Vespers in the Second Week of Lent (20 March 2019)
“I Will Build You a House” (2 Samuel 7)
JoAnn A. Post
This Lent we have committed ourselves to The Night Ministry—a partner in addressing homelessness in our community. In addition to the Lent Tree, our financial challenge, All Ascension Reads and other activities, we take this opportunity of Lent Vespers to read about, pray about, think about “home.” What it means to have one. And what it means to be without.
Last week we celebrated the first “home” for God—a carefully crafted, fully-blinged portable repository for the Ten Commandments. This vessel was called the Ark—like the ark that floated Noah and his family to safety—but this one traveled on dry ground. God made a deal with Moses that the Ark of the Covenant, as it was called, would be a sign to him and to all the people of Israel as they worked their way toward the Promised Land that God was with them.
Last week we read from Exodus that the evidence of God’s residence in the Ark of the Covenant (here named “The Tabernacle”) was a thick, impenetrable cloud: Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. (EX 25)
When tonight’s reading from 2 Samuel opens, the people have arrived and settled in the Promised Land, King David has been established as their king, and the Ark has been stored in a tent. It suddenly dawned on David that he had a lovely house in which to live, but the Ark of the Covenant—the sign of God’s enduring presence—languished under a canvas canopy. David sets about to rectify that inequity: A Reading from 2 Samuel.
My parish in Connecticut was only an hour’s drive from Long Island Sound, and its loud, cold, wide sandy beaches. We could easily load our younger daughter and her friends in the car for Hammonasset Beach or Rocky Neck, spending the day screaming in the Sound’s frigid water, or sunning while we protected our snacks from seagulls. A day at the beach was just that for us—a day at the beach.
But a number of families in my parish had, in previous generations, made the beach their summer home. When school let out, women and children packed up the pop-up trailer or old Army tent and enough swim suits and supplies for a whole summer. They claimed a spot on the sand, and called it “home” from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Fathers and husbands drove out on Friday evening to spend the weekend, and drove back to town Sunday night. It sounds glamorous. But while it was fun for children, it was enormous work for their mothers. And, unlike wealthy families who summered in their mansions on the Cape or on their yachts at Watch Hill, the Beach Moms I knew summered at the beach out of necessity.
I first learned of this blue-collar East Coast practice from an elderly member of the parish. I asked, “Was it fun?” She smiled. “For the kids. Absolutely. For me? It was a lot of work. But cheaper than keeping them at home all summer.”
These were families that couldn’t afford summer camp or field trips to New York City or even three meals a day for a houseful of children. It was cheap to eat at the beach—hot dogs, cheese sandwiches, fish they caught and fried. No utility bills. No car expenses. Sun and sand provided endless, free entertainment.
Did the children know they were poor? Probably not.
Living in a tent is fun, if you have a house to go to at the end of the day. But if you are poor? Not so much.
I thought of those sandy, sometimes desperate days as I read about the parking lot in which the people of Israel dropped the Ark of the Covenant once they were settled in the Promised Land. The Ark had served a powerful purpose while they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, but they weren’t wandering anymore. They weren’t living on cheese sandwiches anymore. They weren’t living in tents anymore.
And King David? The King who had once been a shepherd, now a mighty warrior and wealthy man? King David had a palace. Of course he did. Where else would a King live?
It started to bother David that the Ark of the Covenant, the “home” in which God’s presence had traveled in the wilderness, was stuffed in a tent. So David had a bright idea. “I have a house! God needs a house, too!” And David began the design phase of a grand, holy building project.
But God wanted none of it.
Using David’s prophet Nathan as a go-between, God mocked David’s high-minded efforts. “Did I ever, even once, whine, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ No! I didn’t want a house then; I don’t want one now.”
David was crest-fallen—he really wanted to do something nice for God. So God made two promises.
The first promise was that, after David’s death, David’s son Solomon would be made king, and Solomon would be given permission to build a home for God—the first Temple. Next week we will explore that Temple, that “home” for God.
But, more important than a mansion fit for a King, God would make of David a house. God said, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever; your throne will be established forever.”
It was not the edifice David had hoped, but a legacy that endures to this day. God didn’t need a house. David would be a house. Seems a fair compromise.
Tonight we gather in the quiet of this house, dedicated to God. Though God does not live here, we learn of God here, we experience God here, we seek God here. In this lovely space, in these kind faces.
But, as we learned last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, even the houses we build in God’s name cannot protect us from danger, will not stand forever.
And, as we are reminded every time we open a newspaper or see our Lent Tree lighting the darkness, some have no home at all. Not a tent. Not a pop-up trailer. Surely not a palace or a temple.
God does not need a house. But many do.
In these contemplative weeks of Lent, in the safety of this place, I invite you to ponder what it means to have a home. And what it means to not have a home.
Like Beach Moms who provided home for children who did not know they were poor, God would have us do the same for others. We are called to be that house, to be that shelter, to be that temporary wind break for people whose lives are hard.
God promised David, “I will make of you a house.”
Can we make the same promise to the homeless poor among us?