Tuesday, July 21, 2009

“What Do I Know?”

The title of this post is the title of my sermon from this past Sunday, my second appearance in the pulpit. The scriptures upon which I based the sermon are 2 Samuel 7:1-13 and Ephesians 2:11-22.

In case you missed church on Sunday, or you just want a little light reading to put you to sleep, behold the words I preached below:

The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Nothing reminds me so much of how little I know as when my son N asks me how various things work. I don’t know how gravity works. I just know that it does. I don’t know my PC works, but I do know how to use it to create spreadsheets and look up bus schedules on the Internet among other things. I don’t know what God or heaven or hell looks like, but I know that God is with me at all times. So much I don’t know, even when it seems as if I’m learning new things all the time.

In this interim time between settled pastors, many have stood before you here in this role bringing a message to you that will, if all goes well, strengthen your spiritual life and your bond with God. I know that I, and I’m guessing a few others who’ve been in this position, have thought, “What am I doing??!?? What do I know?!?” And yet, through God’s grace and perhaps through a dose of human foolhardiness, we keep coming together. We keep entering and continuing a conversation about who God calls us to be and what God calls us to do.

I’ve been thinking about all this knowing and not knowing stuff as I read and prayed with this morning’s scripture passages, as I researched and wrote this sermon, and as I continue to read and pray about the violence, hate, and destruction that is in our world, particularly in so many areas in the Middle East. I know a little, but I don’t know a great deal.

In the context of the Middle East, there is much I do not know about what governmental, diplomatic, military, or humanitarian actions hold the greatest chance to build the foundation for a lasting peace. There is much I do not know about the roots of ferocious hate in the Middle East and the unwillingness even to acknowledge the humanity of the people who have become the “despised other.” There is much I do not know about how political leaders and demagogues distort the religious traditions and faiths of the Middle East – and of the United States – in their thirst for power and perverse glory.

But there are a few things that I do know. I know that many of us here this morning seek to be disciples or followers of Jesus, whether we understand him to be the Messiah – the Christ – or to be one of history’s great teachers of wisdom and compassion. And I know that what we have received from our spiritual ancestors, our grandmothers and grandfathers in faith, is that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies. What we have received from those who have gone before us are the stories of Jesus repeatedly reaching across the 1st century equivalent of our national, ethnic, racial, and religious divides, reaching across them with the healing power of the love of God. What we have received is the story that on the night he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus told his disciples to put away their swords, and then he healed the high priest’s slave who had been wounded by one of Jesus’ own disciples. And we have also received the story that, after he had been betrayed, abandoned, ridiculed, and then tortured and left to die, Jesus asked God to forgive his tormentors.

These are some of the things I know that I hold close in my heart as I try to envision peace in the midst of the carnage of war.

I also know that we in this congregation have been blessed with living in a vibrant community filled with diversity. The university brings people together from a wide variety of races, cultures, religions, nationalities, skin colors, and ages, much more so than for many Midwestern communities our size. The relationship between our congregation and people living here in LNJ who we may think are so unlike us is a gift of grace, which God asks us to celebrate and nurture. It is a gift that we and the world need now more than ever. As national and international debate, public and private conversations, frequently and mistakenly equate the actions of governments or other powerful groups with the content and commitments of the people from that region/religion/culture, I urge all of us in this congregation to recognize how much we don’t know about those other regions of the world and the people who inhabit them. I urge us to recognize how much we don’t know about whether our Jewish brothers and sisters believe Israeli actions are consistent with the dictates of Jewish faith and tradition or whether our Muslim brothers and sisters believe Al Qaida’s actions are consistent with the dictates of Muslim faith and tradition. As a Christian, I do not believe that my own country’s actions are always consistent with Christianity so I urge us all not to presume about others. Instead, let us take advantage of this great diversity in our community and get to know people of other cultures and backgrounds with open hearts and minds, to have real discussions and form our opinions of people based on who they are rather than on stereotypes or preconceived notions.

I am mindful this morning of knowing and not knowing for reasons beyond current headlines. I’m also aware of knowing and not knowing because today’s reading from the Second Book of Samuel points us toward the centrality of King David and the Jerusalem temple in Jewish history and identity. The roles of David and the temple in Jewish scripture and self-understanding are complex and fascinating … and are largely outside our experience and understanding as 21st century Christians living in the United States.

