December 21, 2014: Advent IV
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 15-16
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Now the Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
This is the last Sunday in Advent, which, as you know, is the season when we celebrate the Incarnation. The season when we celebrate our sheer humanity as it is shared by God for the very first time. And so it is also the season when we celebrate our mortality. And by the transitive property of divinely created featherless bi-peds, it is also the season we celebrate our human dignity. In fact, above all else, this is truly the season of human dignity. It is the season that marks the watershed in our salvation history when God etches God’s own image on God’s own heart. Think about it. That is an amazing concept! It is the season when God’s good giving ramps up a notch and becomes God’s redemptive sharing. God goes from bestowing human life to experiencing human life. For the first time, God becomes intimately invested in the full compliment of the human condition. Now God is truly with us, as God is truly one of us…with all the bells and whistles and murmurs and shouts and groans and sighs and laughter and cries that mark our humanness; that separate us from mere Cabbage Patch Dolls.
And so this season we wait for the incarnation, we wait for Christmas – not, as my nephew once exclaimed, for Santa to come in the flesh! , but for the giver of all true good gifts to come and end our seemingly interminable waiting. Waiting for our prayers to be answered to our liking. Waiting for things to be made “right.” But, knowing what we know about human beings, the season of the incarnation does not seem to jive with the notion that any sort of a quick fix is on the way. For this human condition is a very dicey endeavor. It is very difficult to imagine that a season that celebrates the fullness of our flesh, the manifestation of our mortality, can be grounded in any sort of expectation of all things being made easy or “right” by the blink of an eye, or even the birth of a child, or any single event – short of a massive divine do-over that rewires and rewrites all of humanity.
But a do-over does not seem to be God’s final answer. For this is the season in which God joins humanity, not the season in which God reworks, repairs, or reforms humanity. It is the season when God steps into the mire, the messiness, the muddle, the muck of human existence. It is not the season when God erases the human condition. It is the season when God embraces the human condition.
But what does that mean…in this season of waiting? What are we waiting for? Fundamentalist Christians tell me that we are waiting for the birth of Christ, God in the flesh, who will forgive all sins and save the whole world (read: the whole world of believers) retroactively from the beginning of time to the end of the age by the blood sacrifice of God’s own flesh; a once and for all divine sacrifice for universal human (read: Christian) salvation. This is what we are waiting for in this season of Advent says my earnest and sincerely-concerned-for-the-salvation-of-my-soul younger brother. We are waiting for the arrival of the One who will, by his very birth and death, save us from our own mortal sin. We are waiting for our Savior (read: magic bullet), who will by his very existence as the Lamb of God make all things right with the world. Full stop.
Okay. But, Jesus has come and gone and all is NOT right with the world. So what’s up with that? How do I answer that question for our confirmation class, or our neighbors in Ferguson Missouri, or 141 Pakistani schoolchildren who were murdered by the Taliban last week? The world definitely seems to need a bit more saving grace. Doesn’t it? That, say the Fundamentalists, is why we need to prepare and wait for Christ to come again…Oh. So we are waiting, then, for the second coming. And I wonder, how many times does the messiah need to come before all is right with the world?
And this notion of a second coming sparks a laundry list of additional questions that swirl furiously around my buoyant brain. But the one that tops the list is: Why does God want us to wait? Why doesn’t God put us out of our misery now? If God loves us, what is God waiting for?!!!!
So many are suffering so desperately. We would be so much happier if God Almighty would just use some of that Almightiness to deliver the goods, as it were. Peace would be good. Justice would be good. An end to greed and hate and fear and poverty and war and AIDS and cancer and mental illness , and racism and classism – all of these gifts would be very good. And humanity would be very appreciative. And I am pretty sure that God has the power, has always had the power, to deliver each and every one of these goods and more; to create a perfect world, or at least what would seem to be a better world than the one we seem to live in.
So why hasn’t God responded to our suffering and our weakness with any sort of constructive systemic change in the nature of our humanness? Why hasn’t God responded to ages and eons of human failures and flaws and pain by just designing a better human; a kinder human, a more compassionate human, less selfish, more sensitive, less fearful more accessible….Clearly God knows how to do it. After all, this is the season when we await the birth of just such a human being. The one who is practically perfect in every way. So why is he the only one? Why can’t we all be like Jesus? Why isn’t the watershed in our salvation history the birth of a new sort of human being? Why is this watershed so much less…comfortable? Why has God chosen to experience rather than eradicate human suffering? Why has God chosen to share rather than lighten the human load? Why does God want us to wait?
