(Exodus 33: 7-11; John 1: 1-5, 14)
If you saw the movie Gravity this past year, you’ll certainly remember the way it opened. The words, fading in and out at the bottom left corner of a black screen:
At 372 miles above Earth the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit.
There is nothing to carry sound.
No air pressure. No oxygen.
And then ending with the obvious conclusion of all of that:
Life in space is impossible.
It more than sets the stage for what happens next; the devastating satellite debris that hits the space shuttle and her crew, as they are working on the Hubble telescope, destroying nearly everything in its path. Only Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, and Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, survive – tethered together, no space ship to return to, floating aimlessly in the vast expanse of space.
And so it’s an odd conversation that astronaut veteran Kowalski strikes up with rookie Stone; one you wouldn’t necessarily expect given, if you pardon the pun, the “gravity” of their situation. After sharing important survival tips like breathing in sips instead of gulps, Kowalski asks her, So where’s home, Ryan? Where’s home. It’s not what she’s expecting some 372 miles above earth with no way to get down there. Where’s home? What? she says. Kowalski rephrases: Down there – Mother Earth. Where do you pitch a tent? Ryan answers, Lake Zurich, Illinois; and so they share stories of home and family that, in a powerful way, ground them as they float helplessly in space.
Pitching a tent. I like that expression. It reminds me of camping trips my family and I used to go on when I was a kid. It was the first thing we’d do when we got there; my Dad, in his meticulous Dad way, would always pack the tent last so it’d be the very first thing we’d pull out. We’d get the tent set up before anything else – before getting food ready or setting the campfire or even locating the bathrooms. We needed our home base first. We needed to pitch our tent.
It’s what the Hebrews did in their 40-year extended camping trip in the wilderness. You know the story – God freeing the people from bondage in Egypt, Moses leading the Hebrews to the Promised Land. It wasn’t exactly a direct route they took – winding around in the desert for a generation. Everything had to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. So their places of living, all their supplies and livestock, portable.
Even their worship space. They called it the tabernacle. God was worshipped in what amounted to a large tent. Within that tent lay the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments, always reminding the people of God’s presence in their midst. Outside the tent was an altar and other vestments of ancient Hebrew worship. But all of it wa portable, because it had to be. Generations later, King Solomon would build a permanent place of worship. A glorious structure; the architectural marvel of its time. But for those forty years in the desert – those incredibly formative years – the people worshipped God in a pitched tent.
Isn’t there something beautiful about that – simplistically beautiful? I mean, nothing fancy, just the basics. A place for worship; nothing more. But even more than ambiance: theology. This idea that God – or, more specifically, the space where we encounter God – is not tied down to any one fixed location. That space is mobile; that exchange between human and divine can take place anywhere. All those years wandering in the wilderness, in the vast expanse of space, and God just pitched a tent with them.
So tell me, Ryan – where do you pitch a tent?
It’s interesting, you know, because that same concept makes its way into the New Testament as well. In the opening of John’s gospel, all this talk about the “Word” being in the beginning and how the Word was with God and how it in fact was God. This timeless truth the writer of John is trying to describe, the divine presence from which everything comes – it’s all abstract and intangible and elusive. Like floating aimlessly in space. Until that 14th verse:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
That word “dwelt” – we’ve talked about it before. It literally means “to pitch a tent, to encamp, to tabernacle.” And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent with us. Tabernacled with us.
You see what this means, don’t you? Suddenly it isn’t about some structure we gather in – it’s about the One we gather with. It’s not about a covering we set up and take down and take with us wherever we go. It’s about a person – flesh and blood, even. Two or three gathered in his name. Wherever he is. Wherever we are. In the vast expanse of space.
The center of who we are as a worshipping, studying serving people is always rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. And see, I think that’s something important to keep in the back of our minds as we prepare here to pitch another tent next week, if you will. As you hopefully know by know, the heating and air-conditioning portion of our church’s capital campaign project begins in earnest tomorrow. The good news is that, when all is said and done, our heating and air conditioning will not only run more reliably – keeping us warm in the winter and cool in the summer – but it will run more efficiently, lowering both our consumption of resources as well as our financial secretary’s blood pressure every time she opens the monthly utility bill. The other side is that, of course, is that over the summer, there will be no air conditioning in this sanctuary of ours. So, beginning next week and running through at least July, our weekly worship will be held in the Fellowship Hall.