In our encounters with David in the Bible, I see a lot of you and me in him. The David in this book is thoroughly human … at times a faithful and humble servant of God and at other times a willful, ego-driven human being. Most often, as in this morning’s reading, he is both, simultaneously. As the Second Book of Samuel describes this time in David’s life, David is faithful in celebrating and giving thanks to God for all his good fortune, his military and political successes. He worships and praises his God, but then he decides it’s his turn to be the giver and God’s turn to be the receiver. David decides that he needs to build God a house, a permanent temple in Jerusalem.

David has his own agenda, but it’s not God’s agenda. Instead of waiting to hear God’s voice, instead of seeking to discern God’s movement in his life and the life of the people of Israel, David wants to forge ahead and build God a house, a house that David may hope will contain and tame God. But God was and remains uncontainable and untamable. David never gets to build that house.

And yet, David’s son Solomon does build that house of God, the Jerusalem temple. It becomes a sacred space, a focus of religious life and worship. Over the subsequent centuries, the temple is destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. At different times, it served as a holy place of truth and community, but the gospel stories also tell us that it became a profane place of exclusion and greed.

As we consider our own sacred spaces, let’s remember that the vulnerability of the Jerusalem temple to misuse and unfaithfulness is our vulnerability, too. Our house and other houses of God can be places of rest, beauty, inspiration, and community, but because of our own limitations and fears, they can also become places of exclusion and separation. They can become places where we lose sight that we are called to love and serve God through loving and serving God’s wider creation.

Here at our church, many church members are putting their money, time, energy, and creativity into maintaining and improving this particular physical house of God, as have so many people through the years. In addition, many have stepped up to fill the many gaps during this interim period between settled pastors. So many, both past and present, generously share their resources and talents in service to the church. This is something to be celebrated and for which we should give thanks. But through scripture, through God’s voice in our own hearts, and through God’s voice that comes from our sisters and brothers in our community and around the world, calling out in pain and in need, we encounter what Jesus’ first disciples encountered. We encounter God’s deep, powerful love for us and for our immediate community, but we also discover that God’s love includes an equally deep and powerful call to serve our sisters and brothers outside this church. The Holy Spirit seeks to bind up our wounds, fill us with hope, and bless us beyond our knowing. But we are given that healing, hope, and blessing, not solely so that we can gather with one another and celebrate those gifts. We are given that healing, hope, and blessing, so that we can share it beyond the literal and figurative walls of this house of God. I’m not saying that we don’t already share those gifts. I’m simply reminding all of us, myself included, that we need always to listen for and then respond to God’s call to share them.

I recently read about a Bill Moyers’ interview with writer Mary Gordon. In that interview, Gordon said that the most dangerous or damaging linguistic move we’ve ever made is to embrace “either/or” as the foundation of our understanding of the world and ourselves. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but I realized that I do often think in “either/or” terms. However, the faithful, loving life does not require that we choose between either caring and nurturing one another within our immediate community or caring and nurturing our sisters and brothers beyond it. The two are not in opposition; they are intimately intertwined. We are called to take what we learn and experience of God here and offer it in places and to people who are outside these walls. And we are called to bring what we learn and experience of God elsewhere and offer it to one another within these walls. “Both/and” not “either/or.” This combined ministry can be a beautiful dance of mutual interdependence. It can be a beautiful tapestry of healing and love.

And now, allow me to return to that opening theme of knowing and not knowing. There is much I do not know about what we will be called to do as a congregation, within and outside the walls of this house of God. Presently, I do not know, just as most of you do not know, anything about the next pastor we will call to this church, whoever that may be once the search process is concluded. Much of our future remains shrouded in mystery, unseen and as yet unknown. But I do know that one of the greatest joys of ministry – for we are all in ministry here – is to be participants in the unfolding of such a mystery. I also know that God calls us together and calls us to support, challenge, and love one another, within this particular house of God and within the whole house of God, within the whole of creation. May we have the courage, patience, and faith to answer God’s call.


Excerpts from “Houses of God” used by permission from
©Rev. Nancy Alma Taylor
First Congregational Church of Sonoma, UCC


Val said...

Gotta come back when I have more time to read deeply! - but wish I could have heard ya, babe... this is awesome.

Jeni Angel said...

Wow. So. . . yea for seminary school!

I am blown away by your writing of these sermons. Your message is so clear. Honestly, I just don't have words for how impressed I am.