Monday, July 23, 2012

Remodeling sermon

Remodeling the house

Today we are talking about houses. I’ll begin with a disclaimer – by “house” I mean any living structure. The word “house” in Greek and Hebrew had a more expansive meaning, and could cover anything from a family unit to a cottage to a palace or even a temple. So we’re talking about living spaces, our places of shelter.
I’d like to start with a show of hands. How many of us have ever moved?
How many of us have ever remodeled a house?
Has anyone ever lost a home – to fire or flood or another accident?
And how many of us have ever been without a home – even if it’s temporary?
They say that these are some of the greatest stressors a person or a family can face. Remodeling a home seems like a luxury problem, but it is right up there with stressors like losing a job or even marital infidelity in terms of putting pressure on a marriage.
Raise your hand if you have ever experienced extreme stress – over your home.

I’ve only ever been involved in one remodel, and I was 12 at the time so I didn’t take on much of the stress. My most important job in this process was picking out the paint color for my new bedroom. It was an exciting time for us. We had lived for ten years in a tiny NYC apartment, with me and my two sisters stacked like logs – bunkbed, bunkbed, loft. But now, we had finally found another apartment big enough for all three girls to have their own rooms. Granted, one of those bedrooms was, at the time, a closet, so we did have to do a lot of work before it was ready to live in. But it was fun work, at least from my preteen perspective. I remember an adventurous trip all the way out to New Jersey to go to Ikea and pick out cabinets and tiling and a beautiful stained glass lamp for the kitchen. I remember scraping old paint off the closet walls until I found dark wood underneath. And I remember on moving day, how I carefully packed our pet fish and frogs in small containers of water and hand-carried them over to our new home.
But even as young as I was, I remember the stress of the transition too. I remember eating casseroles that the new neighbors brought, and not particularly enjoying them. I remember the strangeness of these new neighbors and wondering if I could make friends with them. And I remember how scared my little sister was. She had never had a room of her own, and she was used to having her sisters within arm’s reach if she had a nightmare. Now she’d need to call for our parents or even get up and walk down the hall to their room. She was the youngest and so the whole experience was harder on her.
All in all, my family didn’t have it bad. Despite the stress, it was a pretty joyous process to move from a tiny place into a bigger place. But we have all heard horror stories of the remodel gone wrong, and we know that a lot of people don’t always move onward and upward, as it were. Many moves go from a bigger place to a smaller, especially these days, pressed by the economy, when folks have to let go of their dream home or even move in with their parents. And the ultimate insecurity, homelessness, is on the rise as well, as it always is during tough times. No, there are many situations in which the stress of moving would be the least of your worries.

But moves and remodels DO have an inherent insecurity to them, no matter whether you’re upgrading or downgrading. Home is ideally the place where we feel safe, where we have some measure of control, and where we can – to the best of our ability – make sure that things are as they ought to be. A house protects us from the outside world. If we are lucky enough to be able to decorate as we like, we might even have a home that nurtures and inspires us, and reminds us of the people and things we love. Homes hold our memories and make space for our future. And so, losing, changing, or remodeling your home involves far more than a moving truck and some paint. It is a process that affects our whole lives. My grandparents built their own house from the ground up, and my grandmother stayed there for sixty years. Moving out, to a retirement home, was a hard transition for her and the whole family. It was not just a house that they had built, but a family and a life.

Both Bible lessons today spoke about building a house for God. To a modern mind this may seem primitive and simple. God doesn’t need a bedroom, of course, or a kitchen, or a closet. We believe that God is found in all places and all things, and as the globe turns through night and day God is always active. God doesn’t need to sit down and rest, or to seek shelter from the rain. And yet we build houses for God, or at least, for our thoughts about God. We build churches to hold our finest art and our pipe organs; we build enormous arching roofs, under which a hundred people can gather, out of the rain, and talk about God. We contribute to the upkeep of church buildings that are over a century old, because they hold our memories and our hopes for continuity in the future. At home we build little shrines, maybe a creche scene on the mantel, maybe a mezuzah at the door, maybe a corner that’s designated for prayer, maybe a prayer mat or shawl. We use material things to remind us of the ultimately intangible presence of God, to firmly anchor our memories in case they wander and forget. We leave stones stacked on one another in the wilderness, a reminder that something sacred was once here. What would we do without them? When life gets tough it is so easy to forget the God who has brought us this far. We need to build houses – inadequate though they may be. They may not tie God down to a particular place and time, but they can root us and ground us, lest we forget.

