Have you ever set out to bake a cake and, despite all your best efforts to spread the batter in the pan evenly, and not tip the pan, and set the pan in the oven so that it’s level . . . the cake comes out of the oven not level? Slanted? One end of the cake two inches high and the other end only 1 ½ inches high? What do you do? You try to disguise the unevenness with the icing, right? You spread the icing on thicker at the thin end of the cake, and thinner at the thick end of the cake, to try to even out the height, so no one will ever know. And it usually works, especially when you give the thick-icing pieces to people whose favorite part of the cake is the icing. Icing can cover up all sorts of “cake errors.”

But if the cake is just plain bad—if it tastes terrible, or if it’s not done and the batter’s still sticky, or if it’s burned and unsalvageable—then all the icing tricks in the book won’t save you. If the cake is fundamentally flawed, messing with the icing is just a waste of time.

It’s sort of like the saying about the Titanic. If a person or organization is in deep trouble, like that famous ship was after its encounter with an iceberg, and is ignoring the deep trouble and tidying up unrelated little details instead, it is said that that’s like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” No matter how nice or orderly those chairs end up, that effort was ultimately unimportant in the big picture.

Or imagine having a basketball  without any air in it. You can wash the ball;  you can repaint the stripes on the ball; you can even have Michael Jordan sign the ball. But if you can’t get it inflated, all those other things won’t have gotten you a chance to play ball.

And we have other examples: “You can dress him up, but you can’t take him out.” “All dressed up with no place to go.” No matter how much you fix up the superficial, or surface, aspects of a situation, the way things look . . . if there’s a bigger problem down inside, all that work on the surface won’t make any difference. It’s nice icing on a burned cake; orderly deck chairs on a sinking ship; effort and attention expended on that which is relatively unimportant.

Jesus offered a rather graphic illustration of the same point, in describing corrupt religious officials of his day:  “You are like whitewashed tombs,” he said. On the outside they have a nice fresh coat of whitewash and look beautiful, but inside they are still full of death and decay and rot. All the whitewash in the world won’t change that.

The people of Old Testament Israel, in about the year 1030 BC, wanted a king. For the previous approximately 170 years, beginning in the 12th century BC, they were in what we call the period of the “judges”: they were twelve independent states with no central government and no central authority, just, from time to time, local regional leaders, called judges. And they didn’t want to be twelve independent states led, now and then, by judges anymore. They wanted a king, so they could be like all the other nations.

That’s probably not the best reason in the world—“if all the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?”—but that’s what they wanted, in spite of the objections of their advisor Samuel, who was a combination of priest, prophet, and last of the great judges.

Samuel thought their desire to have a king was a rejection of God: “What do you need a king for? God is your governing authority.” But God finally said to Samuel, “It’s ok. If they want a king, give them a king.” So Israel got its first king, Saul, who would be followed by David, then Solomon, then a whole bunch of less famous kings, described in the Bible books called “1st and 2nd Kings.”

Because to God, Israel’s form of government was not all that important. It was not the key issue. It was icing, deck chairs, whitewash. God didn’t care if the people of Israel were an unorganized band roaming around in the desert, as they were under Moses; or twelve independent states, as under the judges; or one nation governed by a king . . . as long as they were faithful.

Faithfulness was the important issue, not form of government: were the people worshiping the one true God, only the one, true God, and trying to follow the Law God had given them to order their lives? If they were, great. If they weren’t, no particular form of government, not all the icing in the world, would help.

We get a second glimpse of this in our second Scripture lesson: when the kingship was firmly established, and the second king, King David, had a secure kingdom, a capital city of Jerusalem, and a palace, he wanted to build God a Temple. “What am I doing living in a house of cedar,” he asked, “when our house of God is still a tent?”—as it had been ever since the days in the desert, under Moses.

God responded: “Did I ever say to you ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’ A tent is fine; the type of place you have set aside for me is relatively unimportant.” What was important to God was faithfulness, and obedience. If the people were faithful, things were fine. If they weren’t, no magnificent temple, not the neatest deck chairs in the world, would help.

Tribe, judge, or king. Temple or tent. Things like that don’t matter to God as much as faithfulness.

And the examples don’t stop with Old Testament Israel: If this building were fixed up and decorated perfectly (whatever perfectly is, in your opinion)—brass polished, beautiful flowers, sparkling clean—but our hearts weren’t in our worship of God, which would matter to God? Hint: not the building. If we put all our effort and attention and resources into our building, and ignore sincere worship of God, we’re on the wrong track; that’s whitewash, icing, deck chairs.

If we examined everything about  our order of worship—best hymnal, best style of music, best use of screens, favorite place for minister to stand, lovely printed bulletins—but didn’t put ourselves into our worship—our praise, our prayer, our listening for God’s word—we’ve been sidetracked, too concerned with the superficial.

If we organized a fellowship dinner, and had the best food, and nicest centerpieces, and polished silver, and all got all dressed up for it, but argued about every step along the way, it’s not much of a “fellowship” dinner, is it?

If at our Session meeting, we had a nicely typed agenda, new folders for our papers, a nice variety of snacks and beverages, but accomplished nothing in the planning of church activities—just argued for two hours over whose fault it was the walk was not shoveled last February 18th—we would have gotten sidetracked into the superficial.

The important thing is our worship of God and service to God.

Jesus defined what’s important: he identified “the greatest commandment”: Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That needs to be our focus.

A “megachurch” in a big city could have 12,000 members, a beautiful cathedral, two gyms and a bowling alley, and its own radio station. But if sincere worship of God is not happening there, and there’s no mission helping the people of the community, and no understanding of the Bible, it’s just a new kind of club, not a church.

The United States could call itself a “Christian nation,” requiring prayer in public schools, printing a motto of “In God We Trust” on everything, hiring Senate chaplains to say only Christian prayers in their sessions, officially adopting the title of “Christian nation”; but if it shows no interest in or compassion for people, including children and the poor, if it is destroying God’s creation, if there is no effort to be a people of justice, all the mottos and government chaplains in the world won’t make it a Christian nation.

A church’s model of minister doesn’t matter—full-time, part-time, co-pastors, two churches sharing a pastor. What matters is the worship, the mission, the demonstration of love of God and love of neighbor.

The existence of a particular congregation doesn’t even matter the most—whether Paris continues to have two Methodist churches, three Baptist churches, four Pentecostal churches—as long as the people of Paris are worshiping.

Even when an entire denomination goes out of existence, as when the Evangelical United Brethren merged into the United Methodist Church, that’s not as important as if the people are worshiping and serving God in some faithful denomination. That’s the important thing: love of God and love of neighbor.

The people of Israel, even with that king they wanted so much, eventually lost sight of that. Our third Scripture lesson today is from the book of Chronicles, which also describes the years Israel was ruled by kings. This takes place some 450 years after that initial request for a king:

II Chronicles 36: 11-21

As a last desperate step to correct the people of God, God sent them into exile, into Babylon. There was no more Temple, no more king, no more Israel—only a vague prophecy of a remnant who might someday return. They had lost sight of what was important, distracted by things like church buildings and hymnals and placemats, cathedrals and senate chaplains and denominations—by icing, deck chairs, and whitewashed tombs.

Faithfulness is what matters to God: that our hearts are in our worship, our energy in our service to others, our focus on God’s kingdom; not on all the distractions. Our priority is to demonstrate our love of God, and our love of neighbors as ourselves.

Let’s pray: God, we thank you for things like beautiful church buildings, well-done worship bulletins, and fellowship dinners, but ask that you would help us to not get too focused on things other than worshiping you, helping our community and world, maintaining and improving our relationship with you—including through prayer—loving you, and our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.