We Worship in Tents

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Friends and neighbors, the story you are about to hear is true. It’s not my story, and the version that I know doesn’t have any names in it, and I’ve added some details. But it’s true. At the very least, it’s truthy.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was going through a difficult time. Her husband had passed a while before. She got through the first year, and the acute grief that comes with the first-things-wihout-someone. Now, she had settled into a longer grief. And it was hard.

She had some friends who she talked about what she was going through with. And they were wonderful, but they weren’t enough. She needed something more.

One Saturday night, she thought about going to church. It wasn’t something she usually did, and she hadn’t gone to a church in a long time, but there was one down the street from her house that seemed okay. So she went online and looked at the service times and decided that she would go the next morning.

That Sunday, she got up, and got ready, and walked down the street to this church: this church that she only knew about because she had driven past it for years; this church that she was only walking into because something had tugged at her spirit. And when she stepped into the sanctuary, she was shocked—absolutely floored—to see the same friends who she had talked to about her struggles sitting there.

None of them had mentioned church. She didn’t know any of them went to church. She certainly didn’t know any of them went to this church. She didn’t even know any of them were Christian.

In our reading today, King Solomon has built a temple for the Lord: an exalted house where the Lord can dwell forever. And it’s been a long time coming.

Long ago, the Israelites spent a generation wandering through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. Then they spent generations dispossessing the people of Canaan and tearing down the shrines of strange gods. Then they spent years establishing a kingdom.

And all that time, from the day they left Egypt until today, no matter where they were—whether they were in the wilderness, or in Gilgal, or in Shiloh, or in Bethel, or in Nob, or in Gibeon, or even in Jerusalem—they worshipped the Lord in a tent.

But they remembered.

They remembered that when they were in the wilderness, the Lord had promised their ancestors that one day, when there was rest on every side, when there was neither adversary nor misfortune, the Lord would appoint a place…

…and the people would worship at home, and in their towns, and wherever…

…but they would bring their burnt offerings and sacrifices, their tithes and offerings, their votive gifts and freewill offerings, the firstlings of their herds and flocks to this place…

…and they would eat there, all of them together, in the presence of the Lord, and rejoice in the blessings that the Lord had given them.

And now, almost five hundred years after the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, King Solomon has built a temple for the Lord: an exalted house where the Lord can dwell forever.

A few years ago, not too long after you called me as your pastor, we… envisioned… together. The Council and I interviewed a bunch of people, and we sent our questionnaires, and we looked at the results, and we crafted a Statement of Identity and Purpose.

You voted on it at a congregational meeting. Now it hangs in my office, and in Fellowship Hall, and over the water fountain in the hall, and in the main entrance that leads in from the parking lot. We are a community that worships, that welcomes, that serves, and that grows.

And one of the questions that we asked in those interviews was: What was a time, in the life of the church, that was a high point for you?

And a lot of the answers that we got were stories about this building:

…about installing insulation and having a potluck; about passing a pizza box to finish paying the debt; about a community coming together to do a big thing…

…about baptisms in this sanctuary; about Sunday School classes down the hall; about Faith Cafes in Fellowship Hall.

And this is a beautiful building. It’s full glowing memories. And—God willing, fingers crossed, knock on wood—we’re going to full it with so many more over the years and decades to come.

But…

You know and I know that the church is not the building.

Over the last however many months, we’ve seen that the church is something that happens in a building… in sanctuaries and classrooms and fellowship halls… during worship and committee meetings and Sunday School classes and conversations in the hall…

and

…the church is something that happens in parking lots and on Zoom, in hospital rooms and at the Referral Center, and wherever else two or three are gathered… over family dinners and game nights with friends, in moments when we celebrate together and moments when we mourn together, and whenever else two or three are gathered.

Church happens wherever God is present; which is everywhere. Church happens any time God is present; which is all the time.

