“Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house which I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27).
When the Episcopal Church in Tennessee, after the Second World War, purchased what is now the Dubose Conference Center, the Church simultaneously achieved a number of goals. It created a scholarship fund for theological education, the Dubose Scholarship Fund; a location for Camp Gailor-Maxon, the Diocese of Tennessee’s camp program for youth; as well as a gathering place for diocesan programs of all sorts including the newly founded Tennessee Laymen’s Conference. In those days, the Church was moving forward in mission and ministry, responding to the opportunities that were placed before it by the post-war boom in population and employment.
More than this, our forebearers were creating a place that would not only serve the mission, but would also find a place in the hearts of Episcopalians from all over the state. The founders of this institution could not have imagined all the ways in which the Dubose Conference Center would touch people’s lives, and be a force for good in so many families and for so many individuals. People sensed the presence of God in this place and in the people they encountered here. The ministry of hospitality exercised by staff members and volunteers over the years has been a blessing to generations of parishioners and campers. The ties forged here are of lasting value.
We have cause for celebration today, because over the years God has blessed the mission and ministry of the Dubose Conference Center. Now the Church in Tennessee finds itself in new circumstances and with new challenges. Our context has changed, but the mission remains the same. The forward thinking of our spiritual forebearers must be met by a fresh response on our part to the new situation in which we find ourselves. God is still at work, and we are challenged to find a way forward that will be fit for the new context. God continues to bless the Church in Tennessee with many opportunities for doing our ministry. However that may be, God will continue to bless the work to which we are now called.
In our first reading today, Solomon prays for the consecration of the newly built Temple in Jerusalem. If you know the story of that building project, you will know there was not a smooth path forward for planning and construction. When Solomon’s father David proposed to build a dwelling place for God in the newly acquired city of Jerusalem, all seemed clear sailing until God spoke to the prophet Nathan by night. What was David thinking? God never commanded the leaders of his People to build a house for God. God intended to bless the family of David, not a particular place: the “house” of David would be the royal line, not a dwelling made by hands.
So the project was shelved until the time of David’s son Solomon. The Temple he built was a grand project indeed, absorbing the gifts, talents, and resources of many. But you can hear in Solomon’s prayer in our reading today that ambiguity remained in the tradition of Israel about the possibility of a dwelling place for God. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?,” Solomon prays. “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house which I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27). Solomon’s prayer expresses the understanding that God cannot be contained in an earthly house: contained in the sense of becoming a prisoner of the place. God cannot be locked up in a particular time and place, becoming dependent upon it for power and presence. “Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool” (Is. 66:1), God says to the prophet Isaiah, giving a proportional perspective on the mighty God of Israel.
God’s promise to David and Solomon was to make them a “house,” revealing a double sense of the word. From their family would come the Messiah, a Savior. If God’s dwelling was not primarily in the Temple, God intended to dwell in their midst through the royal line, who would be the vehicle of God’s promise of grace. For Christians, that promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the heir of royal David, “great David’s greater Son” as the hymn puts it. In him, all promises are kept and all hopes met, through the mighty power of God.
Yet notice that Solomon’s prayer does contain the promise that God is present in particular places, to be encountered and for prayer to be heard. “Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God… that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place” (1 Kgs 8:28-29). The Temple was a holy place where God’s “name” was present: the name that personified and represented him. Here, prayer was “valid” (as the poet Eliot put it in another context); here in Jerusalem God would be encountered.
Christian have taken forward this double sense of the holy place. We know God cannot be restricted to the grounds of this conference center. God is not tame in that way, and cannot be reserved to a particular time or place in our lives. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and abroad in the land. All times and places are his. Yet God is encountered in particular people, in particular places, like this holy place. God has heard our prayers here at Dubose; here he has planted his holy name within our hearts (again, as the hymn says).
Today, we give thanks to God for all the grace he has shown to us in this place. The mission and ministry remains the same. Jesus is alive, and will continue to use us and this community for good. As we go forth, may we continue to bless God for the Dubose Conference Center, and for his continuing presence in our lives.