The Sacred Story comes from 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 - a story of King Solomon’s misguided construction of a fabulous temple cage for God. Read the full story here.
We just celebrated my daughter’s 7th birthday yesterday. We…ok, I…envisioned this epic Double Dare theme. I thought I could keep things simple and unfussy but still special. Preparations definitely started out that way, but then I remembered that given the opportunity I will fuss and fluff as much as there is time. So I scoured pinterest for activities and décor ideas, I ordered safety goggles for every single child to protect them from the buckets of slime I now had recipes for. Somehow our “simple celebration” required my husband and I to stay up late making a giant paper mache nose. On the big day I got her flowers and filled her bed with balloons, because I do want her to know that this day is special and I want her to feel honored and cherished. And I think she did experience that through all the fanfare and fun. But our love for her is reflected best…not by lavish gifts or on a single special occasion, but in the daily minutia of living in love. She experiences my love even more profoundly when I put down my phone, look her in the eye, and listen to the drama of her day as we build legos together. Our relationship is honored and nourished when she gets to tell me about her friends, the people that she loves, when she gets to show me her discoveries, and we all get to spend quality time together.
King Solomon builds this grand temple which God is indeed worthy of, but misses the mark because he does so at the expense of real people and real relationship. In between these chapters we know the Solomon uses oppressive labor practices that are eerily similar to the Israelites bondage in Egypt. The stunning temple is built on the backs of the underpaid working poor, and the priests and elders get all the glory in the end. While he makes a big show, Solomon stops really listening to God.
We hear Solomon proclaim, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” It’s as if Solomon thinks he has outdone God by finding a way to contain the uncontainable, the silver bullet for the divine, for with Solomon all things are possible. His motives are warped into an aim of making God proud, and he at least subconsciously holds the expectation that building a glorious temple would give him a bit of an edge in the market on God. Still, the Lord’s presence amidst the dark clouds re-asserts divine freedom, especially against the temptation to idolatry, which is another word for the human attempt to limit divine freedom and manage divine access. God’s glory disrupts all activity in the temple because God cannot be housed by it, cannot truly live in it, nor be contained by it, let alone forever. God extends beyond these walls to inhabit the amorphous and unstructured, uncontainable cloud.”
It’s a lesson that apparently we never quite learn. When the Lord our God gave the Church rest on every side, we set our sights on rebuilding St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome into the stunning structure it is today. I have walked the sacred halls of that place for myself and was indeed more inspired than I ever thought I would be.
But the oppressive cost of grandeur was again born by the most vulnerable. The temple would be financed, at least in part, by the sale of forgiveness which most affected the poor. Construction began in 1506, and by 1517…tensions bubbled over. 501 years ago Martin Luther took a hammer and nail to the pretty temple doors in Wittenburg and posted his 95 Theses – 95 statements of faith, a list of 95 ways in which the church had deviated from its call to be a carrier of the Gospel and must now return to its true self, to re-focus the church on God. In these statements, Luther reminds us of the limitations of people and priests to proffer salvation and lifts up the limitless grace of God.
Essentially Luther claims that no one can buy or sell forgiveness, no gold can achieve salvation, no grandeur can fully capture God, no one has a corner on the God market, and thus no human being can be denied direct access to the divine. This is true especially, ESPECIALLY as the means of grace are exploited and abused at the victimization of the most vulnerable, the poor. At its heart, the Reformation speaks against a containable and compartmentalized God and thus a compartmentalized faith.
God is boundless, borderless, and so is our way of being in God. God’s loves for us extends to our whole selves and so we are wrapped up in a love, a faith that isn’t only on paper, not just in our heads, or only when we step inside a church building…it is how we live and move and have our being.
How do the people around us know that God loves them? that the church wants to be a part of that love? Perhaps more than great music, big programs, or even dynamic preaching… is the day in and day out relationships. Perhaps this holy love is best seen and experienced when we are thoughtful about our words and actions - how they might spread violence or support dignity. God’s promise of love for the world is revealed as true when speak up for even those who we disagree with politically. Divine love is known when people stand up for each other across race, and nationality, and religion. Without an awareness of this kind of love were are a clanging symbols, noisy gongs, desperate for the attention of the world and of God, but missing it all around us. If we are silent about this kind of love in the face of hurtful words, even ones we brush off as not a big deal to us, then we become a part of the same temple built on the suffering of the vulnerable.
From the splendor of Solomon in the Old Testament, to the temple veil being torn in two at Jesus’ crucifixion, to the affluence of the European Renaissance, and into our own time… God invites us to imagine that the temple is not the building, but Christ. Place matters, but it is not our center. God is our center. The kingdom of God is not brick, but embodied. We can be a part of building a house for the lord our God, but it is built not of stone, but of people. God dwells not only among pillars or tablets, but in us and around us. Many church buildings look like fortresses, but the true stronghold resides not within walls, but in God. Our relationship with God in honored and nurtured by grace, not grandeur. God’s love is experienced not just on special occasions but in the day to day realities of life.
The Reformation isn’t only a moment in history, but an ongoing movement that continues to shape us. We are a resurrection people. Our identity is rooted in allowing the old things to pass away and in being made new every single day. It’s who we are. It’s how we are. Because of God. Because of Christ. Luther felt compelled to speak up when it seemed as though the people of God placed all their eternal hopes on the Pope and on paper rather than the Gospel. For Luther, the way to re-center the church on Christ was to value scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit. We still miss the mark. We forget our true foundation. What do we need to do to re-align ourselves again with Jesus? As individuals and as a church. It won’t ultimately save us, and it won’t give us the corner on the God-market, but perhaps it will reveal the ways in which the limitless love and pervasive presence of God dwells among us.