The house that God built – 1 Kings 8 and Luke 7:1-10

All Saints' Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement

All Saints’ Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement

This morning’s sermon was for the occasion of the ‘Friends of All Saints Basingstoke’ annual Eucharist (followed by an excellent bring and share lunch!) (Note: colleagues with whom I might be undertaking preaching practice next weekend probably don’t want to read it – they’ll be hearing something similar!)

Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Four years ago, this church took in a foreigner. She wasn’t from these parts. She came from another place, somewhere outside this town, though not so far away that she couldn’t commute quite comfortably for services and the like.

She was warmly welcomed, challenged about the importance of certain Christian traditions, had her calling questioned, was perhaps healed of certain prejudices, though probably not all of them, and once departed, was invited back.

Then, I was a trainee Reader. Now, I am a trainee priest. This place, and you people, have been part of the journey of this ‘foreigner’, one element of God’s grace visible in my life, and it is wonderful to celebrate with you today as a Friend of All Saints.

“Foreigner” is a rather loaded word these days. It possibly conjures up in our minds other words: on the safe side it might infer “tourist” or as some New Forest folk say when sat in a traffic jam, “grockel”! Less helpfully it comes loaded with words like “immigrant”, or “racist”. Sadly, it may therefore no longer be a word that always holds a welcome.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, “foreigner” refers to someone from outside the Promised Land, an occasional visitor who bore no part in the life of Israel. Meanwhile, the centurion of our Gospel reading was a Roman and therefore presumably Gentile, a non-Jew.

And yet because God’s gifts are available to all who call on his name, the expectation in both cases is that God will act: Solomon asks that God will act according to all that the foreigner asks of him (1 Kings 8:43), and the centurion declares: “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

Perhaps surprisingly, but in common with all the people of Israel, once in the land of their covenant promise, the foreigner of Solomon’s prayer is only expected to pray towards the house of God’s name, the new Temple in Jerusalem. It is being in the land and honouring the authority of God’s name that is important.

And in this version of the healing of the centurion’s servant, the centurion doesn’t enter Christ’s presence in person, but rather in his humility sends representatives to speak on his behalf. The centurion sends the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ healing for his servant, because of what “he heard about Jesus”. It is God’s authority heard to be active in Jesus, that is so attractive.

Much as there is a building involved in both these stories, the Temple made by Solomon, and the synagogue funded by the centurion, it is not the buildings that attract the faith of those outside of these places of worship, it is what they have heard of God. It is God’s name, “his mighty hand and outstretched arm”, and God revealed in the person of Jesus, that in words of our Psalm this morning have the authority to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96:3)

Solomon after all, despite, or almost because of his Temple building exploits, was about to prove that unfaithfulness destroys the people of God, rather than attract people to faith. Solomon suggests that the Temple honours the covenant that brought the people of Israel to the Promised Land, and the promises that brought about his kingship. But he’d built it not in partnership with his fellow Israelites, but with Israel’s indentured labour and foreign craftsmanship and materials.

If you read on through 1 Kings, Solomon will also show his lack of understanding regarding his responsibility to the land God has covenanted to Israel, through his sale of twenty cities as a gratuity to the timber suppliers. The intention was that the name of God prayed over the Temple should highlight God’s presence, making it a listening post and sounding board for God. Instead, the list of Solomon’s prayers surrounding this mornings passage, makes it seem that he’s put God in a box, like some performing animal, required to do tricks on cue!

The centurion on the other hand, was a seeker whose synagogue honoured what St. Paul would later describe as his “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), and which celebrated the faith of a conquered people. He had built a relationship with the Jewish community that led him to hear about Jesus. All this had brought him to a point where he could proclaim with humility the healing purposes of God revealed in Christ in a way many Jews couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. Unlike Solomon’s shopping list to God, the faith of the centurion had integrity.

So, when we build a house of God, it isn’t really the building, however formal or ornate we make it, that proclaims the authority of God to those who may contribute to, or see it from a distance. Rather it is the integrity with which we show ourselves to be “living stones, being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) that proclaims the authority of Christ “as the chief cornerstone in whom the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21).

Today, it is probably better to think about the “foreigner” as the “stranger in our midst”. Though it might not fit his spirituality, there is the famous quote of W.B.Yeats that “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, which holds within it a note of God’s mission to the world, in which we are called to collaborate by reaching out to the stranger and the stranger’s need, in a way which names our faith.

Though I don’t subscribe to the doom-merchants of church statistics who proclaim the decline of faith in God, it is very easy to slip into the habit when thinking about mission, of measuring its success by the statistics of bums on seats! Solomon’s prayer, for all its faults, asks the question of our modern context: do we expect too much by wanting the strangers who know the name and acknowledge the authority of God, to enter the churches we’ve constructed to make his name visible in our communities?

Although it is right to celebrate and proclaim his name in worship and fellowship within God’s house, we know God’s authority and commission stretches beyond the walls of our churches. I believe that the success of such projects as Street Pastors is because they are done in God’s name, by his power, and that his name used wisely still has an authority that people trust.

Then again, Luke’s account of the centurion’s humble faith, begs the question: who are the representative voices of our communities, and what are the stories of distress and pain that they are trying to share with us? Our communities are often transient and encountered only briefly in their births, deaths and marriages. At the same time it seems that even if the passing strangers of our car parks and alley ways are daily visitors, there is no means to share their pleasures or understand their pain without translating their graffiti or picking up the broken glass of their lives. Who are their spokespeople, and what are their concerns? Does their individualism isolate us from attending to God’s mission?

When I read this morning’s Gospel, I am left wondering about the Jewish elders who spoke up for the centurion who built their synagogue. They honoured the giver, the stranger in their own land, by leading Jesus toward him. They heard the testimony of his friends who met them on the road, proclaiming the centurion’s faith that God was at work in Jesus Christ. I wonder if, when they returned together with his friends to the centurion’s home, they too believed?

Throughout the week, whilst working through these passages, I’ve been reminded of an old nursery rhyme and cumulative tale, about the house that Jack built. You may recall it from your childhood, as I do from mine. It doesn’t tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn”, and the “Maiden all forlorn”, as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked.

As we worship in and quite rightly celebrate this house of God a gift of promise to the people of Basingstoke, we remember today Solomon and the centurion who each built houses for God, and for his people. But perhaps we too need to remember that unless we engage with people outside of the building in the name of Jesus, then we aren’t really engaged in the mission of God that makes us the living stones of the Kingdom, to which Jesus Christ brought healing:

If, this is the house that God built,
then these are the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are stories of God in action,
that name the faith which proclaims and heals,
hid from the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here’s the hope of the people of God,
who only return to restore their strength,
with some of their stories of God in action,
that name the faith that proclaims and heals,
out in the streets among the strangers,
who’d muttered in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t need the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
who are the house that God built.

 

Advertisements

About ramtopsrac

Church of England Priest, child of God, daughter of the New Forest, wife and mother.
This entry was posted in sermons, theology - how God fits in and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s