Now for most of you, this is not going to be a new experience. When I first met with the Pastor Nominating Committee almost a year ago, I asked them a question – because, as much as they were interviewing me, I can assure you I was interviewing them! I asked them to share an instance where the church had been confronted with some challenge and how they addressed it. One of the things they mentioned was that, two years ago, the air conditioning here had gone out – big surprise, I know – and so there was no choice but to move worship into the Fellowship Hall. And they told me that, generally speaking, it was a positive experience for everyone. So this is something we’ve done before. It’s something we’re used to.
Still, it is hard to leave a space like this! So much of a congregation’s ethos and character and identity is wrapped up and intertwined in its space, you know? Many Easters and Christmas Eves have been celebrated here. Many funerals and memorial services have happened here. A sermon we’ll never forget, an organ swell that sent a chill up our spine, a choral anthem that brought a tear to our eye – we remember them here. We like our holy spaces. We are attached to them, much the same way we are attached to our faith. We like our traditions, precisely because they are traditions; and it is never easy giving up those spaces, those traditions, even for a short time.
Kind of reminds me of the story about a young rabbi and a serious problem he faced in his new synagogue. During the Friday service, half the congregation would stand for the prayers and the other half remained seated. And of course, each side was sure they were doing it the right way and the others were totally wrong. It got nasty. They would glare at each other, even shouting sometimes, right in worship
The young rabbi was at a loss. So one afternoon he paid a visit to the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder, who was living in a nursing home in town. He pleaded for help: Rabbi, he begged, tell me – was it the tradition of the congregation to stand during prayers?
The old rabbi thought for a minute and said, No, that wasn’t the tradition.
Ah! said the younger rabbi, So they sat, right?
And the old rabbi looked at him and said, No, that wasn’t the tradition, either.
Exasperated, the young rabbi replied, Well, then, I don’t know what to do! All we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream!
And hearing that, the old rabbi’s eyes lit up and he said, Ah, I remember now: THAT was the tradition! (Barbara Lemmel, “Makeshift Communities,” Christian Century, January 6-13, 1999, 15.)
Now I share this in jest, of course. As far as I can tell, there is no screaming or shouting about whether we stand or sit for prayers – and I want you to know, as your still relatively new pastor, how much I appreciate that.
But I do think it brings to light an important point: that our worship, through whatever traditions we observe, in whatever space we observe them in, our worship is worship not because of us and our space, but because of the God who comes to us wherever we are. Whether we’re in the sanctuary or in the Fellowship Hall: the Word becomes flesh and pitches a tent with us. Whether we’re singing with a glorious organ or a simple upright piano: the Word becomes flesh and pitches a tent with us. Whether we’re sitting in fancy pews or simple metal-frame chairs: the Word becomes flesh and pitches a tent with us.
Now there may be some who have concerns that not worshipping in this space might deter people from coming to worship – our members, or even all the visitors we’ve been having as of late. But here’s the good news: if you believe all the studies out there about what brings people to church, and what keeps them coming back to church, this doesn’t seem to be the case. On a recent study that chronicled the top five reasons visitors make the decision to come back to a church they’ve been to, the physical space of worship comes in at number five. Certainly important, but not the most important.
You want to know what ranked higher? Number four was a meaningful sermon – which I understand we had from DC last week. Number three was the acceptance of children – and I love the fact that our kids remain in worship from beginning to end. Number two is interesting: the authenticity of worship – that it “matches” both the people present and the space that it occupies. And the number one reason first-time visitors come back: the hospitality and welcoming nature of the people. How about that! Above all else, people come to church because they feel at home here, because the people are welcoming here – from the moment they pull in the parking lot until they get in their cars to go home.(Christian Connections Presents: “Evangelism – First Time Visitors, A Newsletter for the Leaders of Growing Churches,” The Win Arn Growth Report, http://tcm.nbs.net/~cc/evang/firvisit.html, visited on 4.22.2014.)
I mean, that’s really the heart of worship, don’t you think? That deep and lasting connection: people with each other, people with their God. In a world that seems to be perpetually wandering in the wilderness, floating aimlessly in the vast expanse of space where life is impossible, you and I get to worship a God who comes to live among us and grounds us in fellowship and grace and love. So that when all is said and done, it’s not where we are. It is who we are with.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the name of the God who pitches a tent with us, thanks be to God. AMEN.