What distressing news confronts us each day! As if a surge in COVID cases weren’t worry enough, I saw a report on flight attendants taking courses in self-defense. They want skills to be able to protect themselves against irate passengers. Already this year more than $1 million in fines has been charged to folks who get violent while suspended in space and strapped into airplanes. A drought out west has dried up lakes as heat levels continue to soar. Wildfires rage while courageous firefighters, including a son of our church, work endless hours to contain the flames. Haitians have, once again, been brought to their knees because of a double hit by Mother Nature: a strong earthquake that claimed over 2000 lives followed by a hurricane that relentlessly pounded thousands of newly homeless residents. The images of Afghan residents hanging onto moving airplanes in a desperate attempt to flee their country underscores the chaotic transition of our troops exiting while the Taliban swoops in. One crowded cabin after another is lifting off the ground as Afghan people catch a final glimpse of the land they call home before going aloft. Ironically, once they are off the tarmac, they begin to feel safe. My heart has broken countless times this past week looking in on our turbulent earth and political mayhem. Perhaps you felt a similar sense of helplessness, wondering what sort of a difference we can make in the overwhelming issues that cry out for our attention.
The lectionary readings are taking us through the early kings of Israel. This is the second week that we meet up with Solomon, the third king who is revered for his great wisdom. Chapter 8 gives us a peek into the emotional scene of Solomon dedicating the new Temple that he built to bring glory to God’s name. We skip through this chapter, leaving out certain parts of the prayer. The lectionary committee that put this cycle of readings together wanted us to hear the fifth of seven requests this sage king presented to God. He prayed that people far from Israel would hear of the great God honored in the Jerusalem temple. He prayed that God might hear the prayers even of the foreigners as they approached the temple. If these outsiders could catch just a glimpse of God’s glory, they might also find refuge in the God of the Israelites. As Solomon was swept up in a dedicatory prayer of this beautiful new sanctuary compound, he considered the plight of the refugee.
I called Deb Hoekwater, the Refugee Church Engagement Coordinator for Bethany Christian Services. I asked her if she expected a wave of Afghan refugees to alight in Michigan in the near future. The simple answer is yes. She’s not sure of the timing. The usual referral process for someone to come to our country is two years. She said it is very unusual that thousands of Afghan citizens are being flown out of the country who haven’t been screened. The government is working on a different referral process that can speed up the process. Bethany staff members are fielding many calls from Afghan citizens who have successfully resettled here. They are panic-stricken about the well-being of their families amidst the violence of the past week. They are desperately seeking a means of rescue for their loved ones but finding there is little they can do. Deb and other Bethany workers spend time talking with them over the phone. One man, who has been resettled in the United States for awhile, told her with great excitement that he saw his father’s face on one of the screen shots of an overloaded airplane leaving his homeland. He didn’t know where his father was being taken but took heart in knowing his dad was out of harm’s way and beginning his journey toward freedom. If some of these people make it to Michigan, it will be churches that welcome them “home.
Solomon was thinking of such people while caught up in a conversation with his Maker!
With the completion of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant could be moved from its temporary resting place into a forever home. This symbolized the triumph of the Jews leaving behind a nomadic lifestyle as a nation and becoming truly settled. Their God would now have a home base out of which the faithful could proclaim God’s wonderful works. With great pomp the religious treasures that were central to their itinerant worship life were carefully placed in their new home as sacred relics. The Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting would serve as historical reminders of their years in the wilderness. Lifting his hands heavenward, Solomon gave thanks for God’s faithfulness in establishing a home for the Israelites. He was incredulous that one as great as God would allow a temple to be built in the divine name. God didn’t need the temple but the temple needed God! Solomon prayed that God would hear the prayers lifted up in this holy sanctuary. He begged God to forgive the penitent who turned their faces heavenward. The builder of the Temple was overcome with gratitude that this sacred space provided a place of contact between citizens of heaven and earth. No longer housed in a collapsible tent, the ark was safely lodged within the new Temple walls.
Twenty years ago a retired pastor purchased an abandoned church building in an effort to reinvigorate it. I would see him mowing the lawn of the church grounds in the summer and shoveling a walkway up to the grand sanctuary doors in the winter. His hopes for filling the pews with devoted followers of Jesus never panned out. There’s an odd conflict-of-interest when the pastor trying to grow the church owns the building that houses the congregation! The pastor never attached his name to the building but people learned that it was his piece of real estate. His name was perhaps connected to that space more than the God he sought to serve so it did not survive. Fortunately, another congregation purchased the building when it was sold and it is, indeed, a vibrant community of faith, owned by a whole congregation of believers, who sing praise to God in Grand Rapids.