Both bible lessons (I Samuel and Ephesians today spoke of building a house for God. They also spoke of not building houses for God, and behind the text there is a lot of remodeling and unbuilding, and rebuilding, and even destroying our houses for God. Between the two we can cover the whole range of options. The texts frame two very important moments in our sacred history. The first passage, from Samuel, takes place before the first Jerusalem temple was built. And the second passage takes place one or two generations after the second temple was destroyed by the Romans. So the span between these two texts covers the time when Israel worshipped in a tabernacle, then the building of the temple by Solomon, which was destroyed eventually, and then rebuilt, and then destroyed again.

All of these events are probably about a hundred times more significant than any of our experiences with moving or remodeling our houses. But I believe we can really relate, because it carries a lot of the same emotional resonance. The temple – which is God’s house – symbolizes security and safety. It is the one place where everything is right in the world. It is the place where you ought to be able to know that God is in control. When that gets torn down an entire nation is left wondering where they could be safe, and whether God has abandoned the controls. It doesn’t hurt to realize that the destruction of the temple was associated with widespread destruction in the surrounding lands as well, and with a political takeover by foreign powers. The temple-less nation became a homeless nation, a nation in exile. And the book of Ezra tells us that when the exiles returned, their first priority was to rebuild the temple. Having a temple was more important to them, than having a king or a palace.

But our first text goes back before the temple was even built. Let’s review just a bit. It’s a funny story because it has some divine word-play. King David comes up with the idea to build a house for God. The tent is just not majestic enough, and David would like to honor God by building a proper house. Of course this would also give David some honor, too… it would be right next door to the palace royal, visually emphasizing that God is on David’s side. A temple would increase Israel’s political reputation in the area and would centralize its religion. All of these would be politically smart things for David to do.
BUT God replies kind of snappily, I don’t want a house; did I ask you for a house? It sounds like a familiar situation, where someone might give you an excessively generous gift that you didn’t actually want and then you’d be socially indebted to them... No, God is not about to be indebted to David. No, no, no, God is going to give DAVID a gift. God says “I will build *YOU* a house.” And that’s the wordplay, right there. God won’t build David a house of stones and wood, but a household - more specifically, an ancestral line, and a throne guaranteed forever. Looking back on this several centuries later it was a very important promise. David’s son Solomon DID build a temple, but then it was destroyed. And prophets reminded the people of Israel that even if the house of stone and wood was destroyed, the house God built – that is the houseHOLD - was not destroyed as long as there was an heir to the throne of David.

Our Ephesians passage comes from a radically different context but it has some similar themes. First, the writer of the epistle says that God has broken down the dividing wall between Gentiles & Jews -- abolishing the law. This is not something that could have been said in Jesus’ time. It must speak from a later generation, in the wake of the destruction of the temple itself, and Christians beginning to distance themselves from Jews. But as much as they would like to cut themselves off from the Jewish temple, they can’t quite conceive of a totally homeless God. So where one structure has been torn down, another is being built... with Jesus the cornerstone. I’ll repeat those verses: “you are members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

We are called not to build but to BE God’s house. This is a wonderful blessing. For one, it’d be hard to destroy us. We spread out, people join us, we are everywhere. This is important because everything material is fragile. We may not have a foreign army invading and taking a wrecking ball to our church building, but we have fires and floods and things crumbling with age. Take our church buildings away, and, although that would certainly stress us and strain our community, it could never put an end to us.
And we move and change over time… We do not have to remain as we started. If the Gothic-style church building that seats 400 people in long rows of pews doesn’t suit us anymore, we can form a small community that worships in a basement. We are not tied to our buildings – we are only tied to one another.

But it’s a challenge, not necessarily to be God’s house in the abstract, but to be God’s house for one another. Not just to be a temple in which God resides alone, but a temple that other people visit in order to learn about God, to be reminded of God, and to glorify God in praise. The challenge is twofold. One: Can we treat other people as temples in which God resides… can we approach them with humility and respect… can we be open to whatever revelation from God may come through them? We need to really honor one another if we are to meet God there.
And Two: can we remember that other people come to us in the same way? No matter how trivial our encounter, it may be the only way they encounter God today. In our good deeds, we are to express God’s wonderful love, and in our less than good deeds, we are to embody God’s gracious forgiveness. This is a tall order but also a great privilege. We are the walls that shelter and protect one another. We sculpted and painted in beautiful and different ways, to reflect God’s glory. And we hold so many memories… the stories of God and God’s people, the stories of our own experiences.

We need to be God’s house for one another. We have been reminded especially strongly this week of our need for safety and shelter. Homes across the country are being devastated by fire and flood. Neither our houses nor our church buildings are safe from these dangers. Neither are they safe from violence. Our schools are safe, our airports are not safe, and even our movie theaters are not safe.

