The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 29, 2020
“Where is God?” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his followers. “Everywhere,” they responded with correct understanding of the divine reality. “No,” the Rabbi responded with correct understanding of the human reality, “God is where people let Him in.”
No matter where a person is, God exists there for them; but sometimes God is not noticed or not wanted, and thus kept on the outside of a person’s world.
Though God can be found anywhere, there are certain settings more conducive to becoming present to God’s presence and receptive to God’s overtures of friendship. A beautiful sanctuary can provide such a setting; but, even more so, can God’s people when they love others as God loves them.
God’s people exist to create spaces of grace in which God can be readily seen and recognized as worthy of pursuit. Thus, one subset of God’s people built this magnificent sanctuary, designing it to elevate spirits and to motivate the seeking after God. But it is, alas, closed for the time being.
However, the church – being the people and not the steeple– is still open for business. The church is a family that is blessed by God to be a blessing to all families. It is, in the metaphor of 1 Peter 2:5, a spiritual house of “living stones”, a relational space for grace, a community in which God is made visible and perhaps irresistible for some. There is no setting that so makes folks aware of the reality of God as God-centered and loving people.
In today’s scripture, God’s first people are on their way to the Promised Land. After giving them the Ten Commandments and other instruction, God asks them to take an offering “from all whose hearts prompt them to give” and collect precious metals, gems and stones; fine yarns, linens and leather; fragrant spices, oils and acacia wood. With such materials, God tells them to “make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
This, the Israelites’ first sanctuary, is the fancy tent called the tabernacle, a movable construction where human beings can meet with the Divine Being.
The portability of this sanctuary brings home the reality that God is restricted to no one place but exists in every place. This means God is never remote from anyone at any time. God is there for them even if they are shivering with loneliness in a convalescent home visited only by essential medical personnel, even if they are breathing by a ventilator in a sterile hospital ward, even if they find themselves unemployed and worried sick about feeding their family.
God’s first sanctuary is built to remind His first people of the answer to the question they raised when they feared God had led them into the desert to die from dehydration and they cried out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
Some of us cry out with the same question when we look this pandemic straight in the eye.
The sanctuary exists, not for the Divine Being, but for human beings, especially those scared and in need of assurance that, far from being alone, the Lord is among them, the Lord for whom nothing is impossible and nothing too wonderful to do.
In commanding the Israelites here, God chooses His words carefully and precisely, even detailing the materials to be used for His sanctuary. We need then to take note of the surprising thing God says about the purpose of His sanctuary. He tells them to make it, not that He may dwell in it, but that He may dwell among them – that is, between them and all others who might come in the community of caring they create in keeping His commands to love Him and their neighbors.
God is too grand to squeeze into even the grandest structure. He is, as Augustine said, like a circle whose center is everywhere; but whose circumference, nowhere. No place can contain God!
Yet, the God who exists everywhere exists in a special sense “among” those who are welcoming of His presence and open-handed with His love. In fact, the God, who the Bible says is love and asks His people to love others as He loves them, dwells among those who share His love. It is in light of this that Augustine also said, “To the God who is everywhere, we draw near, not by going to a place, but by loving in whatever place we are.”
God’s people make it their business to make God visible for everyone willing to open their eyes to His reality. A beautiful sanctuary like this one helps in doing that job, but by our loving conduct and character we can do that job without such a place.
In these days when we don’t have a place into which to invite others and others don’t have one into which to invite us, we must, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in obedience to God’s commands of love, create places of grace where people can see God and His love up close and personal. We can get on the phone or the computer, and with genuine concern engage folks in a conversation in which we listen more than we talk. And, if we are reaching out to folks who can’t hear or use the computer, we can snail-mail a handwritten note telling them we are praying for them and wondering if we can run an errand or two for them.
Where does God exist? Wherever people let Him in. And where do people let God in? Wherever His people love others as God first loved them!
It’s not true that in these days of social distancing the church cannot be itself. The church can now be its best self by loving others wherever and however it can. We can be, for the God who is always there, His sanctuary on the move, His mobile tabernacle, by which He becomes visible in many places!