God’s Dwelling Place

  • September 14, 2021

A sermon for September 12th, 2021 on 1 Kings 8

The people Israel have been through a lot of big changes when we meet them in the first book of Kings. They’ve gone from being a nomadic people journeying in the wilderness, to a nation established in a land. They’ve gone from being a people led by Prophets and Judges, to being a people ruled by a King.

These new circumstances have created new challenges. One of them is this: the tent of meeting that has served as their holy place no longer feels quite right. In fact, Israelites are spending more time in Canaanite temples than they are at their own tent of meeting.  So King Solomon builds a great temple, a magnificent stone building in honor of the Israelite God.  Then he has the ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels transported to the inner sanctuary, underneath the wings of cherubim. And he calls for a celebration.

You might think that the dedication of the temple would be a moment of triumph for Solomon. By building this temple he’s finally succeeded in carrying out the dreams of his father, King David. It’s taken years and enormous resources and by all accounts, it’s very impressive.  Which is as it should be – this is, after all, the place where Solomon has proudly proclaimed, God will dwell forever. 

But when it comes time for the dedication prayer, King Solomon seems to doubt himself. He says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” 

Where is God?  The answer we get depends on what parts of our scripture or tradition we are paying attention to. God is found in special places, like mountaintops and temples.  And God is found in unexpected places, like out in the wilderness. God is fixed high above us in heaven. And God goes before us, as we travel. And, According to Jesus, God is so present in our everyday lives that it’s as if the holy is a small amount of yeast, mixed into the flour of our days.

Where is God?  The easy answer is: everywhere. And yet, many of us experience God and the good the most in particular places. Beautiful places in nature. Community and family gathering places. Churches, cathedrals, and other holy places. Whether we’re in these places only once, or return to them over and over, some places hold special power in our hearts.

What happens when we cannot be in our special places? 

Diana Butler Bass, a leading historian, thinker, and writer in the progressive Protestant church in America, wrote an article back in April. Lots of people had been asking her: what is the church of the future going to be like? Given the pandemic, where are we headed?

She didn’t have any answers. So instead, as a good historian, she turned her attention on where we’ve been, and where we are.  We’ve been through a lot of loss, she said. And most of us are still feeling lost.  We’ve lost our sense of time. We’ve lost our sense of history. We’ve lost our sense of community. And we’ve also lost our sense of physical place.

So many of the places we go, we go through a screen!  How can we be grounded, without the physical places that are special to us, that make us who we are? 

What are the places that you’ve missed during this time?

Spaces and places matter. Including this place: our sanctuary, where many of us are used to coming regularly to open our hearts to God’s presence. It’s been an adventure, worshiping at home, worshiping at Thoreau, worshiping in our garden. But maybe you, like me, long to worship all together here. The fact that we can’t do that safely right now is a profound loss. We’ll be looking for ways to get folks into this space, who wish to be.  We’ll be waiting and planning for the day when we can be here, all together. But this time is forcing us to remember that God is most essentially not a where.  Not even King Solomon, with all his wisdom and resources, with grand designs and brilliant execution, could contain God in one earthly place. God is most essentially not a where, but a with.  Church is most essentially not a where, but a with.  It’s relationships, holy and human, that make a home for our spirits.

Please pray with me. God, we wish sometimes that you were easier to pin down: that we could capture you in a building, or on a plot of land, and make a visit whenever we felt like it. But you cannot be contained. You have chosen this whole creation as your dwelling place, and invite us to abide in you, as you abide in us. Give us courage and patience for this time in which we cannot safely gather in all the places and way we long to gather. Inspire us to recognize your presence right where we are, to recognize all the places where our feet touch as holy ground. In your company, may we find a home for ourselves; through your love, may we create a home for one another. Amen

Read the article by Diana Butler Bass here.