Scripture: 1 Kings 5:1–5 and 8:1–13
There is something in me that loves to take things apart.
Now, I don’t mean car engines and old computers and the toaster oven, but more abstract things. There is something deep inside my soul that wants to deconstruct and reject institutions and traditions and cultural histories and human authority. Maybe it is the Baptist in me, tied to a long tradition of freedom from those institutions, and rejection of their power over us! I am quick to point out and deconstruct the brokenness in our political systems, in the Church in America, in our worship of military might, in our systemic and institutional sinfulness. Like a good Baptist, I believe that our faith is made stronger when we examine and push against these human institutions, and sometimes I know I am like a hammer looking for a nail on this stuff every time I open the newspaper or my news app or just walk out my front door.
Or every time I open the Bible!
I’m going to be honest, the sermon that I wanted to preach today was going to take Solomon apart! I was ready to tell you all about the mess that was Solomon’s Temple building program. All about his forced labor of 30,000 of God’s people to build his fancy Temple that God didn’t even ask for. All about the hypocrisy of the monarchy, which took seven years to build a Temple for God and then took 13 years to build an even bigger palace for the king. All about the political messiness of Solomon’s trust of Empire, in the form of the king of Tyre, and his alliance with the king of Egypt, including the house Solomon built for his Egyptian concubine. All about the theological problems that the people of God would fall into later, of thinking that one can contain God in a building. All about the history of the abuse of Temple leadership and a broken power structure that was challenged by Jesus.
I was ready to tear it all up, and throw it all away. Like a newspaper at an Allen Fieldhouse Starting 5 Introduction! Deconstruct the monarchy. Deconstruct the tradition. Deconstruct our own failed attempts to worship God.
But then a couple of things happened.
First, I had a conversation with a trusted friend, who was honest and truthful with me. Who pushed me to remember how often God works through traditions and institutions and authorities, and pointed out my clear bias toward taking things apart. And pointed out the problem when I only tell one side of the story.
After that conversation, I went back to I Kings, and I began to give Solomon the benefit of the doubt.
Imperfect as he was, clumsy as his execution was, Solomon did something incredibly valuable. He built a vehicle to worship God in all of God’s glory. Regardless of all of the other stuff that surrounds this moment, when Solomon stands up in Chapter 8, gathering the people at the dedication of the Temple of worship of God, he taught the people that God was not to be domesticated in the Temple, but worshipped by way of it. The Temple was not a prison for God to be contained, but a portal for humans to experience and wonder at God’s glory. As Biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow puts it, God is “enthroned, but not entrenched” in the Temple. In other words, Solomon recognizes God is present in this space, but not contained in any single space.
In this teaching moment, Solomon gathered the precious memories of the ancestors, the ark of the covenant, and the furnishings of the Tabernacle, he even took the whole Tabernacle—this ancient and massive tent of meeting—and put it in the middle of the Temple. And in so doing, he reminded the people that the mobile and movable presence of God was still just as movable and mobile as it always was. God could go anywhere God wanted to go! God could be anywhere God wanted to be! But as he gathered the people together, Solomon told them in no uncertain terms: God is here.
A second moment changed the sermon that I was going to preach this morning. Later in the week, I walked into our sanctuary. I saw again the charred corner. I smelled the smoke. I was shocked by the absence of the Creation window that’s been moved for safe keeping during renovation. I picked up the Bible that was presented by the Jennings family when our church turned 100 years old in 1955. I felt the weight of the cross, given by the Corrill and Winter families that same year.
It struck me that there is value in these things. In these places. In these traditions. In these reminders of our history. Even in the institutions that I love to discredit. On this All Saints Day, even a cynical deconstructionist must remember the value of constructing things that honor and glorify God. The sermon I was going to preach was about deconstructing our broken attempts to worship God, an important message, for sure. But then it occurred to me as we worship God here, down the hall from a charred sanctuary, and over livestream in our living rooms, in the middle of a pandemic that won’t go away, maybe we don’t anything else deconstructed at the moment.
Maybe the message that Solomon stood up and proclaimed is one for us today: God is here.
God is here…in this time, when everything feels temporary and liminal and exposed.
God is here…in this space where we choose to worship in awe and wonder.
God is here…in this community. The eternal God of Solomon and his mother Bathsheba, the God of the prophecy and the monarchy, the God of time and space and beyond time and space, has chosen to be here.