And what about those of us who simply cannot afford to wait? In this season when we celebrate human dignity, why don’t we seem to care that nearly 17,000 citizens of our commonwealth have lived in emergency housing in the last year, with another 3,900 in transitional housing. More than a third of them are severely mentally ill and nearly a third are physically disabled. Statewide, homelessness is increasing faster in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country – up 40 percent since 2007, according to a US Department of Housing and Urban Development report released in October, even as the nationwide homeless population has slightly declined.
And on one overcast night in October, 700 residents were summarily evicted from our city’s largest homeless shelter and addiction treatment facility on picturesque Long Island. The bridge to the facility was said to be unsafe, and so one third of Boston’s emergency shelter beds and over one half of our addiction treatment beds were gone. In the blink of an eye. I’m fairly sure that if the authorities needed to evacuate the Four Seasons Hotel, they would have made relocation arrangements ahead of time. But the folks from Long Island have yet to be relocated. Many still sleep on cots in atriums. Some are in overcrowded fitness centers and old schools. All of them have yet to be properly housed…..All of them have yet to be accorded that basic human dignity.
And so in this season of the incarnation, this season of human dignity, I think about this indignity, this epidemic of homelessness and seeming heartlessness. And the question in my mind changes from Why does God want us to wait, to……What are we waiting for? Because with all due respect, I think we cannot pin this one on God. This sort of suffering belongs to us. This is an indignity of our own doing. We cannot rail against the living God for the plight of our homeless brothers and sister as long as we are snug in our beds while visions of sugarplums dance in our heads. WE have enough. Why are we not willing to share our plenty as fully as God is willing to share our suffering?
So I ask again, what are we waiting for? And if our Gospels are to be believed, we are waiting for the birth of our homeless Savior. We are waiting for the incarnation of a God that refuses to be housed….in the traditional sense. But ours is a God who will redefine the notion of home. As God says to Good King David in this morning’s reading from 2 Samuel when David offers to build the tent-bound God a fancy house of cedar, just like his own comfy digs, God says, in effect, “David, you will not build me a house, I will build you a house…..a house of agency, a dynasty of agency whereby you will find rest from what ails you and strength for the work that lies ahead in my name.” Not to diminish the value of a roof over one’s head, but God is offering David shelter of a very different kind……a kind that will require David to take some responsibility. To be an agent of God’s will on earth. And so God promises that the House of David will stand forever.
This was God’s solemn promise to David; the Davidic Covenant. God offers a solemn promise that David’s descendants will always be at home in the House of David.
But of course within a hundred years the monarchy is obliterated. The Temple raised to the ground. The Davidic dynasty overthrown and the people of God summarily exiled in Babylon….where they likely slept on the 6th century b.c. equivalent of cots in an overcrowded fitness center or maybe a Babylonian atrium. And so with good reason, the people of God wondered if their God could be trusted. What about this bogus covenant? And the Davidic Covenant had not just been broken it had been blown away!
For this reason theologian Walter Brueggeman calls this morning’s reading from 2 Samuel among the most theologically important in our entire scripture. It is the promise that puts God’s very credibility and trustworthiness on the line. God makes God’s promise. But in fairly short order, it looks like the House of David will not rule forever……until….today in our liturgical calendar. Until a young girl, a lowly descendent of the House of David agrees to open her heart and offer herself as the new House of God…offers to restore the House of David by birthing a child that she has no earthly business bearing. Mary agrees to keep God’s promise. The House of David will be reinstated through Mary’s child.
And this, I think, is what we are waiting for this season of Advent. We are waiting for anew way of being home. We are waiting for the coming of our homeless God … we are waiting for a way that leaves no one of us behind……a way that redefines our sense of belonging…..a way that shows us how each and every one of our own souls can magnify the Lord….a way that shows us how to keep God’s promise. After all, what else are God’s hands in the world meant to do, if not keep God’s promises.
And all we really need to do is to meet each other where we live. To treat each other as we would treat our homeless savior. Because we all share God’s homeless flesh, it is etched on our hearts. And so all I can think of is the prayer from Sufi master Rumi who said:
Beyond wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
And so the question I am pondering in my heart this last week in the season of Advent is:
What are we waiting for?
© December 2014, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 Boston Globe article on December 12, 2014.