Sunday, July 7, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Before the Bethlehem Star"

Numbers 9:15-23

15 On the day the dwelling was erected, the cloud covered the dwelling, the covenant tent. At night until morning, the cloud appeared with lightning over the dwelling. 16 It was always there. The cloud covered it by day,[d] appearing with lightning at night. 17 Whenever the cloud ascended from the tent, the Israelites would march. And the Israelites would camp wherever the cloud settled. 18 At the Lord’s command, the Israelites would march, and at the Lord’s command they would camp. As long as the cloud settled on the dwelling, they would camp. 19 When the cloud lingered on the meeting tent for many days, the Israelites would observe the Lord’s direction and they wouldn’t march. 20 Sometimes the cloud would be over the dwelling for a number of days, so they would camp at the Lord’s command, marching again only at the Lord’s command. 21 Sometimes the cloud would settle only overnight, and they would march when the cloud ascended in the morning. Whether it was day or night, they would march when the cloud ascended. 22 Whether it was two days, or a month, or a long time, the Israelites would camp so long as the cloud lingered on the dwelling and settled on it. They wouldn’t march. But when it ascended, they would march. 23 They camped at the Lord’s command and they marched at the Lord’s command. They followed the Lord’s direction according to the Lord’s command through Moses. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week Six

It could not have been more painful.  She had been working on her car’s brakes when suddenly, the car’s jack buckled, and the entire thing came crashing down on her foot.  After her doctors assessed the nerve damage to her foot, she asked them to amputate her leg below the knee.

Yet, thus began a new calling for her.  Her day job, amazingly, enough, was as an occupational therapist for paraplegic persons at Washington University in St. Louis, and she put all of her professional skills and ingenuity to work on her recovery, and on her very public attempts to reassure others who had had recent amputations.  This work culminated recently in her posting a time-lapse video to Youtube of her building a prosthesis with Lego bricks from her childhood.

The LegoLeg, as she called it, was not functional enough to walk in, but she is able to stand and put weight on it.  Her new goal is to build a LegoLeg that she can walk in.  And from her home in St. Louis, she has begun to move the hearts of thousands of people, simply because she found a brand new use for a childhood toy: to stand instead of sit, and to one day walk instead of not.

We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (and, ironically or no, that very line reflects the wonder and splendor of the divine name itself from Exodus 3: I Am Who I Am).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  We have now spent five weeks on this book and on this sermon series, and we have arrived at the final installment, whose theme is “nurturing spiritual community.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

The aging congregation in Rhode Island that I pastored had a steady stream of dying members.  Each time I buried someone, I soon got another call about a dear friend in intensive care, or a kind man who had just passed quickly and quietly.  Intense waves of grief washed over the family members, and as I sat with the loved ones, I longed to have someone sit with me.

In the midst of this, I had an early miscarriage.  I felt life and hope drain out of me, but I still didn’t have the support that pastors need in their own periods of sadness, denial, and bargaining.  I said goodbye to a couple of close friends who moved away, and could not find much strength to fill the void…

It was a dark year in my life, and I stumbled and tripped all the way through it.  I didn’t know how to ask for help, and when I did, I had the terrible feeling that somehow needing it was the wrong thing.  I figured that other pastors must have gone through the same things, but talking to others in the denomination about my weaknesses made me feel…well, weak.

Carol writes these words in a chapter about her discovery of moving prayer—literally, praying while moving.  And for her, it is one significant way in which spirituality gets nurtured.  And it makes sense to me on a personal and religious level as well—personal because I’m this fidgety young thing who doesn’t always sit still, and religious because of stories like this from Numbers.

Numbers might just be the most underrated book in the Bible.  It is sandwiched between two legal masterpieces—Leviticus and Deuteronomy—and is known primarily for documenting the first-ever census of the Israelites.  Which, I mean, is cool and everything, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to a plague of locusts, you know?  Numbers is so underrated that I’m willing to bet that its most famous passage is something most of you know, but had no idea that it came from Numbers: it’s the prayer “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord deal kindly and graciously to you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.”  It’s Numbers 6, but I didn’t know that until I took an Old Testament class in college.

