Walter Brueggeman describes the moment when David offers to build God a house as the balance point of David’s “glad yielding and manipulative utility” (2 Sam. 7:1). I love that line because, of course, we all walk the line of “glad yielding and manipulative utility.” We expect God to act. We expect God to be with us. But at the end of the day we prefer structures that will convince us that God is here. We prefer something solid.
Temples let us believe that we have the ability to procure God. They lead us to believe we can make God show up. What David discovers is that God will not be confined. God is, instead, the one who loves us in freedom (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline).
In Kansas City last month, at the biennial convention of MC USA, it felt like we were trying to build a temple called “unity.” Around my delegate table we passed resolutions on the basis of unity, several pastors noting that the Membership Guidelines would hold their churches together. These would distract from the uncomfortable presence of variance within our church.
Our Executive Board, fearing a crumbling Temple, warned us that many of the churches we love would leave, if we didn’t vote for their resolution. It certainly felt like we were engaged in a familiar exercise of this “glad yielding and manipulative utility.”
Institutions can serve as our temples, seemingly impenetrable fortresses that keep at bay the possibility of fracture, of splintering. Yet, I think that for most of us, being Mennonite means something different than our institutional identity. Being Mennonite has something to do with relationships, with friendships. It’s kinship that draws us to one another, that connects us across churches, across state lines, across time.
Institutions like convention create space to reunite and expand that kinship. In the convention hall I’d run into the youth group from Portland Mennonite Church, the congregation where I was first called to pastoral ministry. I heard a friend speak on a panel. She’s from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia, the church where I worshiped in seminary and did a field education internship. I roomed with one of our friends from Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., the congregation that walks alongside my church as we navigate relationships with our conference. I had dinner with the pastor who dedicated my daughter Tennyson. I cherished many hours with our dear ones who are serving at other churches, who further extend the circle of our relationships into the wider church, friends who have become a gift to others. I am bound up in them all.
For some of us, belonging to the Mennonite church runs deep into the past, it runs in the blood. For some this means belonging to a people whose identity was formed by communities and practices over hundreds of years, traced through families and imprinted on the land.
For some of us our ties to the Mennonite church are relationships in the fellowship of believers who gather for worship, for prayer and nursery duty, and the fellowship that happens during informal gatherings, in our hymns and tears that have formed us together over time.
Church institutions, on the other hand, hope that there is a mechanism by which we can secure this life with each other, this life with God. Like David, we want to believe that we can protect it. I think many in our church want this to be true because it is frightening when people threaten to leave those relationships. It’s frightening to feel the walls of the house we’ve built begin to buckle.
God upends this way of thinking in 2 Sam. 7. In response to David’s offer to build a house for God, David learns that God instead will build a house for him, a promise of faithfulness written into the bodies of a people. The temple into which David is invited is participation in God’s life where “[we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
My little church knows a lot about the fragility of our common life, of opening ourselves to relationships that will be altered by distance as our friends move to new homes and jobs and congregations. We also know that God has been faithful to us. God continues to bring us new life and new friends. Our life is not something we can secure. Our life is a gift, a dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:22).
And we know, because we’ve seen it happen, that the life we know will crumble. It will become dust. That’s when we will rebuild it. We’ll enter again into opening up our life to the new people God sends us. We’ll find new ways for life together.
That may happen with MC USA. I hate that. Because I love our church. And I need the institutional structures that help me see what binds all of us to one another. I appreciate how our institutions reunite me to those who can tell me the story of how I have come to be who I am.
Of course I’m also aware that relationships can become another site of manipulative utility as we proclaim our unity for the sake of body. But friendships — the kinship of those “built together spiritually” (Eph. 2:22) by their very nature — won’t be used in this way. This may be why Ephesians 2 switches suddenly from a building metaphor to one of growth. Our kinship is as much like a tomato plant or a black-eyed susan as it is like a house. It can wither and flourish. It is fragile and persistent at the same time. Friendship is not a foundation. It is a vulnerable gift.
I felt this tension, this precariousness, at one point in particular during convention. We had just voted to uphold the Membership Guidelines and were leaving the delegate meeting. I went out into the hall that led to the rest of the convention center. I could see through the crowd before me that some members of Pink Menno were standing in the hallway.
To many of our LGBTQ friends this resolution confirmed their rejection and our inability to recognize the gift of their lives. So they stood silently before us, facing us. Our friends were putting us face to face with our relationships, with those who are bound to us by blood and water, and they had us see them. We saw them. I saw them. They were spread out throughout the hallway, facing the delegates as we wound in and out of their way, around their bodies. Some mouths were covered in tape, signaling how they had been silenced. Some wept.
You had to work hard not to touch them. And some did. Some checked cell phones and crowded near walls. Some quickly moved by, heads down. My reaction was the opposite. I wanted to touch all of them. I wanted to take each person in my arms and whisper, “You are God’s beloved.” The need to be physically close was overwhelming. I wanted to do this as an ally. I wanted to cancel out the words we’d just brought to life. I wanted my body to say, “You are not alone.”
I can also see how this reaction could be my attempt to secure something falling apart. Something had crumbled for our LGBTQ friends when we the passed the Membership Guidelines resolution. And I wanted to gather the pieces right there and start reconstruction.
But it is up to God how our broken kinship will be remade, how we will be restored to one another — you to me, each of us to the other. God’s freedom means knowing that what is before us, the structure in which we have put our trust, whatever that may be, can crumble into the dust. Even then the God who has bound us to one another will rebuild us again.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is a licensed minister in Mennonite Church USA’s Virginia Mennonite Conference and a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. She gave this sermon there on July 19. She is the minister of children at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. She blogs at breakingnewbread.wordpress.com.