Weekly Preaching: August 22, 2021

August 18th, 2021

1 Kings 8. Post-pandemic, rethinking what a worship space is and isn’t must be important. Solomon’s temple was impressive, but it wasn’t a showcase or entertainment venue, and certainly not a gathering place for friends. The cloud of God’s presence filled the place (was the smoke from the new candles and torches more than they’d anticipated?). What didn’t fill the place were idols. Israel, weird as always, had a room, and an empty one at that. Wendy Farley (in The Wounding and Healing of Desire - and check out this brilliant podcast interview she gave me!), pondering our desire for God, meaning, belonging and beauty, accessible only by traditions, wisdom and practices, reminds us “the Holy of Holies is empty.” Like Jesus’ tomb, I guess.

They did haul the ark in there. Not an idol either, but an empty box – well, with some words. This is our religion. Empty space. Some words. Solomon has plenty. I cringe a little when “Solomon spread out his hands to heaven,” as I want to see in him a prayerful leader but fret he’s one more user of religion to pursue his own power. Plenty of good theology in his prayer, though. “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house” (verse 27). People want to be back in church. To find God? Wasn’t the pandemic lesson that God isn’t contained? And yet the church building is God’s kind accommodation to our need for an empty space, with others, to find God.

Not that it’s all comfort. Annie Dillard’s oft-quoted words about our need to wear crash helmets, if we ponder the power we “so blithely invoke.” And I love Amos Wilder’s phrasings, that would cause Solomon and those priests coping with too much smoke to nod: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary is like the chamber next to an atomic oven: there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.”

Psalm 84 is so lovely, the way it voices the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, and lives transformed by it. I’ll put Brahms on as I prepare to preach this great text. I’ve been preaching Psalms during Ordinary Time – a different kind of preaching, for sure. Check out my book co-authored with Clint McCann entitled, not very cleverly, Preaching the Psalms.

I’d say that all our yearnings, our hollowness, our hankerings are really given their hidden identity here: “My soul longs, faints for…” – yes, the courts of the Lord. Surely the Psalmist looked up to the rafters and saw birds and even a nest. “Even the sparrow.” Even such a simple, usually unwanted bird. And there are “young” in the nest. New life. Such is God’s presence.

“Happy are those in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” We all have some muscle memory, some map in the heart to some place we think of as home. I drive out Albemarle Road from Charlotte, wind along highway 24, hang a right at Frog Pond, pass Big Lick and boom, I’m in Oakboro, turning left to spy my grandparents’ home. The highways to God’s temple, the way to church. Noticing those are a blessing, a source of joy and hope.

Clergy might ponder “I’d rather be a doorkeeper.” Do you know the Sam Shoemaker “I Stand By The Door” poem? Haunting and hopeful for clergy. Some excerpts: “I neither go too far in, nor stay far out, the door through which men walk when they find God… Go in great saints; go all the way in… Sometimes I take a deeper look in, sometimes venture in a little farther, but my place seems closer to the opening… Some would like to run away. For them I stand by the door.” It’s eloquent, probably not appearing in my sermon, but making me think, and wonder if I’ll ever stop standing at the door myself and actually go in there.

Ephesians 6:10-20. I preached on this in November. What I didn’t think of then but wish I had: In Tom Junod’s great Esquire article about the greatness of Mister Rogers (“Can You Say... Hero?”), he shares that “Once upon a time, a little boy with a big sword went into battle against Mister Rogers. Or maybe, if the truth be told, Mister Rogers went into battle against a little boy with a big sword.” Mister Rogers encountered a boy with a big plastic sword, knelt down in front of him and said “Oh my, that’s a big sword you have.” The boy replied, “It's not a sword; it's a death ray.” Mister Rogers whispered in the boy’s ear, who at first shook his head no, then nodded Yes. Later, Junod asked him what he’d whispered. “Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. And so that’s what I told him. I said, ‘Do you know that you're strong on the inside, too?’ Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

Paul, having pontificated at length about the greatness and mystery of God, the marvel of grace, and leading a life worthy of all that, closes his letter with an urgent invitation: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” It’s not just “Be strong!” but “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might.” Fascinating. The true tensile strength we crave isn’t ours, but the Lord’s. Vicariously, we share in his strength. It’s like being strong enough to bear the world. I can try to be Atlas, hoisting it on my shoulders, which is exhausting, or I can move forward with the Lord who’s got the whole world in his hands.

It’s God’s strength, but I’m not passive or a spectator. I love the scene: Paul is in prison, and must be looking directly at a Roman soldier guarding him when he dictated these words: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Did the soldier squirm a little, or return a menacing glare? Paul’s armor would be laughable to a Roman soldier with bronze and iron weaponry.

This spiritual armor isn’t about keeping yourself safe in the world, or arming you for success or happiness. It’s about a cosmic battle you undergo daily; it’s “the wiles of the devil,” trying to trip you up, and “principalities and powers.” Can you discern that the combat of good vs. evil isn’t just people doing their best, making good or bad decisions? Aren’t there forces beyond mere individuals at play?

I like to invite my people to imagine themselves, when they dress each morning, putting on “truth” (which our politicians have teased us to doubt), “righteousness” (a goodness that feels flimsy), “peace” (not even willing to fight!), “faith, salvation, the Spirit” (not resume building stuff), and “the Word.” We read God’s Word, we trust in spiritual realities, not to beat the world, but not surrendering either. It’s a different playing field, and wisdom is knowing where you really are, and whose you really are.

John 6 continues! – so if you’re there, check out my previous blog post on the chapter as a whole, and then each part, including this week’s.

About the Author

James C. Howell

Dr. James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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