Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hide and Seek: A Sermon on Creation and the "Fall"

A sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 (NRSV)
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Sermon: Hide and Seek
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for the breath that you have breathed into us this day and every day, and for the beauty of your creation. But we confess that we forget your goodness and beauty and try to hide away from you, afraid. Breathe into us anew this morning, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts might reveal again to us your glory. Amen.

Picture from @loubielouwho on Instagram
I love playing hide and seek or peek-a-boo with small children. I love how they think that if they can't see you, that you also cannot see them. Like they disappear. I love their delighted laughter when their eyes are opened and they are found again, or when they find you. I read a news article about a scientific study of peek-a-boo. Apparently, scientists and researchers were trying to figure out what makes this game such a fundamental part of human existence--- it crosses cultural boundaries, historical eras, everything. As part of their study, “most of the time the peekaboo game proceeded normally, however on occasion the adult hid and reappeared as a different adult, or hid and reappeared in a different location.” Trick peek-a-boo. Older kids loved this, loved the surprise, but it turns out that the younger a child is, the less funny they think trick peek-a-boo is. Developmental psychologists believe that the reason why younger babies don't like trick peek-a-boo is that the game “isn't just a joke, but helps babies test and re-test a fundamental principle of existence: [object permanence, to use science-y language, or] that things stick around even when you can't see them.”1 Even when we disappear, or we think we disappear, we are not lost forever. 
But, as much as we laugh about these kids playing hide-and-seek behind poles and sticking out from beneath pillows, they are not so different from those of us who are older. And they are not so different from the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, who heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time and the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees in the Garden
Now some of you might chuckle with me at the image of the first humans hiding from God like the kids from these pictures.2 But even if you are, you may be wondering how the metaphor of hide-and-seek works with our scripture today. After all, the children playing hide and seek that we laugh at are not hiding in fear. We are talking about funny Buzzfeed lists, not crime shows where we find children hiding under the bed as their parents are dragged away. When we read this scripture, we tend to read it as the first humans making a huge mistake and hiding from God in fear, worried they have displeased and disappointed their creator and really their companion. We read it and label it with words like Fall. 
I do not deny that this story can be seen as a story of disobedience and punishment. If you just read through the next few verse after where we stopped today, the punishment motif is pretty darn strong. But I want us to read the story differently today. I want us to read it with new eyes and to notice the grace in this story that we usually do not notice. And I think that grace is hinted at in verse eight, when God is walking in the Garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Notice in this scripture, God is described as breathing, walking, and talking more like a superhero than the Spirit we usually imagine when we imagine God. The presence of God is physical in this story. God is physically breathing into the nostrils of the creature God made from the dust of the ground. God is physically laying that creature down as he sleeps deeply and removing a rib to fashion into another creature. God is not perceived physically as the serpent speaks, not passing the fruit around as the woman and man eat, not sewing fig leaf loincloths alongside the man and the woman when they realize they were naked. God is not perceived to be there physically when they hide. 
But does that mean God was not there? Just because we do not see or feel God, does that mean that God is not there? When our hands cover our own eyes, does that mean God has disappeared? When we hide, does that mean we have disappeared before God? Does the principle of object permanence--- that things stick around even when you can't see them--- apply to God?

Today in worship, we are celebrating baptisms, and, in our tradition, baptism is an affirmation of God's object permanence. Well, it's more than that, more than just that God sticks around even when you can't see God. Baptism is also an affirmation that God continues to work on us, continues to transform us by grace, even when we think we are hiding from God. 
The language we use for baptism is the language of new life, that we have died to sin and are now given new life. We ask those candidates for baptism or their sponsors if we are baptizing babies, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” When I met with Leah and Gracie and Ben, I asked if when they answer, I do, to that question, and get baptized if that meant they would never get caught up in the spiritual forces of wickedness, or experience evil, or sin every again. To which they answered that yeah, they probably would sin again. So does that mean if they sin that their baptism is invalidated? If that were the case, we'd need Ms. Janice back here with her supersoaker shooting us with baptismal water every week!
When we are baptized, we are acknowledging that God's grace is always at work in us. We have the knowledge of Good and Evil, our eyes are opened, but unlike what the serpent said, we are not like God. We still need God. So it is good that God sticks around even when we think we have it all figured out, or we get so stressed or sad or mad we ignore God, or even when we are ashamed and we don't know what to do. Baptism acknowledges our constant need of God's grace and affirms God's presence constantly with us. 
The first humans, dressed in fig leaves, hid among the trees of the Garden. But I wonder sometimes if it was less because they were afraid and more because they were testing a fundamental principle of existence: will God still seek us out, even when we do the things God tells us not to do? They did not realize God was already with them as they ate of the fruit and as their eyes were open. They did not realize God was with them even as they hid. But God called out to them anyway.

We stopped our scripture reading this morning at verse eight, but I want to continue onto the next verse:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Even when we hide, even when we think God cannot see us, God still calls out to us. So the question we are left with is, how will we respond to that call?

1See Tom Stafford, “Why All Babies Love Peek-a-boo,” 18 April 2014, BBC Future, accessed 27 August 2016,


Running the Race: A Sermon on Faith and the Olympics

I am not a sports fan, but we had fun with this reading from Hebrews and the Rio 2016 Olympics. This is a sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (NRSV)
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Sermon: Running the Race
As we pray, we're going to stretch this morning. We are really getting into the Olympic spirit, today, folks. But prayer of the daily sort can be a kind of spiritual stretching anyway. You are reaching for God, asking God to change you. You are opening yourself to God, to possibility. If you don't pray, just like if you don't stretch, that does not mean you will not be successful, or that you won't experience God. It just means it can be a bit more painful, right. So today, we will pray with our bodies, stretching our spiritual muscles as we prepare to hear the word God has offered to us:
Patient teacher, (reach up toward the ceiling)
you know the weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, (cover head)
so we ask you to help us lay aside all that keeps us from you. (lay aside)
Wrap us up in your presence anew, (hug self)
open us to your Word, (one arm stretched forward)
and move us along the race set before us. (wave hands)
Amen. (reach up toward the ceiling again)
Now, I should admit that I am not a fan of running. Jerry says that he doesn't think there ever any reason to run unless you are being chased. I'm not even sure that is true. I have a friend from seminary who started running after she had children to set an example for them, to show them how to love their bodies and their potential, and she posts daily motivations and meditations about running. One she posted this week said, “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” That has stuck with me all week. Hasn't made me start running, but has gotten all tangled in my reflections on the Olympics, on the encouragement in Hebrews to run the race set before us, and ultimately on faith. What if we looked at this race of faith as more of a celebration of what God can do, rather than to focus on the weight and sin that clings to us?

The community for whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written were bowed down under the weight and sin that clung to them. They had undergone some serious persecutions for their faith, not like martyrdom or anything, but imprisonment and confiscation of property. In ancient Rome, you could refuse to worship the state Gods, but only if you were Jewish. Though we don't know for certain, the way the author writes, he seems to worry about this community converting from Christianity to Judaism.1 The author of Hebrews sense confusion and also demoralized people and so begins writing this explanation of faith and who Jesus is. In our particular passage, we see encouragement. We see that “we can have realistic faith for our future because of what God has done in the past.”2 This is the celebration! We celebrate what God has done and imagine what God will do.

The Olympics is full of stories of encouragement. That's the only reason why I watch what little I do--- for the stories. Usain Bolt is a favorite for NBC to talk about. He's charismatic, larger than life---this is an actual picture of him.3
Picture by Cameron Spencer
He crosses himself before he runs, but the way he does it, you wonder if he's really seeking to show God's glory or if it's like a lucky talisman for him. The story I wanted to share today, though, is not about his faith, but about how he trained last year with Brazil’s three-time Paralympic champion
Terezinha Guilhermina ahead of the ‘Mano a Mano’ event. The Paralympics is just like the Olympics but for people of varying physical abilities. Terezinha, for instance, is blind, but boy she can run. She just needs a guide to help her stay on the track and in the right lane. “Athletes and guides are usually linked together by a tether, which must be made of non-stretch material, tied around the wrists or held between the fingers.”4 For this one particular race, Usain Bolt was her guide.“It was a dream come true,” she said. “He was a little uncertain at the start, afraid that I might fall over or that he would run too fast.”5 Usain Bolt uncertain is probably a funny image, but his participation in the Paralympics brought it a lot of respect and attention it already deserves, and Terezinha felt very honored by his willingness to participate.

Before hearing about this story, I had not known anything about guides in racing. Actually I know painfully little about the Paralympics, but the more I find out the more fascinated I am. In reading up on guides in running, I discovered:
The tether [that holds the athelete and the guide together] poses similar challenges to running a three-legged race, so getting the right pairing is crucial – the guide should be similar in height to the athlete so they will be able to match stride patterns as well as synchronising arm and leg movements. The guide will set up the athlete comfortably and ensure their hands are placed correctly behind the white start line. A good guide must be able to keep pace and also have the potential to run faster than the athlete, and it is important that they are not prone to injury. Using verbal cues, guides will instruct and motivate their athletes as well as making them aware of any bends. They can also have a crucial job in raising the levels of cheers from an audience.
This sounds much more difficult than what Usain Bolt does by himself, doesn't it? A lot more coordination is involved. Team work, but also servant leadership. Because here's the other crucial thing about being a guide: “Guides must not cross the finish line before the athlete, or the athlete will be disqualified.”
From Getty Images

And this image of a guide got me thinking back to our scripture today. The writer of Hebrews imagines the journey of faith as a long-distance race that does not begin and end with us, but really begins and ends with Jesus. “Jesus is the one who runs ahead, sets the pace...”6 to our writer. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we read in scripture. The examples our lesson opened with today are from the Old Testament, and some from the experience of the ancient Christians, but they all center in this fact that Jesus has run the race for us already. Jesus is victorious already. So even in our struggles, we should have faith because we know Jesus has gone on before.

But I love the image of a guide to help us stay on course, as well. That is my hang-up personally. Sure, I know that even if I am grieving or grumpy or frustrated, God has ultimately been victorious. Jesus has already run the race and faced what I have faced and worse! I can look at the big picture of the universe and know that God is at work and is doing wonderful things. I have that kind of faith. But I struggle with the kind of faith to get me through the day sometimes, you know? And that is where I see that Jesus has not only won all the Gold Medals there are to win and is waiting at the finish line for us with a nice cup of water and whatever else people want after running a long race. Jesus has also come back to run beside us, not dragging us to follow his lead, not aggressively keeping us in our lane, but lightly guiding us, helping us to stay on course. And Jesus will remain beside us even if we insist on going off course, always trying to guide us back. If we have a false start, so does Jesus. And when we go to cross the finish line, Jesus is just behind us, cheering.

Which is less comforting than it sounds. Think back to the guides in the Paralympics. Running in tandem with someone is harder than running alone in many ways, at least in the immediate moment. Faith, too, is harder in the immediate moment. You have to be open to communicating. You have to pay attention. And your focus can't just be on the big picture, but on the steps it takes along the way.

Let's just look to the first example our scripture this morning gives us: By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. The Exodus itself was an endurance race. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, enduring oppression and violence, until finally Moses, with help from siblings Miriam and Aaron, took up his calling to speak God's truth to Pharaoh until Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. Every step of the way, the Hebrews complained. They saw miracles--- the parting of the sea! But still they complained and let fear control them, creating idols, doubting God's provision. Where was this faith the author of our scripture today talks about? Where was the celebration of what God can do?

Well, it was there. In that one step in front of the other as they passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. God was beside them as a guide, and in moments here and there they perceived it! Just by putting one foot in front of the other.

Faith to run this race is not about constant assurance and constant trust. It is about trusting enough to pick up your feet and move anyway. For Jesus has already run the race, and he is our guide at the same time, matching our moments and helping us stay on course. So let's run with perseverance. Amen.

1Bart D. Ehrman, “Christians and Jews: Hebrews, Barnabas, and Later Anti-Jewish Literature,” The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 419-420.

2David E. Gray, Pastoral Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.


4Eleanor Lees, “Paralympics 2012: the guide runners,” The Telegraph, 8 September 2012, accessed 20 August 2016,

5Rio 2016 and NPC Brazil, “Usain Bolt runs as guide for blind Paralympic champion Guilhermina in Rio,” 19 April 2015, IPC Athletics, accessed 20 August 2016,

6John C. Shelley, Theological Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.

A Great Thanksgiving: An Appalachia Service Project Reflection

Presbury United Methodist Church has partnered with the Norrisville Charge United Methodist Churches the last three years to take youth to serve through the Appalachia Service Project. This is my reflection on this year's trip and a slightly edited version is posted on the ASP blog. I am so grateful for their willingness to break the silence around miscarriage and posting this reflection.

I am taking selfies with my cousins, who are both a foot taller than me even though they are only 14 and 16. We are wearing the same t-shirt that says, "Of course I'm awesome: I'm a Sullivan." The other adult leaders are shaking their heads at us, especially me as I scout for signs that say, "Sullivan County, Tennessee," so my cousins and I can get pictures together in our shirts under the sign. Before we left, people in the congregation asked me if I paid off Appalachia Service Project to get us placed in Sullivan County for our annual mission trip. We are all laughing despite our (at least the adults') exhaustion, and excited for the ways in which we will experience God on this mission trip. Only, every once in a while, I have this thought like a needle shoved in my brain: I should not be here.

When we started planning this trip back in January, I dodged the question of whether or not I would be an adult leader this year. "The kids would love for you to go," they would say. "Didn't you have fun last year?" "We need another woman to go." I would smile and mumble something about empowering laity and an already planned vacation, all the while ready to burst with news of my joy. After over a year of emptiness, I was finally pregnant. When the kids went on the mission trip, I would be seven months along, too big and miserable to handle power tools or deal with youth drama.

I never got to share the news. I had a miscarriage just a few days before a team meeting.

I knew I had to keep living my life, so when they started looking again for more adult leaders, I agreed, encouraging them to find another just in case I got pregnant right away. But I didn't. Even the week before we left on the trip, I was debating if I should take a pregnancy test before I go and risk having two soul crushing days that cycle (the day of the negative test and the day of the start of my period) or risk not bringing a bag of supplies for a miscarriage. Did you catch that? I am not afraid of being pregnant on a mission trip; I am afraid of being pregnant and unprepared for a miscarriage, no Depends, no heating pad, no internet to stream Firefly or Buffy the Vampire for comfort. But I never had to take a pregnancy test. I was not pregnant.

And now here I am, in Sullivan County, Tennessee, the words I should not be here pressing deeper into my skull. I try to distract myself. We have internet here--- I turn to Instagram for cute Boxer puppy pictures but the first picture that pops up is my sister. In it she sports a bikini and holds her thirteen month old son awkwardly because of her huge pregnant belly. She conceived the same month I miscarried. So I try to shake the jealousy out of my head; I go to get to know some of the other adult leaders. "Do you have any children?" they ask. The words, "I don't have any living children," form on my tongue but all I say is no, and then I change the subject. I should not be here, I rage silently.

It is time for dinner, so I slink down the wondering how I can get away (from myself), and there on the wall, right where my eyes naturally rest as I come to the landing and turn to walk down to the cafeteria, is a sign. The staffers for Appalachia Service Project centers usually cover the walls with bible verses and prayers and quotations by Tex Evans, but in the Sullivan County Center I have not noticed any. Except this one.

What are you THANKFUL for today?

This sign is my lifeline all week. Sometimes when the words I should not be here get so loud I can feel the rhythm stronger than my own heartbeat, I walk down the stairs on purpose, just to come face to face with a simple question on a piece of printer paper taped to a wall. Yes, my grief is unbounded. Yes, my anger and jealousy burn within me. But there is goodness all around. And sometimes, the words I am thankful begin to beat within me more powerfully than I should not be here

I am thankful for the family we are working with on this service trip. She is a widow and a grieving mother too. Her home is so torn up by work crews that she is living with a friend. But she still comes up the mountain daily to talk with us, and brings us stories and cold water and Mountain Dew cake.

I am thankful for kids who are willing to try something so different, who will take a week away from air conditioning and Pokemon-Go (ok, we did still play a little Pokemon-Go) and Netflix to do adult labor working on houses. I am thankful for adult leaders who use what precious little vacation time they have to spend time with moody, sweaty teenagers.

I am thankful for the afternoon that the five moody, sweaty, teenagers on my team sit in the back room of the trailer we are supposed to be working on laughing instead of spackling. They range in age from barely 14 to almost 18: some are queer, some emo, some nerds, some have no idea where they fit in yet, some go to private schools and some are trying not to fail out of public schools. Social convention tells us that these kinds of kids are too different to be friends. And yet. Yet they are laughing with one another, and my co-leader and I leave them to bond while we take up the spackling instead.

I am thankful for the car-ride to pick up tampons in the middle of the picnic with two teenagers and one other adult leader. We share stories about the homeowners from our different teams, divulge our frustrations with the way the world works, figure out how to save said world (if anyone would only listen to us), and then the other adult leader and I reveal to one another our deep love for Ewan McGregor. (She actually got to breathe the same air as him maybe when her family visited Scotland once. #Swoon.) Maybe that last part is not as God-breathed as the rest of our conversation, but I am still thankful for it.

I am thankful for that moment when a youth on my team who does not believe in God but whose parents make her go on the trip anyway pulls me to the side to remind me that we need to pray for our homeowner before her surgery the next day. And for when I ask another youth to lead us in that prayer, and she does, beautifully. I know this is the first time she has ever prayed out loud, and I know she thinks there's no place for a tattooed, screamo-loving teenager in church. (There is.) Her words are simple, clear, compassionate. And I shiver from the presence of the Spirit.

I am thankful for ice cream, which we pursue nightly after a long hot day's work. But more than that, I am thankful for the conversations we have over ice cream, for discussions of college plans, for honesty about relationships with parents, and for more story swapping about the relationships we are building with our homeowners.

I am thankful for the picture my spouse sends me of him and the dog all cuddled up in bed together, missing me.

I am thankful that I brought a wooden chalice and paten, a gift to me by my mother on my ordination. After we have washed off the muck from our last day on site painting or roofing or putting on siding, we come together in in the glare of the setting sun to recognize Jesus in stories we share and in the breaking of the bread.

I am thankful that I have some time to read, and that the book I read has a chapter about jealousy in which the author shares some lines by a Lakota Sioux: "Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky."

What are you thankful for today? I am thankful for a simple, flimsy piece of paper taped unceremoniously to a wall with six little words typed out on it. For these words remind me that all the while I miss my baby, I am being carried on great winds across the sky.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Rebuilding a Temple of Praise

After the tragedies this week, preaching was a daunting task. Even with the further edits I have made to the sermon (even after it was preached this morning at Presbury United Methodist Church), it does not not specifically educate about #BlackLivesMatter as I would like it to. But I hope it still speaks to the truth of God's dream for creation, standing up to the violence we have experienced. 

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-17 (NRSV)  
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
Sermon: Rebuilding a Temple of Praise
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, if we were you our patience with the world would be wearing a little thin this morning. And perhaps your patience is. But, as you did with King David, you are reaching out to us this morning, reminding us of your mighty power and your steadfast love. Through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts break open the boxes in which we have tried to imprison you, and point us to your power and love yet again. Amen.

David wakes up one morning and he is overwhelmed by the way God has loved him. I don't know if you have ever felt that way, when you wake up one day, the sunshine kissing your face, feeling rested and full and content. There isn't always a reason, you know. Just sometimes you get caught up in beauty and realize how beloved you are.
This is how I see this scene in 2 Samuel. King David has successfully and somewhat peacefully brought together Judah and Israel, scattered, fragmented tribes of people who have dispersed since being led into this land of milk and honey from Egypt. He has suffered persecution, and also already committed some evils or at least questionable acts. But he has also felt overwhelmed by the presence of God in his life, and I don't mean overwhelmed in a bad way. I mean completely covered by the beauty of God's presence. And so we read today how he gets caught up in that moment, looks at the richness of his own life and wants to praise God! In the Robin Mark song we have been singing to conclude worship, he describes David as rebuilding a temple of praise in his time. That seemed like a pretty good message for us in our time too.
And then I heard about what happened to Alton Sterling.
And then Philando Castile.
And then police officers in Dallas.
I said to God, “How can I talk about joy and praise this week? How can I talk about anything besides the ugly racism that cripples our country and our bloodthirsty desire for revenge? How can I preach without acknowledging the fear that so many of our families are living in--- both the fear that their black or brown children and grandchildren will not come home one day because they held their held their hands in their pockets too long, and the fear that their spouse or friend or family member who is in the police or the national guard will be killed on duty out of spite? How can we experience joy and praise when our world is aflame in violence and hatred?”
But these days are not so different from the days of God's servant David. Frankly, as much as we praise David for being a man after God's own heart, a giant-killing hero, or a beautiful wordsmith as evidenced by the Psalms, David often had more in common with both the sniper who murdered those police officers and the police officer who murdered Alton Sterling right on the sidewalk as though he was an animal. David was a mercenary in his early years. He works for the Philistines who, in much of the Hebrew Bible, are the Big Bad (see 1 Samuel 27). When he became king, David gave up innocents for slaughter to placate kings he was trying to ally with (2 Samuel 21:8-10). He did not raise a hand against his son for raping his daughter (2 Samuel 13:21-22). And really, David was a rapist himself, or don't you remember Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-5)?
I say this not to rip your image of hero David out of your hands but to remind you of David's very deep sin. But we must also remember that he was a victim of sin as much as a sinner himself. He spent much of his early adult life hunted by Saul, the king who became increasingly unstable and vicious (starting with 1 Samuel 18:10-16). David lost his best friend Jonathan, one of the only people he ever truly loved (2 Samuel 1). He lived through war as much as he waged it. His world was one in which blood frequently ran through the streets just like it does in ours. He was complicated just like we are.
And yet. In the middle of this life so twisted by sin, just as our lives are so twisted by the sin of racism right now, he stops. And he remembers beauty. He looks at the palace he lives in, the house of cedar he references, and truly sees the goodness in his life that has happened in spite of the violence and tragedy. And he decides to make an offering to God.
He asks Nathan what to do first. Nathan is a fascinating man we too often forget about; he is a prophet. You will notice if you read through the Old Testament especially in Samuel and Kings, that prophets accompany kings. Prophets are supposed to keep kings honest. We see throughout David's rule that though he can be corrupt, he does listen to and take the advice of the prophet Nathan. When he does this time, he learns through Nathan that God refuses David's gift.  

Here we are in the midst of a story of violence, we have a glimmer of joy and peace, but the attempt at praise, the attempt to praise God by building the Temple, is shut down. Could this mean that our attempt to praise God today in the midst of the violence around our country could be shut down? The tradition is to read this scripture as God deciding David is not the best person to build the Temple because David has too much blood on his hands. But that is not because God does not love David because of how twisted he is by his own sin and other's sin. No, God loves us, no matter what. God sees our humanity in spite of our sin, God sees glimmers of beauty when we do not. Why God rejects David's gift, as I read it, is less because of David's sin and more because David misunderstands, just as so many of our ancestors in faith did, and just as we do, what God's purposes really are.
You see, God says to David:
Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you're going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'”1
David misunderstood that praising God wasn't about building a building but building a life through which God could live and move. So God reminded him, by covenanting with him, choosing to make a house for him in the form of a dynasty rather than a house of cedar, a house that will shelter hope and dreams of a better world, one not so wrought by violence and hatred. One that retained the beauty of that moment when David woke up and felt compelled to do something in praise. And one that can teach us in these days too.
Because we are that house God covenanted with David about. Yes, I am drawing from our Gospel today when Jesus describes his own body as the Temple. But I also understand God's promises to David to not be limited, contained by one biological bloodline. God tells David that though David's son will build a Temple, the house God will build is one that can shelter the dreams and hopes for the kin-dom of God is within each of us. Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor and blogger explains:
You are a house. God has chosen you as a tent to move about and live in. Your opponents are also houses of God. And we all are a house where God lives, not in any of us alone, but in the sacred space among us. Be mindful of this mystery, for it is the foundation of a great and powerful dynasty.2
In this sense, praising God is not as easy as building a physical Temple would be, even if we are not to be trusted with power tools. Because when we truly praise God, it is when we recognize God dwelling in another human being. 

Hear this again: when we truly praise God, it is when we recognize God dwelling in another human being. When I listened to the news this week, what I heard over and over again were things like what my friend Janessa posted from a community police listening session in Phoenix: "It doesn’t matter what your training module is. You cannot be trained to protect and serve me if you don’t see me as human."3 What happened to the Dallas police was absolutely tragic, but it stems from a frustration and brokenness over people of color not being seen as a human beings. The police officers who shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castile saw them as animals, as less-than human. Consistently throughout our history, people of color are not seen as human. None of them are seen as dwellings for God. And yes, in retaliation for years of being seen as subhuman, some will start to see the oppressors not as human beings too but as monsters. And our recognition of one another is what we have to change.
So as we continue asking ourselves where God is calling us as a church, let us turn to the hard work of praise. The hard work of recognizing God not where we want to--- in beautiful sacred buildings or even in the beauty of rainbows and mountains--- but within the hearts of other human beings, particularly those who are marginalized. This hard work includes listening, especially if you are a person with race and class privilege as I am, and it includes reaching out, even if that makes you uncomfortable. 
Next week, our youth will be in Sullivan County, Tennessee, building houses. And even though that is work building, as David wanted to do building a Temple, it is more about doing the hard work of recognizing God within the hearts of human beings, more about doing the work of building the kin-dom of God than it is about wood and stone, fascia and decking. When we go to Appalachia, we are going to a part of the world that seems so different than Edgewood. People talk funny. The poverty there looks different than the poverty here. On TV, Appalachia is usually a place of ridicule, poor backwards rural people. Yet on this mission trip, I saw our youth doing the hard work of recognizing God in our host families in spite of the stereotypes that tried to define them. I watched as our youth bonded with our family over their pet bunny rabbits, how by the end of the week the little girl on our site was laughing and carrying on with the youth even though she had been so shy before, how the woman whose home we were working on started to help us work on the house even though she had physical limitations just because she liked spending time with us. These were the ways both our partner families and our youth--- and the adults--- recognized God in one another.
But we don't have to go on a mission trip to start the hard work of recognizing each human being as a Temple, a House for God. We can start right here. In an attitude of prayer, I invite you now to reach out in signs of peace and love to those in worship here today.

1Kate Huey, “Wherever You Are,” Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Weekly Seeds, Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 22 July 2012,
2Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “I will make you a house,” Unfolding Light, 20 July 2012,
3Posted by Janessa Chatain, 9 July 2016, on her personal Facebook page: "Important conversations today at a community police listening session in PHX. Wish more of last night's protestors were today’s participants. One statement that struck me: 'It doesn’t matter what your training module is. You cannot be trained to protect and serve me if you don’t see me as human.'"