Re-Pitching the Tent

Dialogue sermon by Rev. Dr. Gerald Christianson and Minister of Music Timothy Braband

Tim:  Something strange is going on here.

Jerry: You mean that you’re doing a sermon? Or that I might direct the choir!

Tim: Nice try, but not a chance!  No, I mean that our assigned topic is “Re-pitching the Tent,” but the lesson(s) today are all about temples.

Jerry: Just look up. We are in a tent: this was exactly our intention in 1969-71 after the fire.

Tim: This is a good chance for me to say that Jerry was a member of the committee in those days.

Jerry: And Tim has been director of a music program that has enhanced and enlivened our worship since 1975.  From both of us, thank you, St. James for your invitation and for this opportunity for all of us to dialogue about worship and space.

Tim: Something else is strange here. Space may be our topic, but if this is to be a genuine sermon, we need to address the issue of our separation from one another and from God, and our desire for loving relationships.

Jerry: What we need is assurance. That’s our theme today. So let’s describe three ways that express who we are and where we are in this place. The First is ASSURANCE from the GATHERED COMMUNITY.

Tim: God’s faithfulness to his covenant, to his promise to care for his people is central to the Old Testament. It’s at the heart of today’s Psalm. I like this Psalm especially since in gratitude for his care we break out in singing!

Jerry: And it’s the ground of what Luther thought most central to our need:  the assurance and confidence that God cares for us.

Tim: And that’s what this space has been saying to us all these years: we are his people, and he cares for us week by week in preaching, water, and meal.

Jerry: Most churches are long and narrow with people facing front where a pastor apparently is hired to do worship for us.  But when we began re-pitching the tent in 1969, we wanted to say something else: that the people gather together here around word and sacrament. In the words of John’s Gospel, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

Tim: I can remember my first impression when Barbara and I arrived in 1975 . . . I was impressed not only by the people literally gathered around the table and pulpit but, as a musician, by a worship space that provides a maximum of flexibility for liturgy, concerts, drama and even audio-visuals.

Jerry: Nevertheless, the temple of Jerusalem figures prominently in the OT.

Tim: It’s part of an on-going debate between temple and tent that runs throughout history. The prophets (Nathan) expressed the dilemma best: are we to focus on “holy spaces” or holy words and actions?

Jerry: St. James doesn’t come primarily from the temple, but from the tent.

Tim: Tents can be romantic, like a camping trip. But when storms batter Haiti, the tents and shacks that are home to thousands of impoverished Haitians don’t seem very romantic.

Jerry: That’s why the Bible uses tents to remind us that we’re not here forever.  Think of how many times the bell tolled last week for friends like Lucille, Al, Gertrude, and many others.  Our only assurance is not a place, or building or anything we can contribute, but God’s promise of care and loving kindness.

Tim: We know that great spiritual, “Ezekiel saw the wheel a’rolling way up in the middle of the air.” It expresses the dilemma of the people of Israel who had come to believe that God could dwell in only one place. But then they were driven out into a terrible and lengthy exile in Babylon.

Jerry: The exile was a critical moment. The people couldn’t take the temple with them. It wasn’t mobile, so Ezekiel declared that God was.

Tim: He was a “wheel within a wheel a’rollin.”  He’d go anywhere, to the ends of the earth—even to the cross—to be with us.

Jerry: Crisis came again when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.  But by this time most Jews worshipped in synagogues.  The word means “gathering.”  The early Christians took this as their model when they met in “house churches,” Domus ecclesiae, the house of the people.

Tim: They defined themselves as ecclesia, the church, by which they meant the community more than the building.

Jerry: This is our first theme, then. Our assurance comes from people gathering around table, pulpit and font; and in a worship space where “The Word pitched his tent and dwelt among us.”

Tim: Now, in the second place, the our confidence comes from the PRESENCE OF CHRIST in our midst.

Jerry: In the bible and the Lutheran Confessions the church is defined as “assembly.” This was the motivation in 1969 when St. James took the bold step to put gathering around word and sacrament right in the midst of an old building.

Tim:  It makes sense then that we gather around three focal points that occupy this area–Table, Baptistery and Ambo–because the promise of assurance comes to us in three ways, preaching, eucharist, baptism.

Jerry: The Word is both audible and visible.

Tim:  Many of the churches I visit are quite different. The altar is not a table. It’s a box and it’s way up front.

Jerry: In contrast to the remoteness of God, our worship space celebrates his near-at-hand presence. It really takes seriously his promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name I am there in the midst of them.”

Tim: When we come together for communion around the table, the spaces between us are filled by the communion of saints.

Jerry:  Think of this. Next to me is Lucille; next to Tim is Al; next to you is Gertrude. A little bit of heaven in our midst. A foretaste of the feast to come.

Tim:  So, we’re both a house and a tent.  But above all we’re a people who are brought together by our need for freedom from the tyranny of fear—fear that we are nobodies and that we’re going nowhere.

Jerry: So, too, our home, our tent, has ordinary furniture, ordinary table, ordinary water, an ordinary meal—but all are made extraordinary by the presence of Christ.  So, our second theme: our confidence comes from this very real presence.

Tim: Finally, in the third place, there’s assurance in SACRIFICE FOR SERVICE.

Jerry:  The story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple says more to us than getting rid of corruption.

Tim: On the surface, it’s about ridding the place of thieves and robbers.

Jerry: But there’s more. Jesus was declaring, dramatically and decisively, the end of the sacrificial system, of all sacrifices except his sacrifice on the cross.

Tim: Paul certainly saw this. He did a remarkable—even revolutionary–thing it. He took the sacrifices out of the temple and put them into our lives– literally into our bodies. We become the “body” of Christ.

Jerry: And each of us becomes “a living sacrifice” to our neighbor.   Luther called us “little Christs” to a waiting world.”

Tim:  I can’t let this thought go without adding that Luther also believed that worship is still a sacrifice, but it’s a “sacrifice of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving” and music was near the top of his list.

Jerry:  So there’s no separation between the Sunday “Service” when we gather together and the rest of our days when we go out in service to the world.

Tim: Think of it as two forces, centripetal and centrifugal, going out and the coming in.  This is exactly how John describes it. He begins his gospel with “come and see” and ends with “go and tell.”

Jerry: From home to the world and back again.

Tim: You know, our home hasn’t had a change of furniture for nearly 40 years.

Jerry: I’ve noticed that the padding is gone.

Tim: Are your referring to your posterior or to the pews?

Jerry: Well, both have seen better days! Originally, the pews and all the furniture were unique —invented for this space.

Tim: There’s no doubt that we have a gem here, and like any valuable gem, it deserves to be renewed so that it continues to sparkle, to speak to us, and to serve.

Jerry: This brings us back to the beginning, to re-pitching the tent for a new generation, but with this difference: Whatever our decision about our future, we know that our assurance in any need comes to us in The Gathered Community, in the Presence of Christ among us, and in His Sacrifice that enables us to serve.

Tim: On the road to Baltimore these days there’s a huge billboard that announces:  “You will die, and then you will meet God.”

Jerry: I respect the sentiment, but personally I can’t wait that long.

Tim: We don’t have to.  We can meet him here every Sunday.

Jerry: And all week long in our neighbor’s need.

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