Fashioning a Place Where People Can Meet God

Fashioning a Place Where People Can Meet God

Exodus 25:1-9 and Exodus 40:33-38 and John 1:10-18.

As I put the sign out on the bulletin board with this week’s sermon title on it, a man I didn’t know, looking over my shoulder, said:

“Excuse me, but God doesn’t need you all to make a place for Him to meet people.”

I responded, “I think, you’ve gotten the sermon title’s meaning backwards. God can, of course, meet people wherever God wants to. God is, after all, God. But humans… we often can use some help meeting God. We believe God’s calls the church to be one of those places.”

The man looked at me blankly — almost as if I hadn’t responded. Then walked away wordlessly. Hopefully, my sermon will have greater effect with you all. I mean to initiate some real response. In fact, disagreement would be better than silence! That’s why I’m preaching “Fashioning a Place for People to Meet God.”

…The Tabernacle we heard about in this morning’s reading from Exodus, it was to be God’s dwelling place
in the midst of the people of Israel; on their journey through the wilderness; on the way to the Promised Land.
A movable Tent, with portable furniture, set off by temporary fence that created a surrounding courtyard. A sacred place, to be God’s place of meeting in the center of God’s people.

God was always with the Israelites. Surely plagues and parted seas, and fire and thunder on the mountain and daily manna and quail down below should have proved that.

But this tabernacle was a special place. Holy ground, cordoned off in between the 12 tribes of Israel wherever they pitched camp… a visible spot to gather with God, to worship and offer their sacrifices.

The tabernacle was first erected exactly one year after the first Passover, when the Israelites were freed from their slavery in Egypt. And there again God “appeared” as a pillar of cloud over the tent during the day;
and as a pillar of fire by night, as God had done when leading the people out of slavery and through the seas, leading them to safety and the promise of a better future. Here again, over the tabernacle, God took the visible form of these extraordinary pillars, in plain sight of all the people. And the people recognized God’s presence. In fact, they would not set out on the next leg of their journey, unless… until the pillar lifted. This tabernacle was all an unmistakably powerful and absolutely necessary, visual symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites.

God understood — in a way that leave me scratching my head — that past and present miracles were not enough. Israel needed some sacred, set aside space, a constant, visible evidence of the Divine presence. When Moses had disappeared up to Sinai for 40 days, when the people could not see or hear from the One who had seen and heard from God, they grew impatient, or dispirited, and quickly stopped even looking or listening for God. Instead, they gathered their gold to cast a calf, a graven image they could worship in place of the invisible God.

So God directed that there be a tabernacle constructed to provide a visible space, always nearby to repair to in order to meet God. God gave very specific instructions about how to build the tabernacle. …What it was to be like. Because it was not about what the people wanted, but what God wanted because God knew it was what the people needed.

Because the wilderness tabernacle…it’s a projection of God’s redemptive plan.

In the New Testament, John writes in the 14th verse of what we read today: “The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.” The Greek word we translate in English as “dwelling,” it’s the equivalent word for the Hebrew for “tabernacle” in the Old Testament. In other words, God came in living flesh
to dwell or “ to tabernacle” in the midst of the people. As Christ walked upon the earth and lived among his followers, he was “God ‘tabernacling’ with us,” fulfilling this necessary role — God’s visible presence — like the tent of meeting.

Jesus Christ, you may not think of the Messiah this way, but he is God’s visible projection of the Divine plan of redemption.

And the church — simple, imperfect you and me and the all too human community of faith we incarnate — the church, as the body of Christ, is also to be God’s tabernacling in a world where, otherwise, it’s often next to impossible to glimpse God. The church is for many of us, and could be for many more a visible sign of God’s unending, loving, suffering, and merciful, hopeful, promising presence — right here in the midst of our brokenness …no matter how bad things get.

Recently, I have found myself needing, seeking, leaning more into the hope of visible God’s presence… more lately, than for some years. Because I am feeling the need for some tangible hope in order to keep on keeping on. I’ve had to look intentionally for reminder of the way God means for me, for us, for our world as it has seemed, I confess to be unraveling. (This following part of the sermon owes some real debt to and is taken in part from Roger Cohen’s “The Great Unraveling,” in last Monday’s NYTimes.)

Beheadings in the desert. Bombings in the cities. Murder in the suburbs. Children endangered. Young men executed.

The largest nation on earth complaining it is encircled, humiliated. In response, it annexes part of a neighboring country, the first such grab in the European sphere since World War II. The surrogates of the aggressing nation shoot down a civilian airliner, and the victims’ bodies are left to rot in the sun for days.

The lands referred to as holy devolving again into open warfare, missiles and tunnels and cities shrouded in burning smoke. Civilians targeted in the crossfire …all a mockery of the legends and promises of their multiple sacred sites.

