“Here and There. Now and Then.”

August 23, 2015

 

I Kings 8

 

What a wonderful day this is and how good that you have come here to share it.

We stand on the edge of a new school year, with all of its possibilities and opportunities and limited parking. With the state legislature’s decision leading to our public schools aligning themselves with the University calendar, everyone from kindergarten children to post-doc adults are poised to begin—people of all ages ready to stretch and grow.

And even those of us who are not a part of this vast educational enterprise that gathers us—students and parents and teachers and administrators and all manner of support staff—even those not a part of all of this know the way that the school year influences all of our lives in this community. It is the beginning of the year for all of us.

And it is good that we begin in this place in this way.

Yes, there are many other ways to spend this time—from sleep to sports, from brunch to books, the options are almost limitless.

But we know that what happens here can give shape to the rest of the week—and if we engage in worship on a regular basis, it will shape the semester, it will shape our lives.

Here and there, now and then, we stop to ask where God is in all of this—in our lives, in our world.

Here and there, now and then, we pause to be still and seek the awareness that we live and move and have our being in the presence of God.

This is one such place, one such time. It is good that you are here. And if you are student joining us for the first time or returning, we’re especially glad that you joined us today.

Here and there.

Now and then.

The words casually suggest when and where we might experience the living God.

Not so much in all places at all times. Such an awareness might be too much for most of us.

And not always in the places or at the times that we might expect or plan.

The stories we tell, the tradition we live out of suggests this as well. The world may be shot through with the grandeur of God, but we can only take so much.

This morning’s scripture lessons—two readings from First Kings—wraps up a summer’s worth of reading through much of First and Second Samuel, concluding last week and today with two prayers of Solomon found in First Kings. It may seem strange, as we stand ready to begin, to be finishing a sermon series. But maybe it is appropriate, since this ending begins with something new.

The Temple that David proposed building, the Temple that his son, Solomon, was able to build, is now complete.

Here and there.

Solomon brings the Ark to the Temple. The Ark, you will remember from Sunday School or the adventures of Indiana Jones, was the vessel that contained the tablets of the Law given to Moses. Sculptures often depict the gods of other nations in the ancient Near East as enthroned upon cherubim—winged creatures who appear to be protecting and worshipping the deity. The people of Israel knew better. And the people of Israel knew that as sacred as the ark was, it was not God. Nor were the contents of the Ark divine. The scripture lesson makes this clear, stating bluntly, “There was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there.” The tablets were important. They were essential.

But they were not God, the One who made the covenant with the people.

It is out of this sense that Solomon addresses God. After many years, he has built a house, a dwelling place, a Temple for God. And yet, even while surrounded with the glory of this place, Solomon knows that God does not dwell here. A temple cannot contain God. The earth cannot contain God. Even heaven itself proves insufficient.

There is something here that is echoed in the great Protestant “Yes” and “No.”

We recognize places as sacred—This sanctuary, for instance, seems to exude a sense that it is a sacred place. Often enough someone will walk into this space and feel something that they don’t always feel in churches—a sense of presence. It has been described as the result of nearly 150 years of prayer in this place. And to many it is a palpable sense. It is felt in the late afternoon when the sunlight streams through the stained glass—a feeling of the “holy”—of something other than usual. Others have told me about looking at the Tiffany window and feeling it taking them beyond this sacred space into the world of natural beauty and creation’s wonder.

And then there is just that—nature’s beauty. The recent Perseid meteor shower, the super moon that will rise at the end of this week, the vastness of the heavens, the ocean, the prairie—all speak of something greater, more eternal than our small finite lives. They tell of a Creator that is beyond all that is, beyond even the heavens, the place to which we would confine God. We speak of our prayers ascending to heaven, but even the highest heaven cannot contain God.

Yes. And no.