In his prayer Solomon questioned, almost as an aside, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Solomon confirms that God’s dwelling place is in heaven. But, by giving divine blessing to Solomon’s structure, God gets naming rights. Folks travel from near and far to worship the God of Solomon in a sanctuary whose beauty was legendary.
There’s a funny mention of a piece of furniture in this prayer. The placement of the Ark in the temple was called the “divine footstool.” Here, at last, was the place where God could rest with the chosen people. If you have a building named after you, you will probably want to know what business it houses, right? So, if the temple had God’s name attached to it, Solomon reasoned, God would stop by to rest with the pilgrims. Solomon prayed that God would equally welcome the foreigner to this sacred space as well as someone who could trace their roots back to Father Abraham.
The NIV Application Commentary states this: “Rest was the consequence of Israel’s inheriting the land, the uncompromised fulfillment of all God promised. The rest of God demonstrated that creative activity was complete and that the work of the creator was perfect.” After all that the people had endured (400 years of slavery, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, a battle to claim their own land), the image of the footstool invited the Jews, finally, to rest.
When have you rested from your labors, content that you had completed what God asked of you? We too often forget that God instituted the law of Sabbath as one of the ten commandments: Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Without a holy directive to cease from our labors, God seems to know that we would work ourselves to death. It might not lead to a physical death but we easily lose our way spiritually if we never get off the treadmill. The sabbath was created so that we could put our feet up in the presence of our God, knowing we had done what we could for another week.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after the horror of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, wrote this about the command for Sabbath rest: “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we use no money…on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world’s chief idol…a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?”
A central feature in the replenishment of the Sabbath is time spent in God’s creation. When we live responsibly in our world, we take delight in our home. One of our members has spent the summer painting lakes with reeds and shimmering sunlight. An environmentalist, out for a clean-up day on that lake, floated past Lynn and took interest in what she was painting. The artist was grateful for the commitment of the environmentalist and the environmentalist was captivated by Lynn’s painting. The environmentalist paddled away with a still-wet painting from Lynn. Each felt blessed by the work of the other.
Beautiful images on Facebook capture lakes and trees, wildlife and mountains. These stand in stark contrast to the videos we’ve watched of fleeing Afghans and desperate Haitians. How does God’s startling beauty propel us toward our neighbor? Sometimes we might prefer to go deeper into the woods, becoming hermits in our cottage or the hull of our boat. How do we balance the urgency to respond to crises yet know when to put our feet up, as God does on occasion? Are we able to rest in the assurance that we have done what God asks of us?
Solomon and his people were exhorted to make the name of God great. I wonder if we look for ways to make God’s name great? Have we assured others that God is always near and ever willing to forgive? Have strangers whose lives are quite different from our own experienced God’s mercy through us? Have we prayed for any of the people we saw on our screens this week or did we turn away because it was unsettling? Deb at Bethany urged us to pray for them now. I’d love to see our congregation resettle an Afghan family in the near future. Our first task is to reclaim our hosting responsibilities for homeless families in our sacred space in November. After nearly two years of hiatus, we will once again offer sanctuary to families who rely on our kindness. These are neighbors who are refugees from having their own homes and safe spaces to raise their children. What a privilege it is to shelter them in our church building while they work toward an independent future. Sabbath rest reminds us to put our feet up for a day to replenish our spirits. Only then will we be equipped to joyfully accomplish the work God places before us.
At this ceremonial dedication of the temple, Solomon moves his people from past to glorious present. This is the continuous cycle in our life: shedding old ways so that we can respond appropriately to present needs. Solomon had served as king long enough to recognize his own propensity toward sin so he humbly asked for forgiveness in this dedicatory prayer: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”
Having been refreshed in our sacred space this past Sunday, we continue to face many questions: Who, us? Help them? When shall we do that? And how? In our busy world, we will wrestle with finding the balance between work and rest, weeding our gardens and putting our feet up. The God of Solomon assures us that both service and sabbath are central to a life of faith. The revival we experience in the Sabbath of each week invigorates us to re-enter the world. May our prayers, like that of Solomon, be the fuel to our journey.