Pentecost 14 (Proper 16/Ordinary 21): Year B

1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43

The Temple constructed by Solomon to be the focus of Israelite worship was reputed to be the most splendid building of its age. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, such was its reputation that when, some 1500 years later, the Byzantine emperor Justinian entered the refurbished church of Hagia Sophia which he’d ordered built in Constantinople, he is said to have declared “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Today’s reading is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that God grants to Solomon that which was denied to David: permission to build a Temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant (see 2 Samuel 7: 1-17). Interestingly, the denial of permission for David to build a Temple comes in the context of God’s faithfulness to Israel as a wandering people; God has dwelled among the people without need of a “house”. Indeed, David’s motivations for building a Temple are so that it may mimic the palace in which David himself dwells: the Temple shall be an extension of royal will and power, not a dedicated symbol of the covenant between God and Israel.

The second point is that Solomon himself seems aware of this reality. In his prayer of dedication, Solomon speaks first of God’s faithful companioning of the people of Israel, of the enduring covenant to which YHWH remains eternally committed. This is echoed in Solomon’s rhetorical declaration: Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house I have built. For all its vaunted splendour, the Temple itself is only a symbol: not of God’s captivity to the people of Israel, as a prisoner confined to a particular sacred space – but as the One who dwells among the people, keeping covenant with them. Even though Israel is no longer a nomadic nation, God’s relationship with them is not static, trapped in location and property.

This openness, this fluidity is further reflected in Solomon’s prayer that all the nations of the earth may come to know YHWH, that God may be as abundantly generous to the foreigner who “prays toward this house” as God is to the people of Israel. Note that phrase: “toward this house” – not “in this house”. God’s reach and mercy and abundance are not confined by the walls of the Temple, nor are they accessible only through presence within the Temple. Those who look toward the Temple as a symbol of God’s covenantal faithfulness will be included within the orbit of God’s grace.

When it comes to the world of work and economy, today’s reading from First Kings makes a couple of points. The skyscrapers that line our city skylines are often referred to as “temples” – “temples” of industry, “temples” of commerce, “temples” of human ingenuity and genius. But the question remains: whom do these “temples” serve? It is not a mere question of money and wealth or even equality of distribution. Rather, it is a question of covenant: do these “temples” mirror the relational faithfulness of God; or, like David’s desire to build God a “house”, are they reflections of overbearing will and ego fulfilment? In other words, do these “temples” reflect a desire for intentional relationship, the kind of invitation into relationship which God extends to humankind – or do they serve the quest to shut down relationship in the service of vested interests and selfish desires? Our skyscrapers may be “temples” – but in our construction of economic relationships, that does not mean they are “houses of God”.

The second point today’s reading makes is a familiar one: the confusion of means and ends. Or, rather, the conversion of means into ends. In our construction of work, have we turned work from a means toward the human ends for which work exists, and made it instead an end in itself, a reality that serves itself and not human dignity? Despite the reputed splendour of Solomon’s Temple, he was acutely aware that all of it was mere window dressing; it served no purpose if it did not point beyond itself, directing the observer away from itself and toward a greater reality. Solomon’s prayer points to that reality: the reality of covenant, and of God’s faithfulness to covenant. Justinian’s boast, made centuries later, demonstrates that he had forgotten this reality: he assumed it was merely a matter of outdoing Solomon. But Solomon’s dedication prayer demonstrates what the Temple is really about: it is a symbol, pointing away from its own petty splendours to the true majesty of God.

Today’s reading from First Kings is profoundly relevant to a church heavily invested in property and location and all the trappings of “success”. But it also enables us to question whether our construction of work and economy has not also turned these things away from what they are meant to be – means for human relationality and covenantal life – toward ends in themselves that serve, not as a reflection of covenant, but a desire to subdue reality and relationality to our own will.

Psalm 84

Psalm 84 is, like today’s reading from First Kings, a hymn of prayer to God in the context of God’s dwelling place. But like Solomon’s prayer of dedication, this hymn is not fixed in location or property, but in the symbolism of covenant and relationship: the dwelling place of the LORD is to be found throughout the land, in the hearts of all those who seek to live relationally with God and with one another.

Interestingly, the idea of “home” in this Psalm is extended to the non-human ecosphere: sparrows find shelter in the “house of God” and make their nests on the altars of the LORD. This is a reminder that God is also the Creator, the Maker of All Things, and that the whole of the natural environment exists as an outpouring of God’s creative love and energy.

But it also gives us cause to pause and reflect – as indicated by the word selah in the text. We need to stop and think. The “house of God” is not merely the Temple in Jerusalem but the whole world, incorporating both the human reality and the natural environment within which that reality exists. The Temple stands merely as a focal point for the greater dwelling of God in all of creation; it is a place, not for turning inward and reductionism, but for facing outwards and entering into expansive thinking, into the grandeur and greatness of God.

Our placing of waged labour and “economic necessity” at the heart of human life has caused us to turn inwards, to reduce our existence to the parameters of “earning a living” and “growing the economy”. But work serves far more than the basic material needs of humankind, or the profit imperative of a multinational corporation. Work – properly understood – facilitates the fullness of human life, the abundance that is more than mere wealth or richness of possession. It facilitates who we as human beings and what it means to be human. Likewise, economy – properly understood – is more than the network of capital flows and trade movements. It is the interconnectedness of human society, and whether or not that connection is being used in the service of human dignity or for lesser, more pernicious reasons.

Psalm 84 invites us to look outwards, to expand our horizons and our thinking about the “house of the LORD” and what it might entail. Likewise, we are invited to expand our thinking about what both “work” and “economy” entail, and the purposes to which both are utilised.