We affirm that we ultimately know the God without constrictions, the God without limits in Jesus. All year long, really, we announce that strange Easter message that even death could not contain the crucified Jesus who was God with us. And if death cannot contain God, then we have the hope—the confident hope that God will be with us—here and there—in our joy and sorrow, in all that is a struggle, in all that feels to us like a time of testing or trial, in all our fear about what we might lose in the future or grief over what we have lost in the past. Because God is here and there—and neither here nor there—we can be bold and courageous as we seek justice, we can move forward in loving kindness and showing mercy, because the God who is not contained is the God who is present for us in all the places of our lives.

It is in some way a matter of expectancy—of putting ourselves in those places where God might be encountered: places of prayer, places of action, places where simple human decency might be shown to our neighbors, known and unknown, places that give free reign to the imagination and to the creation of beauty, places of exacting science and open exploration of truth.

Here and there—in the sanctuary, in the world—God is present to us as we seek to make ourselves present before God.

We are not quick to say “This is what God is doing.”

We are not quick to say just how God is speaking in our time.

But at Congregational UCC we maintain an open and receptive spirit.

Here and there.

Now and then.

After the procession, after the sacrifice, after the speeches, Solomon prays. And, as with many prayers, this one does go on.

In the interest of time, I read only part of it this morning.

Again and again, through seven major petitions, Solomon asks that God—who is and is not in the temple—would hear the prayers of the people and would forgive them and maintain them.

Solomon speaks first of what might happen “if the people sin,” but as the prayer continues he turns to saying “when the people sin” adding the rhetorical, “for who does not sin?” It is as if in praying, the realization that all sin becomes clear. And God is asked to forgive—which is part of how the Creator maintains those of us who are created.

We sin—that is we miss the mark in our actions, we fail to do what we should, we are quick to do what we should not. Sin—as I have said often enough, and others have said before me—sin is not the particular act, but the condition of living separated from God, from one another, and even from the best in ourselves. That is our human condition. And from time to time out of that condition we lie or steal or cheat or betray in ways far too numerous to mention. I’m sure, however, that if you take a moment, you can think of a few ways that have been your own choices—see, you just thought of one or two right now, didn’t you?

We hear two quite astonishing things in this prayer.

First, Solomon seeks God’s forgiveness not only for the people of Israel, but also for the foreigners in the land. We are, of course, at one of those times in the life of our nation in which concern about and fear of foreigners is growing. We heard it in the speeches at the State Fair this past week. We hear it in the news.

Through his intercessions, Solomon is clear that this temple for the uncontained God is a place of prayer for all people. Even at the height of Israel’s national power, God’s compassion and forgiveness will not be limited to one people. This is the God of all people.

Solomon’s prays that in this place, in this time, God will forgive. We affirm that God continues to bring a new start to all our dead ends, that God continues to take our failures, our human frailty and make of them far more than we can or would on our own.

And here’s what I find even more astonishing: this prayer concludes with an intercession for the future—for centuries after the time of Solomon, an intercession for a time when the temple has been destroyed and the people carried off into exile.

Yes, it is far more likely that the later compilers and editors of the Books of Kings added this prayer than that Solomon looked into the future. But this is something to marvel at. The scripture that we read is not something that was quickly written and set for all time. It developed slowly over centuries, responding to new situations, new difficulties, presenting new hopes in changing times.

So we hear of Solomon praying for the people now and the people then, for the people of his present time and the people of the future.

And this is our tradition. We seek to be open to the new ways that scripture speaks to us now. And we are still speaking—that is, we come out of a tradition that adds to what was, that interprets and reinterprets scripture for “now”—whenever “now” may be. We are not captive to what was or what is.

We don’t go about rewriting or adding to the Bible. But we recognize that scripture is not complete until we let its story and its hope interact with our lives in our own time. We let the words speak to our despair, our trials, our sin. We are still speak with Solomon the cry to God: “Hear.” “Hear and forgive.”

It is an ancient hope.

It is our modern hope as well.

We find strength and courage for all that we will do in the days ahead in this hope as we encounter God here and there, now and then.