Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mobility of God

Sheepscott Community Church July 19, 2009

2 Samuel 7: 1-14a

Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56

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The Mobility of God

I’d like to begin this morning with a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke, a German poet of the late-nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. “What Will You Do God?” is the title.

What will you do, God, when I am dead?

I am your pitcher (what if I be broken?)

I am your drink (what if I perish?)

I am your robe, I am your craft,

you lose your meaning when I am no more.

When I am gone you have no home

where loving words will greet you warmly.

The velvet slipper that I am

will drop from your weary foot.

Your great cloak will drop from you.

Your gaze, which my cheek receives gently,

so that it rests there as on a couch,

will seek me in vain

til it comes to rest at sunset on alien stones.

What will you do, God? I am afraid..

I remembered that poem when I was reading about David speaking to Nathan the prophet and asking how he could be comfortable in his palace while God was in a tent. He purposed to build God  a temple, and Nathan at first encouraged him to go right ahead and do that because God was with him. Nathan’s subsequent corrective on that––after prayer––was that a descendant of David’s would do that work, would build the temple. As it turned out, it was his son Solomon. In his love for God, David wanted to give God a gift, to build him a temple. I find that endearing in the same way the poet’s implication of love is endearing. Both anthropomorphize God, and in the case of God and the poet, the poet, perhaps naively, perhaps truly––we don’t know––sees himself as indispensable in the life of God, fearful of what might happen to God when he––the poet––dies. It is like David, wanting to build that Temple, so God will have a proper house, as if God is dependent on him for that house and could be confined to a house. While it’s endearing in what could be considered a kind of naivete, it is also a remarkable assertion out of a living faith, a living relationship that we would do well to emulate.

Both David and the poet knew God as available and approachable. That availability and approachability has to do with an understanding of God’s mobility that today’s readings lend themselves to. God accommodated himself to the tent and the ark, which gave the people a feeling of assurance of the presence of God as they traversed the Sinai Desert over those years. They never saw God, but they observed the effect of God in the light of Moses’ face after he had spoken with God, in the abundance of food and water when they cried out for it. They also observed the effect of the absence of God when they disobeyed what had been given them as guidance for their journey, when wasting disease appeared among them. God was not punishing them per se; it was a result of their own choice to behave in a certain way.

So God went before the Israelites symbolically, and they received direction from Moses, his prophet and chosen leader. About 300 years later, the anointed King  David began his reign in approximately 1000 B.C.E. As I mentioned earlier, David wanted to build a permanent home, a Temple palace for God, to bring the ark of God out of the tent, but the answer was, not now, and not you. That comes later through another. We do know that chronologically that other person was King Solomon, David’s son. A further accepted Christian interpretation is that that one who would build the Temple is in fact Jesus, who was himself in the line, the tribe of David, but now we are talking about the temple of Christ’s body, not the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, that was destroyed not once, but twice, the second time in 70 C.E., predicted by Jesus.

Note that the portable tent and the ark that was set up in the tent and accompanied the Israelites represented a mobile God, as I have characterized that One, an available and approachable God, who was right there with the people. Whether or not they could see God, they could see God’s effects in the world.

Fast forward 1000 years to Jesus’ era. Here was another mobile temple, a physical temple killed but raised up, not by human hands but by the breath of God, and that Temple will never be destroyed again. Although we believe that that body, the person who lived on this earth as Jesus, is now with the One he called Father, although we may believe this, he, Jesus, is yet completely with us, as he promised he would be, by and through his Spirit. That is not just good news: It is great news.

We meet this mobile, this walking-about Christ in today’s gospel. After the disciples returned from their work of healing, teaching, raising up, feeding––the same things we are called to do as Christ’s disciples––Jesus invited them to come with him and rest awhile on the other side of the lake. They all got into a boat to cross the lake, which was about four miles across, compared with the 10-mile walk it would have been to traverse around the top of the lake by land. But people saw them leaving and ran on ahead toward the area where Jesus and his disciples were headed. The people arrived before the boat did, possibly because of no wind on the lake to push the boat, or, a contrary wind. The people, the sheep without a shepherd, were waiting for them when they arrived. 

Jesus knew the need the disciples had for rest and renewal, true of any life lived. Without the balance of work and rest, we spin our wheels and make no progress and destroy the lawn in the process. But this wasn’t the day for rest. The people were hungry for bread and for teaching. The need of the people in today’s gospel is for spiritual food, but also for bread, which the gospel from John will focus on for next week, when Jesus feeds the 5000. 

As I noted, Jesus recognized his disciples’ need to rest and recover, which is why he invited them to come away to the lonely place where the people had already made an end run and arrived. That the disciples could not avail themselves of the rest does not diminish the importance of the message about rest, only that Jesus places even more importance on feeding the hungry, whether bread for the body or bread for the spirit or both. It seems that service, giving of oneself, trumps pretty much everything in God’s book, read as the life of Jesus. That said, let me underline yet again the importance of the balanced life.