Ephesians 6: 10-20

In today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the apocalyptic language of messianic expectation. He speaks of “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil”, all in the belief that the day of messianic fulfilment – and all its accompanying terrors and wonders – was close at hand. To that end, he encourages the Ephesians to think of their faith in rather the same manner that a soldier might think of their armour, weapons, and other accoutrements: as practical instruments to approach the coming period of difficulty and tribulation.

And like armour, which has several components in order to make up a whole, likewise faith consists of its distinct elements, all of which interlock into a coherent unity: truth; righteousness; peace; faithfulness; steadfastness; the presence of the Spirit and the Word of God; prayer. With all these, the community of faith may proclaim the Gospel despite the difficulties set before them; and even Paul, a humble prisoner in chains, can be likewise bold in his witnessing.

In modernity, we might be sceptical about ideas like “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil”. We might be inclined to dismiss them as products of a credulous and superstitious pre-scientific community to whom such things were readily acceptable. But to do so would be to underplay the relative sophistication of the ancients; and also to blind ourselves to the “dark forces” that we ourselves unleash.

Because even if we don’t accept the “supernaturalism” behind the idea of “spiritual forces”, nonetheless, there are dark currents entirely of our on making within modernity’s construction of work and economy – forces that conspire to strip us of our dignity and humanity, and which cut us off from the covenantal interrelationship to which we are called.  William Blake’s reference to “dark, satanic mills” in his poem “And did those feet in ancient times” (later set to music as the hymn Jersualem) recognises the demonic effect of industrialisation: squalor and human misery; environmental destruction; wealth generated at the cost of mass exploitation. Likewise, John Maynard Keynes used the term “animal spirits” to describe the emotions and proclivities which he argued really drove market behaviour (as distinct from neoliberal theories describing rational agents acting in calculated self interest). And while we might quibble with Keynes’ use of the phrase, what he was clearly alluding to were some of the less pro-social and more self-centred emotions which drove human motivations and behaviour, especially with respect to economic and financial activity.

Today’s reading from Ephesians reminds us that, however we understand them, and whatever the source we might ascribe them, dark forces do indeed work their way through our construction of work and economy. Financial corruption, political expediency, cost cutting, profit maximisation, grabbing a greater share of the market, increasing shareholder return…all these are motivations that work like dark undercurrents to undermine human dignity, act against social good, and entrench the prerogatives of vested interests. More than just mechanisms for transparency and accountability, or strengthening of laws and regulatory powers are required. What is required is a culture change, a re-imagining of the meaning and purpose of work and economy in human life – a coherent set of inter-locking components that, like armour, protect the integrity and value of work and economy in human life.

John 6: 56-69

In today’s reading from The Gospel According to John, we begin to experience the “kickback” against the series of teachings which Jesus has been articulating through the course of the previous weeks’ readings in John. Jesus is, of course, talking about himself as God’s decisive intervention in human history, quite different in nature and effect from previous, temporary interventions made through personages like Moses, Elijah, and various other individuals. Thus, Jesus is the bread of heaven rather than bread from heaven: to “eat” his “flesh” and “drink” his “blood” is to understand who Jesus really is, and the significance of his ministry and Incarnation.

But this is precisely the point at which trouble begins. The messianic expectations of Jesus’ time anticipated one of the patriarchs like Moses, or one of the great prophets like Elijah, would appear in recognisable form and begin the process that would restore the unified kingdom of David and Solomon. There was no place for an “ordinary” person born in obscurity to not only declare that they were the fulfilment of covenant, but that the expectations of fulfilment would not play out as imagined. Rather, they would be embodied in the person of Jesus, through whose human Incarnation the life of the world would be restored into the life of God, promised and vouchsafed in the Resurrection.

But this is a hard teaching to accept, not least because it does not meet our expectations or pander to our hopes. There are no messianic promises that mirror the wish-fulfilment of human beings. Rather, the Gospel calls us into a life of hope, a life of trust and faith that we are companioned by God in trustworthy covenant. And the way into that covenant, the response to the invitation into relationship, lies through faith in God through Christ, because God the father and the Son indwell in one another.

Thus it is that many turn away from Jesus leaving only the twelve. And when Jesus asks them, if they, too want to leave, Simon Peter their spokesperson responds with that great question of vulnerability and hope: Lord, to whom can we go? But even so, it is one of those twelve who will eventually betray Jesus – perhaps because of their own disappointed hopes and expectations.

We often invest great hopes in work and the world of waged labour – hopes around being able to earn a living, pay our way, contribute productively to society, acquire goods and services, buy a home, afford holidays, establish our own and our childrens’ futures. Sometimes these hopes are realised; often they are dashed by the frequently harsh realities of the workplace, or of the economic system few “ordinary” people understand, let alone have the opportunity to control. Moreover, it often becomes apparent that the great narratives and dreams which we invest in work don’t match the reality: far from being fulfilled and affirmed, we are often brought down by drudgery and powerlessness.

Work – especially hard, dehumanising work, or fruitless unfulfilling work – is not the way to salvation. The dream that has been sold to millions of people – work hard and it will pay off – often ends in death, injury, trauma, the crippling and narrowing of life’s possibilities, and disillusionment. The centralisation of waged labour in human life and the pushing to the margins of other forms of human work compound this process. We set up systems of expectation and wish fulfilment, only to discover they lead us into dead ends of frustration and wounding.

In this passage from John, Jesus’ self-description as the Bread of heaven offering eternal life is an invitation to re-imagine the relationship between God and humankind, and how God is faithful to, and will fulfil, covenant promises. In the same way, we are invited – however hard it may be to do so, however often we are told it is impossible to do so – to reimagine the world of work and economy, to take them out of the realm of idolistic expectation and return them to where they properly belong: to the flourishing and abundance of human life.

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