

Who are we called to be a church for, a haven for, a crucible for in these days? We are not a cedar box for God, but God has built us into a house where the seeker can find solace in the Sacrament, and the weary can find good news to rest in for a while, and the eager can find work to do to further the reign of God recognized among us.

Of course, there is so much still to do; so many needs to address. Some of it is personal: the need for healing, for forgiveness, for strength, for a respite from sorrow, for solidarity in joy. We need a place to hear God say, “Whatever trials you face, I face beside you. Whatever dangers befall you, I stand before you. I am with you. I am your God.”

Some of the needs are societal. We are still, millennia after David’s era and nearly a century in the city, we are still struggling to place love before the law; to set mercy at a higher value than material, to prefer justice to judgement. Millennia after Hannah and Mary sang the Magnificat, with decades of prayer ringing in our own ears, we still require a revolution of kindness, of hospitality, that keeps families together for the sake of love rather than sacrificing them to our own divisions; a revolution of gentleness, which prefers to lay down weapons of war for the sake of peace on the streets. We need a revolution of dignity, to live without prejudice. We need a revolution of truth, to live and pray and love without deceit.

Those for whom God would build a house: these are our neighbours to love, and to serve, and to live with.

There are agenda items involved: like continuing to increase access to our building and its benefits to all sorts and conditions of people; like opening up our restrooms to all kinds and expressions and abilities and identities of bodies in need of relief. Next month, at our picnic, we will install a bench outside by the bus stop, inviting all who are weary to find rest, to be still for a moment, and know that God, God is with you. God has not left you behind, nor have you outrun mercy.

There are agenda items; and there are life goals, living into that glorious vision of the household of God which is described in the letter to the Ephesians, in which

you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone, [through whom] 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. (Ephesians 2:19-22);

letting the Spirit move among us and between us, in our families, between strangers, among one another.

Some of the needs appear almost eternal. The knowledge of good and evil informs our engagement with the world that God has given us to tend.

Some of the needs are the same ninety years on as ninety years ago, which could be disheartening. Others present in new and interesting ways. If we can’t quite keep up with it all, God tells David that there will be a whole new generation coming up behind him to complete the work he has not yet even begun.

There is freedom in that, not to having to save the whole world, or even ourselves, all at once (which is, after all, God’s prerogative, not ours). It also takes some humility, to accept that we have our limitations, that there is only so much we can do, in ninety years, or ninety more.

Most of all, we need to set God free to be the God that we need, rather than the God in a box that we too often want. That takes prayer, waiting sometimes even in the wilderness, in the desert places, rather than rushing ahead with our own plans, only to have to walk them back. We will find those whom God sends to meet us there, in prayer, in the wilderness, to share God’s healing mercies. Through it all, we remember that we are not kings by right, sovereigns of our own souls, but totally and utterly dependent on the providence of God. We do our own work, knowing that everything we have, everything we do, everything we are comes only from our Creator.

“Wherever you have gone,” God says, “I have gone with you. Whatever trials you have faced, I have faced beside you. Whatever dangers befall you, I will stand before you. What makes you think that in order to keep me by your side, you have to build me a cedar box, store me like cloth in mothballs? No: it is I who would build you a house. It is I who will clothe you with grace, with mercy, with righteousness. I love you. I am your God.”

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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