Sunday, August 23, 2015

Free-Range God

1 Kings 8
The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and overshadowed the ark and its carrying poles.  These poles were so long that their ends could be seen from the Holy Place in front of the inner sanctuary, but not from outside the Holy Place; and they are still there today.  There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt.

 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;  I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.”…

27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

John 4: 19-26
“Sir,” [a Samaritan woman said to Jesus], “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

About 10 years ago my family and I decided to get chickens. To get ready we cleaned out the kids’ old wooden playhouse. We put in perches and nesting boxes, lined openings with chicken wire and built a large fenced in area. I’d seen some of those chicken coops that you could buy but they seemed so small. I wanted to have happy chickens. But there was so much I did not know. Like to get hens and not roosters.

All of the chickens in the first group were Rhode Island Reds except one. Rocky was a black and white striped Barred Plymouth Rock and he was as big and bad as a rooster could be.

I didn’t realize that a dozen chickens would make short work of a 25 x 25 piece of grass. So, I did some reading on the Internet and discovered that if I let the chickens out, they would automatically go back into the coop at night. HA! Don’t believe every thing you read on the Internet. I have memories of chasing hens through the yard and gathering sleeping chickens out of trees in order to put them to bed in the coop.

But, I liked the idea of free-range chickens, chickens who could do what chickens were intended to do. I liked to watch them cluck and scratch in the yard. Instead of watching TV, we would sit on the swing outside and watch the chickens.

But there was one problem with idyllic scene. Rocky. He was the patriarch and he was MEAN. If you
walked too close to him or his hens, he would run to attack you with his sharp claws and beak. It got to the point where if we went outside, we would take what we called a “chicken-be-good stick” for protection--a golf club or a branch the size of a walking stick. It was ridiculous really, to be terrorized in our own yard by a rooster.

I know if you are a real farmer you are thinking that I’m a fool. Rocky should have been in the stew pot as soon as he had enough meat on him. But nobody in my family could “eliminate” him. We’d rather put up with a crazy and unmanageable chicken than get rid of him all together.

Truth be told, though, Rocky was just doing his job. He was single-minded in his devotion to his brood.   Despite Rocky’s unpredictability, I couldn’t keep the chickens contained in that little house. I let them roam as free-range chickens.
While he was alive, we lost very few hens to the foxes and raccoons.

Over time, Rocky and I learned how to behave with one another and came to an uneasy peace. But whenever I’d get too close, he’d come running with his head down and his feathers flying. Once Rocky died, we lost all of our hens one by one because he wasn't around to protect them. I never understood the mind of Rocky, but in a weird way I respected him and loved him. Rocky was, well, Rocky. He’s the only chicken whose name we remember. He’s a legend among chickens at our house.

In our Bible story today, Solomon is the new king of Israel. He has built, not a coop, but a glorious temple to God. It’s big and beautiful, using the best materials available. Our scripture reading comes from the dedication of the temple.  The event was like many dedication events today. All the important people in the community were there. There were long speeches and polite applause. There was Solomon’s long, long prayer, parts of which we have with us today.

At the temple dedication, they brought in the Ark of the Covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary. When the ark was put into the temple, the glory of the LORD filled the temple as a cloud. Solomon talks to God saying, I have built a magnificent temple for you a place for you to dwell forever.

Now many of you may remember the King Solomon is known for his wisdom. He is a smart and spiritual man. He’s credited with writing the book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs, depending on your translation).

Solomon is smart enough to know that even though he built a magnificent temple for God, that temple could never contain God. He couldn't keep the God of the universe cooped up. Solomon knew that God is a free-range God. 

Solomon knew that a house, a temple or a church couldn’t contain God because eGod is free to walk about creation and do whatever it is God chooses to do. God is free-range God. 

Solomon understood that he didn't know the mind of God.  Our mortal brains cannot figure out God or contain God. God tells us through the prophet Isaiah:

My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Our ideas about God are limited. Our interpretation of scripture is limited. Our theology about God is limited. God can’t be contained by the human mind because God is a free-range God.

Finally, our hearts are not big enough to contain God. Many of us have had spiritual experiences that completely overwhelm us. Experiences where God feels so big and powerful that our hearts cannot even begin to understand what is happening. Times like when when we have been so grateful that it feels like our heart will burst. Times when we've felt such forgiveness that it brings tears. Times when we pray so fervently that we are sure God will hear and respond.

But the desires of our hearts don’t limit what God can do. God doesn’t act a certain way because it feels right to us. God cannot be contained by our human hearts because God is a free-range God.

And this presents a conundrum for us, because there is always more to God than we can ever think and feel.

You may come into this sanctuary believing that God is good all the time. You may think that God is going to reconcile the whole world one day. You may believe that God’s plan is to bring together the good, the bad and the ugly into a beautiful new creation and that hell will cease to exist because the God of love wins. You may believe that eventually every knee will bow and every tongue will confess to Jesus in gratitude. There is plenty in the good book to lead you to believe that. 

But, remember, God is a free-range God.

You may come into this sanctuary believing God’s goodness means that justice is done and that this justice sometimes requires punishment and restitution. You may think that there is a dividing line between the people who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. You may believe that people who don’t proclaim Jesus as LORD or say the sinners prayer or get baptized before they die, will miss out on the joy of heaven and instead be mired in the eternal torment of hell. There is plenty in the good book to lead you to believe this.

But, remember, God is a free-range God. God is sovereign and not bound by our buildings, ideas and desires.

God is always free to break out of the box that we try to put him in. The cloud of God’s glory leaves the temple that Solomon built.

The glory of God breaks out of heaven and comes to earth as Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ breaks through barriers that keep people apart.

A free-range God can be a frightening thing because God will break out of whatever box we try to put Him in and, this is the hard part, challenge you to love Him anyway.

God will break out of whatever box we try to put her in and, this is the hardest part, challenge you to love Her anyway.

God will break out of whatever box we try to put God in and, this is the hardest part, challenge you to love God anyway.

God as Him is a box. God as Her is a box. God is not a him or a her. God is God. Separate, apart and unconstrained by our idea of who God should be. 

Can you embrace and love and respect a God that thinks differently from you? Can you believe in a God that sends people to hell? Can you believe in a God that doesn't? Can you have faith in a God who may choose not follow the rules of your religion?

This is Jesus’ problem. He doesn’t follow the religious rules of his time. He ministers to lepers, he eats with sinners, he proclaims his salvation to Samaritans. He says that being holy doesn’t mean being better than or set apart or special. He tells a women, an outcast, that the time is coming when it won’t matter if you’re called a Samaritain, a leper or a sinner. It will not matter where you go to worship.

People were so opposed to the ideal of a free-range God that they killed Jesus. No way did their God want lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors and sinners. They wanted to keep God in their box and chained by their rules.

But God did not let that happen. God didn't stay cooped up or confined. God broke out of the divine box and put on human skin as Jesus. God broke the box of religion and showed us how to truly live in faith. God broke the box of death and showed us eternal and abundant life.

God can’t be confined to a temple or a church or even a tomb. God is a free-range God who chooses to walk alongside us. God is a free-range God who chooses to forgive us. God is a free-range God who chooses to love us. God is a free-range God who challenges us to keep the faith even when the walls we build are falling down around us.

Because this is a God of good news. We can't control God, but we can trust God. In faith, we can trust that the God of the universe chooses to love us and forgive us through Christ. We can trust that the free-range God breaks out of boxes and buildings to do the things of God. We are called to follow this God out of the the box, out of the building and out of the tomb. 

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