After hearing today’s readings, you might suspect that I selected them for the occasion, as we make last minute preparations for the beginning of construction today and over the next few days. But that’s not the case. As you know, we follow the lectionary and so the fact that we heard the story of David’s desire to build a temple, and the famous image of Christ the cornerstone from Ephesians, are only coincidental.
But certainly my mind has been focused on the renovations that are about to begin here at Grace. It’s been a long process getting here. It was three years ago that members of the Master Plan Steering Committee began touring churches as we interviewed architects. We received our first conceptual drawings for a master plan more than two years ago. Since then we’ve received lots of additional plans, had lots of meetings, raised money, made decisions and discussed. The shape and scope of the project are coming into focus and the vestry and Construction Management Committee are making difficult decisions based on our needs and desires and our financial resources.
The desire to create beautiful spaces or seek out in nature places in which to encounter the divine is ancient, perhaps even innate to humans. For David, there may have been political as well as religious motivations. A single temple would consolidate the religious activities of the people who ruled in a single location, the city he built and named as capital. At first, his desire is affirmed by his court prophet, Nathan, but then Nathan receives an oracle from God that makes clear God’s disinterest in this project. The reasoning goes like this. “I never asked for it. I was content to go around in the ark and tabernacle among the people.”
Instead, God makes a different promise, actually a covenant with David. God reminds David that God anointed him, gave him victory over his enemies, made him king. God promised David that Israel would have a permanent home, live in safety, and that God would establish a “house” for David through his descendants, that they would rule forever, and that David’s son would build a temple for God.
There’s a downside, a threat, in this covenant—if David’s descendants sinned, they would be punished, but still God promised that God would not remove God’s favor from the Davidic line. As Christians, we understand this promise to refer to Jesus Christ, but in its original context it gave the Davidic monarchy divine legitimacy and served to unite the Israelites around the king.
We can probably understand David’s desire to build a special place for God. After all, we worship in this place thanks to the hard work and vision of those who came before us, those founders of this congregation who built our church more than 150 years ago. When they did, Madison was still on the frontier. To build a stone edifice like this one was a symbol not just of the faith of those who built it. Through its beauty and size, they were creating a space in which people could worship God, and that proclaimed to the world, “Surely God is in this place.”
To touch the divine, to experience God, is one reason we come to worship. Many of us also come because we seek spiritual sustenance and refreshment. In today’s Gospel, the twelve have returned from their missionary journey. Not surprisingly, they are exhausted from their travels and from their work. Jesus gathers them together and offers them an invitation, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”
We know the feeling. Although it’s summer and life is supposed to be somewhat less hectic, more relaxing, many of us struggle with the stress of work or family issues. Some of us have been spending a lot of time preparing for our renovations here, or other activities related to the church. We need a rest. Even now, some of us may be distracted by all of the things we have to do, the many tasks that make up our lives, the problems that we’ll have to deal with at work tomorrow. Jesus’ offer, “Come away and rest awhile” appeals to us. We might love to get away from it all, if only for a few days.
But even as Jesus invited the twelve to go away to a deserted place and rest awhile, the burdens of the world came with them. When they arrived at their destination, they discovered that the needy, desperate crowd had preceded them and were waiting for them. Can you imagine how the disciples might have felt right then? Exhausted themselves, physically and emotionally drained, they were looking forward to that escape from it all, and instead, they were confronted by the world’s misery in all of its magnitude.
Whatever the disciples might have thought when they saw the crowds, we know what Jesus thought. He had compassion on them—it’s an earthy word, suggesting he felt it in his guts. But when he saw them, it wasn’t their physical needs he noticed, it was their spiritual needs. They were like sheep without a shepherd, lacking protection, guidance, purpose. They came to Jesus, looking for all of that, and more, in search of healing and hope. Jesus and his disciples, having sought respite, were back in the middle of it.
Where do you see yourself in this story? Are you among the disciples and Jesus, exhausted by it all, hoping to come away and rest awhile? Or are you among the crowds, coming to Jesus to hear his words of life, to receive his healing touch? Or perhaps, is it a little bit of both?
We carry all of our worries and needs with us to this place each Sunday. We come with hopes and concerns. Sometimes what we need is at the forefront of our minds; quite concrete—like an illness, or conflict in our family or at our place of work. Sometimes, we can’t even express what it is we need, there’s a gaping hole in our hearts or in our lives that we can’t name.
But even then, we come, and we might encounter the world’s needs in all of their magnitude, in the suffering of a friend, or of a homeless person on the street who asks us for help. We come in search of something, or someone, and when we arrive in this place, we meet people who are seeking as well. Sometimes, they come in search of us.
On Wednesdays at noon, a small group of us gather for worship. There’s a core of four or five who come almost every week, and several others who join us from time to time. Over the years, I’ve become aware of all of the others who come here at the same time, the people who are waiting for the food pantry to open and the folks who gather at noon every weekday for AA. It’s a snapshot of our church, of people gathering for worship, people coming in search of food, companionship, and support for their recovery. And there are the volunteers who are working in the pantry as we pray and celebrate the Eucharist.
There are many needs in the world, many needs in our community. Grace Church, our facilities and congregation offer compassion and help to those in need. We do it in many ways. At the core of it all is our faith in God and our worship. As we embark on this ambitious project, let us not lose sight of the God who has called us to this place, of the Jesus whom we follow. Just as we are refreshed and renewed by word and sacrament, just as we are refreshed and renewed by our encounter and experience of Jesus’ compassionate mercy, may we also always share that compassionate mercy with those we encounter, here and in our daily lives.