Can You Hear It?
My name is Jonathan Holtmeier, and I’m happy to be with you, doing this strange experiment called “church” in the year 2020. I don’t think I’ve met any of you before, so here I am, a perfect stranger, speaking, from a pre-recording, on a screen far away. I hope that despite all this distance and unfamiliarity we will find that we have something in common, bringing our burdens and questions to this worship service, this moment, and wondering if God will say anything to us. Perhaps together we will hear something, and be comforted, and not feel so far away.
Would you pray with me? Holy God you are with us in all times, in good times and bad times, in darkness and light, when we can see you and when we are blind. Open our eyes, open our ears, and show us something new, so that we might wonder, again and again, how much more you will do. Amen.
I graduated from seminary, and then completed internship about five years ago, but since then I’ve spent nearly all of my time and energy raising three small children – little boys – while my wife works. Prior to parenthood I studied theology and pondered fancy words like “vocation or calling,” “sin or forgiveness,” “grace or mercy.” But for the past five years I’ve put away almost all of my books and learned what these words might mean in real life, with real people, who are really loud, and temperamental, and human.
If you were to peer inside the window of my home in Hopkins, MN this is what you might see and hear: a child has hurt himself, or been hurt by someone else, or not gotten what they wanted. In any case, there are loud wails, uncontrollable sobs. My hunch is that you’ll want to get away from that window, get away from our house as quickly as you can. If you keep looking though, you’ll see me holding a disconsolate child in my arms. I’ll be trying to comfort but so long as we focus on the unfortunate event that caused the distress, relief does not come. So instead, as I hold the crying child I begin to pace all around the house, commenting on sights outside, narrating a story we have read, an experience we have had, using words, words, words, images, anything, anything to take our attention away from the thing that has made us so sad. And here’s the secret: this works, this really works! A cascade of ideas, images, possibilities, crashing down, moving my crying child to a different place, quite literally. In a moment they are wriggling out of my arms, no more tears, on to something else.
Now perhaps this sounds like a trick to you, something only for fooling small children, certainly not a worthy sermon illustration for the sophisticated inner lives of grown ups, like you, like me. Adults, we are more steadfast and honest – give me the truth, the facts only, do not condescend to my intelligence with anything that distracts or re-directs my attention – Said, no person, ever, when offered anesthesia before going into surgery. Jesse Ventura once said that religion is a crutch for the weak, and Billy Graham said in response, “That may be so, but who doesn’t limp?”
But it’s not just in extreme instances of pain that we depend on something else to diminish the hurt and refocus us. Even in our ordinary, quotidian days, we depend upon illusory, intangible ideas which lack air tight proof. “I love you,” we say to our beloved, or we hear, and there is no scale to measure the weight, the truth of such a statement but it will change your life. There is no disputing it. Think otherwise? Consider the piercing sadness, the visceral emptiness when those words are retracted. “I do not love you anymore” we hear, and the scalpel slices open our ribcage, our insides collapse. What is the deepest, most life destroying depression, but a thought that we cannot escape? Or conversely, what is love, but a thought that we hold onto for dear life?
Even though the most profound, life-defining ideas cannot be measured on a scale or examined in a laboratory for absolute, scientific certitude, they are very real. Ideas are real. Otherwise our deepest relationships, God’s promises mean very little. We have a peculiar text in front of us here, from 2 Samuel. In this text Israel has moved from a landless people into a kingdom. Though Saul’s reign as king has ended in failure, David rises up as God’s favored one, uniting all the tribes, bringing Israel into its golden age. And as it always goes when times are prosperous, building plans are made. A new sanctuary. “He shall build a house for my name,” God says here, “and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” It is a bull market, the economy is humming along nicely, and the plans of God are nearly indistinguishable from the plans of humankind. Things are good; they might always be good. “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
Forever. Forever? Well, that’s not how it goes. Israel’s kingdom will not stay united even past David’s grandchildren. The northern kingdom falls, 150 years later the southern kingdom falls and the big temple this text anticipates is destroyed. So we rebuild it. Another great temple is constructed, the true heir of the kingdom arrives – Jesus the Christ, and he shows hardly any interest in any adornment, any kingdom at least as it is foretold here. This king of kings dies a criminal, the temple is destroyed once again, and that’s that.
