Having grown up as the daughter of a postmaster, I have been always intrigued by the mail. I grew up reading stories about the Pony Express, about kings and queens placing their seal on royal documents and sending them by courier, and about letters sent home during wartime. In seminary, I learned about the power of letters in our own bible, as sent by Paul and others to the churches. Throughout my life, I’ve had a variety of penfriends on multiple continents, sometimes simply exchanging a postcard or New Year’s greeting. Even with the advent of electronic mail, it is still a marvel that we can write a letter, affix the proper postage, and it somehow makes its way across a town, a nation, and a continent.
However, should you omit the zip code from the envelope, the letter might not arrive at its destination or at the very least, be delayed. Some of you might remember the advent of ZIP codes which began officially in July 1963 in the United States. You might even remember Mr.ZIP, the cartoon mailman whose stick figure had helped to convince even the most stubborn folks to use those extra numbers. Before that, there might have been a postal number but it was much more limited in scope. Given that the postal service now delivers about 493 million pieces of mail daily, remembering to use that ZIP code helps your little letter to find its way to some 157 million plus delivery points in this country alone.
In today’s scripture, we read about King Solomon’s dedication of the temple to God. His father, King David, had promised to build a temple to house God during his reign, but he got sidetracked by constant warfare (see 1 Kings 5:3-5). After many years, son Solomon finally completes the building project, with a lot of forced labor, skilled artisans, and additional taxes at his disposal.
Once God’s temple is completed, Solomon believes that God will have a particular kind of address, a place where his name shall reside, a place where the covenant between God and God’s people shall be housed, witnessed, and shared. Solomon hopes that God “will hear in heaven” the prayers of not only God’s people, but also of foreigners, when they are in distress and direct their prayers to the temple. In short, the temple becomes a kind of ZIP code by which the people’s prayers find their way to God’s ears.
When the temple is completed, all the people gather to hear Solomon’s building dedication. What Solomon says is striking. He asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you [God], much less this house that I have built!”
Now that’s a humble thing to say. Solomon, for all of his supposed wisdom, his kingly power, and his vast resources, realizes that God exists beyond whatever boundaries he might impose. The sheer immeasurability and vastness of God brings Solomon to say in essence: “we can not contain you, God!” That is an amazing statement—when we realize the many ways that we, indeed, try to contain God for our own purposes. God’s ways are beyond our control, our force, our traditions; God is bigger than our lack of trust, intention, or imagination.
What do I mean? Suppose you are in the midst of some crisis, something that finds you at your wit’s end, some situation or difficulty that eludes resolution. You can see no end to the dilemma, and it has you tied up in a proverbial knot. Can God exist for you in that situation or not? Can we see that God is presently at work in places and times where we have no tangible proof or verifiable measure? And what difference would it make for us – or for the situation– if we were to believe, right now, in God’s presence in our affairs—even when there appears to be scant evidence, or when our prayers seem to return to us, destination unknown?
Solomon knows that God exists beyond human constructs—whether that be a temple or a tradition, an idea or an ideology. God transcends our grasping minds, confident opinions, and nagging doubts. This is good news—because it frees us to consider and ultimately recognize that God can be found at those times, and in those places, where we might not expect God to be.
Will God dwell on earth? The God of the Israelites was a particular God—not a generic one. God’s presence was found in particularities, not generalities: a particular sense of justice and love, a particular understanding of covenant, a particular people and a particular relationship in time. For Christians, God’s particularity extends to the person of Jesus, and by extension to all of you, including little Sophia, whom we baptized today.
We affirm that God exists in human form—that God can and does come to us in the particularity of Jesus and the stories about him, as well as the indwelling of the Divine in the particularity of all of you. As we grow in faith, we discover that by somehow taking this Jesus into our very being, by participating in his birth, death, and his very life, we will live in him, and he in us. This particularity was a difficult and shocking thing for some to understand back then, as it is now. In fact, we are told it offended some, and caused others to quit following Jesus.
Yet, Jesus provides us with one particular and specific answer to Solomon’s question: Will God dwell on earth? Jesus says, “abide in me, as I abide in you” (John 15:4) In short, as we share in his life— he will share ours. By following Jesus, we learn in a particular way that we are God’s dwelling place and temple; we are God’s particular ZIPcode on earth.
Will God dwell here on earth? How would you answer?
If we begin to take Solomon’s question seriously, and Jesus’s response, we will find ourselves asking some deeply personal questions:
Will God be found in my struggle with my child?
Will God be found in my marriage or my illness?
How will God be found in my family’s finances?
How can Jesus be found in my heart when I am filled with hatred?
Will God be known through the way I conduct myself at work or at play?
Have I invited Jesus into my loneliness, my addiction, my fear, and my failure?
Will God, indeed, dwell on earth?
Our willingness to explore these questions reveals our intention to invite Jesus into the particularities of our lives—not in an abstract and distant way, but rather in a way that ultimately transforms us and the relationships of which we are a part.
In Solomon’s time, the temple was set aside as holy and sacred—a place of singing, sacrifice, and liturgical ritual. Will Willimon, the minister at Duke University Chapel, has said that “we need the rituals that keep relationship.” Rituals can carry a negative connotation for some folks. They can imply routine and repetition and can be devoid of meaning if we have lost our awareness of why they exist in the first place. But rituals can also bring comfort and depth to a relationship. They give structure and can infuse life with meaning. Healthy married couples know that it’s those little intentional loving acts that help to keep the home fires burning. Friends know the importance of returning phone calls and making it a habit to stay in frequent touch with one another’s lives. Parents discover how children seem to do better with bedtime rituals and consistent routines. Rituals keep relationships.
So what are the rituals that keep your relationships alive? What things do you do to keep your relationship with your loved ones healthy and sustaining? How do you build a home for God in your life? Would God be welcome there?
What we believe is possible or not possible often influences reality. I read somewhere that if you are having trouble motivating yourself to exercise that you should begin by putting on your sneakers. Then once you’ve done that, you tell yourself that you will just go outside for a minute. Then you decide to walk around the block. Pretty soon, you find that you are exercising despite your initial reluctance. But if you decide from the start that you absolutely can’t walk, or that you are too tired, too stressed, or too whatever—then you probably won’t try. Our belief often leads to intention, and when practice follows intention, we often discover a transformed reality.
Our church is but one address at which God’s name resides. Little Sophia will –by God’s grace and imagination– have lots of choices as she grows as to where she might celebrate, discover, and worship God. But today, we gather together to affirm our collective understanding that God loves human beings so much as to dwell within this child. When she prays, her prayers will indeed reach God’s ears. If she should ever feel lost, God will know not just her address, but her deepest longings, her most tender concerns, her strengths and vulnerabilities, and—most importantly—her heart.
Solomon built God a temple that symbolized his intent to follow God’s ways and to live in healthy relationship with his Creator. How will we show our intent to live in relationship with the God who chooses to make us a dwelling place? How will we keep relationship with God in the particulars of our life? May God find a home in each of us, in this community, and in the relationships of which we are a part. Amen.
 “An Uncontainable, Yet Accessible God” 08/24/1997, http://www.chapel.duke.edu