Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 23, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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Last week was Hannah, this week is Nathan. Pr. Hannah’s family has Biblical proportions!
Nathan isn’t a prophet that we talk about a lot, not as we do Amos or Isaiah. But he’s an important character in the story of David.
Remember that prophets are those people who have a singular focus on God with no regard for social niceties. However, not all prophets are created equal. Nathan is a prophet in the king’s court. He is employed by the king. We might question whether he is able to sustain a singular focus in such an arrangement.
When we first meet Nathan today, King David has just wondered aloud how it is that he himself lives in opulence, but the artifacts of God are still in a tent, as they have been since the Exodus. David decides to build a temple. Nathan encourages David to do so—Go for it! Build a temple! God is with you! That same night, though, through Nathan himself, God says not to build a temple.
Later, when David has become an adulterous villain, it is Nathan who calls David out on his abuses. Nathan keeps David in check when he threatens to reverse himself on promises of royal succession. Nathan also assures David of God’s forgiveness after a genuine period of repentance.
So, the speech of prophets is not always prophetic. But Nathan did do the work of one who upholds the heart of the Ten Commandments: reminding others to honor relationships.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
But the focus of today’s portion isn’t Nathan and his prophetic qualities. It’s this issue of whether or not, and when, David should build a temple for God.
As is common when writing has been translated for as long as scripture, some of the subtleties of are lost in translation. For example, throughout today’s passage Nathan, God, and David are talking using the English word house. The Hebrew word in use is bayit, which also means house. Ok, so no problem.
But the implication of bayit/house in this context is not a suburban split-level.
Here I am, King David says, living in luxury, but the container of the holy is still out in a breezy tent. I will build God a temple. No, says God, no! I have been in a tent all of this time, leave me be. Instead, I will give you, David, a dynasty. And a son of that dynasty, he will build me a temple and your household will endure forever.
IMPERIALISM AND LEGACY
Oh, so that’s what all of the house talk is about: another dynastic promise.
Frankly, by this point in the Bible I am a little tired of scriptural imperialism. It felt good back in the desert when poor old Abraham and Sarah were hosting angels unawares and having babies in their nineties. It felt right that the Hebrew slaves have a chance to see a future for themselves and their children.
But, as I mentioned last week, the war and the gore to get there were epic. And the first few chapters of this second half of Samuel are no different. Cruel death sentences, unflinching acts of horror.
I do not root for these people any more. David does not feel like one for whom I want everlasting honor, the cheat and the liar that he is. The further and further we get away from the humble family of Eden, the less interested in I am in celebrating anyone’s lineage.
And I don’t think God really is, either.
Although the Biblical authors worked hard to make genetic links between major prophets and characters, I don’t think holiness can, in its constitution, have an investment in one group of people over another. I think God’s putting the temple off until the next generation shows an interest in legacy rather than lineage.
BAPTISM AND SOUP
Remember last week’s baptism? As you know, I like to have baptisms during the Children’s Celebration. That’s not merely an issue of efficiency and trying to keep the service at an hour. I do that because I want our children to know from toddlerhood that despite the way our sanctuary is laid out, we are none of us an audience for faith. Faith is active and asks that we come forward.
When I poured the water from the pitcher into the bowl, some of that water splashed on the kids. I explained that the Holy Spirit, which the water represents, can be very messy. Little Annie hollered out, “I got some Holy Spirit on me! I got some Holy Spirit on me!” Knowing Annie, she probably thought a lot about that for the rest of the day, if not the week. I am guessing she had questions for her parents after.
But there is no telling what the long term effect of that moment will be on her. Will she remember it because it becomes part of her family’s narrative? Will she remember the feeling on her skin and the thrill of connection on her own? What will participation in a sacrament mean for this four year old when she is 14, 34, or 64? Only time will tell and maybe none of us will be around to see.
But we are ourselves, right now, benefiting from the faithful acts of strangers from long ago. Christa A. gave me permission to tell this next story.
Many years ago Christa was in a very hard place and couldn’t eat. But there was a kind woman who brought her soup and that soup was palatable. It kept Christa’s body afloat when nothing else would.
Now, decades later, Christa is part of our “caring network.” The network is basically Christa and Kristin S. asking for help when people need meals or other kinds of care in times of crisis. As we remember in prayer each week, one of our families has five members with cancer, across three generations.
That is a crisis. That is a grief that I don’t know how they endure. Maybe it is, in some small way, because Christa herself now drops off soup every few weeks.
Did that original woman know what her gift meant to Christa? Did she know how it would be honored and passed on across the country and a lifetime later? Probably not.
I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but I’m aware of the anxiety about the future in this room and in the world today. November 8 feels will be a watershed moment in our personal and national histories. No matter who wins the American Presidential election, the fissures in relationships and our souls are now deep. In many cases, I suspect, they will reject any bridging or bandaging.
Which is what makes what we do here and what we represent here all the more important.
None of the dynasties of scripture ever really took hold and endured. The successes are built on inhumanity and the failings are clear comeuppances to hubris. These stories survive regardless of errors in translational subtleties because, whether factually true or not, they continue to describe us.
And they describe God, God’s enduring presence, God’s constant effort to reframe our narrow and short-sighted vision. I don’t need a temple! I need your faith to have a future!
God will gladly remain in a tent if David and the rest of us, will just do the work of faith—feeding, sheltering, healing—that will inspire the next generation to also want to be faithful to God. And that work is what will allow us to not only endure this political crisis, but come through it stronger and more hopeful than ever, no matter the outcome.
Temples can be built in a year. The only house God needs and the only house that can remain a constant source of renewal and hope, is one that like the prophet Nathan himself, nurtures the three way covenant between God, us, and all of the rest of humanity.
Regardless of who the President is, the Holy Spirit is always on us, in us, around us. And there is always someone who could use a card or a cup of coffee.
Feel the splash of water than so excited Annie and the other kids on your forearm, pouring down your face. Turn off the TV and Facebook and get out a crockpot to fill with nourishing love.
While our nation worries over dynasties and who will live in the greatest house, our shared secular temple, we will continue to show up, to vote, for a life and legacy of faith, without ever worrying about a tally. Because we have already won.