So is there any truth to today’s scripture?. “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” It’s not true. It’s not true. I wish it were true. Many people are doing their very best to make it true. I have heard that the Christian faith is under assault in our country – maligned, endangered, in need of protection from strong persons. As a Christian I have not experienced such assaults personally, but loud voices in the news say they are real. The most outspoken voices have wed themselves to a president and a political candidate of great bravado who promises great protections to trigger happy Christian followers. Even the Christians who do not support this leader, I know that they, or I, maybe we are still worried about our kingdoms, relatively speaking. Many churches, the liberal protestant ones, are on the brink of closing, if not this year, then the next, or the year after, the trends all appear inexorable. So reasons for concern about the kingdom are wide ranging and disparate, but I know of few who delight in its demise. No, I want what today’s text imagines – a house with God’s name on it – established, well if not forever, then at least another, thirty or forty or fifty years, long enough for me to attain gainful employment. But the scripture does not deliver. The kingdom does not last.
What does this mean for us in 2020? Faith is easiest to sustain or build in the midst of a kingdom, seated in a pew, in a packed sanctuary, with a thunderous organ, and the voices of hundreds of fellow believers ringing all around you. That’s how it was, once. But it’s not like that anymore. The past few decades the church has been emptying, now it’s totally empty and we’re at home, alone, month after month after month. How do we have faith when the fate of the big things we’ve believed in – the church, our country – is in doubt?
I’m wincing in pain everyday over these questions. But maybe, wincing, squinting reveals something more in these verses from 2 Samuel, more than a kingdom that pretends it will last forever and does not. As ambitious as they appear, these verses are not ignorant to the hard realities of life. In them God says that iniquities will be punished. It’s a troubling premise – God as punisher – and I’ll leave it to others to discuss whether there is an explanation or particular source for the pain which befalls us. But the fact is that hardship comes to us all, and these verses are aware. Whatever life with this God entails, it is not without painfulness. But we know that. We know about the pain, we feel the pain. What we need is for someone to pick us up and tell us something that will make this painfulness less absolute, less final. We need something else to think about, besides the wrenching terror of this pandemic, this election, this world.
And so God whispers in our ear: “I will not take my steadfast love away from you.” It’s such a small thing in these verses. Could you hear it? It doesn’t measure up to visions of kingdoms and thrones and power. Of course it is precisely such visions that always distort the oddness, the wonder, of God’s love for this world. We make God’s love coincidental to a kingdom, or a leader, or a building, but then this love comes to us in disguise – have you seen it? – love that falls down before you, washes your feet, heals your wounds, gives you your spirit. “I will not take my steadfast love away from you.” God says.
But, is that enough? Can it outlast a kingdom, a church, a lifetime? “I will not take my steadfast love away from you.” Little words, whispered, easy to miss, especially if we don’t remind one another, remind ourselves.
Last Saturday I was at a clinic for the whole family’s flu vaccinations. There were three sets of legs dangling from tall bench in front of me. I could just see the eyes of my kids peering above their masks. Their eyes were waiting and wetting, the mental strain of anticipating an injection from a long needle was more painful than any vaccination ever could be. The nurse approached each child, weapon in her hand and she said, softly, “wiggle your toes, wiggle your toes, wiggle your toes.” Just a small distraction, then she stuck the needle in the arm, and it was all over.
Beside the pain or dread or fear that captivates us, God says “I will not take my steadfast love away from you.” Can you hear it? If you can’t, God says it again. Can you hear it? If you can’t, we say it again and again and again, to one another, to ourselves, so many times that it begins to sound louder and truer than anything else. “I will not take my steadfast love away from you.” Can you hear it?