“Building Permit”

July 19, 2015


II Samuel 7:1-17

James 4:13-17


“If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”

I’ve heard that bit of proverbial wisdom often enough to think that it contains some truth.

And sometimes I think that Iowa City is the proving ground for this—it’s the place where plans go to be changed. The walls of the Hamburg Inn are filled with photos of any number of people who came here to tell of the great plans they had for this nation—if only enough people would go along with them—plans that for so many were never given a chance.

And just on a side note here—Donald Trump’s comments here in Iowa yesterday might have gone a long way in obstructing his plans. You know that as we read through First and Second Samuel we’re thinking a lot about religion and politics—and Mr. Trump has given us lots to consider. So I’ll most likely have some further thoughts on this in a couple of weeks.

On a more positive note, several times in my eight years here I’ve talked with people—members of this congregation and non-members alike—who say that they came here planning to stay a couple of years—often because they or their spouse were working on a degree or because they found some entry-level job. After that it would be time to move on, since Iowa City was the last place they were going to live for any length of time. Now ten, twenty, or fifty years later they’re still here; happily, it is the last place they are going to live.

Plans change.

And God laughs.

You know what it’s like, don’t you.

Even with all the preparation, the situation changes once you’re in it.

Unexpected obstacles show up.

New possibilities present themselves.

Please don’t get me wrong. I think that planning and preparation are important. They provide a good and necessary foundation for whatever we do. Planning is important for the lives of individuals and the lives of families. Planning is important for careers and congregations.

It’s just that, well, God has a way of finding things to laugh about.

In our walk through First and Second Samuel we’ve come to the point at which David is really starting to look like the king he is known for being. Having brought the Ark of God to the capital city of Jerusalem, he has consolidated religious and political power in one place. Peace has come to the land. David lives in a wonderful house.

Seeing all of this, David develops a plan. He will build a house—a temple—for God. While his plan seems audacious—the creature building a house for the Creator, the king building a dwelling place for the sovereign God—while his plan seems audacious, it certainly fits with all that David has done, coming to power through bold action that grew out of the confidence that God was with him.

In a way, there’s nothing exceptional here. Other ancient Near Eastern kings did the same thing, building great temples as a way to legitimize their rule and ensure the favor of their gods.

David tells his plans to Nathan, the prophet. Now, as events will show, Nathan doesn’t always approve of David’s actions, but this time Nathan gives David a building permit: “Go, do all you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”

The author of the Letter of James knows how plans can change. We hear this advice: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’”

James warns against the arrogant thinking that sees life as in our hands—the strange idea that tomorrow’s activities can be secured without reference to God.

Such a way of thinking suggests a view of the world as a closed system of limited resources.

Life is fragile—we know that. How does the hymn put it? “Time, like an everflowing stream, soon bears us all away. We fly, forgotten as a dream does at the opening day.” Accidents happen, illness runs its course, bodies fail. The fragility of life was a common theme in ancient literature. And even now—for all of our progress, all of our focus on security, and all of our planning—even now the fragility and uncertainty of life continues to be a part of our daily reality.

An awareness of this fragility can lead to fear and to envy—the outlook that having is the same as being, the mistaken idea that “selling and getting a profit” is a way of securing the future. We know that securities are not always secure. And yet, an awareness of the fragility of life can also lead to a deepening sense of grace—God’s care for creation, and for us, in our prosperity and through many dangers, toils and snares.

When James suggests that we bracket all of our plans with “If the Lord wills it” he is not advocating an exercise of empty pietism—hedging all of our hopes for the good with devout sounding “…God willing.”

What James recommends is a way of speaking that grows out of a profoundly different understanding of reality than we usually have.

The world is not a closed system of limited resources. Out of our faith and friendship with God we begin to understand the world as an open system “created by God at every moment and infinitely rich in resources provided by God for humans to exist and prosper in cooperation.”

As we open our lives to this God, we discover the abundance of life given to each of us that we might use it, share it, and expand it for ever increasing numbers of people and all creation.

But let’s get back to David for a few minutes.

As it turns out, God has plans that are different from David’s. God will build the house, not David. And the house will be a dynasty—not a temple, not a home.

Instead of a house, a promise.

Instead of a conditional covenant, the unconditional, steadfast love of God.

Instead of a human work, the grace of God.

Even later, when the kingdom of David has fallen, when the people of Israel have been taken into captivity in Babylon, they will hear the assurance that the promise remains: God is not finished; God’s promise will endure.

And we Christians hear in this the promise of the Christ who comes to bring God’s presence close to all the circumstances of our lives—planned and unplanned.

Our plans meet with God’s compassion as we move into the future.

Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is truly beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”[i]

“Faith, hope, and love” describes the way of God’s people—working together over time in one continuous story. The current chapter—and even the last chapter of that story—are not separated from all that has gone before.

A couple of examples:

This morning we welcomed Miriam into the church through baptism. In doing so, we gave expression of “the hope and happiness that come into our lives by the presence of a child.” We also showed what has become that particular United Church of Christ virtue of hospitality, of welcome. We don’t know Miriam yet—and we don’t know her parents as well as we hope that we will over the coming years. So rather than depending on what we know, we trust in God’s love and God’s grace—as, really, we do in all of life.

We are reminded today that in baptism we are brought into a loving community far wider and older than our own family—indeed, far wider and older than this congregation as well. We are not alone. We have one another. We have, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the “communion of the saints” to sustain us in weakness, to support us in despair, to bear our burdens as we run our race.

By faith we baptize in the hope that an infant—or a teenager or an adult—might in time grow, not just in her or his own faith, but in the faith of the church, that is, in a community of belief and action that moves toward love and justice in the world. So this morning, Miriam finds herself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—as everyone baptized in this place has been. We have taken on a unique responsibility for her—not just on our part but on behalf of the entire Christian church as God’s plans for her unfold throughout her life.

In a similar—although more mundane—way this morning, we are meeting after worship to consider moving ahead with upgrading—renovating, remodeling, whatever you want to call it—our kitchen.

Many have been waiting for this for some time. There’s been a lot of planning. We listened to those who said we shouldn’t move forward with this until we know how we want to use the kitchen. And I think we have a pretty good sense of that: making it a place that supports our hospitality and welcome for this congregation, for our visitors, and for the wider community.

But as we seek a “building permit” from our congregation, I’m especially excited about the unknown ways in which our kitchen, our building, and indeed our congregation will be used by the living God in the years ahead. We can come up with the money and oversee the work, but it is God who will make even our kitchen a place of welcome.

We have our plans.

And God always enjoys a good laugh.

Through all of this, the hope that saves us is the hope that our work for the good will be taken up by others who can see the flaws, who can see the good better than we can and who will, with the forgiveness of another age continue toward the goal.

We are faithful people, not in isolation but in community. By the grace and mercy of the living God, that community extends not only in space but also through time. We are united in faith and struggle with those who came before us just as we are untied with those who come after us.

And that work, of course is unfinished.

It is our work in this time and this place. We will work for justice: seeking to make sure that the hungry are fed and the homeless are sheltered and deep wounds of racism and sexism and homophobia are healed for the sake of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. We will work to be a place of welcome and solace.

This is what we are actually building in this place, in these days. And if we are successful in sharing our faith, that is, in making clear that we worship and serve a living God, by the grace of that God our children and their children will continue running the race set before them and us, knowing that they, too, are held in the unfailing love and grace of God.

[i] Rienhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History.