There is a rhythm to the Christian life, a continuous going into the presence of God from the presence of human beings, and going back from the presence of God to be among human beings. In this frame of reference there are two dangers: the danger of too much activity without rest, and the flip side, the danger of too much withdrawal from life. The first danger is fairly self-evident, and which is why we take vacations. The second wants some elaboration. Devotion that does not result in action of some sort is not real devotion. Prayer that does not issue in work is not real prayer. We ought not to seek the fellowship of God to avoid the fellowship of human beings, but in order to fit ourselves better for the latter. In the nineteenth century there was a movement called Quietism, which was characterized by an extreme form of sitting and listening to and for God in prayer––good in its place, but the value or non-value lies in a matter of degree and its translation into the world. Also, noteworthy is that Quietism does not represent the depth, quality and importance of intercessory prayer that goes on constantly in monasteries of different religions around the world. I am not ready to say that that kind of prayer is not what keeps us all from blowing ourselves up, or something along that line. We don’t know the ultimate value, but I for one appreciate that some among us do devote their lives to praying for the rest of us.

For most of us, however, the rhythm of the Christian life can be summed up in a few words: alternately meeting with God in the secret place and serving human beings in the marketplace. And the marketplace can be as close as home, where we are called to serve––for some of us, our growing families; for others of us, our departing families; for more of us, members of our families who are ailing in one way of another. This is the domestic marketplace.

As the young mother of four little ones, I remember getting totally squirrely at times with the daily demands that ranged from diapers, to unexpected illnesses, to feeding, feeding, feeding. When I would get really squirrely, I would often realize that I hadn’t begun the day with prayer, even a few minutes’ worth. Centering in God at the beginning of any day is the best insurance against squirelly-ness, whatever the cause at whatever point in life we find ourselves. “O, but I don’t have time!” we protest. Ah, but that’s the only way we will find and have time to do with any grace at all what needs to be done, and the only way we will have balance.

Approach the available, mobile God. We don’t have to go looking for that One far and abroad. As with poet Emily Dickinson finding the world in her back yard, or poet Francis Thompson trying to outrun the “Hound of Heaven” who was always at his heels, God is with us. We can’t outrun God; we can’t escape God, as the psalmist discovered and conveys in these words,  “Where can I go from your Spirit?/Where can I flee from your presence?/If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there./ If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

This omnipresent God whom the psalmist marvels at, who has hemmed him in behind and before, who has laid his hand upon him, this is the same God who accompanied the Israelites in their trek across the desert, who made Moses’ face to shine, who loved King David to distraction, to the point of promising it would be his descendant who would build the Temple of Jerusalem, and indeed whose descendant in his line built the permanent, everlasting temple of the Spirit that is the body of Christ, first realized on earth in the physical Jesus. That one now is present with that God who searched the psalmist and knew him, knew when he sat and when he rose, perceived his thoughts from afar, and which God––the God of Moses, David, Jesus––is our God as well, available and approachable no less to us and for us than for those towering figures. That God is the one we meet in secret to talk with, to be strengthened by, to be fed, that we in turn may go out to feed and strengthen others. 

If it helps to think of God in an RV, traversing the country, the world, the universe, a good shepherd on the move in a different kind of tent, an ark of different dimensions, going where his sheep are feeding––in Wal*Mart parking lots maybe?––then think that way about God. Go ahead. If your God is by the Sheepscot River at dusk or in the woods at dawn, all well and good. If you are moved by your God’s presence in the soft perfect skin of a new baby in your family, wonderful. All of these are ways of knowing the creative presence of an everywhere God in the world, hungering for us as much as we––whether or not we know it––are hungering for God.

Satisfy that hunger with prayer, with conscious companionship with another, whose presence feeds your soul, as Jesus’ presence fed the soul––and as we’ll hear next week, the body––of those with whom he interacted. But don’t just eat. After you’ve eaten of the presence, after you are filled and satisfied, go out. Feed someone else whether it’s with one of the recipes from the Sheepscott Community Church cookbook, whether it’s with a shoulder for someone to cry on, a listening ear, a trustworthy spirit that can keep a secret where it needs to. 

As has become clear in this sermon,I was struck by the mobility aspect of God when I read today’s scripture readings. The presence of God, symbolically carried in the ark accompanied the Israelites through the Exodus. In the New Testament reading, Jesus is himself the ark of God, the embodied Spirit of God, moving on his own steam––not carried––from place to place. He was a new expression of God-with-us. Jesus represents an evolution in human understanding of how God is with us, how we are living temples insofar as we house the Spirit of God, as Jesus did, and act out of that reality.


I prefer the latter model of the living Temple, but I realize that we come to this stationary model of the Temple in Jerusalem, this church, week by week, where we worship God together as a body. Then we leave the stationary model and take that Spirit of God we experience in worship and fellowship, the mobile model, and hit the streets. As many of us as there are, there are that many ways to be loved of God, by God, and then to pass that on to our fellow travelers in this world. Amen.

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