That reminder this week helped me reconstruct memories of God’s presence…
God was here twelve years ago, this month, when I walked into this room for the first time as your senior pastor. We celebrated the Thanksgiving Meal and worship together. We all got too much turkey and potatoes and corn casserole and macaroni and cheese, from the tables right over there. And we came right here to this corner where I am standing and got way too much dessert…pie and cake and piles of whipped cream. That night we ate. We prayed. We thanked God. We enjoyed fellowship together.
My family and I were your guests that night. I had been voted in as senior pastor, but was still saying goodbye to another church. I admit now that it was a bit overwhelming, all of the names and faces and families and connections. Some folks who only come to that meal each year. Some who were there every time the doors were open. I did my best trying to keep everyone straight, but I know my head was spinning.
I remember that we were one of the last ones to leave. We wanted to give space to connect to as many people as we could, watch our 2-year old and 5-year old make new friends and run around in this new space for them. Of course, we left with some leftovers…because you always leave with some leftovers. And as we began to gather our dishes and children and turned to leave, I remember being struck by the fact that this was a gracious people, and a gracious place—which has been proven over and over again for the last 12 years. I remember being struck by the clear awareness…God is here.
God was here seven years ago, when I walked into this room, and it looked very different from today. It was in the middle of our reconstruction, when we had taken up the old carpet in this room, and were getting ready to lay down the tile that is in here now. But in the meanwhile, there was nothing but bare concrete on the floor. It wasn’t very pretty, and it wasn’t very hospitable. But nonetheless, it was time to host some guests.
Family Promise guests, to be specific. That period of reconstruction was difficult for several reasons, but one of them was because it got in the way of hosting Family Promise. We wanted to make sure that our guests were safe and comfortable, and so we ended up borrowing space from another church for at least a rotation or two. But this time, during this rotation, we were able to host our guests…on a bare concrete floor.
To some folks, that would be a disaster. But for our Family Promise crew, it was an opportunity! As soon as dinner was done every night, out came the sidewalk chalk! And the kids and families, and a few of us hosts along the way, would draw and color and decorate the whole floor with amazing creations. Kids would write their names. Or draw their favorite animals. I remember a huge dragon that probably spent multiple nights to create. I don’t remember the order of what happened next with the construction…as far as I remember, that dragon is still under the floor right now!
Several years later, Family Promise staff still remembers the way that our crew made the best of a bad situation…they remember with gratitude the Baptists and their bare concrete floor. Seven years ago, as I walked into this room and saw families laughing and drawing and creating together with First Baptist folks, I was reminded again, God is here.
God was here 21 days ago, when I walked into this room once again. It was a Saturday night, the day after the fire damaged our sanctuary. Many of us had been here until late into the night on Friday, and were back the next morning to see everything in the light of day. We made contact with the insurance folks to figure out next steps, and got the OK to do some cleanup. Our Building Manager Neal Purvis put the word out to a few folks that we needed help, and they dropped their plans for Saturday afternoon and showed up at the church.
They picked up water-logged and smoky hymnals and Bibles. They dragged sopping wet insulation out to the trash. They swept and mopped the corner of the sanctuary. They picked up boards and damaged pieces outside in the church yard. Then, after clean up, we moved into relocation mode. They set the staging for our new chancel. They moved the pulpits and set them up, and rolled the piano to its new home. The tech crew put in several hours to figure out how to move over and build a new sound system, livestream technology, and camera set-up. The old communion table, the Christ candle, even the dots for the children’s sermon were moved and relocated into our new worship space. This week, the parallels with Solomon struck me. For just like Solomon moved all of the tools of worship—the ark and the altars and the furnishings and the whole Tabernacle—into the new Temple, we too have moved our furnishings and physical things out of the place where we have been worshipping, into this new place.
And 21 days ago, after everyone else had left for the night, I stood here in the newly reconstructed place of worship. And I happened to look down at this little card that lives on the pulpit. It has been here since little Samuel Miller gave it to us several months ago, as a pick-me-up as we started to emerge from the pandemic, weary and worn. He gave out several cards to friends that he saw, and he gave the staff one that said “You’re doing great.” And that night 21 days ago, fresh from the memory of a church that came out and stood in the cool night and prayed for the fire crews as they did their work…fresh from the memory of a church Facilities crew working overtime to assess and reconstruct…fresh from the memory of a church dropping everything and rebuilding a sanctuary down the hall…that was the message that I wanted to share with the saints of the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. You’re doing great.
Because for 166 years, you have not failed to maintain your focus. For 166 years, you have welcomed, worshipped, worked and wondered by the power of the Spirit of God. For 166 years, you have constructed and reconstructed hope and grace and love and hospitality.
Any why? Because you know, deep in your soul, that God is here.