But anyways, Numbers 9.  Everything between here and Exodus 20, when Moses is given the Ten Commandments—so, the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first nine chapters of Numbers—all of it takes place at Sinai.  It’s a pretty big intermission on the journey to the Promised Land, and you can imagine that after such a lengthy—and meaningful—break, that setting back out on the trail again wasn’t the easiest thing to get up and go do.  You lose inertia and momentum, and that ups the degree of difficulty substantially.

And so in Numbers 9 (the more I say it, will anyone start to get that Beatles song, “Revolution Number Nine” stuck in their head?), God intervenes to dial that degree of difficulty back down.  He manifests a supernatural phenomenon to guide the movement of the Israelite camp—a cloud by day, and fire by night.  And this supernatural cloud and fire guides the Israelites from point to point by settling at wherever they are to encamp for the night, and staying there until God tells the Israelites to break camp again, at which point it would go on ahead to the next point. 

Now, I’m not sure exactly how well this divine GPS navigation system worked—after all, it took the Israelites forty years to traverse a patch of land that Google Maps says should take you only about five hours to drive across (yes, I actually looked up how long it takes to drive from Cairo to Ramah.  Now you have some idea of how your pastor spends his day of sermon prep).  Yet still, it was, and is, miraculous nonetheless, God-Garmin or not.

And compared to the Sinai narrative—where all of this legal code is handed down to Moses and the Israelites basically in one place and in one fell swoop—this is a gradual revelation of God’s presence.  In other words, God works both ways.  God can overwhelm us in a singular instance of wonder and splendor, and God can also guide us bit by bit and piece by piece.

Because this is not the only time in Scripture when God uses supernatural phenomena to guide people somewhere.  It is how, in Matthew’s Gospel, He uses the Bethlehem star to guide the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem.  It’s the exact same sort of thing—God sends a divine manifestation that moves and guides a people to a promised destination.  For Moses and the Israelites, it is the land that they shall call home.  For the Magi—and for us—it is to the Christ child whom we shall call Savior.  In both instances, God uses the gradual journey to lead us to something far greater than ourselves.  In other words…God works both ways.

Which means that the church must work both ways as well.  I worry that far too often, we treat bringing someone into the church, or to the point that they want to be in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, as the finish line, the objective, the target to aim for.  The evangelist Billy Sunday once famously said that the best thing that could happen to someone is to die immediately after converting to Christianity, because they had just achieved all they needed to.

And that can’t be how a tribal church operates.  A tribal church isn’t just there for the mountaintop moments, those fleeting instances where God’s grace and presence overwhelms us to the point of being called to Christianity.  A tribal church must be there for all the moments that come after as well.  A church that is only in it for the born-again experience is acting like a fair-weather friend: there for when things are at their best.  No, a church must be more than that.

And that is the best way I can come up with, after six weeks of preaching on this, to define what a tribal church looks like to me.  I know many of you have asked, and this is the best answer I can give: a tribal church creates a tribe around a common cause and belief—the existence of God as taught and embodied by Jesus—and then cares for that tribe in sometimes the most basic of ways, but ways in which its members can be cared for in no other way, and that is why I think most tribal churches are intergenerational, theologically diverse, and increasingly creative.

A young woman who had just endured an utterly painful, life-and-limb-altering experience had elected to nurture a community around a common cause through the internet, and the result was, well, a new prosthetic made of old childhood toys.  And the attention it received after going viral contributed to the building and growing of another community, an online tribe of people.

Behold a new thing, indeed.

For, just as God creates in us a new thing when we finally say “Yes!” to His call, so too do we then, in turn, create in others new things as well.  It’s a divine chain reaction, a God-inspired ripple effect that affects not just us, but our entire tribe.  For just as there was no way of knowing for most of the Israelites just exactly what God had in store for them after the Exodus out of Egypt, so too are we allowed to be amazed and inspired anew at how God guides our spirituality in the desert as well as on the mountaintop, and on the path as well as at the destination.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 7, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment