Proper 16B: August 22, 2021



I know most of you have heard other sermons about the distinction between the church-as-a-building and the church-as-a-congregation. I know this because I have stood here and preached several. Most recently, when David wanted to build the Temple and God said no, because David did not yet understand that the Temple, and all the descendant buildings including our two sanctuaries, this one on Rosemary Street and St. Luke’s Chapel on River Road, are not houses where God will come to live at the exclusion of other places, are not monuments we build so God will know how important she is.

Prior to that, I have, over the past eighteen months or so, worked to remind us frequently that this building is not the church, is not the defining feature of who we are as a community. That has made this past year-and-a-half difficult for many, not just many of you, but for many across every church, synagogue, mosque, and temple in the world as we have all had to reckon with the reality that, sometimes, the safest thing to do for each other is to not be together, even here. We have had to consciously and constantly remind ourselves and each other that the building is not the church. That our ability to be a community in love for each other and this world is not bound by these walls. That God is not bound by these walls as we have found ways to gather outside and online, through emails, texts, phone calls, notes, and letters, some of which may still be drifting through the postal network.

David did not build the Temple because David did not understand those things. David wanted to build a Temple because David hoped God would be contained in a box, because David thought that God was like David and would be distracted by comfortable accommodations.

Solomon knows different. Our lectionary text today is an excerpt from Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, and the nature of Solomon’s prayer shows why Solomon was allowed to build the Temple when David was not. Solomon prays: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.”

Solomon knows God cannot, will not be contained, but prays that the Temple may be a special place for people, a place where people may more closely feel the presence of God. More than that, Solomon prays that the Temple will be a signpost, directing people’s prayers and attention to God even when they are remote, as Solomon asks God’s favor on prayers not just made in or near the Temple, but on those directed toward the Temple.

In a section of the prayer that the lectionary skips, Solomon prays: “If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house; then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know—according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart— so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors.”

Solomon knows that God’s power works even at a distance. Even those who cannot make the journey to the Temple, those who cannot enter the Temple, because of time, because of distance, because of illness, because of war, famine, drought, or even a pandemic—and I would not be surprised if Bible translators soon start using pandemic instead of plague, can direct themselves and their minds on God by thinking of the Temple as they pray.

Even more, Solomon prays not just for those who are kept away from the Temple by outside forces and conditions, not just those kept away by famine, drought, war, and illness, but Solomon also prays for those we, as humans, try to keep away and so after skipping the section that includes what I just read, the lectionary jumps back in as Solomon says:

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

The Biblical witness is not consistent about who is welcome in the Temple. We have those, including Isaiah and Jesus, who say the Temple should be a house of prayer for all people. In other places, the text calls for the exclusion of specific people for a variety of reasons. Even today, we struggle to be consistent. Nearly every church calls themselves welcoming. Many churches will say they welcome all people, perhaps using the words “all means all” or sometimes with what they hope is a reasonably exhaustive list. Nearly every church, however, has limits on that welcome, even those who would never admit that.

Back in June, the session gathered for a mini retreat at St. Luke’s. We talked about how each of us came to be active in this congregation, the things that got us to come in the doors, to give this community a chance, and the things that kept us coming back, in some cases, for decades. We talked about what we want this congregation to be, and the ideas that kept coming up were “welcoming” and “community leaders.”

If you have been back in the church library, you have likely seen those words written on the easel pad. The session keeps them on display there so that we are continuously reminded of those goals.

The session cannot do that work alone, and so today, I invite each of you to join the session in that work. Some of the educators among you may have heard of the “action-reflection model” of learning. The basic idea is that, after we do something, we need to think about what we did, what worked, what did not work, and why. I want us to use that model as we strive to become more welcoming, and so I invite you all to begin by reflecting on past actions, of this congregation as a body and of you as an individual. I know this will not be comfortable for all of you. Think about who is really welcome here, and who is not. Think about the ways that we are currently a welcoming place, and the ways in which we are not. Think about why that might be, how we might change that, and how we might demonstrate our welcome to the wider community around us. Reflection on our past practice will help us consider what we want to keep and what we want to change going forward. Finally, remember what Solomon knew, that God welcomes and hears the prayers of all those who pray toward the Temple. Solomon knew that God welcomes all to the Temple, but Solomon also knew that we humans struggle to extend that welcome as broadly as God, and so today, let us pray for those we exclude, knowingly or unknowingly. Let us pray that we may open our hearts to God’s will that we may extend our welcome more widely. Let us pray that our community may serve, like the Temple Solomon built, as a signpost pointing towards God’s love and work in this world for all people and let us remember that when we fall short in granting God’s welcome, we cannot contain God, and God will continue to welcome us and others with grace and joy even when we do not. Thanks be to God.