It is a confusing conversation. There are conversationalists: a king named David, a prophet named Nathan, and God. Part of what is confusing is that in the recent past God and King David had conversed directly, face to face, as it were, in real time. In this instance, they don’t talk directly to each other, but communicate through an intermediary: through the prophet Nathan.
To compound the confusion, the prophet Nathan is pretty sure he knows the mind of God. He assumes he can speak for God. But the minute he does so, God contradicts and corrects Nathan’s assumption. Nathan, in turn, has to retract his words to King David.
It is a confusing conversation. All the more confusing because it involves such august personages and such an important topic.
To the story. King David is Israel’s golden boy. Handsome and brilliant, it was young David who took on the Philistine giant Goliath, defeated him with cunning, averting a war and terrible bloodshed. As young warrior, David was also skilled with the harp. He was a poet, musician and lyricist and author of the psalms.
David rose quickly from shepherd, to soldier, to heroic warrior, to commander of armies and, finally, to King. As Israel’s Warrior King, David defeats Israel’s enemies, unites the southern and northern kingdom’s and establishes Jerusalem has his capital. In short, David is amazing.
David is in his most-amazing-prime when he settles into his brand new, over-the-top royal palace in Jerusalem.
I imagine David and the prophet Nathan reclining on one of David’s new terraces in the cool of the evening. Under the dappled shade of palm fronds, they are sipping wine, tasting delectable treats, and looking out and down over the new capital city.
A sudden after-thought invades David’s mind. He winces. “Oh shoot,” David says, “I have built this grand palace with the skills of Phoenician carpenters and stonemasons, with cedar from Lebanon, ashlar stones, African ivory, fine pottery imported from Cyprus ... but I have failed to build for God a dwelling of equal scale or importance.”
You can imagine David’s acute embarrassment. The God who had freed the Israelite’s from slavery in Egypt ... who had guided and protected them through the wilderness ... who had escorted them into the Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey—and who had helped defeat all their enemies ... this God’s symbolic presence is billeted in an old, frayed and weatherworn tent.
David is luxuriously ensconced in a palace perched on the Jerusalem’s highest hill, while Israel’s God is relegated to a structure less sturdy than a lean-two, less noble than a garage.
Immediately after David’s embarrassed gasp, there follows this unfortunate, muddled, three-way conversation ... a conversation filled with assumptions and misunderstandings, with assertions and retractions. It only ends when God chides King David with a royal scold. It ends like this:
“I don’t need or want a house,” say’s God, “but even if I did, you won’t be the one to build it for me.”
In fact, some years later God does indeed get a house—a fabulous, fitting, over-the-top Temple ... the Temple to beat all temples—but it is built, not by David, but by David’s son, by Solomon.
Houses matter. The house that Solomon built for God, the First Temple (built in 957 BCE) was totally destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Rebuilt several decades later, it stood for five centuries—serving as the central, unifying symbol for all of Judaism—until it too, was destroyed, this time by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.
The absence of the Temple in Jerusalem remains today among the most vexing of Israel’s many vexing problems.
Houses matter. We are in our third. This church’s first house was erected in 1670. Like David’s palace, it too was made of cedar ... although not from Lebanon.
Our second house, the Old South Meeting House, is built of brick. It still stands. Today, a museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail, it gives witness to this congregation’s engagement with the birthing of this nation and its evolution ... from independence to abolition, suffrage and civil rights.
Departing that house in 1873 was among the hardest, most painful and contested decisions this church has ever experienced. It was a wrenching decision ... but one that enabled this church to embrace God’s future, rather than cling to an antiqued, if venerable, past.
Our third house, this exuberant house, is modeled on the Doge’s palace in Venice. Designed by Messrs. Cummings and Sears and built of Roxbury pudding stone, it features an Italianate campanile, a polychromatic roof and an interior of carved cherry wood. Completed in 1875, it is arguably, this congregation’s most visible platform for our progressive Christian witness. It is also our costliest tool for ministry. We cannot help but worry over it, tend and care for it, for its demands on us are very great.
Houses matter. Reflect for a moment on the houses and homes in which you have lived ... as a child, as an adult ... and on the way the houses or homes in which you lived or live shapes your lives: back yard or back alley? Wooded environs or neatly clipped suburban lawns? Farmland or fen? Inland or coastal? Highland or lowland? Consider your neighbors ... were they near or far, many or few? Where did you play? What were your chores? Houses matter.
As a church we support ministries to the unhoused ... to those whose days are filled hunting for food, seeking shelter from the weather, lugging their few possessions everywhere they go ... people for whom privacy is a luxury they cannot afford. Houses matter.
We describe this building as a house of God ... but not as the home of God. Maybe that is what David got wrong way back when. He wanted to build a home for God, a place for God to dwell. We know God does not dwell here ... God is spirit. God is love. But we also know we can come here to commune with God, to absorb the spirit and love that God is.
Houses matter. It matters that last Thursdays this house welcomed and hosted fifteen Jewish high school students from around the world. They came to this Christian house of God to learn, to ask questions.
They were surprised to learn that you—most of you—are not creationists, but have respect for science. That is not what they had been told about Christians.
They were astounded about our commitment to persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
Wide-eyed, they took photos of the poster by the elevator about HOW TO RESPECT OTHER RELIGIONS.
They were floored to learn that our communion table is open to all, and several of them, including a self-described Jewish humanist, tasted and swallowed the bread we call the bread of heaven and the cup we call the cup of salvation.
Houses matter. This house matters. It matters that upon learning of the tsunami that wrought catastrophic horrors to Japan, the Japan Society of America reached out to us to host a service of mourning and solidarity. It matters that we had a pulpit from which to hang hundreds of white origami cranes and that they discovered here a sacred space for sacred sorrows.
Houses matter. This house matters. It matters that among the tall, gleaming edifices to industry and commerce, to entertainment, the arts and government, there is a building whose sole purpose is to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth … a building capable of absorbing the grief of Aurora, Colorado1 ... a building in which we gather to mourn the dead, comfort the suffering and grieve the loss of innocence. A house in which we are trained and formed for love. A house and giving witness to the ways of peace amidst the world’s propensity for violence.
Houses matter. It matters that this house of God is kept open seven-days-a week free to the public ... that the public can come here to pray and meditate, weep and rejoice. That here we give witness to the power of mercy ... study the difficult practice of forgiveness and learn the art of reconciliation.
This house of God matters. It is no easy feat to keep it open, clean, safe and beautiful. It is a commitment, a sacred obligation, a ministry of time and resources, of hospitality and welcome.
Houses matter. This House of God matters. God doesn’t live here. We know that.
But if we get it right, God’s spirit is redolent here ... the exuberance of God’s love is here. Goodness is here ... and comfort ... And peace.
1Reuters New Service, July 20, 2012. AURORA, Colo., July 20 (Reuters) - Eleven of the 70 people injured in a shooting rampage at a suburban Denver movie theater during a midnight screening of the new "Batman" film remained in critical condition on Friday evening, police said. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said that of the 70 casualties, 12 had died and 58 were injured. Of that number, 30 remained hospitalized, he said. (Reporting by Mary Slosson and Keith Coffman; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)