Archive for May, 2013

Preached Sunday, May 26, 2013

Exodus 35:4-10, 20-22

Acts 2:42-47


On first glance, these two passages – one from Exodus, as the people make plans for the building of the Tabernacle, and one from Acts, just after Pentecost as the Spirit begins to build the church – seem unrelated.  But in fact, they are both about making space for God to be with God’s people.

In Exodus 35, the time has come for the building of the Tabernacle.  Moses calls people to give, and give they do:  gold, silver and bronze; fine linen and leather; beautiful yarns and ornate tapestry; gemstones and oils and carved wood.  The list goes on and on!  It’s one big offering.  The “Miracle Sunday” of the Old Testament!

When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor taught at length about the “types” that appeared in Scripture.  And the Tabernacle – built from the gifts received by offering in Ex 35 – was Exhibit A of the “types” of the Old Testament.

A type, in this usage, is a thing that has the same function as the real thing, but is limited in its scope or size.  A model airplane, for example, is a type.  It can perform the primary function of a real airplane – it can fly.  But the model is limited by its size; it can fly, but it cannot carry people or cargo when it flies.  It is a type, a real, functioning airplane, but limited in size and scope.

The Tabernacle in Exodus is a ‘type’ too.  In Exodus (and throughout the Old Testament, really), it acts as the place where people encounter God, and God draws near to them.  It is a meeting place between earth and heaven; the place where people go when they want to feel God near them.

And it works!  The Tabernacle is regularly the location of revelations from God; the people experience God’s presence when they are within its walls.

But there are a few limitations.  Entering the Tabernacle required careful adherence to elaborate purification laws.  And that was assuming that you were male and considered ritually ‘clean’ – for women and others who were ritually unclean because of their work or their status, then the purification laws were irrelevant; you simply weren’t entering, ever.

And then, of course, there is the matter of geography.  The Tabernacle was, after all, only one place – and there was no possible way that you could wander through its doors for a chat with God if you happened to be from a distant tribe.

The Tabernacle functioned well – it provided a space in which human beings could experience God’s presence.  But it was limited by its scope and its size.  It didn’t cover the whole earth; it couldn’t stretch through time to invite other generations to encounter God.  It wasn’t enough.

When we fast forward to the New Testament, we find the fulfillment of the type – the full-scale version of the model.  Any guesses at what – or who – functions as the meeting place between God and human beings in the New Testament?


Ah – many of you gave the always-safe Sunday School answer:  Jesus!  In a sense, yes, God and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus.  And Jesus certainly acts as the fulfillment of the sacrifices that were made in the Tabernacle – Jesus is, in technical language, the antitype of the sacrificial lamb, which was the type.

But there is also another answer to the question.  See if you can figure it out from these verses:

1Cor. 3:9-10 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.  According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it…

1Cor. 3:16  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

1Pet. 2:5 Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…

Eph. 2:19-22 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the house[hold] of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Did you get it?  Who is the Temple of God, where God and humanity meet?

YOU ARE!  We are.  Christian people who have received the gift of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit are the ones who are built together into places where God dwells by God’s Spirit.

Christian community, at its best, serves the same function as the Tabernacle:  it provides a place where people come to experience God, where people can go when they need to know God is near; a place where God can speak to a world that needs to hear.  Churches and congregations are, by God’s grace, those places in our world today.  And think about it:  the limitations of the Tabernacle – its fixed position and strident entry requirements and limited audience – all of those limits are expanded, barriers broken down by the Holy Spirit working through Christian people in community all across our globe.

That’s what we celebrate on Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday – the breaking down of barriers, the Holy Spirit sweeping through human lives and transforming them so that they are God-bearers, people who carry God’s presence with them into the world.

How does that happen?  How are churches transformed from social clubs to outposts of God’s presence in the world?

Acts 2:42 tells us how.  It provides the blueprints for a ‘spiritual dwelling place for God’ (Eph 2:22).

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

That’s what makes a church more than a social club.  That’s what prepares a church to be formed by the Holy Spirit into a dwelling place for God.

When we think of the church in Acts, we often think of miraculous evidence of the Spirit’s presence.  We think of speaking in tongues – of healings by the apostles – of dramatic jailbreaks and inspired preaching to thousands.

Those are the works of the Spirit among the Christian community.  Those are evidence of God’s presence working through and within them.

But first:  the church has to be ready when God shows up.  Believers have to make space in their life together for God’s presence to dwell.

That’s where the practices of the church come in.  Before every dramatic Spirit-led event in the book of Acts is a gathering of people dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teaching – regular study of the Scriptures.  To fellowship – to healthy and loving relationships.  To breaking of bread – sharing of meals and especially the Communion meal.  And prayer – cultivating a regular, constant practice of prayer.  When churches do that, God’s Spirit shows up!

In Acts 2:43-44 we see the results:  wonders and signs are done, and needs are provided for and justice lives among the people of God.  God’s Spirit has filled the space created by the practice of the early church.

Our calling as “church” is the same – to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  To make space for the presence of God to dwell with us.  And when we do – God will show up, and who knows what might happen next!



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Preached May 12, 2013

Text:  Revelation 21:1-7, 22-27; 22:1-5

The Story, Ch. 31


Ah, the strange and curious book of Revelation!  We end our 9-month journey through Scripture with the other-worldly symbols and images of John’s vision.

My husband, Rob, and I draw the line between “fun” and “frightening” in different places.  I love a good roller coaster, for example.  Rob, on the other hand, wants his feet planted firmly on the ground.  He will happily sit on a bench munching on a funnel cake while I ride my coasters, but he’s not going to strap himself into that seat with me.

