It hasn’t been easy for David since he was chosen to rule Israel – picked the last of his brothers, sent out to a giant with a pocket of stones, made to play the harp to appease a demon, his death plotted by the king. I imagine he is weary from the unpredictability that has marked his kingship thus far.
And so it is that in 2 Samuel 7 David is ready for God to legitimize his kingdom. David’s plan is to offer God a house, a house David will build. He has seen the temples of gods in the land. And he knows that nothing will confirm the presence of God in Israel like a permanent structure.
Walter Brueggeman describes this moment as the balance point of David’s “glad yielding and manipulative utility.” 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 the presence of structures that will assure us that this is the case. 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.
In Kansas City, at our denominational Convention a few weeks ago, it often felt like we were attempting 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 of what would happen if we were left alone to decide on the common forms of life and the shared commitments that our conferences would take. We were told we should be afraid of all the churches we love would leave. 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, 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, the church where I was first called to pastoral ministry. I heard a friend speak on a panel. She’s from Oxford Circle, the church where I worshipped in seminary and did my field ed. I roomed with one of our friends from Community Mennonite, the church that walks alongside us as we navigate relationships with our conference. I had dinner with the pastor who dedicated 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 because your friendship was first a gift to them. I am bound up in them all.
I know that being a part of the Mennonite church may mean something else for you. For some of us that belonging runs deep into the past, it runs in the blood. For this is 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 what ties us to the Mennonite Church are the relationships in this room – the nursery duty and glasses of wine, the hymns and tears that have formed us together over time.
Church institutions hope that there is a mechanism by which we can secure this life. 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 Samuel 7. In response to David’s offer to build a house for God, David learns that instead God will build a house for him, a line of faithfulness etched into the very 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).
Our 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 churches. 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 Mennonite Church USA. I hate that. Because I love our church and I think there’s something important about spaces that help us see what binds us to one another and the ways we are also our own. I appreciate how our institutions put me in the way of others and 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 our passage from Ephesians 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 at the same time fragile and persistent. Friendship is not a foundation. It is a vulnerable gift.
I felt this tension, felt 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 standing in the hallway.
To many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters this passing this resolution confirmed their rejection and our inability to recognize the gift of their lives within the church. So they stood silently before us, facing us. Our sisters and brothers 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. They were spread out throughout the hallway, facing the delegates as we wound in and out of their way, around their bodies. Some mouths 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 phone 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 sisters and brothers when we the passed the Membership Guidelines resolution. And I wanted to gather the pieces right there and start reconstruction.
But trusting our God who is free also means trusting that within God the bonds of our relationships are restored, but even that is not ours to secure. It is up to God how our broken kinship remakes, tongue and groove. 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 fall to dust. Even then the God who has bound us to one another will remake us again.
 Dogmatics in Outline, 2.1