Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Are you disturbed? This week, I was disturbed to learn that President Obama is the first sitting president in 239 years to step foot inside of a federal prison. Dostoyevski, the great Russian novelist of the 19th century, said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Yet, it was not until 2015 that an elected chief executive of our nation entered one of the prisons he holds ultimate authority over. Thank God he did, but why did it take so long? Are you disturbed?
Are you disturbed that less than 5 percent of the world’s population lives within the United States, but we hold nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners? Are you disturbed that the $80 billion spent annually to maintain our incarceration system could pay the tuition for every single student at every public university and college in our country? Or that $80 billion could provide universal pre-school for every 3- and 4-year-old in the United States? Instead, we use it to keep men, women and children—especially men, women and children of racial and ethnic minorities—locked up, beat down and disenfranchised? Are you disturbed about that?
Are you disturbed that 50 years after the voting rights act was passed prohibiting poll taxes, voting vouchers and tests designed to keep black citizens’ hands off of the reigns of power, millions of our fellow citizens have lost their ability to vote because of past criminal convictions, often for non-violent crimes, to say nothing of the scarlet letter “F” that keeps them from accessing jobs pay a living wage—and makes finding decent housing practically impossible? God says “You are my beloved child,” while our society says “You are defined by the worst thing you ever have done.” Are you disturbed?
Are you disturbed when the way our faith influences our politics seems at conflict with our commitment to the separation of church of state? Are you disturbed when some who claim to be followers of Jesus use our sacred scriptures as a weapon to exclude and divide, while others who also carry the label of Christian quote its text in pursuit of policies of compassion and justice for the common good? Are you disturbed that at times, like in the conversation between God, the prophet and the king that Jan just read, there seems to be no distinction between politics and religion?
Are you disturbed when you hear the voice of Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn?” I’ve always been disturbed wondering what that means. What can those words mean in these days that we mourn collectively for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown, for Eric Garner, for Tamir Rice, for Walter Scott, for the Emanuel Nine, and this week, Shandra Bland? Are you disturbed when the people say “If Michael Brown hadn’t been ‘disrespectful’ or ‘resisted,’ he wouldn’t be dead?” Are you disturbed when the people say “If 12-year-old Tamir Rice hadn’t lost the little orange cap off the end of his toy gun, the policeman would have waited more than 2-seconds before firing his very real gun on a playground and ending the child’s life?” Are you disturbed when the people say “If Eric Garner had just gotten a real job (whatever that is) and not broken the law by re-selling individual cigarettes to his fellow disenfranchised citizens struggling to pay the over-inflated rent for their children to have a place to sleep, then he wouldn’t have been choked to death—he would still be alive to watch his 15-month-old daughter take her first steps and speak her first words into this wild and unjust world we have shaped into our own image.” Are you disturbed? I had to face my own disturbing thoughts when I heard my own cousin say, “Those folks down in Charleston should have known something was up when that white boy came into their Bible study. Why didn’t they stop him at the door?” They didn’t stop him at the door, of course, because it wasn’t their first night walking in the way of Jesus. Disturbed, yes, but oh how blessed are those who at least can manage to mourn. Are you disturbed?
Are you disturbed to know that most nights this summer, a few or a dozen people sleep on the terrace outside of our church doors because it’s the safest option they have? Some of them could get a bed at an emergency shelter but opt out because they would rather put in a full-day’s work, and the shelter queue starts at 3:30 in the afternoon. Some of them could sleep inside, but they couldn’t go with their spouse or partner of a different gender, and being unsheltered—as awful as it is—is not as bad as being alone. Does that disturb you? Some of the unhoused folks are just passing through and won’t be in that situation long. Others have lived in our city, in the shadow of our church for years, have hammered nails beside you at a Habitat for Humanity work day, or have silently stood in line in front of you in this room, waiting for a taste of the bread of life and a few sweet drops from the cup of grace. Does that disturb you?
These are a few of the things that have been disturbing me lately. I feel that it is important to pay attention, and not to be afraid of being disturbed. God is moving and working and calling to us in those moments of divine disturbance. We must always be free to respond.
Our text this morning begins with King David being disturbed. The text reads “When the king was settled in his palace, and God had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent!’”
The king is disturbed by the inequity in his midst, and he names it.
When we don’t shy away from the things that disturb us, when we don’t seek quick solutions that do nothing to heal the underlying wounds of our life together, God can use these moments of divine disturbance to lead us deeper into the incarnation of beloved community we are called to. We must pay attention. It’s not always a bad sign if you end up being disturbed from time to time.
