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A House Without Walls

July 20, 2015

“A House Without Walls” (or “On Not Harnessing a Wild Goose”) 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Ephesians 2:11-22 © 7.19.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve been wrong so many times, I long ago lost count. Many of my mistakes have been ultimately harmless poor personal choices about a piece of clothing I purchased but got rid of fairly quickly or that movie I thought would be really great, but ended up being a turkey or the car I bought that was a total lemon. But at other times, my error in speech, judgment or behavior has hurt people. A harsh word brought confusion, anger or sorrow, sometimes long-lasting. A stupid and ill-conceived course of action adversely affected those around me, my family or friends.

What I regret most, though, are those times in ministry I have been wrong. For years, I couldn’t seem to say “I don’t know.” So what came out of my mouth in the pulpit or the church school class or a pastoral visit was often an arrogant attempt at something profound and holy, supposedly biblical, that I realize now was simply not so. I readily confused my not-so-educated opinion with God’s word.

So I can identify and sympathize with the prophet Nathan. And I suspect you can, too, because unless you’re perfect, you’ve been wrong a time or two as well. And all of us who are adults have had jobs where we wanted to please the boss, especially when we were new and still testing the waters. Or at any age we just went along in our families to keep the peace.

Consider the prophet’s position. He was new to the court of David. This is the first time we hear of him. Before, the king’s spiritual advisor had been a man named Gad (1 Samuel 22:5). So probably Nathan didn’t want to jeopardize keeping his position by antagonizing the monarch right away. Besides, what David wanted to do sounded pious and reasonable, a worthy project that would surely prove popular. How indeed did it look for David to live in the luxury of aromatic cedar and shining gold while Yahweh dwelt in a tent made of goatskin curtains? So Nathan, in his own voice, tells the king to go ahead.

Wrong! Nathan gets his comeuppance that evening. No sooner has he pulled the covers under his chin, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, than Yahweh speaks and gives him the right words to say.

When the prophet goes back to David in the morning, he has to eat crow. This time, he uses what scholars call a “messenger formula,” which means he repeats verbatim as a courier what Yahweh said. That’s why the speech is in the first person rather than the third, as Nathan had used the day before.

God reminds David of who’s in charge. Did God ever ask for a house? Does David or any human being really think he or she could built a suitable home for the Sovereign of All? Does David imagine he knows what God wants or needs to do anything for God, anything at all?

The upshot is that Yahweh will not be cornered, coerced, coddled, captured, caged or contained. As someone has put it: “God cannot be limited to one place, one king, one people. God cannot be housebroken, fenced in, or kept in a box, however beautiful. God will be free, or else he is not God at all” (Tony Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel: 459-460). Centuries later, theologians in our Reformed tradition would say that such ideas are the cornerstone of our faith. God is free and sovereign and does not need to consult us about whom he loves or blesses or chooses, what he does or with and among whom he carries out his sometimes inscrutable purpose (cf. Book of Order F-2.05).

That fits rather well with the notion Celtic Christianity had and has about the Spirit of God. The ancient adherents of that branch of our faith observed that the Spirit was in fact not so much like a dove as a wild goose. Not the gentle, cooing, soft grey or white bird descending with fluttering wing, but the noisy, dangerous, unpredictable, even biting goose that cannot be harnessed. One writer notes: “The wild goose is better than a dove at portraying the untamable and unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit. While doves emit a soft coo, wild geese are noisy and loud, often at inconvenient times. Wild geese are mean and are frequently considered pests by people. Wild geese are disturbing, disruptive, wild, untamable, unpredictable, and free.

She concludes: “We like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, Helper, Guide—and the Holy Spirit is definitely those things. But the Holy Spirit cannot be tamed and put into a box of our choice—the Spirit is wild and free and goes where God wills (Anna Scherer, http://www.oneofgrace.com/2011/06/a-wild-goose-sermon-for-pentecost.html)

I suggest the takeaway for us so far is that we need to be very, very cautious and humble when we claim to speak for God, to know what God wants and wills, whether for a family, a church, a nation or a planet, for Christians or for people of other faiths or no faith, for this world and for eternity. As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, God is not the patron of our schemes, whether political or religious (1 and 2 Samuel: 254).

We are very likely to be like Nathan on his first try—influenced by factors subtle and gross, like getting or keeping a job or pleasing someone we love or a constituency we are indebted to or playing a part as written or living up to cultural expectations or not rocking the boat. If I were you, though, I would be very suspicious of anyone, including this preacher, who claims to know with certainty that what you or I or someone else has in mind to do is in fact God’s will and the Lord is with us. Yahweh may just surprise us with what he really wants, and we’ll be standing there with egg on our faces, embarrassed or trying to spin what we said to match the reality. Or we may be so wrong that we in God’s name do harm to our neighbors, and we don’t just look foolish, we make ourselves into enemies of God’s purpose, all the while claiming to serve God.

This freedom of God from our control actually works to our benefit. Grace is a function of God’s sovereignty. It was because God is utterly free that he could enter into human life in Jesus of Nazareth and chose to do so. And in him and because of him, God can and does forgive and call and say of us, as predicted of Solomon, “nevertheless I am with you.” The sovereign God is not bound by some law that even he himself cannot break, not tied to a ritual or a doctrine or a rule that someone came up with that has to be followed and believed if God is to honored and glorified. He can do what he wants, when he wants, with anyone he wants. And his partners in the enterprise of bringing in his kingdom are surprising, to say the least.

