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Building a dwelling place for God…

February 20, 2011

Epiphany 7A
Scripture text:  1 Corinthians 3:10-17; Matt 5:38-48

They met as students at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and love bloomed amid the mist and timeless splendor of a historic city of worn cobblestones, wind-swept beaches, and the Old Course, golf’s ancestral home.

They dated for several years, broke up, got back together, and finally issued a long-awaited engagement announcement.  The April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in London will be an international event. It is a modern royal love story.

One young woman’s Facebook status this week was:  I am ready for love. I am ready.

Our gospel text has to do with the life of love.  It is a difficult text because it moves from the idea of love to the cost of active love.  Before we look at the text itself and why it is a difficult text, it is important to step back and examine how Jesus is reading scripture.

Jesus is speaking in the context of the narrative tradition of Israel.  You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.  This happens repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount.  In today’s text Jesus is radicalizing the ethic of loving our neighbors found in Leviticus 19.  Here is the point.  Jesus is reading the levitical law and then speaking as if he has the authority to interpret the law in a new way.

The words of Jesus take precedent over the older tradition.  This has implications for the way we read and interpret scripture.  Some modern Christians make a big deal about having the Ten Commandments displayed in public venues.  Not too much push to get the Sermon on the Mount posted.

How did we come to this way of reading scripture?  You remember that Nate and I have been studying Church history.  When you study church history you learn that a significant shift takes place, when Constantine makes it legal to be a Christian (312).  This impacts the way the church read the words of Jesus.

Before Constantine, Justin Martyr will say:  “We who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of [their different] customs, now after the manifestation of Christ live together and pray for our enemies.” (150-155)

After Constantine, Christians begin to read scripture through a different lens.  The church begins to read the scriptures in a way that will make sense for the empire.  Ethics becomes separated from salvation.  The teachings of Jesus become reserved for a select few.  The teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount certainly cannot be applied by those who hold civil authority.  The church begins to offer a theology (Augustine) that reads the teachings of Jesus through the presuppositions and interests of power.

What would happen if we read scripture as if Jesus were the ultimate authority?  What if we would not separate ethics from salvation?  What would happen if we would say that the ethical teachings and actions of Jesus are just as important as his death on the cross and resurrection?

It would mean that we would have to face a host of practical questions like:  “Who is my neighbor?” and “Who is my enemy?”  We would see that to take Jesus seriously is not just invite him into our hearts and lives, but to realize that doing so means opening ourselves up to all whom Jesus loves.  Having Jesus in our lives will lead us to ask:  “Who must I love, and what does it mean to love?

Considering the application of this teaching—this way of reading scripture—is an ongoing task of discernment and costly obedience.  Just a few more comments out of the teaching of Jesus that might guide our work of discernment.

Jesus makes a connection between our response to others and the way God sees others.  Jesus points out that God does not orchestrate weather patterns in a bounded-set way.  The sun shines on the evil AND the good.  Rain falls on the righteous AND the unrighteous.  It seems significant that (according to Jesus) God doesn’t divide the world into two realms.  City of God.  Earthly city.  Love is consistent whether you are housekeeping staff at the hotel or rubbing shoulders with power at the National Prayer Breakfast.  God is One.  God is Love.

In our epistle reading the apostle Paul offers the image of our lives as a dwelling place for God.  Just a few observations out of this text.

Each of us builds according to the grace God gives.  The work of building and grace go together.  We build on the work of others.  Building a dwelling place for God is a personal and communal task.  Human leaders come and go, but structural integrity depends on Jesus.

We build with diverse materials—gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw.  What does it mean that we build with differing materials—each with different qualities?

This image reminds us that Christian faith is incarnational from beginning to end. God dwells in us with all that that means.  The place we are from.  Our educational level.  Our times of getting it right.  Our times of getting it wrong.  All that is a part of our lives as a dwelling place for God—and there are points of beauty and strength…points of fragility and weakness.  The materials we build with reflect all of this.

There is a call to movement.  We are not just passive.  We are called to choose carefully how to build.  What personal and communal practices help us build a dwelling place for God?  Worship.  Prayer. Scripture.  Silence.  Spiritual Direction.  Service.  Hospitality.  Going for a walk.  Loving enemies.

Whatever is built over a lifetime as a dwelling place for God is tested.  Whether the fires come in life or on a future day of judgment we know that our work is tested.  The Day of judgment (verse 13) is described as a fire experienced by all.  Some work survives.  There are rewards.  Other work is burned up.  But even then the builder who suffers loss will be saved…as through fire.  The fire seems to be a part of God’s work of salvation.  How does reading this text shape our understanding of fire…what it means to build a dwelling place for God?

Last question:  What does building a dwelling place for God have to do with others?

One of the most powerful aspects of the Bible is that it does not clean up the human story.  The biblical narrative shows that God dwells among imperfect people who build with all kinds of materials.

Egypt has been in the news in the last month.  In my morning prayers, I have been reading the story of Hagar the Egyptian.

You remember that when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was unable to have a child, she gave him her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a wife. Sarah was following ancient surrogate customs, which allowed a wife to give her maid to her husband and then claim the child as her own. But after Hagar conceived a son by Abraham, Sarah turned bitter and resentful and began to treat her harshly. Hagar’s response was to run away into the wilderness, but an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar and urged her to return and submit to her mistress. The Lord directed Hagar to call the child Ishmael (meaning “God hears”) and, as with Abraham, promised her descendants so numerous they could not be counted. Hagar called God El-roi — ​“the God who sees” — ​and was struck with awe that she had seen him.

We are in the dog days of February.  The month when crocuses lift their faces only to be slapped down by a sudden frost.  How is the teaching of Jesus this morning like a crocus?  Perhaps it is in seeing that building a dwelling place for God is a call to build a dwelling place big enough for our enemies.  Perhaps it is in seeing that we are being invited to join the grain of the universe expressed in rain and sunshine.  Perhaps it is in the practice of swapping sandwiches.

The God who dwells among us is the God who sees Hagar and pursues her.  The God who blesses Ishmael.  The God who dwells among us is the God who changes history not through coercive violence, but through inclusive love.  Love that talks like Jesus and walks like Jesus.  Such love holds together salvation and ethics.  Such fierce love takes courage.

The courage we pray for when we sing…

Lo! the hosts of evil ‘round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!  From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise.  Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.

Cure thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to thy control.  Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.  Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.  (HWB 366)

May God give us the courage to Love our enemies…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    February 20, 2011 9:56 pm

    Thanks for your sermon. I love your description of the Judgement Day and the fire and how it saves us. I also continue to ponder how love holds ethics and salvation.

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