But take those twists and turns of the roller coaster and put them up on the big screen – now he’s on board.  He loves a good action flick.  And I have nightmares after just walking through the room when a scary movie is playing.  I close my eyes when the tension mounts.  As suspense builds, I take a deep breath and repeat to myself, “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie”.

If I know the main character survives until the end of the movie, though, then it is easier to get through the scary parts.  I know, then, that in the end it’s going to be okay.  However hopeless the situation seems, there must be an escape clause; after all, they won’t kill off the star of the show.  I can peek at the screen again.  I can handle the suspense for awhile, knowing that the movie won’t end there.

The book of Revelation tells us the end of the story.  It reassures us that whatever else goes on – however alarming the news headlines become or overwhelming our lives feel – whatever else goes on in this world, the story ends well.  It ends with all things made new, sparkling in the light of God’s presence.  The story ends with the passing away of death and tears and pain.

That’s the end of the story.  We will be with God!  All things will be made new.  What joy!  What reason to celebrate!

But today, I feel a bit like I’m in still stuck in the suspense-filled middle of the story.  We hear alarming stories about bombs exploding in the middle of our cities and CO2 levels rising to unprecedented levels in our atmosphere.  While we wait for the earth to be made new, there are kidnappings and cancer and killings.

If we only pay attention to the nightly news, it is easy to feel as if the economy, the environment and the everyday lives of people all around the globe are spiraling out of control.  In the middle of the story, sin and anger and greed rule the day – and if we are honest, they rule our hearts.  In the middle of the story, the tension can feel almost too much to bear.  We want to close our eyes and imagine it away.

John, the author of Revelations, would understand that sentiment.  He writes from the middle of the story, while he is imprisoned on the island of Patmos.  He describes “the persecution…and the patience endurance…” he feels (Rev 1:9).

But John also lives in anticipation and joy, even in the middle of the story.  He doesn’t seek to escape, but to keep moving, to live each new day in hope of the last day when God’s presence will shine brighter and stronger than any memory of pain along the way.

In the book of Revelation, John allows the Spirit of God to capture his imagination and show him the end of the story.  The images are foreign to us, but the message of hope and promise comes through.

The end of the story, as John sees it, is not an escape – it isn’t as if we just squeeze our eyes closed and banish all the bad things from life.  The story doesn’t end with God whisking us away – but with God coming to us, right here in this world, and making all things new.

The story ends with a transformation of what is, a renewal and restoration of the very best for us and our world.  God doesn’t start over with a brand new story, with a new cast and crew.  God heals the brokenness, brings light to all the dark places, and makes all things new again!  In Revelation, our lives and this earth are the locus of salvation.

That is good news, because it means that however much we may mess up our lives and our world, we are not discarded and replaced.  God loves us enough to write us back into the story even when we try to write ourselves out!

Knowing the end of the story transforms how we live in the middle of the story.  In the imagery of Revelation, John describes churches as the lampstands, Jesus as the lamp, and God as the light that shines from that lamp (Rev 1:20, 21:23).  In other words, “church people” are to be the ones who lift up Jesus (the lamp) so that the light of God’s love might shine through him and us into the darkness of the world around us.

So while we yearn for the end of the story, we also have work to do in the middle of the story.  We have a story to lift up – a story of a Jesus who lived simply and served others, who ate with sinners and welcomed the vulnerable and unclean, who died and who rose again.  We have a Savior to follow in loving, welcoming and serving others.

As the lampstand, we lift Jesus up so that others might see the light that shines from him.  We build relationships with the people in our community, so that others might begin to see God through us.  We live in ways that bring healing and wholeness, so that people might be ready to hear God when God speaks.

It isn’t our job to save the world, this neighborhood or even this church.  It is our job to prepare the way for others to encounter Jesus.

Three years ago, on July 4, 2010 – my first Sunday preaching to this congregation – I preached on this same text from Revelation.  I reread the sermon this week while I was preparing for today.  I could not have known three years ago how true these words would be for us as a congregation!  I end with the same words today:

Fulfilling our mission as light-bearers for God will take courage.  The next chapter of the story may not include all the comforts we’ve become accustomed to.  Some of the familiar faces who have journeyed with us to this point won’t be with us, or at least not physically present.  We may have to rely more on the hospitality of others than we would like.  We will probably feel vulnerable, unprepared, uncertain.

But we know enough of the end of the story to give us courage.  So I hope you will step out in courage with me.  I hope we will have courage to meet the unknown head-on, trusting God’s Spirit to guide us on our way.

There are many things that I hope and pray for as we write the next chapter of Coraopolis United Methodist Church.  Among them:

  • I hope we will have courage to love one another even when loving means risking the pain of saying good-bye yet again.
  • I hope we will have the courage to forgive one another, even if it means risking being hurt again.
  • I hope we will be honest and authentic with one another, even when that requires an uncomfortable vulnerability.
  • I hope we will have the courage to stay by one another’s side through failing health, even when it would be easier not to watch.
  • I hope we will have the courage to go out into a changing neighborhood, even when it feels foreign and unfamiliar, and the courage to reach out to new neighbors when we’d rather stay in the relative comfort of home.
  • I hope we will have the courage to give generously, and to dream big even when we’re not sure where the resources to fulfill those dreams will come from.

There are a lot of things that I hope and pray for.  And I look forward to the end of the story, when we will recall with joy the things that God has done in and among and through us.

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