If you read the book of Samuel’s account of the early years of the Kingdom of Israel, you will see that this text comes at a turning point in the narrative. After generations of living in tribal communities under the guidance of judges and prophets, the people of Israel come together and decide they need a king. Samuel, the last of those judges, delivers God’s warning to the people: If you have a king, he will take the best of your land and your crops, he will take your children to fight in his army, to work in his fields, to craft his goods and to serve in his household. If you have a king, the economy of the neighborhood will be usurped by the greed of the empire. God’s dream is for the people to learn to live together, to flourish together, to be neighbors. But having a king seems so much safer. The people reject the prophet’s advice and trade their freedom for that sense of security. Saul is named king. It goes well for a while, but then it doesn’t. The society is fractured. David wins the hearts of the people, along with a few victories over Israel’s enemies, and he replaces Saul as king and establishes a new capital in Jerusalem. This is the setting for our text. After years of politicking and policing, David has created a unified nation and peace—or at least a faint wisp of peace amidst the daily toil—is passing over the land. In the next chapter, that peace will be broken as David engages in battles to expand his territory. A few more chapters down, and the peace of David’s household will be shattered when he exerts his power to take a woman he has no claim to and abuses the tools of the state machinery to have her husband systematically killed in an apparent accident. But we’re not there yet. This text falls at the crucial turning point from tribal identity to established kingdom, from the politics of neighborliness to the politics of amassing power—it represents the shift from community to empire.
Having risen from the youngest son of a sheep herder sleeping in the fields to living in a solid palace in a walled city on a mountain top, it may seem surprising that David can be anything but content. Yet he is disturbed by an inequity in his midst. He is disturbed by the nagging feeling that things are still not quite right. He is disturbed with the sense that, even though his army is strong, even though his fields are fertile, even though his home is well appointed and his cup runs over, his work of building a kingdom worthy of God’s dream is not done. So he decides to build a temple. The ark of God, commissioned by Moses, carried for generations through the wilderness, rallying sign for the disparate tribes of Israel seeking a common identity, is still in a tent.
Perhaps David wanted to build a grand temple out of pious devotion and gratitude to the God who had guided him so faithfully. Perhaps David wanted to build a temple that functioned as giant vault to protect the ark of covenant from being taken by a rival chieftain who would question the sovereignty of Jerusalem as the capital. Perhaps David hoped that he could contain the blessing of God’s Spirit by building a stone monument to elicit perpetual divine favor on himself and his people. Perhaps, as is typically the case with people who dare to be human, David had a mixed bag of motives. Whatever his reasons, David wanted to move the Ark of God out of a movable tent and into a solid shelter. At this point, though, God’s priorities and David’s priorities don’t seem to be lined up.
God takes David back to the wilderness. “I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people, ‘Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?’”…[God continues], “I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone and I’ve eliminated all your enemies before you…I’m going to provide a place for my people…, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed.”
God liked it in the wilderness. It was hard. It was uncomfortable moving from place to place. It was risky not knowing where the next spring of water would come from. At times it was frightening not knowing how those strangers on the horizon might react when they met with the nomads of Israel. But in the wilderness there was a freedom to respond to new realities. There was an undeniable interdependence among the people—a knowledge that each persons welfare was bound up with the welfare of all. There was a wild imagination that continued to find new ways in places where there had previously been no way. It is that wild imagination that God wanted David to keep alive in Jerusalem. It is that wild imagination, that openness to God’s Spirit, that we are to keep alive in Raleigh today.
David is concerned about caring for God, about—institutionalizing and memorializing—but God’s concern is with the people. David wants to build a temple, and God reminds him that he is to be a shepherd among the people. I can’t help but wonder, was God the only one without a home in Jerusalem? Surely not. But isn’t it easier to build one ornate temple for God than to build a decent home for each of our neighbors who need one? Isn’t it so much easier to offer sacrifices at the prison gates than it is to cultivate reconciling relationships that lead to genuine security for all? Isn’t it easier to wave a flag, or to take down a flag, than it is to build a society where everyone has opportunities to prosper and thrive? Isn’t it easier to come to church and sing lovely songs together and pray together than it is to truly live into Jesus’ claim that we are all children of God? All of us—bigots and activists, housed and unhoused, single and partnered, citizens of the United States and citizens of Cuba, working and retired, unemployed and unemployable, gay and straight, cisgender and transgender, pious and atheists—children of the living God? Isn’t it easier to build one singular temple to make it clear to everyone, “This is what our God looks like. This is where our God lives. This is how our God behaves,” than it is to continually wrestle with who God is and who God is calling us to be?
Of course it is. But God will not be contained. Our attempts to limit God are bound to fail. Like David, we keep trying to put God in a box of stone or culture, bound by the chains of creed or gender or economic privilege or national identity or religious tradition—and just like 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem, God refuses to be contained. God is far more interested in righteous living than in any form of ritual splendor. David, and one day soon all the other powers that be, will look on dumbfounded as God says “Did I ever ask you for a temple? Are you really going to build a house for me?” And the powers that be will answer back “Well, if not a temple, what do you ask of us God?” And a prophet will shout out “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with me among the people.”
Because it is among the people where God is to be found.