Israel, for instance. Or the shepherd boy who became king. What David needed reminding of, as Nathan’s speech for Yahweh continued, was where the king got all he had. The first person pronouns pound David’s eardrums like a hammer: “I took you, I have been with you, I will make, I will appoint, I will give….” “So, David, who’s in charge here? Who can make things happen? And who wants to do something grand for you? Will you stop trying to imagine what I need long enough to focus on what I can do?”

In our hyper-individualistic culture in which religion has become all about me, my, and mine, and Jesus is our personal Savior and my viewpoint trumps yours in the marketplace and the media, in the halls of government and in houses of worship, it may be a little dangerous to claim that true religion is not so much about what we do for God as about what God does for us. But such, says one writer, is the key to joyous and productive Christian living (Cartledge: 460).

What we have and are is by divine initiative. When we realize that all of life is a gift, when we accept that we are accepted as Paul Tillich put it, we can stop grasping greedily for whatever it is we think will sustain us. We don’t need to hold onto God. We can stop judging our neighbors, but help them instead to celebrate the goodness of God in their lives. We are transformed. God’s servants no longer are we, groveling, struggling to make sure we please, but daughters and sons, heirs of promise, commissioned, called, invited to great challenge. Solomon in God’s time would build a temple. We build a house for God without walls or actually Jesus the Messiah of David’s line builds it by his Spirit. It’s called the church. Our task with our Lord’s help is the great challenge of our day—to tear down walls of enmity, the dividing walls that separate neighbor from neighbor. The only fit dwelling for a God who flies free like the wild goose is a house without walls. If we try to build walls instead of tearing them down, our gaze will be taken away from what the gracious, sovereign God is doing in the world and wants to do.

There are those in our day who are living out that vision of a house for God without walls. I dare say anyone who tries to make sure that creation is honored and respected is doing so, because ultimately all the world is God’s house. But if we think specifically of ministries with people, there are two that could be held up as examples.

One is a project of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida. In Jacksonville, the Church Without Walls meets on Sunday afternoons for the Eucharist and for fellowship in a parking lot downtown and on Wednesday mornings, again outside, for prayer and coffee. Their website describes who they are: “We are ‘a community of presence’ made up of individuals looking for spiritual companionship and connection that give meaning to life. We welcome everyone—the homeless and the affluent, the addicted and those in recovery, the churched and the unchurched, the spiritual but not religious, the believer, the doubter and the seeker. We are grounded in the reality that ‘by opening ourselves to strangers—the despised or frightening or unintelligible other—we will see more and more of the holy’…. Again and again, we will be transformed.

“Urban mission within the Diocese of Florida seeks to share the Gospel beyond the church walls, to help create a bridge between people in the pews and our neighbors—both those with whom we are familiar and those from whom we are separated in our daily lives” (http://churchwithoutwallsjax.com/about/).

The other effort is The Row Church. Founded by a former rapper, the Row serves the homeless population in Los Angeles. Their site says: “We have no building to meet, worship or pray in, but that suits us just fine considering the majority of our congregation is used to sleeping under the open night sky.  Every Friday, for the last 8 years, we’ve faithfully held service, worshiped, prayed and fed those who were hungry for food and the Word of God in the heart of Skid Row, Los Angeles—America’s Homeless Capital.

“The hand of the church can be felt throughout downtown L.A., leaders are rising from within our ranks and we are taking bigger strides to impact the lives of those who have been marginalized, pushed to the side and forgotten about. 

“At THE ROW you will find beauty in the midst of chaos.  It is a place where the hungry are being fed, spirits are being encouraged and minds are continually challenged.  Ultimately, THE ROW is a place of refuge and hope” (http://www.therowchurch.com/about).

And what about the wild goose? Presbyterians have actually managed to get in the V and let the Wild Goose, the Spirit, lead us with the founding in 2013 of Wild Goose Christian Community in Floyd County, VA, in Appalachia. Part of the 1001 Worshipping Communities initiative of our denomination, they meet on Tuesday evenings at 8:30 for a “Wild Goose Uprising,” always preceded by a covered dish supper outdoors under a pavilion. The purpose of the congregation is to reach those who never darken the door of a traditional church, indeed, who have been left bitter by their experience of such churches. They also are there for people in traditional churches who want to worship a bit outside the box. If you were to watch their video on YouTube, you would see the pastor playing banjo and leading worship in a circle of rocking chairs. Communion is served from Mason jars and household china. There is no sermon; instead, everyone shares thoughts about the text. As the pastor says, a wild goose is likely to come up behind you and bite you in the seat of the pants, and that’s what the Spirit will do, whether we’re looking for it or not” (http://wildgoosecc.com).

May we all make our prayer to that “lone wild bird in lofty flight” the words of the hymn writer: “Come free the building of Your house from all that binds Your holy work. Lay waste our walls that now divide so all may live their sacred worth” (“God Builds a House” © 1/2000 Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia, http://pastorblog.cumcdebary.org/?p=810).

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