In a minute, King Solomon is going to cut the ribbon and give the speech. He’s going to turn to the people and bless them. And then he’s going to turn to God and pray, so that everyone can hear:

Blessed are you, O God. There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below, keeping steadfast love with your servants. But will you dwell on earth? Heaven cannot contain you. The highest heaven cannot contain you. Much less this house that I’ve built. But… hear my prayer… when your people pray toward this place, hear them. And when your people come to this place, let them know your presence. 

You see, you know and I know and Solomon knew that the temple—the exalted house where the Lord could dwell forever—was not for God. Not exactly.

The temple—the exalted house where the Lord could dwell forever—was for the people.

Because God does not need burnt offerings or sacrifices, tithes or offerings, votive gifts or freewill offerings, or firstlings of heads or flocks… but the people did.

The people needed this place to eat together in the presence of the Lord and rejoice in the blessings that the Lord had given them… 

…so that they could go out into the world and be the people who God was calling them to be…

…so that, even when they were far away, they could turn to Jerusalem, and remember the temple, and remember the Lord, and be the people of God.

And the truth is that this building—the the sanctuary, Fellowship Hall, the narthex, the classrooms down the hall—is not for God. Not exactly.

It’s for you.

Because God does not need our worship or praise, our songs or our prayers, our joyous festivals or our solemn assemblies… but we do.

We need all those things and more so that we can go out into the world and be the people who God is calling us to be… so that, even when we’re far away, we can remember the Lord, and be the people of God

Whether we realize it or not, we still worship—we still offer praise and sing songs and pray prayers, we still celebrate joyous festivals and hold solemn assemblies—we still worship… in tents.

There wasn’t rest on every side. There were still adversaries and misfortunes. And the temple stood for centuries. And it fell to the Babylonians.

Later, the people tried again. They built another temple. And it stood for centuries. And it fell to the Romans.

And we know how that goes. This isn’t our first building. This isn’t even our second building. And as much as we love it—God willing, fingers crossed, knock on wood—it won’t be our last building.

This community—this little consulate of the kingdom of God—has moved and moved and moved again. We have happened in buildings and in parking lots and on Zoom. We have happened in parks and hospital rooms and homes. We have happened at the Referral Center and in Jamaica and in Haiti.

And the truth is that as long as there is not rest on every side, and as long as there are adversaries and misfortunes, even our most permanent structures will be tents. This building and every other building and buildings yet to come will be tents.

But that’s okay. Tents are holy things.

And this tent is a place where we can gather… 

…where we can  find sanctuary from our adversaries and misfortunes…

…where we can offer worship and lift praises, sing songs and pray prayers, celebrate joyous festivals and hold solemn assemblies…

…where we can do the things that we need to do to remember Lord…

…so that we can go out into the world and be the people who God is calling us to be.

And because it’s just a tent, we don’t have to be attached to one place or one building. Instead, we can be attached to the community… we can be attached to the kingdom of God… whether we find church here, or in the parking lot, or on Zoom… or in parks or in hospital rooms or at home… or at the Referral Center or in Jamaica or in Haiti… we can remember the Lord, and be the people of God.

Friends and neighbors, the story you are about to hear is true.

Right now, there is someone in your life… right now, there is probably many someones in your life… who need to know—who need to be reminded—that they are loved and worthy of love.

And sometimes, the right thing to do is take what you’ve received here, in this tent, out into the world. Sometimes, the right thing to so is take what you’ve received here, in this tent, and go to those people, and say, “You are loved and worthy of love. And I’m here to love you.”

But sometimes, the right thing to do is take what you’ve received here, in this tent, and go to those people, and say, “Y’know, I know this tent… I know this sanctuary… I know this place where church happens. And you might find some comfort there.”

And they might not know that you go to church. They might not know that you go to this church. They might not even know that you’re Christian. They might be shocked; they might be absolutely floored.

And they might discover some good news… the same good news that you know so well… that you, and they, and all of creation, are loved and worthy of love.

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