We need to build up the walls of God’s house. They are not stone and wood, but you can still touch them. A hand held, a shoulder to lean on, a casserole delivered in a time of crisis. We are the walls of God’s house. And this is what we do. We shelter one another. We protect one another from the storm outside. We give our best art, and music, and any offering we can give, to encourage one another and to tell of the glory of God. We are building up the walls of God’s house. May it be so.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Livestreaming General Assembly

Warning: Presbygeekery about to commence. Abandon ship ye polity-haters.
I swore I was a polity addict, but when push came to unemployment this year, I decided a summer job for 10 weeks was more important than attending General Assembly for 1. Some day I will have a job that sends me or at least excuses me to attend such festivals of relationality and Robert's Rules, but the guys at the air conditioning manufacturer where I am temping didn't seem to consider it work-related. harrumph.
But while they may not be related, GA and temping are compatible... BECAUSE, for most of the 8 hour day I'm generally waiting for phones to ring or for someone to ask me to do an errand. Thus, the livestream addiction was born. General Assembly broadcasted all the plenaries live, and with the addition of pc-biz.org, twitter, and the various news sources I managed to keep a pretty close connection all week long.

What did I think of it? I had to pinch myself and remind myself that good things happen at GA regardless of votes, because most of the big votes moved in the opposite direction from my hopes and dreams. Divestment was struck down, gay marriage was denied, and many things were denied because of funds... that is to say, the assembly tended to be both socially and fiscally conservative. I also had to pinch myself when anti-choice issues were raised by conservatives yet AGAIN, notwithstanding decades of Presbyterian history supporting women's reproductive rights. But if I were in the opposite kind of boat I probably would do the same for gay rights... and that is what we will do, raising the issue year after year as a faithful practice of engagement. I do hope it is not many more years before gay marriages are allowed. The hard thing is to believe that the arc is still slowly swinging toward justice, even though it was stopped in its tracks.

Divestment: This issue really rankles me. The Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions and all those people that take care of large sums of money have tried to engage Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard regarding their business in Israel and Palestine, specifically regarding the use of their products to further the occupation of Palestinian territories. By agreeing to do business in Israel, Caterpillar indirectly demolishes the homes of innocent Palestinians, and in the rubble, Motorola and HP indirectly construct the technological walls which block freedom of movement even in local neighborhoods. Yes, it's indirect -- BUT THEY PROFIT FROM THIS USE OF THEIR EQUIPMENT. Our Presbyterian money-people tried to engage them on these issues and were ignored. We have sent stern letters, etc. The only remaining option, if we want to impress on them the gravity of our concern for the Palestinian people and our disapproval of their profitmaking on non-peaceful measures, the ONLY remaining option is to divest.

PC(USA) failed to do so by only 2 votes out of 660. Not surprising considering how heavily they had been lobbied (commissioners were offered free trips to Israel in an attempt to sway them) and how they had been threatened, as if the respect of the entire Jewish community rested on the results of this vote. Believe it or not, "Jews" are about as united as "Presbyterians," generally speaking, which is to say, they disagree sometimes too. Make some friends with the Jewish Voice for Peace folks and you'll learn they are as vehemently opposed to the Palestinian occupation as anyone could be.

So, church, we haven't divested. We did agree to boycott products MADE in the occupied territories (Ahava cosmetics and King Solomon dates... man, boycotting rare items is pretty darn easy). And we decided to INVEST in peaceful pursuits in the area.
Pause for ironic silence.
Have fun investing, people. Maybe by the next general assembly we'll understand why investing doesn't work. Invest in an olive oil company, and watch the olive orchard get seized because of "improper permitting." Invest in a hand-craft company, and watch your precious investment get buried under rubble pushed down to build homes for Israeli settlers. 94% of building proposals submitted by Palestinians are rejected, while Israelis have no such problem. Invest in a company that can't build a shop, and send them materials that will be blockaded and never arrive. Have fun trying.

If, like me, you despair of that task, jump on over and join the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction). If boycotting Ahava cosmetics doesn't hit close enough to home, boycott all products made in Israel. Those of us who do not regularly buy Caterpillar equipment can turn away from Motorola and HP. I have an HP printer and am going to commit to buying those ghetto non-HP ink cartridges until the day I replace the printer. Make it real. Israeli cous-cous in Trader Joe's is the other item I will avoid, but SODASTREAM is on the list in case you were looking at a big purchase, and you could spend all day reading more information here:

And to put a positive spin on things... the Church refused to add funding to an HIV/AIDS competency program at Johnson C Smith Theological Seminary. It would have been pennies per person, but it would have added up. So if you disagree with the church's refusal to fund, go over here and donate your pennies (or dollars, if you want to pay someone else's fair share too). Designate it!

Thus ends my General Assembly roundup at least for now. But next GA I am going to remember how much I love these crazy contentious assemblies, and I am going to do my darndest to be there. Also, I'm going to make BINGO cards.