The most powerful nation on earth exhausted and despairing its far-flung wars; its will and its treasury depleted by any absence of victory, by warfare’s specious ineffectiveness. “The world better start learning
how to behave itself better, or begin policing itself,” I heard one of our leaders quoted the other day. Because all the while, bridges and boards of education at home are crumbling. We can’t travel safely from one community to another. Or trust that our children are being educated for tomorrow. And legislatures are no more than a morass of infighting and political paralysis. Ideological posturing or intransigence — I’m not sure which — has replaced maturity, compromise, the give and take of governing towards resolution. Ah, how our leaders seem weary and left without any plan, and the people’s apathy and narrow self-concern are strengthened.

Anti-semitic slogans are again heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews.
And Europe’s Muslims suffer an ugly backlash from the careless depravity of decapitators whose capacities include their adeptness at Facebooking their inhumanity.

All these horrible, despairing images fill the news, on t.v. and in print, day after day and night after night.
They trouble our minds and weigh down our hearts. Until the end of the summer, when incredibly, they are replaced by some more homegrown horror.

Another unarmed Black teenager is shot to death by a police officer. 1 of 4 unarmed Black men, in a month, across this nation killed by those who sworn to keep the population safe. The anger and despair and fear are palpable. The Protests heated, often described as riots.

And the government response — in some formerly innocuous, unheard of suburb, but three towns away from the county seat where I grew up… it appears to be a military crackdown. Not since Kent State has the U.S. seen such images:

its own government with rifles pointed at U.S. civilian populations.
Armored vehicles.
And tear gas.
And full military equipment.
The press arrested.
And weapons fired, bullets, rubber or not.

Suddenly, America’s unresolved sin erupts again. And I hear anew the despair in the hope against hope phrase
“Black Lives Matter.” Can you imagine that we’d even have to make an assertion like that?

But the unraveling wasn’t finished. Next it’s the outbreak of fever. West Africans literally bleeding from their eyeballs. And whole neighborhoods and countries cut off, abandoned, left to die. The world couldn’t quite seem to care.

In the midst of all this bloodshed and disregard, alongside violence and hatred and death, injustices unchecked
and spreading like some unstoppable disease swallowing up more people and claiming greater and greater swath’s of God’s globe… I’m speaking personally here. I found myself seeking, looking, almost desperately, for God’s visible presence in the midst of all the bloodshed, disregard and unraveling. It easy, perhaps too easy, to despair. “Where is God in all this?” “And what in the world, can I do in the face of the world’s suffering?

And, beloved, I have found it here. In quiet, almost retiring personal stories. All summer we’ve heard a parade of witnesses, our peers, people like you and me, standing up from these pews and coming forward to stand before us, to tell us why they believe in this community, why they invest it with their participation and love.
And those affirmations have ministered to me.

Now it’s my turn. To tell you that my hands in. And why.

I can’t control terrorism or stop the bombs and the bullets. Or germs or hatred. Often I feel pretty powerless before injustice too. In the midst of another, worse education funding crisis, I’m not even sure what to do, except let Julie take on more students, and whole schools go without cleaning staff.

But I have heard you whose faith doesn’t seem to be as flagging as mine is lately. And I’m reminded how I see God here. Not full, face on. But in a passing movement. Or a soft word. Or subtle action. In a surprising person. Usually only echos or shadows or vague reflections.

Church, there’s so much in this world I can’t, God forgive me, figure out how to do, or undo. But, thank God, I can throw my heart in here. I can try my best, give my most to help this place continue to be, or even become increasingly where God gets a hearing, where God’s at the least a regular sighting.

Where people are respected, honored cherished. Fed and housed and welcomed. Listened to carefully even when not understood. Forgiven long after we’d rather give up on them. Then given another chance. Even encouraged to try again, to get back up again and keep trying.

Because God keeps trying with us. Stays with us. Keeps Inviting Us. Calling Us. Showing up and sticking with us. Leading Us, even when when the whole world seems a wilderness.

Beloved, right here (holding up an envelope), I’m making the biggest contribution I’ve ever made.
Not just money for the Campaign for Old First. Or for my year in and out stewardship. But giving of myself. On a good day, my best. On lesser, weaker days, still stretching to offer what I have, can find, can do without if I can only remind myself that I’m giving it where it is needed.

Because we and this world desperately need places where we can see God, hear God, experience God, know God, even if only in the imperfect reflections of other people and all too human community’s trying to follow a way that’s clearly beyond us.

At Old First, some people come forward almost every Sunday, to pray. Today, I want to do this a bit differently. Because we are undertaking something new and big. And prayer is always a good place to start and to stay. Where we find God and find the strength do what we could not on our own.

I want to invite anyone, everyone forward if you’re willing to commit…
willing to offer you best;
willing to make this a place where people can meet God;
willing to contribute generously;
willing to take up your ministry and follow Jesus;
willing to do your part, to contribute the little light you have to help us brighten the light here,
willing to pitch in with your voice that together we might raise the good sounds of love…

(Michael then invited the people to gather at the front of the church; near the table of communion.
And people responded. Most of the congregation gathered up front, leading the church forward, praying spontaneously for the needs of our world and this church, the success of the campaign, the reach of our ministries and the a host of various personal needs and concerns.)